When you’re having a hard time, especially when you had a lot of trauma as a kid, people tell you that you should “go talk to someone.” You should “find a good therapist.” But for me, talk therapy didn’t help, and I’ll tell you why.
I want to clarify that I’m not saying you should quit therapy. But I wish I’d quit therapy long before I did. I’ll tell you what did work for me — how I learned to heal my trauma without the downsides of therapy that were making it so destructive for me.
So first — if you are in therapy and it helps you, you have my 100% encouragement to keep doing that. I have therapist friends, and I’ve known many, many people who find therapy to be a positive and transformative place of healing. They love their therapists so much they can’t imagine how anyone could have a different experience.
I had a different experience, and not just once, but with many different therapists over the years. I know why now, and it makes total sense, but I didn’t know why back then and it was crushing to me. I had nothing that worked back then, and because therapy seemed to work so well for others, I felt extra broken, and truly alone.
My aunt and uncle paid for me to go to my first therapy visit when I was 14, and the way it felt yucky then was the same way it felt yucky every time I ever tried therapy over the next 28 years. All In all, I saw eleven different therapists, several of them for a year or more. A couple of them turned out to be only so-so in their skills, but the rest were well-trained, kind, and sincere in their willingness to hang in there with me. Only two of the therapists (and this was only in the last few years when I scheduled appointments for EMDR and then professional advice for this channel) really knew about complex trauma and how to handle it. To be fair, almost no one knew about complex trauma until research was published and popularized after 2014.
Talking with therapists about my trauma was a miserable experience for me. In each case, it cost me about three days of any ability to focus or work or express myself clearly, either speaking or writing. That’s how much talk therapy doesn’t work for me.
There’s a word for what happens to me when I talk about these things: It’s called dysregulation. It’s a brain and nervous system “state” where brain waves and body rhythms get out of sync or irregular, in some cases disrupting physiological and cognitive processes. I talk a lot about this in my video courses. When I’m dysregulated, it can feel like sensory overload, or sometimes like a big flat nothing. I get numb and clumsy and have trouble stringing words together. My handwriting changes and if people ask me a lot of questions I get completely overwhelmed.
If I’m asked to talk about hard things that happened in the past, I feel like I want to talk about it, but very soon my ability to be present or focused just flies out the window. I’ve often described it as being like wearing headphones with loud, chaotic music blasting in my ears — and then trying to pretend I’m right here and everything’s fine. It’s extremely stressful.
I used to think everybody felt this way when they went to therapy. I’d come in with some normal-sized life challenge and within the course of the hour, I’d just deteriorate into confusion and crying. I’d be a wreck for days. The next week I’d come back composed, and announce that I felt better and hoped to continue the conversation, and then by the end of the hour, it’d be like the headphones again. I could talk about my feelings, but my feelings would amplify and the point I was making would get lost. It felt more like a rant than anything therapeutic. I felt bombarded. Destroyed. It was too much.
I was always treated kindly while this went on. Therapists accepted this reaction as me just “dealing with my stuff,” but my stuff wasn’t healing, and the life problems that had me seeking therapy (most of them problems of my own making, and some of them quite hurtful to other people) never got their proper air time. In fact, I never solved those problems or developed even a plan to do so while I was in therapy; we talked mostly about what other people had done to me, and how I felt about that. There never seemed to be much emphasis on finding my role in my problems.
So one strategy I used, just to keep the conversation moving in a constructive direction, was limiting how much I told them about my worst emotions. I felt like I couldn’t afford to deal with all their feelings about my despair, and the way I’d come to fear they’d make me talk about that (and who had made me feel that way). I was hoping that just moving ahead and trying to solve life problems would do more to lift my depression than just talking about the depression. I didn’t feel safe to be honest with therapists, and that does defeat the purpose!
The science of trauma (and the signs that it’s activated) weren’t known at that time. So again, it’s not the therapist’s fault. But I wish those therapists had the eyes to see that for heaven’s sake, talking about traumatic memories was destroying me!
I remember at the end of every session, it was always time to write a check. And no therapist seemed to notice how much I struggled to do this one, simple thing. Write their name, write the date and the amount, spell out the amount and sign my name. My hands shook, my handwriting was illegible, I was so discombobulated I’d have to tear up three or four checks before I could get one right. These are classic, overt signs of dysregulation. I would actually feel embarrassed to be so incompetent that I couldn’t even write a check. But now I just want to go back and hug myself and say It’s OK, when you feel this way after something that’s supposed to help you, face the fact it’s NOT helping you!
After therapy sessions, I’d have to go sit in my car and cry, and wonder what the hell was wrong with me. It’d be 45 minutes sometimes before I could pull myself together enough to drive. I also thought this was just how therapy works.
