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Conversations with Carolyn Spring
28 minutes | Jan 29, 2021
Podcast: Falling down, getting back up again: my journey over the last year
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34 minutes | Feb 20, 2020
Podcast: #13 – Kindness is revolutionary
Unkindness is rife in our society. Extreme unkindness is, in simplistic terms, called abuse. To heal from abuse, we need an abundance of kindness. But our survival-based back brain preferentially focuses on unkindness, on danger and threat. In this podcast Carolyn talks about how to retrain our front brains to focus on and notice the many kindnesses that are in fact all around us. Transcript Hello, friends! Carolyn Spring here and welcome to my podcast, ‘Kindness is revolutionary’. There’s a hashtag circulating the internet at the moment – #BeKind or #BeKinder – following the tragic suicide of TV presenter Caroline Flack at the weekend. And these two topics – kindness and suicide – are very very close to my heart. No-one ever killed themselves from an overdose of kindness – but a lot of people do kill themselves when they’re exposed to horrific, ongoing, chronic levels of unkindness. And it’s just not on. In its most simplistic terms, abuse is extreme unkindness. Of course that feels like a massive understatement to call it that, and abuse has many layers and dynamics on top of unkindness, but I want to just join the dots here that kindness and abuse sit on diametrically opposite ends of the spectrum of how we treat people. Therefore healing from trauma, from abuse, must include a tonne of kindness. And yet we live in a society that increasingly, especially online, seems to be full of unkindness – levels of unkindness and online bullying and trolling that drive people even to their deaths. And even in small ways it’s there, constantly, every day, for every non-celebrity too – anyone with an online presence, even if you’re just commenting about parking problems in a neighbourhood Facebook group. People having a go, pulling you down, attacking you, shaming you, humiliating you, all in the name of ‘having an opinion’ and ‘commenting’. And it is devastating to do life listening to unkindness. It is demoralising to know that there are people attacking you and criticising you and shaming you for no other reason – really – than that they are being unkind. I think very often when someone is unkind to us – this certainly is my struggle – we take that unkindness on board, as if it says something about us. It’s a case of, ‘Oh, you’ve found me out! You’ve uncovered my intrinsic toxicity, my evilness – you are treating me as I deserve.’ When someone is unkind to us, we think it’s an indictment of us as a human being. But it’s not. It says nothing about us. It says everything about the person who is being unkind. And that realisation ultimately is what has helped me the most. People are unkind towards me and others because they are unkind, not because what they say is true or fair or justified – even if it is. We need to stand up to unkindness and call it out as unkindness – not lend it credence by agreeing that it is okay for someone to call me fat because I am in fact fat; or tell me that I’m a failure because I did in fact fail; or that my writing is crap because sometimes some of it is indeed crap; or point out my mistakes because I am most certainly a human being who makes lots of mistakes. These things are unkind to say whether or not they are true. It is the unkindness that needs to be challenged, not our imperfections. We cannot outrun the unkindness of others by trying instead to be perfect – that is a strategy that will chase us all the way to our graves. Because none of us is perfect, and we’re not meant to be perfect. We’re destined to be imperfect human beings. And we need to be kind to one other, and to be kind to ourselves – to forgive ourselves and others for our imperfections, not be condemned for them. Because unkindness has a profound impact on us and on our mental health. Too often I think we’ve been told that if people’s unkindness impacts us, then that’s our problem. That we’re too thin-skinned, that we’re too sensitive. But even that’s a bit unkind. The entire reason I do the work I do is because I care deeply about people’s suffering. Well, I have to be quite thin-skinned in order to care about other people’s suffering. I have to have a soft, permeable membrane, for that suffering to penetrate my heart and motivate me to action. If I were thick-skinned I would be less sensitive to the hurt of others towards me, but I’d also be less sensitive to hurt full stop. So I don’t think it’s a problem for me, or others like me, to be sensitive and thin-skinned. I think the problem is more that unkindness is unkind. And people who are unkind want to justify it by blaming the victim of it for being too sensitive. No – let’s just deal with the unkindness itself, shall we? Let’s stop that. Let’s not be unkind by blaming the victims of unkindness for being impacted by it because they’re too sensitive. Because unkindness is so unnecessary. For all that we may claim our rights of freedom of speech and freedom of opinion, it is still unnecessary to be unkind. It doesn’t achieve anything. It’s not productive. It helps no-one. When an anonymous stranger somewhere from the internet tells me that my writing is crap, that they hate it, that doesn’t make me a better writer. It doesn’t motivate me; it doesn’t help me improve. So what’s the point? Why don’t they just stop reading my writing instead, and go and read something else? They’re perfectly entitled not to enjoy my writing, even to hate it. I’ve got no problem with that. But what they should do with that realisation is change their behaviour – to stop reading what I’m writing and go and find something else that they do enjoy reading. It’s just unkind to message me to tell me that I’m a worthless individual and a crap writer. It’s unkind, and it’s unnecessary. There are probably at least a hundred books on my Kindle that I have given up on reading, because I haven’t enjoyed them or I haven’t agreed with them or I’ve felt they’re a waste of my time. So do you know what I’ve done with that? I’ve just stopped reading them, and I’ve moved on to something else. It has never ever occurred to me to message the author and tell them that I hate their writing – or that they’re not a worthwhile human being. I just shrug my shoulders and then I move on. End of. And I don’t have to do two hours of meditation and squeeze my sphincters in order to build up enough kindness to not message the authors. I just don’t do it. Unkindness is a choice, and kindness often lies in the simple choice merely not to be unkind. It doesn’t even occur to me to message the authors. Because if anything I appreciate how difficult writing is, and I have no desire to hurt them, to be unkind. I don’t think I’m strange for that. I just think that’s normal, or at least it should be. I experienced an entire childhood of unkindness. I have no need for more of it now in adulthood, and I have no desire to disseminate more unkindness into the world. Having been abused doesn’t give me the right to abuse. Being the victim of unkindness doesn’t give me the right to be unkind, and it doesn’t help either. How could it? How can I heal from unkindness by being unkind myself? I think unkindness affects us so deeply because it’s part of our evolutionary survival drive. It’s our back brain paying attention to threat. When someone is unkind – when they’re perceived as a threat, someone who’s attacking us, someone we can’t trust to ally with us but who instead is turning on us – then our brain focuses on that. Of course it does. It should do! If you’re caveman or cavewoman on the savannah, and an antelope comes into view and a leopard comes into view, you’d better hope your brain focuses on the leopard – on the negative, on the dangerous – or you might just be the leopard’s lunch. So of course our brain fixates on negativity and threat and unkindness, and struggles to remember positivity and safety and kindness. It’s a survival thing. What our brains aren’t so adapted to is this whole internet thing where predators have access to us, have proximity to us, via their keyboards and phones, 24 hours a day. That’s why it’s so stressful. Our tribe, our village, which might have been home to say 70 or 100 people, with defined borders and fences, suddenly is a global village and there’s no sense of boundary. There’s no safety. I can write something on my blog in Cambridgeshire and someone I’ve never met and never will meet from Manchester or Munich or Malaysia can attack me for it. They’re not in my tribe. They don’t care about my tribe. They just fire off arrows from the darkness of anonymity – it’s not a fair fight. That is something that our brains haven’t evolved to deal with, so no wonder it affects people’s mental health so much. I’m still learning how to deal with this. But ultimately, I think I’ve come to the conclusion that this isn’t about social media or the internet. This is about human nature, and unfortunately there’s an awful lot of unkindness in human nature. That’s why so many of us have been abused or bullied or betrayed. Kindness doesn’t always come naturally to humankind. And that’s depressing, isn’t it? I think, when I first started my r
33 minutes | Feb 4, 2020
Podcast: #12 – What does recovery from trauma look like?
