top of page

Complex Trauma Therapy as "Work" and "Change"

I'm going to say something controversial: I'm not in therapy to "do the work" and I'm not there to "change."

Don't get me wrong: I'm not perfect (possibly not even close...haha). I definitely need and strive to do all kinds of work on myself. I need to hold myself accountable and be held accountable. And I'm always seeking to change in ways that will improve myself, my life and my contributions to the world around me.

But that's not what my therapy is for.

Paradoxically, I'm also going to acknowledge that I'm a goal-oriented person who happens to do TONS of work in therapy. Also, therapy has improved both me as a person and my experience of life.

If the purpose of therapy were "change," mine would be a great success (an A+). I'm a better person because of it and my life is better because of it (even though I'm not "cured" or "fixed").

But those are side-benefits, incidental to the real purpose of therapy for me. Moreover, the reason therapy has been so beneficial in those measurable ways for me is that those are not the reasons for the therapy.

I'm going to express this very poorly (properly expressing it can be a task for future writing) but for me, therapy at its essence is about giving me access to something essential to which my access has long been denied or limited due to my repeated experiences of complex trauma: a particular way of experiencing myself and my history and possible future in a particular kind of connection with another human who can know, understand, and care about my fate (past, present and future).

It's a shared space where my basic humanity (life-force/unconditioned worth) is held with gentleness and care, nurtured and empowered, understood and appreciated. Its essence is not work or toil or labour or challenge or change--rather, for me it's about bringing light, warmth, softness and spaciousness to places that have been dark, cold, sharp-edged and fearfully compressed for far too long (I sometimes envision it as a healing ball of light that I can hold in my hands). Within that space, I can then decide (with input and suggestions from my therapist sometimes) how or if I wish to use that newfound sense of energy, safety, meaning and accompaniment/connectedness (these words don't adequately capture it--I'm straining to find the right ones).

Sometimes it's painful and challenging because difficult things are addressed there but since it unfolds in a context of care, empowerment and connection (in a truly trauma-informed way), it's very often something I enjoy: a healing spring I draw from and do with as I please (which may often include change and work, or may sometimes just involve rest and relishing the experience--the point is it's not bounded by those aims--it's something meaningful and helpful unto itself for me even if I never "do anything" with it).

In other words, for me, therapy is a particular kind of space within which I can situate whatever other parts of myself I choose to bring into it, including the parts of me that may wish to change. When I experience a potential interest in change within that space, I can invite my therapist into those tasks and he can make suggestions based on his own perspective and/or expertise but that's not the therapy for me. It's just something that happens sometimes within it.

Therapy for me is a context within which things like "change" and "work" may happen. But it doesn't cease being what it is or lose its value if no such changes occur. And it's the unconditioned nature of the healing space that for me makes so much change and improvement possible to arise from it. I can best change myself by having access to a space that isn't about changing myself.

This may sound like an unimportant distinction since I improve and change due to therapy anyway. So why not just embrace that and celebrate how I'm "doing the work" and "improving"?--Because it's very important to me that change and work not become the metrics of that healing space. Those metrics are destructive to the very nature of that space (for me).

Why? I can't articulate this fully now and fear the repercussions of failing to do justice to it, but for me my biggest fear when starting therapy was what if I don't heal? Do I still have any value then?

An incredibly re-traumatizing thought for me was/is: that the things that happened which damaged me may have stripped me of my inherent worth as a person such that if I can't "heal" enough from them and "change" myself enough then, even if I'm not harming others, I'll be regarded as a failure, unworthy of further care and accompaniment--an unwarranted drain of time, energy and resources. (something I'll unpack further in future writing)

And for me that wasn't an irrational fear. I have a substantial amount of complex trauma and I worked extremely hard to develop all kinds of "skills" before even beginning therapy to cope with it, but it kept catching up to me. More "skills" and "changes" can't be counted on to "fix" me. There is no guarantee that I will be ~"Healed!"~ in the foreseeable future.

Not everyone who has extensive complex trauma recovers even with expert help. I know that's an unpleasant thing for me to say, but I believe it needs to be acknowledged so those of us who live with that possibility can be included in these discussions. Moreover, I believe that it being acknowledged is necessary for some of us to have our best possible chance of "healing" in the ways that remain open for us and/or are most meaningful for us.

