I recently attended a workshop sponsored by some friends of mine for whom I have deep respect. They invited a male therapist from Germany to come and facilitate a large group – more than 50 people – exploring trauma and attachment issues.

First off, I’m not a big fan of such workshops; I think the model is deeply flawed. Too much goes on between the lines among the rank and file – traumatic memories get aroused, emotional reactions get triggered, neurological disorganization unfolds – often without ever being noticed, addressed or resolved in any way by the leader or his helpers. Evidence is mounting that each time we revisit traumatic memories without resolving them, further damage results. And this feels profoundly true in my experience. And while there’s conflicting evidence that a traumatic history results in later onset of Alzheimer’s Disease, I believe that most people don’t even realize they’ve sustained trauma when they actually have, making it very difficult to do valid research.

Process Sucks

Knowing the power of transference and projection to invite “opportunities for healing,” as soon as I agreed to attend the workshop, I suspected I was setting myself up for trouble. My father was a German who rode in, had two kids and then, when the going got tough, headed off for parts unknown leaving others to take care of the mess in his wake. That dynamic mirrors a situation in palliative care known as The White Knight on the Black Horse syndrome: someone long estranged from the family, or not connected at all, shows up with the announced intention to set things right, disconnecting and riding off once they’ve determined they’ve done all they can and they consider their work done, regardless of what others might think or feel. I’m understandably suspicious of such “saviors.”

At workshops such as this I tend to be hypervigilant. Safety – my own first, and others’ next – is high on my agenda. I listen carefully and watch closely. If someone is purporting to be a trauma and attachment expert, I want to hear and see evidence that their knowledge and understanding pretty much matches my own. The first Smoke Alarm went off for me when the leader announced that he was expecting people in the room to do what they needed to do to take care of themselves! That sounded a lot like the abdication of responsibility to me. “I’m going to bring a group together and if they don’t take care of themselves after I’ve specifically instructed them to, it’s their own fault.”

The Unthought Known

Many traumatic experiences happen to us very early on, before we acquire language. The brain and body records them as image and feeling sensations. In environments where the intention is for traumatic memories to surface, such memories often do … with no words attached. When they do, they often catch us by surprise, and cast us back, emotionally and neurologically, to that much earlier time. As we open up a “Dissociation Capsule” thinking becomes fragmented and difficult, and the discomfort can be both inexplicable and overwhelming. For all intents and purposes, it can feel very much like being two years old again. To invite trauma to surface and then expect two-year-olds to take care of themselves, in my opinion, deeply misunderstands the nature of trauma.

So that was Smoke Alarm number one. Number Two came when the leader made this statement: “I have great respect for people who are willing to work with painful emotions. I have no respect for people who aren’t willing to.” Not only is this a clear misunderstanding of the way that trauma can affect the body and brain, but this simplistic dichotomy – people willing to work to attain emotional intelligence deserve respect; those who can’t don’t – is one that lies at the root of much suffering in the world.  That duality is what warrior-mystic Elizabeth Lesser calls “Negative Other-izing,” and people we have little respect for become much easier to exclude from our compassionate heart.

Opening to the Heart in Pain

Later on, I was again watching as this leader gave an authoritarian directive and then blithely dismissed a good friend of mine. I knew she was angry and pained by it, but I was unable to offer her any care in the moment. Later, as we revisited it together, I told her I would not be returning for Day Two of the workshop. She told me that she would be … “because I really want him to be successful.” Her words took me back more than a little. She was in no way offering herself up as a martyr – she’s very far from the martyr type – but she was honestly willing to suffer at the hands of someone making mistakes, and offer support in hopes of him eventually achieving success. In my own hurt and anger, I was not able to find even a sliver of an opening in my heart.

And while I’m sure he wasn’t intending it, that was the Big Lesson my friend helped me take from this workshop: even flawed leaders, ones who piss me off and remind me way too much of my own wounded, abandoning father, deserve a place in my compassionate heart. Whether he has respect for me or not.