Recovery from trauma is a journey, an orientation, a direction, not a specific location. Just head north - where you're at is less important than which direction you're headed in. In this podcast, Carolyn discusses why we can feel that recovery is impossible, how recovery perhaps doesn't look as we imagine it to, and how society needs to help with 'public transport' to help us on our way. Transcript Hello friends, Carolyn Spring here – and welcome to my podcast: ‘What does recovery from trauma look like?’ So I get asked a lot about recovery – probably because I’m always banging on about it myself. Can we recover from trauma, even extreme trauma, complex trauma, chronic childhood trauma? How do we recover? What does that recovery look like? And I talk about it a lot because of two things: firstly, quite simply because that’s been my journey – and oh what a journey it has been! In the last fifteen years I’ve gone from regularly trying to kill myself, having full-blown dissociative identity disorder, not being able to manage my emotions at all, not really knowing where I was and what I was doing or even who I was, in horrific distress all day and all night – and this went on for several years, with flashbacks, with nightmares, with just excruciating psychological, emotional, mental and even physical pain … I went from that, completely dysfunctional and in deep distress, to now living a life that’s certainly not perfect, but it is undeniably good. I love my life now – I’m so grateful for it. So of course I believe in recovery – how could I not, when I’ve experienced it? But there are a lot of people who say – a lot of you who are listening may want to say – “Well, that’s great for you, but that’s not my experience. I’ve been in therapy for ten, twenty, thirty years and I still haven’t experienced anything like what you’re talking about. Life is still a terrible, terrible thing and I suffer daily, and I don’t know if I can keep going. How can you talk to me about recovery? I haven’t experienced it.” And so it can seem really insensitive of me to keep going on about recovery if it’s something that, despite your best efforts, is eluding you. And I get that – I totally get that – and the last thing I want to do is to add to your pain, your suffering, in any way. So in this podcast I’m going to talk about what recovery looks like, what I mean by it – which might not be what you mean by it – and why I think it’s so so important. Because – here’s the thing – your suffering matters. Pain matters. There’s this cry on the inside of us, isn’t there, this huge, unbearable, soul-splitting pain, because of the things that happened to us – trauma, abuse, abandonment, betrayal, grief, loss, torture, humiliation, rejection. The ancient Hebrew word for that pain is sa’aq. It’s an onomatopoeic word, a word that sounds like its meaning – the sa’aq – the ouch, cry. Something that is so big and so painful that we cannot put it into words, which is why I prefer to refer to the sa’aq rather than ‘cry’ because ‘cry’ just doesn’t do it justice. I mean, how on earth do you put that pain into words? You can’t! I wanted to kill myself to get away from that sa’aq, because I just didn’t know what else to do. It’s deep, ineffable distress. And it matters. Oh my word, it matters. It matters so so much – that’s why I bang on about recovery. Because what I’m really talking about is easing that pain, relieving that suffering, finding a solution to the sa’aq that erupts from our guts. I’m not talking about ‘recovering from a mental health condition’ – that just sounds so clinical, so emotively empty, as if there’s just a couple of switches that have been flicked into the wrong position in our head and all we have to do is to locate them and flip them back again. No – that’s not at all what I’m referring to when I talk about recovering from trauma. I’m talking about relieving this indescribable awful ‘ouch’ on the inside of us that is so unbearable that we can’t bear to be ourselves – that’s my real-life description of dissociative identity disorder. DID is when it is too painful to be ourselves and we have to become other versions of us just to cope with the pain of being alive. And I don’t even really like the term ‘dissociative identity disorder’ – it feels like a way of distracting attention from our sa’aq, by putting it in medical terms. I understand that the NHS uses diagnoses and labels in order to decide on treatment approaches and availability, but I really really don’t want to talk in those impersonal, soulless terms. I want to talk in terms of human suffering that needs a solution. So when I talk about recovery from trauma, I’m talking about hearing and responding to that cry, that sa’aq in our soul: something very primal, very real, and unbearably painful. Not something with a technical description that’s responded to with a checklist. And it’s one of the things I probably get asked more than anything. The question is asked with different words, but underlying it all is this heartfelt, painful painful question around recovery which is basically, “Will life get better? Or will I always be in this much pain?” And that’s what I’m responding to when I talk about recovery. I’m saying, with every ounce of my being and all that I am, “Yes, we can recover. Yes, it gets better. And it has to – it really, really has to, because it’s unacceptable for you or me or anyone else to be in that much suffering for the rest of your life.” So please hear everything I’m going to say with the compassion, with the empathy, that is motivating it. Recovery matters to me, because human suffering matters to me. So people ask me a lot about recovery and whether it’s possible. Whether they will always be affected by their trauma. Whether it’s possible to ever be able to talk about what happened without being triggered or switching or getting distressed. Whether recovery is complete and final, or whether you can sort of revert, or go backwards and end up at square one again. Whether you can ever stop having such awful memories, and nightmares, and flashbacks of the abuse. Whether you can get to the point of not feeling so unbelievably ashamed all the time of what happened. Whether you can get to a place of feeling that your identity isn’t in your trauma. These are heartfelt, meaningful and indeed complex questions. But the answer to them in our soundbite culture is often simplistic and binary. The first response is basically: no. You’ll never recover from trauma. You can only learn to manage it a bit. Everything else is unrealistic. And this is the standpoint of many people who have been trying valiantly for years to recover, and it’s true to their experience. They’ve tried so so hard to recover; it’s not happened, so of course they believe now that it’s not possible – because that’s what they know in their own lives. Totally understandable. And then the other response is yes – of course! And it tends to a bit of a ‘ra ra’ response. ‘Yes, you can recover! You can do anything! All things are possible! Just think positive, be positive, and stick positive quotes from Facebook up all around your house! Ra ra!’ … and preferably drink some kind of disgusting green smoothie while you’re doing it! Now, perhaps unsurprisingly, I don’t think it’s either. I think both are a caricature of the truth. When we talk about recovery, often we focus solely on the role and responsibility of the individual. We think in terms of whether this person is capable of recovering. We think about what they’re doing to recover. We think about their motivation, their resources, their mentality. But the problem with that is that we can end up implicitly blaming them for not having recovered. And that’s not right. The blame for being traumatised, and even for ‘failing’ to recover, is only and always with the person or people who traumatised them. If we hadn’t been traumatised in the first place, we wouldn’t be ‘failing’ in some way to recover from trauma now! – so our baseline has got to be: no fault, no blame, no criticism, no anything. Just lots of love and support and empathy and a sense of coming alongside and saying, “I’m so sorry this crap has happened to you. It’s not right. It’s not right that you have to deal with the after-effects of it.” And anyway, if we’re talking about someone having recovered or not recovered, we’ve got to be really careful that we’re not thinking in terms of yes or no – you have or you haven’t – - when obviously it’s a spectrum. It’s a journey. And also we need to be really careful that we’re not imposing arbitrary timescales either – the sense that it’s okay to be traumatised for a while, but not a ‘long’ while. And it’s so random how long we think ‘long’ should be: this is why I object to the concept of ‘Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder’ in the DSM-5. It basi
42 minutes | Jan 22, 2020
Podcast: #11 – Recovering from developmental trauma
Recovering from trauma takes time. In this podcast, Carolyn looks at how we often missed out on developmental stages during childhood, and how we have to learn what we were not in a position to learn as children - not least our ability to regulate our emotions, which isn’t a sign of character deficiency, but simply the loss of opportunity. Transcript Hello friends! Carolyn Spring here. Welcome to my podcast, ‘Recovering from developmental trauma’. Today I want to talk a little bit about how it takes time to recover from trauma, because as many of you will know I’m passionate about us recovering. I just think that our suffering matters too much for us not to do something about it. It’s bad enough that we were abused or traumatised in childhood. It’s totally unacceptable if that abuse or trauma robs us of our adulthood. So when I say I’m passionate about recovery from trauma, that’s not to put a heavy on anyone, or to shame anyone for not having recovered. Hear me right: it comes from a place of deep compassion, and pain for your pain. It’s often our shame that makes us believe that people are criticising us when they’re exhorting us, encouraging us towards recovery. We hear it as them pointing out that we’ve failed – we’ve failed to recover – rather than their compassion for our pain, because they don’t want to see us suffer. And when we feel so powerless to recover – because powerlessness itself is a consequence of trauma – then we can end up feeling even worse. ‘I want to recover from trauma, you want me to recover from trauma, but I can’t! How bad am I!’ So any encouragement to recover can end up feeling really insensitive: hey, here’s a recovery you can’t have! And that is as far from the heart of the matter for me as you can get. So I want to defuse some of that shame, and frustration, and explain in this podcast why it can take time – a lot of time – to recover, and why we shouldn’t feel bad about that, or compare ourselves to others. I think our tendency is to look at people who are living the lives secretly we want to live, and just feel that they’re too far out of reach. Like, ‘Well, that’s a nice idea, but you’re way ahead of me.’ It would be like wanting to do Couch to 5K and then modelling yourself on Mo Farah. But what I want to offer is not just encouragement that recovery is possible – because that’s my story, my narrative, my experience – but HOW it’s possible. And yes, in emotional terms I might be doing regular 10Ks now, but it wasn’t always like that. In fact, in both physical and emotional terms, I spent a lot of time in a wheelchair. And you know what it’s like when you have a moment of madness in January, and you think, ‘Right, that’s it, I’m going to get fit?’ And you join a gym? And you’re all enthusiastic and positive and you’re really really determined you’re going to do it this time? But then you go to the gym induction session and if you’re like me you’re an extremely unfit, overweight, woman in her mid-forties, so it’s not a natural environment. And then the gym instructor is a super-fit guy with a six-pack in his twenties. And I’ve joined gyms a few times over the years, and I’ve tended to perceive one of two responses. Either the induction guy is really patronising, and explaining to me what a bicep is and he assumes I’m incapable of all movement. And I get all annoyed and defensive, and I want to tell him that I used to be really fit and sporty but then I got ME and please don’t patronise me. Or he’s really nice but he just doesn’t get how I can’t do anything that he’s asking. I remember going once and this young chap got me to go on the exercise bike for a 5-minute warm-up before he did a fitness test. And I was like, ‘Okay, we can try …’ and I couldn’t – literally couldn’t – cycle for five minutes straight, at least not at the resistance he set it at. And that was just the warm-up!! He had no concept at all at just what a bad way I was in, and his exercise programme was just beyond me. But he was looking at me the whole time as if to say, ‘But it’s easy, it’s easy … just be like me.’ And of course I wanted to explain that that was the whole problem, that if I were like him I’d be a gym instructor, not in the situation I’m in. So my experiences of gym inductions is either too easy or too hard. It’s the goldilocks dynamic of fitness, just as it is for trauma recovery – we need to get it just right. So what I want to tackle really is the idea that trauma recovery was just easy for me – that it was always easy for me. Far from it! I’m not the gym instructor with a ripped and toned body. I was in a wheelchair! I had therapy for 9.5 years – that’s a very long time – and I worked very hard for the whole of that time. I struggled and struggled and struggled. Because it’s a long-term process to turn around chronic developmental trauma. We have to learn things that we didn’t learn as children and you can’t do that overnight. What’s so hard, when you’re stuck in the middle of it all, is to imagine that things will ever get any easier. But in many respects it’s no different from the transformation from infancy to adulthood. So I’m going to use an analogy in this podcast about being a baby, but I don’t want you to hear that in any way as being negative. I don’t mean it in the way that some people would say, ‘Oh you’re such a baby!’ Or we’d get told to ‘grow up’. I’m meaning this positively, not pejoratively, and I’m using it as a strict developmental analogy. So it’s a ‘this is like this’ thing, not ‘this is this’ thing. Because neither am I suggesting that we become a baby again in order to recover from trauma. So two misconceptions there, before I start, that I want to clear up before things get messy! So imagine then, as a thought experiment, if you could go back to being a baby but with adult insight and understanding. And imagine what it would be like to be newborn and to think, ‘But I can’t even coordinate moving my fingers to my mouth. I can’t turn my head at will. I can’t sit up. It’s going to take me a whole year just to learn to move – just to learn to say my very first words. A whole year of being a baby! Not making any progress at all!’ And then that progress begins to speed up a little bit, and by the end of my second year I’m walking, I’m putting words together, I’m able to play and I’m starting to use a bit of imagination, I’m starting to develop a bit of theory of mind. So in just two years there’s been a tonne of development – absolutely massive compared to that jerky, floppy, can’t-even-focus-properly baby, but compared to what an adult can do, as a toddler I’m still way behind the curve. And even when we get to 18 – I mean I look back at myself at 18 and think, ‘Oh my goodness, how young is that! You were just a baby then! You have so much to learn still and do and experience in the world. You know nothing, 18-year-old-me, you know nothing!’ And so it’s this kind of dynamic and principle within life that progress is slow. Development is slow, and yet it’s huge at the same time. I mean, how much progress is that, to go from not being able to coordinate moving your fingers to your mouth, to being able to construct complex, abstract thought and memory and write poetry – within the space of 18-20 years. To be able to regulate your emotions, to be able to think complex thoughts and empathise with others and compute multiple potential scenarios, to start investing in a pension – that kind of long-term strategic planning and thought – compared to the baby that can’t even put their hand in their mouth: they bash themselves in the face with it instead. And so it’s just the biggest leaps that you could ever imagine, and at one level it takes so long – it takes 18, 25, more years! – and yet at the same time it’s so fast given how much progress is made. And I just think it’s a lot like that for us within recovery from trauma and overcoming stuff, that it feels like, ‘Ugh! I’ve been at this a year! I’m such a baby still. I’m barely toddling. I put one foot in front of another and I fall down. And it’s so frustrating. I can’t look after myself. I can’t manage. I need help with everything. I feel totally dependent on others. I can’t manage my eating, I can’t manage my bodily functions, I can’t manage any of these things.’ And that’s what it’s like for a life after trauma. And yet it’s such a clear parallel with being a baby. And yet – oh my goodness, how much progress have you also made? If we stand back and recognise the enormity of the task ahead of us, it can help give us some perspective, maybe help us be a bit more patient with ourselves. Because nobody looks at a twelve-month old and thinks, ‘Oh, for goodness’ sake, get a grip. What is wrong with you that you cannot speak in whole sentences and write essays? What is the matter with you that you get upset so easily and you need so much sleep? And that you can’t even co
35 minutes | Jan 14, 2020
Podcast: #10 – This is my new life
When we have suffered trauma and pain, our brains find it hard to experience joy. But we need to put ourselves in the right place to find joy, and we need to cultivate it. In this podcast Carolyn talks about a life-transforming trip from 2012 and how the big breakthroughs are built on the backs of daily small breakthroughs. Transcript Hello friends! Carolyn Spring here, and welcome to this edition of my podcast. I’m calling this one ‘This is my new life’ and that is a throwback to the final chapter of my first book, ‘Recovery is my best revenge’ – and in fact I’m going to read that chapter in a moment as part of this podcast. Because my idea for this episode came from listening to another podcast in which the author basically read some excerpts from his books and then added a kind of commentary onto it. And it was really interesting how he did it, and I thought it was a cool idea. So that’s sort of what I’m going to try in this episode. We’ll see how it goes and then maybe I’ll do it again. And the idea of the subject matter was sparked by my recent trip to Scotland. As many of you will know, I have a bit of a love affair thing going on with Scotland, and specifically the far north Highlands. I spend as much time up there as possible, and I wrote this chapter, ‘This is my new life’ after my very first visit to that area in 2012. Because that visit had such an impact on me – such a life-changing, heart-expanding, gut-transforming impact. I was so struck by the wild beauty and the vastness of the landscape, the sense of reverence, of awe I felt being out in that, and really just the sheer goodness. It was something, in a geographical space, a locality, that summed up for me the biggest possible contrast with everything I’d grown up with in terms of abuse. It was so clean and pure and good. And in ways that words can never convey it opened my eyes to the possibility of a life beyond abuse, and outside of abuse, and where abuse doesn’t reign. It was like an ‘aaaah’ moment of seeing the world differently for the very first time and it profoundly, profoundly impacted me. Have you ever had an experience like that? Have you had something that seems to intrude from the outside of your consciousness, and it penetrates deep into your soul – something that says, ‘There is more to life than abuse; there is more to life than this suffering I’m suffering; there is more to life than this pain?’ That’s what happened for me in 2012. I didn’t know it was about to happen – I didn’t know it could happen – so I hadn’t sought it out. But I offer it to you with the hope really, with the desire for you that you too experience something like that, which lifts your eyes to the horizon even maybe in the midst of despair. Because in our moments of greatest hopelessness, we need to know that hope is out there, somewhere. So I’ll read the chapter – it’s only quite short – and then I’ll expand a bit on it with some more thoughts. And hopefully it’ll be a bit of a ray of goodness in your day as you listen to this. … so chapter 20 of ‘Recovery is my best revenge’ is called ‘This is my new life’ and it goes like this: The sand stretches away into the blue fuzz of the horizon. It’s white and pure and perfect and still, with whirls of wind painted in it. The water is icy and clear. Along the beach we walk, along and along, walking and walking in this sumptuous, beautiful place. The dog is barking for seaweed. There is no one else anywhere around. The sand is so fine, and the water so clear, and I’ve never seen anything like it before. Bark, bark, bark to throw the ball. Bark, bark, bark to fetch it. Little bobbles of cloud in a deep blue sky. Foamy waves licking at my soles. It’s all so clean. It’s all so fresh. It’s all so new. I can’t quite believe I’m here. There is no abuse here. Nothing bad, nothing unclean. There is no pain here. There is just goodness and cleanness and fullness of joy. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Bark, bark, bark at some flotsam. The sun is warm and the air is cold and everything makes me shiver with wonder. This is a new kind of place, a new kind of experience. I can’t quite believe it. I don’t mind, I want to say, but for the first time I think I do. From instinct I begin to shrug my shoulders, but deep down somewhere on the inside there’s a stirring and I know that really I want to say yes. Is it allowed? I want to ask, because this would be two good things in one day, and all of me is unsure. I’d love an ice cream, but I’m an adult now, and I don’t know if this is ok. We’ve walked along the beach and we’ve picnicked on the headland. We’ve breathed in goodness, and everything is fizzing with happiness on the inside, and I don’t know if I’m allowed to have that feeling, don’t know if I’m allowed to keep it. Do I want an ice cream? Yes I do. I know I do. Too many good things? What will happen if I have it? What will happen if I want it? Bad things, horrible things, painful things, unspeakable things? No, this is a new life where those things don’t happen. I can have an ice cream now, and I won’t be hurt later. It’s just an ice cream, just a good thing, and it’s ok for me to have it. There’s a shudder inside, like the burp of some dread, but I just nod at myself quietly. It’s ok, I say, and I mean it. It’s ok to have good things, and I know that’s true. It’s taken a lot of shifting, to believe that, and instinct still pulls me to shake my head. But this is my new life, this is a good life, and we eat ice creams as we drive near cliffs rimmed by rainbows. I do mind, and it’s good. At first they were just specks in the sky, three specks circling, up high on the wind drift, up high above the world. We stopped the car and got out. Binoculars. It might be … It’s probably not … It is, you know, it is. I look for the markings, for the wingspan, for the flight. The tail splays out like a fan. It’s soaring and gliding, holdings its wings in a shallow ‘V’. It’s drawing a circle in the sky. Next to it, on its inside, are two smaller ones, its young. At the end of its wings, huge and broad and majestic and golden, it reaches out its fingers. I can just make out the inner feathers, white like snow. It is, you know, it is. Excitement rises like a gulp in my throat. You might be right. And I am. A golden eagle, with two of its young, fainting against the sky on this most beautiful of days. All my life I had wanted to see one. I used to dream about it, write about it, talk to anyone who would listen. A golden eagle. I can’t quite believe it. And not one but three. Is it allowed? Yes, it’s allowed. This is our new life, where good things are allowed. It’s a funny little boat, a bit like the Lego one I had as a child, but all around us the deep smoky blue of the Kyle is flowing out into the North Sea and it is wonderful and desolate and I’m humming on the inside with the sheer pleasure of being here. We bounce off the tops of the waves, spray shimmering up behind us. I’ve never been out on a boat quite like this before. I’ve never fished. We sit in the lapping silence, the beauty of the sky and the sunlight jagged on the water, and for the first time I feel at home within myself. Is it allowed? I wonder, almost out loud. Yes, yes, it’s allowed, I reassure myself and I am nearly breathless with the joy that it is. We poke our rods out the back of the boat, waiting, barely daring to hope, but one little mackerel after another tugs at the line and then squirms around in our bucket, our evening meal. The wind is mild and invigorating. There’s no badness here, no evil, no pain. This is a world away from what I thought was normal. I can’t quite believe that it’s real. The joy on the inside of me sits on a deep layer of sadness that I feel on every wave roll. I realise how wrong the badness was. I realise how much goodness there can be, and I’m sad and angry that I didn’t know it until now. And then I breathe again, let my eyes wander around the cliffs of the island we are now picnicking by, and the joy swells harder. This is what life can be like now, I say to myself, and I want to cry because I know it’s true. For part of the morning we wander around the beach, clamber up into rock pools, bark bark goes the dog to chase a stone, and I’m fascinated by the stripes of ochre and grey in the cliffstones around us. We drive out onto the headland, and scramble onto dunes. We drive into the wilderness, and Ben This and Ben Something Else crowd the sky around us. This is my new life, where good things are allowed, I say to myself, to try to make myself believe it. The landscape is so expansive, like it’s opening wide its arms and filling deep its lungs, and all this crisp, earthy goodness makes me want to sing. Good things are allowed, I say again, and I’m aware of them for the first time. I want to sow them. I want to cultivate them. I want to grow them like seedlings. It’s not enough to dredge away the bad stuff. I’ve got to grow the good stuff too. I’ve got to learn how to live. And here, in this place, like no place I’ve ever been before, it feels right to have good things. It feels right to be alive. It feels like something has shifted. It’s no longer just ab
29 minutes | Jan 8, 2020
Podcast: #9 – Sunshine in December
Reindeer and suncream?! Life doesn’t always appear as we expect it to. In this podcast, Carolyn Spring talks about how trauma anticipates danger and badness, and how to develop the imagination for life to be different "Dealing with Distress: Working with Suicide and Self-Harm" Online Training here: www.carolynspring.com/suicide Transcript CS: Hello friends! Carolyn Spring here. It’s been a while since my last podcast … for which I apologise. Life just became too busy last year and the logistics of doing a podcast became temporarily un-overcome-able … but only temporarily. And so here I am. New year, new podcast. I’m going to do things slightly differently from now on in order to ease those logistics. Previously Andy, who’s part of the team here, did the podcast with me and asked me questions, but trying to get both of us in the same space and a quiet enough space, to record the podcast, was one of the things slowing us down. So ‘Conversations with Carolyn Spring’ are going to be me having a conversation with myself! - which I’m quite used to, so nothing new there!! But I’ll be talking to you and then you can talk back in the comments. It’s obviously not the same as face-to-face with you, but I’m grateful for the technology and for the opportunity to do this at all - so no complaints from me. So it’s a new year and last year - 2019 - was super-busy for me. In November alone I delivered seven training days, actually in just 27 days, so that was quite exhausting. But I knew that it would be, so I planned then for a lot of downtime in December. First of all I went away with a friend for some winter sun, which was marvellous, although a bit odd to be sat in the pool bar in the glorious sunshine listening to Christmas songs - especially ‘The weather outside is frightful’! Errr … no, it’s really not! It really was quite delightful! And I’ve never seen anything more ridiculous than a model reindeer and fake snow in a sun, sand and sea holiday resort! I then went to the other extreme and for Christmas and New Year I was up in the Highlands of Scotland, where I go regularly - my favourite place on earth. I was expecting minus temperatures and snow, but actually I was really blessed with the weather. The first week I was there it was blue skies every single day and really really mild - just magnificent, and far better than at home in Cambridgeshire where apparently it rained non-stop and we had some flooding. So it’s one of those things that reminds you that whatever your expectations are, however we predict the future to be, it might not be like that at all in reality. Reindeer juxtaposed with suncream really does flip your head a bit, and so does walking the Highlands at Christmas in shirt sleeves. It’s one of those things that ‘what is’, the here-and-now, often contradicts the ‘what we expect’ based on prior experience. Trauma so often gets us locked into predictions about the future based on the past. And sometimes those predictions are accurate. But often they’re not. They’re just our brain’s best guess about what will happen in the future, and it has a negative slant on it, a catastrophic element to it, in order to be ‘better safe than sorry’. And I think one of the things that has helped me more than anything is being able to recognise that my brain predicts the future. But it doesn’t know. It guesses. And its guesses are skewed negatively. Bad stuff might happen in the future. Or it might not. And when I’m actually in that future, when the future has become present, then I need to be present to it. I need to see it as it actually is, rather than arguing that it can’t be. Like me sat by the pool with Christmas songs. It IS mid-December, even though everything is telling me that it can’t be, because my brain’s pattern for December has been cold and wet and miserable. And yet the here-and-now is saying warm and sunny and swimming pools. So of course the thing that’s happened there is that I changed my environment. If I’d stayed in the UK, I would indeed have experienced mid-December as cold and wet and miserable. My prediction, my expectation, would have been largely borne out. But I’d flown abroad with the deliberate intention of getting some restorative sun on skin. And yet, even while I was enjoying that - and boy was I enjoying that: it was marvellous! - my brain was still saying to me, “I didn’t predict this. I didn’t expect this. It can’t be right! It feels weird!” Of course, by the end of the ten days that I was abroad, my brain had adapted to the weather conditions out there and I was struggling then to get it to recognise that when we got off the plane it would be cold and wet and miserable. How could that be? Just a few hours ago my friend and I were sat by the pool soaking up the rays. And so this is what our brains are like. They make assumptions and predictions based on the past, and often struggle to come to terms with what a different reality might be like, in a different environment. When we’ve grown up in an environment of trauma, of abuse, or emotional neglect, then our brains predict that life will always be cold and wet and miserable. Our brains struggle to imagine a poolside setting, of warm rays. And so we erroneously conclude that it doesn’t exist. Or that it doesn’t exist FOR US. And yet what we need to do, metaphorically speaking, to recover from trauma, is to get on a plane. It’s so often to change our environment. It’s to shift our lives away from where people treat us badly, where we treat OURSELVES badly, where it’s wet and cold and miserable, where it’s struggle and sludge and suffering, to a life of warm rays. And of course our instant reaction to that is so often, “But I can’t! This IS my life. I live in the UK in December. There’s no other option. It’s alright for you, but it’s not for me …” And I get that, because that’s exactly how I used to think by default. When I was really going through it with my breakdown, with dissociative episodes, with suicide and self-harm, with what just felt like incessant insanity, I couldn’t imagine that life would ever - could ever! - be any different. Because that’s exactly what trauma does to you. It gets you focused on imminent, here-and-now threat, and you don’t have the luxury of future thinking, or imagination, or hope. So it’s a survival strategy to focus on imminent risk, for your brain to be constantly in danger mode, and your body to be in the amber zone or the red zone. It makes perfect sense. But the way forwards - and there is always a way forwards, it’s just a case of believing that it’s there and eventually finding it - the way forwards is to live in the green zone, with our front brains switched on, rather than be dictated to by our survival-based back brains. Because our back brains are focused on surviving threat, responding to danger, reacting to trauma. They predict cold and wet and miserable weather. They get us reaching for coats and scarves and blankets. But our front brains are capable of much more expansive thinking. Our front brains can say, “Is it cold and wet and miserable EVERYWHERE in the world in December? Is there an alternative future? Is there at least the possibility of a different life, even if I don’t