The Wounds of Trauma and Their Impact on Relationships and Communication

In their book, What Happened to You?, Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce Perry, provide a chapter where they bring together an understanding of the wounds of trauma and their impact on relationships, communication between people and physical illness.  Throughout, they stress the mind-body connection and how the brain processes experiences.   Bruce’s explanations are lucid and, together with Oprah, he illuminates the ideas and concepts with stories and examples.  Oprah draws on her own traumatic upbringing and thousands of interviews with traumatised individuals of all ages; Bruce draws on his research and clinical practice, especially with traumatised children.  The book reflects decades of experience and the ongoing conversations between the authors. 

The book is incredibly rich in ideas, insights and stories and I found that I was better able to absorb its content by listening to the CD-Audio version which is narrated by the authors as an everyday conversation.  The interchange of ideas and experiences adds to the clarity of their explanations of the wounds of trauma and the elucidation of their impact in individual cases.  With the audio version of the book, Bruce also provides a series of diagrams that illustrate the conceptual framework behind the book and the shared understandings.

Understanding the wounds of trauma

Bruce contends that trauma-related symptoms are often overlooked – they are assumed to result from a functional breakdown or represent psychosomatic illness.  He maintains that the symptoms of the wounds are often “dismissed, missed and misunderstood” by doctors. He illustrates this by sharing the heart-rending story of Chiara who suffered from Diabetes and at age 16 was admitted to hospital in an unconscious state resulting from “diabetic coma”.  His explanation of how doctors tried unsuccessfully to treat her highlighted the doctors’ blindspot in relation to  the wounds of trauma.  Bruce explains how he achieved an effective diagnosis of Chiara’s condition by identifying the trigger for her traumatic response and using his understanding of neuroscience to develop a treatment protocol implemented by the doctors.

Bruce explains that different physical symptoms – such as chest pains, headaches, abdominal pain and fainting – are all potentially related to a “sensitised stress response” resulting from trauma.  When I heard him explain “fainting” as one potential impact of trauma memory, I recalled how often I used to faint in Church in my childhood – simultaneously, I was experiencing the trauma of a violent, alcoholic father suffering from PTSD as a result of war service and imprisonment in Changi.  My doctor had no explanation for these fainting spells.  However, at the time, my home environment was heavily charged with parental conflict – unfortunately, none of us understood trauma, PTSD and the full extent of the wounds and impact of trauma, including addiction.

The impact of trauma on communication and relationships

Bruce draws on the concept of “sequential processing” of the brain to explain the impact of trauma on communication and relationships.  Basically, the concept involves recognising that all sensory experience is firstly processed by the “lower brain”.  Part of this processing involves matching the new input with “the catalogues of stored memories of the past”.  The degree of matching with a traumatic experience determines whether or not a maladaptive stress response occurs.   The smart part of our brain, the Cortex, can be shut down when the perception of risk (as a result of current or prior trauma) is very high – so the “thinking brain” is drowned out by the “survival brain”.

Bruce illustrates this by sharing the story of 3 year old Joseph who witnessed the abduction of his 11 year old sister, which resulted in her murder.  At the time, Bruce was working with the FBI Child Abduction and Serial Killer Taskforce.  He discovered that the FBI officers were unable to get any useful explanation from Joseph and he was asked to work with the child to try to find out information necessary to find the perpetrator and enable a conviction.  Bruce provides a very detailed explanation of how he went about winning the boy’s trust and gaining the necessary information for conviction of the murderer.

As part of Bruce’s explanation of his process with Joseph, he discusses the impact of the “power differential” between the FBI Officers/himself as a stranger and the 3 year old traumatised child.   He explained that when you are the person with all the power, you can be unaware of it or its potential impact.  This fact has been brought home to me many times in co-facilitating the Confident People Management Program over 15 years (involving 2,000 managers in multiple programs and locations).  What we have found is that the majority managers on the program (mainly drawn from the public sector) are totally unaware of their power to shape the team culture.  At the outset of the program we say to them, “What you say, how you say it, what you do, how you do it and what you omit to do, shapes team culture hour in and hour out every day” – we add “whether you are conscious of it or not”.  

