Working With Trauma, Part 1

Of all the things I love about EFT, one of the things I love most is that it gives us a perfect framework to understand trauma. EFT gives me two components to help me with this. First, we don’t label someone as being unreasonable. This helps the clients in the room feel accepted, of course, but it also gives us time as the therapist to try and really understand what’s happening with behavior we might see as confusing. I think that time is essential in not jumping to conclusions or telling someone they have to change. I’m confused all the time by client’s behaviors. Why is it so important to one that their partner helps with dusting every day, and to another that their partner gets their haircut regularly? So it helps that EFT first comes in and tries to just observe and reflect, because it gives me the time to really consider what might be happening for someone.

The second component that EFT helps me with so much in these moments is that EFT is attachment-based. I have a therapist colleague who is brilliant at what she does, and isn’t on the EFT train like I am. During a recent discussion she said, “Wesley, everything isn’t attachment!” But I think, yeah, everything IS attachment. I see attachment in everything. And attachment is what explains the confusing behaviors.

One of the more challenging things we can run into is when we see a partner unable or unwilling to give up a behavior that is clearly destructive to their relationship. Right now, I’m starting to see this in two different categories. One is in how someone makes meaning of their partner’s actions, and the second is in competing attachment sources.

How We Make Meaning From Trauma

If we look at Sue’s brilliant book on trauma (I could seriously read this once a month and learn something new), she outlines the way we can make meaning of our partner’s actions in a destructive way perfectly in the case of Joan and David (p 146). David becomes highly critical about Joan’s weight and appearance. This is emphasized in the situation where Joan wears a yellow nightgown that David can’t stand. David is constantly scanning the environment and his trigger is if Joan doesn’t look nice. His perception is that if she doesn’t look nice, it’s a sign she doesn’t care about him enough (p 137). Even though David’s behavior looks pretty awful, EFT helps us understand that it comes from a wounded place inside him, so we don’t immediately condemn him for it.

We can even call on some Internal Family Systems work here (Schwartz, 2001), and understand that David’s protective part is very dominant in him, which would be understandable from someone who comes from trauma. His Protective part is shielding his Exile, his wounded part, who likely is very young and someone does believe that Joan doesn’t love him on days where she looks casual. I can only imagine how this is created, but I bet if you have a very depressed mom who never gets out of a ratty nightgown, doesn’t shower much, and never got up and made you a lunch or gave a crap about how your school day was, that seeing your partner dressed in ratty clothes sends those alarm bells blaring effective immediately. His brain easily could have formed the link that someone looking bad is not taking care of themselves, and of course as children we desperately need our parents to take care of themselves so they can take care of us.

Does this mean that we condone David’s hurtful behavior? No, definitely not. And Sue uses strong language in how she worked with Joan helping her describe how she felt, even naming David’s behavior as emotional abuse (p 139). But I don’t know another model that could help us understand David’s behavior in the context of trauma the way EFT can, and then stay with the couple in an affirming way.

Being reminded of this helps me slow down, and try to ask myself some questions the next time I see someone with stronger than average reactions to certain behaviors. I think we’re all pretty good at doing this with certain behaviors, like:

- getting activated around housework and helping enough
- getting activated around seeing their partner be extroverted at a party
- getting activated if their partner is more of the disciplinarian but still within reasonable limits

But there are some behaviors I notice that I immediately shut down about and want to blame the more pursuing partner for, like:

- getting activated about their partner’s weight
- getting activated by being deprived sex multiple times a day
- getting activated by their children doing normal children behavior

So Sue’s words help me remember to slow down and be curious about the trauma roots with those behaviors, instead of rolling my eyes and saying, “oh brother, this person is totally unreasonable.”

Next week I’ll continue this segment with how trauma shows up with competing attachment sources.

Johnson, S. (2002) Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy With Trauma Survivors. New York, NY: The Guilford Press

Schwartz, D. (2001) Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model. Oak Park, IL: Trailheads Publications