know how to live it?” Often if we dare to think that, what kicks in then is that sense of, “Yes, but I don’t know how to live that alternative life, I don’t have the resources, I can’t cope even with my day-to-day. I don’t have the capacity for it. And anyway I don’t deserve it. I don’t deserve good things. I’m living the life I deserve right now.” So we’re consumed by shame, and that belief in our inherent badness, and we daren’t reach out for anything better, because we don’t want to be disappointed. So we’re protecting ourselves from future pain, the pain of shattered hopes, by not hoping at all. And we just try to manage our symptoms and cope hour by hour, and we daren’t lift our eyes to the horizon and wonder what’s beyond it. But oh what a shame that is, when we stay like that. Trauma really does rob us then of life and joy and expansiveness. And the biggest shame is that for the majority of people - not everyone, but surely at least half - for the majority of people the abuse is not ongoing. The abuse is past. So our protective back brains, which are geared towards survival, are doing a tremendous job of trying to keep us safe. But the sad thing is that it’s a job that has largely been made redundant, at least to the same degree. We don’t need to be hypervigilant listening out for a footstep on the stair at night, and so being unable to sleep, because we don’t live with our abusers any more and our front door is locked. There are no steps on the stairs. We don’t need to defend against being humiliated by our Year 8 German teacher any more, because we’re not in Year 8, we’re not in school, we’re not learning German. We don’t need to be deprived of good things any more, because we have autonomy over our lives - we’re not children any more dependent on adults to allow us goodness. We can give that goodness to ourselves. So our back brain predicts and expects based on the accumulation of our
32 minutes | Jun 12, 2019
Podcast: #8 – Shame, Unshame and who you really are
In this podcast, Carolyn talks about the crippling isolation of shame, and how to move beyond it. She talks about how shame is a survival strategy which tries to keep us from being hurt. But in moving towards ‘Unshame’ – the title of her new book – we need to find out who we really are and live from that place of deep self-compassion. Carolyn’s new book ‘Unshame: healing trauma-based shame through psychotherapy’ is available: on Kindle at: amzn.to/2Wnj6Fu as a paperback at: carolynspring.com/unshame-book. The ‘Working with Shame’ online training course is available to purchase and with more information at: www.carolynspring.com/shame-course The Myers-Briggs assessment tool is available at: 16personalities.com The VIA Strengths assessment tool is available at: www.viacharacter.org Transcript AS: Welcome to our podcast, 'Conversations with Carolyn'. I'm here with Carolyn Spring. CS: Hello! AS: So, Carolyn, what's been happening lately? CS: It's been a really busy few months, mainly focused around launching our new course 'Working with Shame' and also, connected to that, my new book 'Unshame: healing trauma-based shame through psychotherapy'. So really I've spent the last six months immersed in the shame research, and immersed in my own process of figuring out what shame is, how it's affected me, its links with trauma, and how we can move out of the crippling isolation of shame: How can we overcome the self-hatred and self-loathing which really gets in the way of us doing anything, enjoying anything, being anything. AS: What have you found? What is shame all about? CS: Probably my main insight, at least for myself, is that shame isn't all bad. It's something that we think of as debilitating and ugly and just destructive, and it is those things, but it's those things for a reason. Really shame is just trying to protect us and keep us safe. It's beating us up for a reason. It lies to us to try to keep us from being hurt. AS: How do you mean? How does shame keep us safe? CS: Okay, two examples: Firstly, when we're being abused, by someone more powerful than us, most of the time it's not safe to retaliate. It's not safe to fight back. If we're a child being abused by an adult, then if we complain about that, if we tell anyone, if we physically resist, then we might be hurt more. And so it's adapative – it's smart – to lie still, to go into the freeze response, which is the shame response, and to just take it. Because then at least it might be over and done with more quickly, and we might be hurt less in the process. So shame makes us huddle small, it stops us moving, reacting, feeling. It helps us to play dead and to submit. It stops us getting angry at what is happening, and therefore lashing out or hitting back or speaking out, by convincing us that it's our fault, that it's our badness, that we deserve it. So it's a really clever mechanism that tries to keep us safe by keeping us still. We take the blame. We submit. It's our fault. AS: And the second example? CS: The second example is ... imagine you want to write a book or deliver a course. You really want to help people, and you've got something to say that hopefully will achieve that. So you're motivated to do it. But then you look at the downside of it. You realise that, if you put yourself out there, you're going to be criticised. Someone somewhere is going to pull you down – maybe lots of people will. In our vicious social media/internet world, the trolls will come out in force and you'll be slapped all over with hate and kickback and all sorts of nastiness. That's the possibility, that's what might happen if you put your head above the parapet. And none of us like to be attacked or criticised. None of us like to be told that we're not good enough, that we've got it wrong, that we're not perfect – to have people disagree with us. That sense of being attacked activates our primitive, neurobiological defences and it feels aversive. Of course it does. And so shame steps in to keep us safe from it. Shame says, "You don't know what you're talking about. You don't know enough to write this book or deliver this course or record this podcast. You're not interesting enough or original enough or clever enough or qualified enough. So who do you think you are? Brené Brown? Better not get too big for your boots. Better not get out of your box. You're not good enough." AS: So like imposter syndrome? CS: Yes, I think that's exactly where imposter syndrome comes from. It's a protective mechanism, warning us of how we might be attacked, the accusations that people will throw at us – 'who do you think you are?' Because evolutionarily, it's safer to be right in the middle of the pack, just getting on, doing normal everyday stuff. It's not safe to stick your neck out. It's not safe to lead. It's not safe to do anything different. And so shame is the way of getting us to stay safe by keeping our heads down, and doing what everyone else does, so that we don't draw attention to ourselves. AS: The examples you've used there are quite personal to you, aren't they? Is this something that you've experienced? CS: Completely. Every day that I write, the shame gremlins sit on my shoulder and say, "You're no good at this. You shouldn't be doing this. Who do you think you are, calling yourself a writer? You can't write that – that's just your opinion. You can't prove you're right. So maybe you're wrong." And of course, being wrong opens you up to criticism, censure, attack – it's not safe. So shame is trying to keep me safe. AS: You've run a couple of the 'Working with Shame' training days so far, and having been to them myself I know that you go into this in more depth on them. I also know that they've been hugely popular and oversubscribed – why do you think that is? CS: Yes, we've run days in Huntingdon and Nottingham so far, and we've got days coming up in Manchester, London and Bristol – five days altogether in June, and all of them are sold out. That's the first time that that has happened, and although a small element of it will be word of mouth and more people coming on our training as more people hear about the work we're doing, I don't think that explains it at all. I think it's a really popular course because shame is such a huge problem for so many people. It's a universal human emotion. Not everyone struggles with shame to the extent that it limits their life in a maladaptive way, of course, but nonetheless I think it's something that everyone can relate to. And I think it's the number one big 'stuck' issue for people in counselling or psychotherapy. We did a survey last year and 99% of therapists said that they worked with shame. I'm actually surprised at what the other 1% do! But unlike most other issues, I think shame is particularly intransigent – it doesn't want to shift, it doesn't want to budge. When we think of working with childhood trauma, in many respects the traumatic aspects of certain incidents, for example of abuse, do tend to resolve over time, especially with a skilled therapist. But the shame aspects of them often don't. And shame is triggered just by being in therapy. You're sat three feet away from another human being, who might reject you, who might abandon you, who might hate you or hurt you ... and this person is in a position of power over you ... and so it activates our primal defences. We're prone to experiencing shame in that kind of environment. So we come to therapy maybe to work through our shame issues, even if we don't call them that, but then the therapy itself activates our shame. So it's a bit of a catch-22. And on top of that, shame acts as a brake on our behaviours. It has a stopping effect. It shuts us down, and cuts us off relationally. And so it's a real hindrance, in that sense, to the therapeutic work – which operates best when we're in connection, relationally, and when we're open to change and movement. AS: Your new book 'Unshame' looks at shame in the therapy room doesn't it? CS: Yes. I really wanted to write a book about shame, but it's difficult to write one head-on, so to speak. The danger is that if we talk directly about shame, then even at an unconscious level, we think, "I don't want to know about this. It's too uncomfortable." And shame just doesn't operate in a left-brain, words-based, concepts-based way. Shame is a relational thing. It's a right-brain, body-based, neurobiological feeling type thing. So the challenge is how to write a book about shame whilst tapping into the right brain. Because, as I explore at length on my course, shame doesn't respond well to words. We don't tend to resolve shame by just changing our mind about it. Very rarely do we just realise that we have nothing to be ashamed of, and then hey presto the shame is gone. Because shame is far more rooted in our bodies than it is in our brains. And so in writing about shame, which is a relational emotion, I wanted to write about it in the context of relationship. And I wanted to evoke characters and setting and narrative and the things that we'd normally associate with creative writing, with fiction. I wanted to paint a picture of shame rather than just cite ten research studies. And so in 'Unshame' I basically tell a story. There are twenty chapters, relating to twenty therapy sessions. We talk about lots of different things in those sessions or chapters, but all along there's this narrative desc
35 minutes | Apr 15, 2019
Podcast: #7 – Can we heal?