Bruce’s discussion of the impact of trauma on communication in relationships highlights the wisdom of this advice that we have been giving to managers.  He explains that the goal of communication is to achieve a “Cortex to Cortex” transmission.  However, on both sides of the communication (giver and receiver), rational thoughts are first processed through “the emotional filters of the lower brain”.  Hence, the message can be distorted in its transmission and reception.  He explains lucidly that “our facial expression, tone of voice and words are turned into neural activity by the other person’s senses” – they can trigger a traumatised response or build the relationship with staff through developing trust, mutual respect and safety.  A by-product of this approach is the development of a sense of agency in the manager themselves.   One of the participants on our program provided concrete evidence of the wounds of trauma and their impact when she explained that her current highly nervous state resulted from a manager shouting at her in front of other staff – this experience was traumatic for her, the impact being compounded by the power differential (and possibly stored memories of like, past adverse experiences).

Reflection

Many researchers and therapists talk about the wounds of trauma and their impact on relationships and communication.  However, Bruce and Oprah in What Happened to You, “join the dots” and “pull it all together” from their decades of experience and ongoing conversations and collaboration.  They enrich the meaning of the neuroscience concepts and insights with relatable stories that clearly illustrate the points they are making.

At one stage when talking about the power differential, Bruce mentioned that it may take 10 or more sessions before a client will feel safe and be prepared to “share some of their most emotionally difficult experiences” or acknowledge their contribution to those experiences.  This discussion reminded me of my experience mentoring a manager who was traumatised on a daily basis by a narcissistic Director who continuously belittled him by publicly calling out his “mistakes” in front of his staff  (sometimes the “mistakes were not his, but the Director’s).  It took me 7 coaching sessions of 90 minutes each over a few months before he admitted that he was defensive in his communication.  He said he experienced the insight as a “blow to his stomach” – an expression which showed the embodiment of his resistance resulting from the wounds of ongoing trauma and their impact on his feelings of safety while working with me (the “power differential” was at play in a major way as I had been engaged as a consultant by the Director to coach the “inefficient” manager).  I have come to realise that in this interaction, I was an external consultant with a high degree of expert, personal and referent power – I was the one that was in a position of power, what Bruce describes as “at the top of the power differential”.

There is so much that plays out in our daily interactions that we are unaware of, especially if we are in a power position.  We can grow in mindfulness and self-awareness through personal study, reflection and mindfulness practices such as meditation.

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Image by Wilfried Thünker from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Cultivating Healthy Confidence

Rick Hanson, in his podcast interview – Confidence or Narcissism? – reinforced the concept of a narcissism spectrum.  He indicated, from his clinical experience, that the extreme end of the spectrum – narcissistic personality disorder – is rare (less than 1% of the population).  However, narcissistic tendencies exist in all of us to a greater or lesser degree.  Rick provides examples, for instance, of what a 70% level of narcissistic tendencies in a person would look like behaviourally, compared to a level of 20%.  He suggests that at the 70% level, a defining characteristic is self-absorption to the point of harming others; while at the 20-30% level, a sense of entitlement is involved that results in others feeling subtly devalued.

Rick reinforced the view that there are ways to cultivate a healthy confidence to address our narcissistic tendencies.  In the previous post, I highlighted Ash Barty as an excellent role model to aspire to in developing the necessary traits.

Why do we need to develop a healthy confidence?

According to Rick, a healthy confidence involves acknowledging that you are “basically a good person with desirable traits”.  Fundamentally, the development of a healthy confidence requires “having and taking in positive experiences” (in contrast to experiencing childhood trauma in its many forms and playing out the trauma in narcissistic tendencies).   Rick suggests that deprivation in terms of normal “narcissistic supplies” in childhood, can lead to deficiencies in behaviour as an adult (including attempts to fill the void from childhood).  Normal “narcissistic supplies” take the form of physical and emotional availability by carers, accurate reading of signals and needs of a child and a genuine desire to respond in such a way as to cater for, not dismiss, the fundamental needs of the child – the needs for “comfort, soothing and affection” and to have a “sense that they are special”.

