First cousin to silence
Not rushing to immediately fill the void with words...
Waiting before replying...
Taking a deep breath....
Calming, de-stressing, slowing down...
The first cousin to silence is...
Imagine this scenario: I am in a counseling session as a client, telling a story about something that happened to me that was quite distressful. Without realizing it, I am getting more and more activated—which in somatic (body-based) therapy circles means that my fight-flight mechanisms are beginning to operate: my breathing has speeded up and gotten more shallow, I might be sweating, my pupils are probably a bit dilated, my skin paler, my speech faster, my voice higher.
My therapist notices these things, and knows that I am likely on the way to becoming over-activated, perhaps even re-traumatized by the re-telling, and therefore quite possibly cut off from the inner resources I do have for coping with difficulties. She says, very gently, "Can we pause for a moment?"
The first time this happened it totally threw me—I don't think I had ever had a therapist stop me in midstream like that before. I didn't, perhaps couldn't, take it gently. I felt cut off, rejected, as if what I had to say wasn't important. All my old abandonment issues came roaring up. Remember, I was already activated; my body was ready to fight or flee.
Even once I understood why she would remind me to pause, I still tended to react, at least somewhat, from a place of feeling rejected. With lots of support I learned to be kind to that part of me that can still overreact sometimes. Oh, those sweet, tender wounded parts we carry with us.
"See if you can feel your feet," she would say, if I got activated. That can be a very simple way of coming back to the present moment, of loosening the chains of fight-flight arising from old trauma—or the freeze reaction that can follow so quickly on its heels. As I noted in my blog on dealing with physical pain, it is also a way of expanding focus in your body beyond the pain. "Try taking a deep breath, and letting it out slowly." That too can be grounding. That too is...a pause.
As time went on I experienced more of the amazing value of a gentle pause. With that kind of interlude I could center more, and connect with the resourced me that knows how to support those wounded, reactive parts. And I could also allow incoming support from her. I became very grateful for those compassionate reminders to pause.
I've carried that forward into my own practice. I try to let my clients know, very early in the relationship, that I may suggest a pause sometimes if they end up sharing something stressful and getting activated. I'll talk about my reasons for doing so, and encourage them
to let me know if my suggesting a pause triggers some old things for them.
It is not always easy to actually suggest a pause--in some ways it is part of the new paradigm of therapy that says not only do you not have to re-experience the old trauma to heal from it, it is in fact, better not to re-traumatize, as that only digs the trauma and the fight--flight--freeze responses in more deeply. More on this in the future.
Next time? "There's a reason for this."