Is recovery from trauma and abuse – resulting in dissociation and even a dissociative disorder – possible? That’s the subject of this podcast where Carolyn Spring talks about the vulnerability of hoping for good things, the difference between correlation and causation, and the difference between hoping for and planning for. AS: Welcome to our podcast, Conversations with Carolyn. I'm here with Carolyn Spring. CS: Hello. AS: So, Carolyn, as you know, we get a lot of emails into the PODS office from survivors of trauma and a lot of them are, understandably, looking for help. And it's always struck me that people don't know, firstly, if they can recover from trauma, and secondly, if that's possible, they don't know how. What's your take on those two questions? CS: Yes, and this isn't just something that we just get asked on emails. It's a frequent topic on social media, and it's something that I get asked a lot personally, like on training days. People come up to me and say, 'Can I heal?' They want to know – and they're desperate – they want to know if recovery is really possible for them. And what I find interesting is that it's put out there often in these very vague, nebulous terms: “Can I recover? Can I heal?” What does that mean? What does that look like? And how can I answer that question? How can I peer into the future of this complete stranger and discern whether their future will be any better than their past? I don't know anything about them, so of course, I can't. And whether someone will recover or not depends on a lot of variables. It's not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. So I was always think, 'What is this person, right here, right now, what are they really asking me?' And sometimes I think they're looking for permission to recover. Like deep down they know it must be possible, but they don't know if they're allowed. Like, they're thinking, 'Is this my lot in life?', 'Is this what I deserve?', 'Is this as good as it gets?' And, of course, they deserve better than the sheer misery and hell that is life after trauma. Of course they do! But sometimes it's like they need to hear that from someone else. They need permission to be allowed to believe that things can get better. They need to know that it's okay to hope, without things automatically getting worse just because they're hoping. AS: Okay, how do you mean? CS: I mean, that often, when you've been abused, you've hoped for good things. You've hoped for the abuse to stop. You've hoped that tonight it won't happen. You've hoped that mummy will love you. You've hoped that you won't get into trouble. And then that hasn't happened. And so it's hard to keep a hold of hope when it's continually being dashed. You live off disappointment. And so it's a natural thing, when that happens a lot, it’s a natural thing for us to protect ourselves from the hurt and the emotional turmoil of that, by stopping hoping. We close down, and we resign ourselves to bad stuff. And so when someone asks me, 'Can I heal?' sometimes they're not asking, 'Is it technically possible?' because they've often read what I've written and know that I'll say yes, it is possible – and actually, in my writing, I try to show how as well. It's not just some nebulous dream – I always want to show how we recover, not just if we can recover. So, beneath their words, often they're not asking if they can recover, if they can heal. They're actually asking, 'Is it okay for me to heal? Or if I hope for that, will I be disappointed?' Or, worse still, 'If I hope for good things, will I get bad things instead?' Because, again, that's what we experienced during the abuse. We hoped for good things, and often part of the grooming was to give us sweets and treats and rewards, in exchange for bad things. So, hoping for good things, we've figured, often leads to bad things. Now, technically speaking, in abuse, bad things are associated with good things. They're correlated. But they're not causal. Hoping not to be abused didn't actually cause us to be abused. Hoping that the abuse would stop didn't cause it to continue. But the thing is that we were children at the time, and children employ something called 'magical thinking'. They confuse two things happening at the same time as meaning that the one thing caused the other. This is endemic to our way of thinking as children, and it takes a lot of processing, of mentalising and reframing and higher brain functioning stuff, to deal with that. AS: And that's part of the recovery process? CS: Yes, absolutely. It's as if our brains, our way of thinking about the world, were frozen in time, and we carry with us from the time of the abuse these deep-seated beliefs about why it happened, how it happened. We think it was our fault. We think we were responsible. We think we deserved it. Because a child has a very limited way of making sense of the world around them, especially without an adult to help them process what's happening to them. And so those beliefs get frozen in place, as it were. And in therapy or through our own reading and thinking and processing, we need to thaw those beliefs out and see if they actually fit the facts from an adult perspective. AS: How does hoping, or not hoping, fit into this? CS: When we were children and bad stuff was happening, all we could do was hope that it would get better, because we had no control over it. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, that we could do about it, because we were powerless. And it didn't get better. S, our hoping was futile. So therefore we flipped to the opposite instead. We stopped hoping. Because then at least we weren't disappointed. And that's where we got stuck, and often that's where we're still at now. We don't know if it's okay to hope that things can get better. But when we talk about recovery now, it's not about hoping that we can recover. You know – 'maybe one day, I'll be able to recover'. That's still powerless. That's still coming from that place of the abused child who could do nothing to affect their destiny. But now – now things are different for us, because we're adults, and we can influence the course of our future, however much we think, based on prior experience, that we can't. AS: And so recovery stops being something that we just hope for? CS: Yes, it becomes much more concrete than that. It’s something that we plan for. It becomes something that we effect. Because I believe that recovery consists of a series of steps – things that we actually do, to develop the skills we need and to make the changes we need to make, in the way that our brain and our nervous system responds to the world. And it CAN be done. As children, we couldn't do anything other than hope, or not hope. But now as adults, we have more resources at our disposal. So it stops being about passive hoping, or passive hopelessness. It becomes active. Recovery becomes an active process that we can bring about, that we can do something about. It's no different, as an analogy, as long as you don't have a physical disease process, it's no different from Couch to 5K – from getting fit. Right here, right now, I cannot run 5k. And if I sit on the couch and I say, "I hope one day I'll be able to run 5K" and that's all I do – in other words, if I don't make a plan and then execute it – then obviously in a year's time I'll still be sitting on the couch and still not be able to run 5K. AS: Aha! That's where I've been going wrong! CS: Ha! Yeah, me too! But seriously, we can't judge our ability in the future on our ability in the present. We can't say, "I'll never able to run 5K, because I cannot run 5K now." Obviously, that negates potential – the possibility of growth. And my belief in recovery is based on the way the universe is wired, universal laws if you like – that it's always growing. So, the cells in my body are growing and multiplying, the grass in my garden is growing, the hair on my head is growing. Where there's life, there's growth. It's how life works. Life never stays the same. It's always growing, always changing. So if I'm alive, I can grow. If there's the possibility of growth, there's potential. And so just because I can't run 5K today, doesn't mean to say that I never will. I have potential. Just because you haven't recovered from trauma today, doesn't mean to say you never will. You have potential. You just haven't built up the stamina, the endurance, the strength, the skills, psychologically, to deal with it yet. But you can. And you will – if you have a plan. So the question, 'Can I recover?' to me has an obvious answer: 'Yes'. Do you have permission to recover? Again – yes. Will you recover? Well, that depends if you have a plan. AS: Sometimes, people suggest that people don't recover because they don't want to. What do you think to that? CS: I think that that always sounds very harsh. I think it suggests that people are sitting in a puddle of misery and that it's all their own fault, because they don't want to get out of it. I really don't think it's as simple as that, and I think it's the entirely wrong way of looking at it. Firstly, a really important point, is that people didn't choose to be traumatised in the first place. People didn't choose to be abused or neglected. All of that wasn't in our control. So let's get our perspective straight on this: the reason people are in a puddle of suffering is not their fault. And as soon as we start saying that it's because they're choosing to suffer, we've got it entirely the wrong way around. That they a
27 minutes | Mar 18, 2019
Podcast: #6 – The therapeutic relationship
Join Carolyn as she talks about how important the relationship between therapist and client is, and what factors go into making a good one.