How do we cultivate healthy confidence?

Rick reinforced the importance of valuing and fully (mentally and bodily) feeling positive experiences whenever they occur throughout the day.  These can take the form of positive “narcissistic supplies” such as:

  • experiencing active listening (that affirms your worth as a person)
  • receiving an expression of gratitude for what you have done to help someone
  • being acknowledged for one of your own special traits such as wisdom, calmness, flexibility
  • experiencing sensitive understanding and appreciation of what you are feeling in a difficult personal situation (such as a relative who has a mental health issue).

Rick suggests that we should really savour these experiences, dwell on them and “replay the movie of a [positive] conversation” – and do so multiple times a day (as he did to redress his own narcissistic tendencies). 

Rick’s interviewer, Forrest Hanson – creator of the Eusophi (Good Knowledge) website – suggests that another way to develop healthy confidence is to work backwards from self-observation – observation of our own narcissistic tendencies at play, e.g. the need to gain others’ attention all the time.  He maintains that being aware of these tendencies and their negative impacts (e.g. people choosing to avoid us) can serve as a motivator for us to change.  Forrest’s mental frame on healthy confidence versus narcissistic tendencies is his suggestion that the former involves valuing oneself “from the inside out”, while the latter involves valuing oneself “from the outside in” – needing external validation to affirm your own worth.

Reflection

Most of us have experienced some form of deprivation of healthy “narcissistic supplies” in our childhood.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop the self-awareness and honesty to recognise and acknowledge how these deficits play out in our adult lives. By constantly savouring positive experiences, we can redress the balance and build towards a healthy confidence that can be a more effective guide of how to behave in our daily lives, in a work context and within our intimate/family relationships.

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Image by Евгения Кец from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Healthy Confidence or Superior Conceit?

In a previous post I discussed how mindfulness can be an effective antidote to narcissism, both in curbing our own narcissistic tendencies and managing the aftermath of a relationship with a narcissistic boss or intimate partner.  I also highlighted the work of Rick Hanson who promotes healthy confidence to achieve an effective balance between needing to be seen as superior and developing a grounded but strong sense of self.  Rick pursues this dilemma in his podcast titled, Confidence or Narcissism?  One of our challenges in developing healthy confidence is to find effective role models  – many of our leaders in government, business and sport have failed to resolve this dilemma in their public lives.

Superior conceit displayed by sports stars – defective role models

In the earlier blog post, I shared Bonnie Duran’s perspective on narcissism where she relates it to the Buddhist concept of superior conceit – the need to be “better than” or “superior to”.  Bonnie explains superior conceit in one of her podcast talks titled, Conceit and Latent Torments.

There are many instances of elite sportsmen and sportswomen displaying superior conceit and related narcissistic behaviour.  For example, narcissistic behaviours have been exhibited by international tennis stars who:

  • Abuse chair umpires and line umpires
  • Throw their racquets in disgust or anger and/or throw tantrums on the tennis court if things don’t go their way
  • Demonstrate a total lack of empathy or concern for the feelings of others
  • Boast about how much they have earned from tennis and their total asset worth (as if their financial resources are a measure of their personal worth)
  • Show a lack of respect for their opponents and/or tennis fans
  • Seek to win at any cost, even if this means cheating or bullying others.

