#056 - Developmental trauma "acts of triumph"

No one wants to go in there alone, scary!

No one wants to go in there alone, scary!

An “act of triumph,” in working with single event trauma, is essentially the completion of an incomplete action that could not be executed during the time of the trauma. For example, these incomplete actions could be to want to push away an attacker but are unable to do so. To have the impulse to put one’s hands out to brace during an unexpected fall, but not having enough time to respond. The gut reaction to turn away at the time of impact in a car accident, but being taken by surprise. Or even needing to run from danger, and not being able to get away. Trauma is not the event per say, but how the system of the individual responds to the event. This can mean if you had the ability to push away an attacker and bring yourself to safety, you might not experience adverse traumatic reactions after.  Of course this is all complicated if you have previous unresolved trauma and/or unresolved developmental trauma. Both of which can be triggered by an innocuous event such as getting rear-ended or even a fight with a partner.

Using techniques like those developed by Pierre Janet (the person who coined the term “acts of triumph”), Pat Ogden, Ron Kurtz, Peter Levine, and others we can, in the therapy office, uncover and complete these incomplete actions. And thus allow the individual to move through the suck energy in the body and resolve the memory. But there is another kind of trauma called developmental trauma that can have acts of triumph as well.

Developmental trauma are events over time, usually when we were young, that literally form the way we see the world, ourselves, and others, often in very limited ways. Neglect, verbal abuse, shaming, engulfment from a parent, and other painful relational events are systemic experiences that shape the way the child experiences the world. As the child grows into an adult these forces that shaped the ego structure and nervous system will continue to reproduce themselves unless a new relational experience can be created thus rewiring these old circuits.

Within the therapeutic relationship acts of relational triumph can occur which translate to the clients world outside the office. Witnessing the transformative power of literally going with, emotionally and somatically, my clients to the most terrifying places in the psychic realm humbles me. The places of overwhelm, panic, and dissociation are the places where these acts of triumph live, but we must go together. Those experiences were overwhelming because as a child their little nervous system was unable to metabolize the intense emotional content and somatic experiences alone. But in the here and now, with the help of a fellow traveler, this somatic and emotional territory loses its power and, often very simply, a new pattern is formed.

What I see time and time again is after we travel together to these previously terrifying places something switches in folks. They will come in and say they were having a common experience of anxiety or panic. But this time they were not as frightened and some really cool new way of dealing with the situation arose in their consciousness.  They will often say this nonchalantly, not realizing the profound magnitude of this developmental trauma act of triumph. They are experiencing, and literally giving to themselves, the missed relational experience from their history that they always needed. Usually one filled with compassion, insight, and hope.

It seems as though single event trauma and developmental trauma are different in their healing as well as in their creation. For single event trauma fairly quickly memory can be metabolized and the necessary action completed. Because of the long term and systemic quality of developmental trauma one has to live their way into a new experience. Those relational experiences from therapy are taken into the world and experimented with. These acts of triumph occur when someone says no when they normally would of said yes, or having the courage to stay with themselves through a wave of anxiety when they normally would of run for the hills (metaphorically of course!).

Be on the look out of these developmental acts of triumph and capitalize on them. Feel all through your body what it feels like to say no when you really mean it. Feel the wave of anxiety crest and recede knowing you are ok in the intensity. Be so kind to yourself as you reach to a trusted fellow traveler and ask for support, knowing you deserve love and care. No one can walk this path for you, but it is important to invite in a “safe enough other,” when you are ready, to traverse this developmental world together and thus create a new possibility for your own life.