They didn’t know… I didn’t know. But I had Childhood PTSD, and just like so many people who have what I have, I was dysregulated.
Maybe you have that too, and maybe you’re hearing this for the first time, and if you’re identifying I just hope you feel the huge, warm wave of relief that I felt when I learned that that’s why all this talk therapy never helped me.
But I did get help. I got help and I recovered. I stumbled on to what worked for me, and I just hope I can save you years of stumbling so you can find more quickly the kinds of professional help and self-help that work for you.
In the end, I was able to process my trauma through techniques that didn’t require telling stories. I’ll tell you the smaller solution and then the really big one.
The smaller, quicker solution that helped me was Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), a technique considered legitimate by mental health professionals, and effective for many people. It helps to change the triggered reaction to traumatic memories. When I tried it, my practitioner didn’t make me tell the stories. He said “Think of the traumatic memory — what you saw, what happened.” And then we proceeded without me ever having to tell the details of that memory at all. And it worked! I was astonished: EMDR does not require that you talk about hard things, at all, to work!
The second, more significant solution was that I lucked into the writing technique that’s part of the Daily Practice I teach (click here to access my free mini-course that teaches how to do it). The woman who showed it to me told me to use the technique (which, among other things, involves naming fearful and resentful thoughts) and then, periodically, to call and read to her what I wrote. I could write about my trauma no problem, And it turns out I could read what I wrote also with no problem.
So I was able to share what was hurting me, without having to just tell stories. When I called her she’d say “Did you write today?” If I tried to just talk about my problems she’d make me write first and call her back.
There are many reasons why this was brilliant. It saved me from talking about trauma. Reading to her and writing my fears and resentments several times a day always made me feel better, more composed, more regulated. It would be years before I had words for the radically healing effect this had on me, but I knew from day one I wanted to keep doing it!
I’m still using these techniques, 28 years later. Teaching them to other people is my life’s work, and the foundation of all the courses, videos, and writing I produce. At the time of this taping more than 300,000 people have connected with me to learn it. Via mails and comments, hundreds of people report to me their gratitude and amazement at how helpful it is. Many pose questions about how to make it work better. Many of my students are mental health professionals who learn the techniques for themselves and refer their clients and patients to my courses and videos to support their work during sessions.
I also receive a tiny bit of critical mail. Sometimes just garden variety hate mail, which happens to anyone online. But I’ve gotten a few angry mails and online comments from therapists saying things like, “People with trauma must ONLY work through these issues in the care of a licensed therapist.” Or they say flat out: “Who do you think you are to try to help people!”
Here’s who I am: I’m someone who suffered with Childhood PTSD to the point that it was life-threatening, and even though conventional methods of treatment didn’t work for me, I persevered and found techniques that did work for me. I experiment, I read, I offer help to others around the world who relate to my story and who are as desperate as I was to find a way to calm and heal their symptoms.
To be truly helpful, I have to be honest about what it was like before my healing, what it felt like when I tried to heal, and how healing ended up happening (it’s still happening; we’re never done, right?).
It’s risky to be this honest online. But the community that has sprung up around my efforts to share these techniques are well worth it. This is a personal story, and more than content. This is a movement, a revolution in what we thought was possible for people as traumatized as we are. My channel and my groups are where people everywhere come to learn, heal and help each other. And thankfully, many of the most passionate supporters and contributors of knowledge are therapists, as well as doctors, psychiatrists, social workers, teachers, parents, journalists, and social media influencers. It’s a movement that recognizes healing as the outcome we want, not merely treatment, and not the preservation of old rules and ideas about who is in charge of healing.
I am in charge of my healing. You are in charge of your healing. We ask professionals for guidance and we ask survivors for guidance, and when it doesn’t serve, we try something else. I am grateful for everyone drawn to this cause, into the service of helping one another to heal!
If you’re a therapist, I offer my thanks for everything you have contributed, for dedicating your life to the service of healing, for getting us this far and being part of everything we are now learning.
We’re not just victims and we’re not just patients or populations or at-risk youth or whatever label has become customary, but which denies each of us the dignity and sovereignty over our own healing. Now we are one movement, professionals and people who seek professional help. We are leaders and visionaries and warriors for change.
We are human beings, each of us with tremendous potential to be more than we are right now, to have more knowledge and more joy and more connection to our true purpose in this world, and yes, more healing than anyone thought was going to be possible.
So if anyone out there is still wondering who the hell do I think I am? That’s who.
I’m happy and proud to be here. I feel called to be a voice of this movement. And I hope you will be too.
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