Ash Barty – an effective role model for healthy confidence

Ash Barty has achieved more in one year (2019) than most tennis players (male or female) achieve in a lifetime.  She reached World Number 1 ranking in June 2019 (and held it at the end of the year) and won the French Open, the Birmingham Classic, the Miami Open, and the WTA Women’s Finals – Shenzhen (after being runner-up at the China Open).  Ash was the winner of a tour-topping 52 matches

On top of these achievements, she has been awarded (in 2019) the Don Award (by Sport Australia Hall of Fame), the Women’s Health Sportswoman of the Year, and the ITP Fed Cup Heart Award (for outstanding courage and distinctive representation & commitment).   The individual Don Award is for an Australian athlete “who, by their achievements and example over the last 12 months, are considered to have the capacity to most inspire the nation”.   These awards recognise that in so many ways Ash is a role model, not only for sportspeople but all of us who aspire to achieve “healthy confidence” and its attendant rewards.  Her status as a role model for other Indigenous women had been recognised in 2018 when she was named Australia’s first National Indigenous Tennis Ambassador.

Ash demonstrates healthy confidence through the following traits:

  • Resilience in the face of adversity and setbacks
  • Recognition of the need to take time out to achieve a better balance in her life and master self-management (she spent 18 months playing state-level cricket)
  • Respect for tennis opponents, officials and fans (a trait that is widely acknowledged and appreciated)
  • Empathy and compassion for others
  • Authenticity and humility
  • Amazing capacity to focus and sustain her concentration
  • Valuing and publicly recognising her support team.

Ash readily acknowledges the profound contribution of her mentor and mindset coach, Ben Crowe, in shaping her outstanding success.  Ben observed that, in addition to the abovementioned traits, Ash demonstrates the following characteristics:

  • Acknowledges that there is strength in vulnerability, rather than needing to claim or pursue perfection
  • Recognises that she can “write her own story”, not accept habituated, negative self-stories
  • Has the ability to let go of the things she cannot control while maintaining focus on what is under her control
  • Does not let tennis define who she is, but pursues her true self and values depth of character
  • Is prepared to put in the hard work to achieve continuous self-improvement and excellence.

His insightful and revealing explanation of the underlying philosophy that he has been able to impart to Ash explains why she is an exemplar of healthy confidence. 

One of the problems for us in trying to develop our own healthy confidence is that bad behaviour has dominated the attention of mainstream media, whereas Ash’s exemplary behaviour has been buried under the controversy associated with narcissistic behaviour displayed by some international tennis players.  Kate O’Halloran, writing for the ABC, expressed the hope that Ash’s French Open win will turn the spotlight more on “an exemplary sportswoman whose respected demeanour and success” has failed to attract the media attention that it deserves.

Reflection

There are some very profound lessons for us in the philosophy and behaviour of Ash Barty and some ideas about how we might develop our own healthy confidence.  However, we should be careful of joining the chorus to criticise the narcissistic behaviour of individual international sports stars while indulging in narcissistic tendencies ourselves. 

We can ask ourselves when the last time was that we made a point of highlighting our qualifications or the nature and breadth of our experience when meeting someone for the first time? When did we attempt to outdo someone else’s story (about the drama we experienced, the places we have seen or the achievements we have realised)? How often do we interrupt others’ conversations to focus attention on ourselves? When have we thought that our car/house/dress attire is better than that of someone else’s?  Do we ever measure our personal worth in terms of the assets we have or the importance of our job?  As we grow in mindfulness, we can become progressively more aware of our own narcissistic tendencies and begin to develop a healthy confidence and deep sense of our real self.

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Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

A Meditation Practice for Taming Feelings of Shame

Meditation can help us tame our strong emotions by helping us to isolate the source of the related feelings and identify our automatic response, which is often inappropriate or unhelpful. Shame is one such emotion that generates strong feelings that can lead to anger, envy, devaluing self, depression, passivity or inability to cope.

Mary C. Lamia, a clinical psychologist, explains that shame occurs when we perceive ourselves to be inadequate, unworthy, dishonourable or failing to live up to our own or other’s expectations. For example, shame experienced in not living up to the expectations of others as a new or accomplished author, is a central theme of John Boyne’s book, A Ladder to the Sky. His book also starkly illustrates Mary Lamia’s description of shame as a “concealed, contagious and dangerous emotion“. Mary’s in-depth discussion of shame and how it manifests is illuminating and helps us to understand how shame can induce our own dysfunctional behaviour and that of bullies and narcissistic people.