30 minutes | Feb 18, 2019
Podcast: #5 – Learning to enjoy life
Join Carolyn as she talks about how important she found it to discover who she was as an individual, rather than as someone trying to simply 'fit in'.
29 minutes | Jan 14, 2019
Podcast: #4 – Trauma is feeling unsafe
Carolyn talks about the most important things to focus on for survivors at the start of their journey of recovery. Transcript AS: Hi there. I’m Andy Stephens and this is our podcast ‘Conversations with Carolyn’. I’m here with Carolyn Spring. CS: Hello. AS: So, Carolyn, for a survivor who’s just at the beginning of their journey of recovery, what would you say are the most important things to focus on? CS: The practical details of that are going to be different for each individual, depending on their circumstances, but I think there are some overarching principles which I’ve found to be really important. The first is that they have hope for recovery. Our beliefs influence our behaviours massively. If we don’t really think we can recover, if we don’t think life can be better, if we don’t think we can learn to manage and eventually overcome our symptoms, then we’re not going to put the effort into doing the things that will bring that about. An example, like I’ve used before, is that of playing the piano. When I was a child, I was repeatedly told that I wasn’t musical. My sister, on the other hand, was. She had recorder lessons and clarinet lessons. I was told that I didn’t have a musical bone in my body. I didn’t have any music lessons, and at school it was the one subject that I didn’t put any effort into. Because, after all, what was the point? I wasn’t musical, so it would have been wasted effort. AS: You thought you weren’t any good at music, so you didn’t bother trying? CS: That’s right. But of course now I see that as part of what Carol Dweck calls the fixed mindset, and it’s massively influential. If we don’t believe we can do something, we won’t put the effort into developing the skills that mean that we learn to do it. And the same is true for recovery. If we don’t believe we can recover, we won’t persevere in finding ways to manage our emotions, and control our switching, and resolve the trauma. Because what’s the point? We can’t do it. And we prove to ourselves that we can’t do it by our lack of control, our lack of skill to do it. That’s like me as a child saying, “Obviously I’m not musical, because look – I can’t play a musical instrument.” But if I’d had music lessons things might have been very different … AS: So, if you’re on this recovery journey, it’s vital that you believe that you can recover? CS: Yes. Don’t judge your potential for musicality by your inability to play the piano right now. If you have lessons, if you practice, if you keep working at it, you will learn to play the piano. AS: But surely there are some people who are just more naturally gifted than others at things like music, aren’t there? Is that the same for recovery? CS: Well, actually, the research isn’t that clear on innate ability. It’s an assumption that we have. But if you read the work of people like Anders Ericsson and Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth, you’ll find that actually it’s the people who put the effort in who get the results – not natural geniuses. And anyway, I think it’s a bit of a moot point. Because we’re not talking about becoming a Mozart. We’re talking about being able to play. We’re not talking about people’s lives being so transformed that they become peak performers – although I’d still maintain that that’s possible – we’re talking about people not being crippled by suffering any more. So it’s imperative that we don’t think, “I can’t recover and the proof is that I haven’t recovered”. I think we always have to add the word “yet”: “I haven’t recovered yet. I can’t play the piano yet. I can’t manage my flashbacks yet. I haven’t processed and dealt with my trauma yet.” The word ‘yet’ has got to be one of my favourite words in the dictionary because it speaks of possibilities! And when we’re recovering from trauma, our focus needs to be on the possibilities. AS: So what you focus on you’re more likely to achieve? CS: That’s exactly it. And because of trauma, our focus is on danger. Our focus is on what might go wrong, not what might go right. Our focus is on how people might hurt us, not how they might help us. It’s on what we got wrong, not what we got right. It’s on pain, not joy; danger, not daily life. This is at the core of what it means to be traumatised: the brain has been rewired to focus on keeping us safe, rather than exploring and conquering the world. And to adapt to a non-dangerous environment – a safe world, a non-traumatic world – we have to get our brains to change their focus. The pessimistic, negative, fearful focus is entirely appropriate in a dangerous environment. A marine walking through Helmand Province wouldn’t last very long if they weren’t looking out for IEDs or snipers. It’s absolutely right that their focus is on the negative. But when they come back home to their family, they’ve got to somehow shift that focus back onto love and joy and relaxation and social engagement. That inability to shift focus again is the hallmark of PTSD. AS: So being traumatised is about changes that have gone on in the brain to adapt us to a life-threatening environment, not just upsetting events? CS: Yes, our traditional view of trauma is that it’s about being upset – that something bad happens, and we’re upset by it. We relate it to normally upsetting events and think it’s just a case of upscaling it: not just distressing, but very distressing. But that’s not really what trauma is all about. Trauma is qualitatively different, not just quantitively different. It’s a different kind of thing, not just more of the same thing. Trauma is much more about the adaptations our brains and bodies have made to growing up or living in a life-threatening environment. We’re focused on danger, not daily life. Our nervous systems are ready to respond at a moment’s notice to protect ourselves. Our front brains give way to our back brains. AS: That’s really interesting. So trauma isn’t just about being upset by an event, but it’s the way that body and brain adapts to cope with another traumatic event happening? CS: Yes, and that’s what I’d want survivors at the beginning of their journey to really grasp. Because a lot of the time, we beat ourselves up for not having ‘gotten over’ the trauma. That’s what a lot of people will say to us, directly or by inference: “Isn’t it about time you got over that? Put it behind you? Moved on with your life?” Because they think it’s about being upset about something and the longer that ‘upset’ goes on, the more they suspect that really we’re just being a bit pathetic about it, a bit self-indulgent, a bit narcissistic or self-pitying. AS: But you can’t just ‘get over it’, can you? CS: No! A hundred times a week I’d make the decision to ‘get over it’. I’d say to myself things like, “Right, enough is enough. Let’s move on. Let’s not think about it anymore. Let’s just get over this.” I was desperate not to be affected by it. So when people said to me, “You know, you just need to put it in the past”, I wished with all my heart that I could take their advice. I wanted nothing more than to be rid of it. I didn’t want to have this pounding heart in my chest all the time, to have crazy, racing thoughts, to dissociate or switch at the slightest hint of stress, to have out-of-control emotions, to suffer flashbacks and nightmares. If I could have just ‘gotten over it’ I would have done! But what I didn’t realise was that I needed to shift the focus of my brain from danger to daily life, and I needed to reset my nervous system. There were actual psychological and physical changes that had to happen. And you don’t do that just by making a decision to ‘put it in the past’. AS: So how do you do it? CS: The same way, fundamentally, that we learn any new behaviour or develop any new skill. If I want to learn the piano, I can’t just decide to be able to do it. That’s ridiculous. And yet that’s what a lot of people are asking trauma survivors to do. “Just be non-traumatised!” Of course it doesn’t work. But instead we need to set about learning skills and developing habits – growing new neural networks – to shift from danger mode to daily life mode. AS: How? In practical terms, what do you do? CS: I think the key concept in all of this is about learning how to feel safe. Most people wouldn’t think in terms of needing to learn how to feel safe. They just do feel safe. That’s their default. They don’t feel safe if they’re walking down a dark alley late at night. They don’t feel safe if they hear an intruder in the middle of the night. And that’s appropriate. But the rest of the time, their default is to feel safe. In trauma survivors, there is a fundamental inability to feel safe. It’s what Stephen Porges calls ‘faulty neuroception’. Neuroception is the way that we sense in our body and our mind if we’re safe or not. It’s that felt sense of safety or danger. It’s not just a cognitive thing – none of us feel safe just by thinking, “Oh, I’m safe here”. We feel safe or unsafe. It’s a visceral thing: we feel it in our guts. When we don’t feel safe, our heart rate increases. Our hearing sharpens. We go still. All sorts of things happen in our body to alert us to danger and then prepare us to respond to it, and mostly they happen outside of conscious awareness. AS: But trauma messes all that up? CS: Yes. When we’ve suffered trauma, the greatest imperative for our brain and body is to try to protect us from it happening again. We learn that lesson instinctively! It would be sheer folly to go through life having bad stuff happens and then not learn to try to avoid it again in the future. And that’s the impac
34 minutes | Dec 17, 2018
Podcast: #3 – Building skills
Recovery from trauma isn't about 'getting over' something upsetting. It often requires building skills for managing emotions. In this podcast, Carolyn explains the process.
