November 1, 2018

The Power of Being Present with Trauma: ‘What Comes Next’

The Power of Being Present with Trauma: ‘What Comes Next’

Written by Holly Morris, MA LMFT

“In the same way that people can drive each other mad, the company of people, and being understood by people, can also heal us.” ~Bessel van der Kolk, MD (leading traumatologist)


Several years ago, I participated in a transformational leadership conference. The experience over all was powerful, particularly in the way it created space to be a curious observer of internal and external responses to discomfort. The rhythm of the conference was an ongoing conversation about what we observed and how it played out in our lives.


There was an exchange during the conference between the trainer and a participant that I will not forget. The trainer used a word that evoked a strong response in one of the participants. Initially, the participant left the room. When she re-entered, she walked up to the trainer and in two passionate, angry words expressed her reaction to him. His gentle and direct response was, “Now we’re getting somewhere, what comes next?”


What came next was communicated by the participant in layers. The first layer was an expression of anger at the trainer for being offensive personally. The second was a rationalization of why the word choice was wrong and should not be utilized in that way. As the presence of the trainer remained steady, caring and open, her anger softened to sadness. The third layer was an explanation of what that word meant to this participant in her life and the lives of loved ones around her. In tears, she described the pain of personal experiences in themes of loss, regret, abandonment, fear and shame.


A word spoken by one person triggered a feeling so strong in another she left the room. Without encouragement to return to the conference, followed by her act of courage to go back, she may have left the experience all together. Had she left, she would have missed ‘what came next,’ experiences that led to understanding, comfort and connection. Her bravery to return, and face everything shame and trauma told her to hide from, created a personal, and corporate, experience of connection.


Shame from trauma didn’t have that last word that day. The unwavering presence of the trainer and other participants created a safe space for this participant to reveal deep pain connected to traumatic experiences in her upbringing. When that pain was triggered, it became intolerable for her to handle alone. However, in the presence of others who remained emotionally and physically present in each layer of ‘what came next’, deeper connection resulted. Her vulnerability created invitation for others, for us, to share more of our lives and feel our alikeness.


Courageously and compassionately stepping into ‘what comes next’ with our own experiences, and in shared experiences with others, can be difficult, uncomfortable ... frightening. However, it also has the power to challenge and transform, calling us away from fear, shame and isolation, towards connection and acceptance. While the healing journey of each person is unique and layered, I wonder when the next opportunity will arise to be present in a moment like this in your life. Possibly there will be an invitation to consider: ‘what comes next’?


Photo by Igor Rodrigues on Unsplash


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