A meditation to tame feelings of shame

Patricia Rockman provides a meditation designed to tame feelings of shame. Her 10-minute, guided meditation podcast provides a way to uncover this often-concealed emotion, explore its manifestation in bodily sensations and denigrating thoughts, and eventually to get in touch with how we contaminate our relationships through feelings of shame.

The starting point for the meditation is to clearly form the intention to address the feelings of shame, rather than push them away or hide from them. This may take a concerted effort over time with repetition of this guided meditation. Feelings of shame may be deeply embedded in our bodies and minds and we can feel resistance to dealing with these uncomfortable emotions and feelings. Over time, we may have become practised at concealing shame or projecting our sense of shame onto others.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditating on our feelings of shame 
we can learn to tame our shame and its impact by naming our feelings and facing the discomfort that shame elicits in us bodily and mentally. This growth in self-awareness, a progressive unveiling of ourselves, can replace shame with kind attention, and build resilience.

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Image source: courtesy of Skitterphoto on Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Action Learning Challenges the Values of Narcissistic Managers

In a previous post, I highlighted the role that self-awareness and agency (control over one’s work environment) play in developing and sustaining mental health in the workplace.  Narcissistic managers undermine self-awareness and block the achievement of agency by managers and staff.

The negative impact of narcissistic managers on self-awareness and agency in the workplace

Narcissistic managers through their distorted self-belief, words and behaviour undermine genuine self-awareness of subordinates by modelling an inflated view of themselves, seeking scapegoats to assign blame even when it is not warranted (and they are to blame) and causing subordinates to doubt their own competence and sanity.

Narcissistic managers also block the development of agency amongst subordinate managers and staff by their micromanagement, unpredictability, unrealistic and unreasonable workplace demands and dishonesty.

The result of this frustration of agency and the underpinning self-awareness, is a toxic workplace that is injurious to the mental health of subordinates and the narcissistic managers themselves.  Action learning interventions challenge the values of narcissistic managers and work to reduce their negative impact on the mental health of subordinate managers and staff in a workplace.

Action learning: a challenge to the values of narcissistic managers

Action learning interventions in toxic work environments can help to reduce the negative impact of narcissistic managers through the development of self-awareness amongst subordinate managers and staff and the growth of managerial and employee agency within the organizational unit involved.   I have previously described an action learning intervention, undertaken by Rod Waddington in an educational institution, designed to reduce the negative impacts of a toxic work environment.

If we examine the characteristics of narcissistic managers, we can readily see that the underpinning values of such a manager are in direct opposition to those of action learning – the former involves destruction of agency, abuse, divisiveness, exclusiveness, resistance to ideas from managers and staff and an autocratic style of management.  Action learning, in contrast, involves increased agency, mutual respect, collaboration, inclusiveness, openness to ideas from managers and staff and a participative style of management.

While the narcissistic manager creates divisiveness through blaming, favouritism and exclusiveness, action learning overcomes this ‘divide and conquer’ approach through the power of collaboration built through mutual respect and inclusiveness.  The contrast in values described above reinforces the need to undertake an organization intervention designed to embed a new set of values where a toxic work environment exists.  In Rod’s action learning intervention, the participant managers undertook a “values advocacy campaign” – designed to replace the existing demeaning value set with values that enrich the working environment and nurture engagement, creativity and commitment.

When you enable agency through action learning, managers must take up the responsibility that goes with it, including the need to let go of control and create opportunities for staff growth and development through delegation of authority.  This grows the manager’sown positive influence while contributing to the sense of agency of staff and the mental health of all concerned.

As people develop self-awareness and agency in their workplace through action learning, they grow in mindfulness and the capacity to act constructively on their environment in the present moment, rather than being focused on the uncertainty, doubt and instability that arises in a toxic work environment.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.