I believe there is hope for people. I believe "healing" can happen, but it's not guaranteed in any particular way. Not only because the trauma we carry within us may end up genuinely being too much for us through no fault of our own even if we do all "~the work~." But also because life keeps happening. We may face new challenges as we age. The complex trauma we've already endured and/or the conditions that made us so vulnerable to it in the first place (e.g., oppressive structures disproportionately affecting some people) can also (so damn unfairly) put us at much higher risk of other challenges (e.g., physical health, material deprivation, discrimination) that can't simply be therapized away.

Even if we "change," further things can happen which may re-activate older "healed" traumas or impair their healing. Or, in service of our own sense of meaning and community, we for our own good reasons may not choose an "easy" path. The life that is most meaningful for us may not coincide with the one a therapist whose only metric is us getting better and moving on would try to steer us towards. We may have higher order goals--like fighting for a cause or serving our communities--that involve continuing to expose ourselves to some further risk and harm for the sake of what's important and meaningful for us, because sometimes that's part of the human condition.

There's ableism, coercion and a related toxic positivity within the mental health field that often suggests that if there isn't an objectively measurable form of improvement then a treatment intervention isn't warranted. But IMO we all deserve (if we wish it) to be accompanied in coping with our trauma. We deserve light, warmth and softness in our darkest, coldest, sharpest-edged parts of ourselves and our experiences. If suffering is something we end up having to bear, we deserve to be able to bear that in a space that holds it with gentleness and care, with someone who has expertise and understanding of the sorts of things we have been through and the challenges we face because of them.

So, for me, my ability to settle safely into the healing therapy space was always rooted in the separation of that space from those kinds of metrics (change and work happen there but the worth of the space and the way I'm held within it are not conditioned by them). It's essential for me to know that I'm still welcome there if I never "heal," "change" or "work." It's my space to enjoy as I see fit. And sometimes that's all I do: enjoy it. Which may not sound like a lot but for someone whose trauma often robs me of a sense of any enjoyment, having a space like that can be life-saving.

Even when goals are relevant to the space, often what I need is more akin to exploration or "play" in service of those potential goals, holding everything loosely and sometimes with levity. In a radically collaborative setting in which I feel truly safe and valued in an unconditional way, my therapist and I can explore together in a way that often doesn't resemble "work" at all (or at least for which work is often a poor descriptor) and yet it has all the benefits and more of "work" for me.

Fortunately, this happens to be the intervention that creates the best conditions for me to potentially "change" and "do work" (when needed) precisely because that's neither expected nor demanded of me. Knowing that, I can safely set out collaboratively with my therapist to make all kinds of plans and strategies: safe in the knowledge that if those plans collapse or meet unexpected challenges, that space is still there for me.

I'm not saying my experience of therapy is the only valid one. In fact, I'm quite certain it's not. For some people, change and work and all the metrics and sports metaphors that may accompany them are absolutely the right focus of therapy. Not everyone's issue is complex trauma similar to mine. Not everyone has the same needs or wishes. But I need there to be allowances within the discourse for therapy spaces and experiences like mine, because for me it's been essential for my healing.

And of course, there are some obvious caveats: (1) this works for me only because I have a therapist who is a very good match for me and for holding open this kind of space with me (which is not an easy task to do safely and collaboratively--it requires a humble and skilled therapist). (2) This is available to me because I have the privilege of access to long-term therapy. When only short-term therapy is available or desired, there may be very good reasons to prefer a very targeted goals-focussed approach, which may benefit many people in many different circumstances. But that kind of therapy would not only fail to help me, it would have been retraumatizing and harmful, which is why there needs to be room for different approaches.

This was only a very brief outline of my views. It has necessary implications for how therapy discourse tends to demonize and devalue in a very caricatured way the concept of "dependence," something I plan to write about in the future (Preview: all humans are "dependent" in all kinds of ways. Dependence isn't necessarily bad. Like anything else, how we may validly want or need to be "dependent" may vary with different circumstances and there should be no one-size fits all attitude or approach to it. And a lot of ableism and condescension underpin the prevailing attitudes about dependence. which isn't to say that dependence can't be abused or wrongfully imposed or that it doesn't warrant ongoing consideration about whether and to what extent it's right for us in any given context....but that's all for another day...)

Below are some relevant AI generated images I created on this topic:

554 views0 comments


bottom of page