13 minutes | Nov 19, 2018
Podcast: #2 – Recovery is possible
Is recovery possible? Carolyn Spring says it is … based not just on her own personal experience, but on the fact that it's how our bodies and brains are designed by default. Often when people don't recover, it's a problem with the therapy or the 'treatment', rather than a problem with a person. In this thought-provoking podcast, Carolyn brings hope for healing.
30 minutes | Oct 15, 2018
Podcast: #1 – Suicide
Carolyn Spring talks about suicide … her own experience of numerous suicide attempts, the hopelessness and sense of trappedness, and how she has recovered. Live training is no longer available. This course is now available online here, and free for a limited time. Transcript KC: My name is Kevin Cade and I started working for PODS in July this year as Technology and Development Manager. For this podcast, I’m going to be interviewing Carolyn Spring who will be talking about her new course ‘Dealing with Distress: Working with Suicide and Self-Harm.’ So, Carolyn, what’s your experience of suicide? CS: Hi there. Well, in reality, none at all. Because I’m still alive. And by saying that, I’m not joking or being facetious. I’m saying that I think it’s important that we recognise that what we know about suicide is by its very nature limited. And that there may well be a difference between people who go on to kill themselves, and those who engage in suicidal feelings and even actions, but do not actually end up dead – people like me. So, although I have got a long history of suicidality, and I’ve talked to a lot of people and I’ve done tonnes of reading and research, it may be that people who end up killing themselves are in some way qualitatively different from people like me. So, in everything I train on and everything I say, that’s my caveat. KC: Right, so you have a lot of knowledge about suicide, but I’m interested in your own personal experience. When did you first experience suicidal feelings? CS: It was a long time ago, but despite how long ago it was, I remember it distinctly. It was a Friday afternoon, possibly October or November, and I was, I think, 15 years old. It was a couple of months before I went down with chronic fatigue syndrome or ME as it’s also known. As a teenager, I had been super-sporty, very athletic, being involved in absolutely every sport I could, running on a morning, that type of thing – and then in the January I went to hockey practice after school as usual, as I did on a Monday. And I came home and fell asleep on the settee before dinner. And I didn’t really wake up. Not that day and not really for the next 9 months. I was completely bed-bound, absolutely exhausted, and in a lot of pain. I could only get around in a wheelchair because I was so exhausted. I was like that for about 3 years, all through my GCSE year and my A-levels. Anyway, it was a couple of months before that happened that there was this day which was in many respects a precursor to that… it was a Friday afternoon and I was at school in an English class. For some reason I remember the weather – it was threatening rain clouds but not yet any rain. And I remember that because that seemed to mirror my mood. I remember the class because we had been turfed out of the normal English class and we were in the physics laboratory for some reason. It’s strange the details you remember. And it was a lesson with my favourite teacher, Miss Barr. But it was on my least favourite aspect of English, which was poetry. And this dark cloud just seemed to be enveloping me and I felt like I’d fallen down, deep, deep down within myself. I felt utterly bereft and hopeless and empty and despairing. And I didn’t engage in that English lesson at all – and that was very unusual for me, because I was a proper geek and model student – because all I could think about in that lesson was how I wanted to die. It’s like I got wrapped up in those thoughts and fell down into a chasm deep within myself. KC: So, then what happened? CS: I can’t remember, really. I remember the teacher noticing my black mood and being concerned about me. And I know what was going on for me at that time in my life – it was the accumulation of nearly 15 years of abuse – that was what was driving the depression, the hopelessness and the desire for escape. KC: Escape seems to be a common theme for suicide. CS: That’s right, it is. You can’t really understand suicide unless you understand just how trapped you feel. You’re in this place of deep, deep pain, and it feels like there’s no way out. It feels like you don’t have a future. It feels unbearable, absolutely terrible. Like you’re in a tiny little prison cell within your own mind and, as I wrote at one point, you’re being tortured to death by your own emotion. That’s how I’ve described it elsewhere. It’s just a place of intolerable suffering. So, certainly for me it wasn’t about a cry for help, it wasn’t attention-seeking, I wasn’t being melodramatic, which is what we often get accused of. It was the unbearability of it. It was the sense that you’re in so much pain that it’s intolerable so you have to do something about it. But you don’t know what. It’s like all your options have just closed off. You can’t think of any options. And the only option that presents itself to your mind – what your mind gets fixated on – is suicide. Looking back now, it’s very clear that it was a kind of obsessional thinking for me. That my brain got a hold of this idea of suicide as an escape from this intolerable psychic pain and it just kept on obsessing about it. And there was some kind of comfort in that obsession. That it gave me some sense of control. So that I could manage the pain while I had the option to kill myself. Do you see what I mean? That actually thinking about suicide reduced the pain. And I think that’s what a lot of people don’t understand. They think that if you’re thinking about suicide it’s because you’ve decided to do it. But, actually, that’s not how I experienced it a lot of the time. I would think about suicide, the great escape, and it would actually decrease my distress at some level in the short term and make it a little bit more unbearable. KC: So, you weren’t actually intending to kill yourself; it was more about these obsessive thoughts. Did you see it that way at the time? CS: No, not really. That’s just me extrapolating backwards. At the time – and I can’t really explain this – it’s like you’re not thinking. Your brain is shut down. I go into the neuroscience behind this on my suicide course. And it bears up in my experience too, so it’s not just a piece of abstract science, but there’s a brain science explanation for what it felt like. When I was suicidal, I couldn’t think of anything else. Like, literally couldn’t. I guess there was an element of it being a bit of a dissociative experience, because I felt like I was lost within myself. Like I’d fallen down into a big hole. I think it’s called a ‘pit of despair’ for a reason, because there’s a real sense of falling down within yourself, being enclosed, and darkness. The metaphor is a really good description of the visceral experience I had. So, to answer your question, when I was thinking suicidal thoughts, I was absolutely serious. Because – and this is the point really – I was in unbearable emotional pain and suicide seemed like the only option. KC: Okay, so I’ve known you for a while, and I could say that you don’t appear suicidal. Is that because you’ve found more options? CS: Absolutely yes. It’s a long time now since I’ve been seriously suicidal. But that’s not to say – actually, this might surprise people – that’s not to say that I don’t have suicidal thoughts. I spent so much of my life from 15 years upwards obsessing and ruminating on suicide, that I think it became a habit. So, it’s not unusual for me to face a difficult situation and for those thoughts to pop into my head, it’s like a default response. I think the difference nowadays is that I don’t fight them and I don’t engage with them. I just acknowledge them. I know where they’re coming from. I know they’re trying to help me, I know those thoughts are trying to help me find a solution, to be rid of the pain. But I also know that I don’t want to choose that option, because although it’s effective – suicide is extremely effective at ending pain – it’s by far the worst option. I think it’s key, when you’re talking to a suicidal person, that you don’t rubbish it as an option. That you don’t tell them, “Suicide is NOT an option.” Because we know it is. Of course it is. It’ll always be an option. Telling someone it isn’t an option can increase their distress. There they are, in terrible pain, and it’s the only option they can think of right now to reduce that pain. And you tell them it’s not an option. What effect is that going to have? Surely, it’s going to increase the distress! I’m in all this pain and there is absolutely no way out. How does that do anything other than increase our sense of helplessness and hopelessness? I always found it much more helpful to be told that, yes, it’s an option. Suicide is always an option. But that it’s not the only option, and it’s by far the worst option. My recovery really was about discovering those other options for reducing my distress. And alongside that, what I really began to learn was that although suicide takes the pain away, it doesn’t eradicate it. It just passes it along. I’m in un
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