Rebecca: This is the All Relationships Can Heal Podcast. My name is Rebecca Thompson Hitt and we are continuing our conversation today about what healing looks like in parents and in families. My guest today is Dr. Robert T Muller. He is the author of the book, Trauma and the Struggle to Open Up: From Avoidance to Recovery and Growth. Because where there has been a trauma or something that is completely overwhelming for us, healing is critically important to us to help us come back into wholeness and connection. Robert Muller, PhD, trained at Harvard, is on faculty at the University of Massachusetts and is currently at York University in Toronto. Dr. Muller is a fellow at the International Society of Trauma and Dissociation, or ISSTD, for his work on trauma treatment. His new book is Trauma and the Struggle to Open Up and his best seller, Trauma and the Avoidant Client, has been translated widely and received the ISSTD award for best work on trauma. As a lead investigator on several multi-site programs to treat interpersonal trauma, Dr. Mueller has lectured Internationally in Australia, UK, Europe, and USA and has been keynote speaker at mental health conferences in New Zealand and Canada. He founded an online magazine, Trauma and the Mental Health Report, which is now visited by over 100,000 per year. With over 25 years in the field, he practices in Toronto.
We will continue now with our discussion with Robert T Muller about the essential ingredients of healing.
Rebecca: But let’s shift back to healing and what are the essential ingredients for healing? Because we’ve acknowledged that these things have happened and we’re seeing them and they’re showing up in our lives. What do we do with them? How do we heal? How do we move forward, not in a dismissive ‘alright that’s over’ kind of way, but in a way that helps us move more into wholeness?
Dr. Robert Muller: So, there are many ways that people heal from, are we talking about healing from trauma or different kinds of overwhelming life events?
Dr. Robert Muller: And there are different ways that people heal. And of course, psychotherapy is an important way for people getting better. When psychotherapy is done well in trauma, it has to be with a therapist who is what’s called ‘trauma-informed.’ That means that the person has done some work in the field and understands a little bit about the consequences of these life experiences on people. So, training is important, and a trauma-informed therapist is very important. And when it’s done well, when psychotherapy is done well, it’s relational in nature. And what does that mean that it’s relational? We talk about a healing relationship. People can improve a lot through doing readings but where people improve a lot in therapy is when they have a relationship where they feel safe and they can trust the therapist. And it’s a two-way street. They feel that their therapist isn’t judging them. They feel that their therapist is being honest with them. They feel that their therapist isn’t minimizing their experience that the therapist is validating their experience. That their therapist gets it. And so that idea is important and that’s relational and if it’s not relational, if it’s just sort of transmitting some knowledge to the person, that can be helpful, but it’s limited. There’s only so far that that will go.
Having said that, there are other ways that people also can get the benefit and can improve. And even if people aren’t in psychotherapy, how can people benefit? It is, in fact, helpful for people to do readings about trauma and there are better and worse trauma books. And so, in my books, both, I do have several books that I refer to and if people email me, I’m certainly happy to give other resources for folks. But there are some good books on trauma recovery that can help people understand the process of recovery. And so, psychoeducation, becoming informed about trauma, learning about it, learning what our triggers are, learning self-regulation strategies. ‘So, I get overwhelmed emotionally. What do I do about it? How do I deal with it?’ Learning practices such as yoga in response to trauma can also be helpful.
So, psychoeducation is helpful with healing from trauma. And then body techniques can be very helpful in healing from trauma. So, there are some good, trauma-informed yoga strategies for people. This is even for people who don’t yet feel comfortable telling their stories. So, they’re like, “Okay. I know something bad happened to me. I know a lot of stuff went down. I need to find some ways to just relax, to chill. Well, trauma-informed yoga can be very helpful for people like that. So, they don’t necessarily need to go into details about their story. They can get some strategies through trauma-informed yoga. Self-defense strategies can be helpful. Back in the day about 10 years ago, 20 years ago when people doing trauma work, there used to be a lot more awareness of the importance of martial arts in trauma recovery.
I still think martial arts in trauma recovery is super helpful. it teaches connection to our body. It teaches discipline. It teaches that our body can be our friend, that we can love our bodies and that can be okay, that can be helpful. It also teaches self-confidence. So, I advocate for a re-emergence. I suggest that people go back to doing martial arts in response to trauma. Rape survivors, there was a time when they were doing a lot of this and for some reason, it’s gone. I don’t hear a lot about it, but is helpful. Those are some things that people can do. And like I mentioned in therapy, relational approaches are important. And I answered your question in some narrow way. I’m not sure if it answers the broader question. But anyway, we’ll start with that.
Rebecca: I see in my work the critical importance of helping people to connect with their bodies. There’s so much about trauma that disconnects us, it fragments us and so many of the people that I have worked with have the disconnection from themselves. And for some people, it’s very difficult to connect with their bodies and finding a modality that works for them. I love the martial arts suggestion. I love that because that may feel a lot safer for somebody because for some people slowing down is triggering.
Dr. Robert Muller: Right, exactly, that’s true. And so that’s why I do–, for people who really struggle with yoga, something more active, like martial arts, helps them connect to their body and yet it’s very action-oriented. And for some people, that’s where they need to go, and it gives them a sense of confidence. The broader question around healing is an important one though, too. What is it about therapy that helps people heal? In psychotherapy, it’s in the context of the healing relationship.
The other important piece in psychotherapy that really I think brings people a sense of healing is finding a way to tell a story about their lives that they can connect to. And very often when people have been through traumatic events, they don’t even know how to start telling their own story. In fact, they will often get people saying to me, “I’m here in therapy because my girlfriend says I need therapy.” I said then, “Okay, well why does your girlfriend think you need therapy?”
“Well, I told her a little bit about my dad and I don’t know. She thinks I need therapy.” “Okay. What are some of your ideas about why your girlfriend thinks that?” “Well, she thinks that I’ve been through physical abuse,” and that’s a place to start. The person sort of, well yes, she thinks this, I’m not sure, blah, blah, blah. That’s where we’re starting. This person really has a hard time talking about it, let’s say and that’s where we’re starting. That’s where we’re starting. And at some point, as we start to work together, they can start to connect to what that actually means to them.
They may agree, or they may disagree with your girlfriend at the end. I don’t know. I’m not here to try to convince them that their girlfriend is right or whatever. But obviously the person’s there because there’s at least a part of them, remember I talked about parts of self, there’s a part of them that recognize that their girlfriend probably has a good point and there’s something going on. And what that’s something is, well let’s try to figure that out, so that’s where we start. Where that’s something is.
Dr. Robert Muller: There’s usually vulnerability. There’s usually something that they’re struggling with. There’s usually some kind of relational issue that we need to work on and try to figure out. And where we often come to, is helping them find a way to tell whatever their story is. And that’s their own personal story, the story of their life, the story of how they ended up the way they are and the story of some of their struggles. So part of therapy is finding a way to tell our own story and we don’t know as a therapist what that person’s story is going to be. It’s not up to us to decide. It’s up to them to decide, but we just help them along in that process. So now I think a lot of what healing is.
Rebecca: Yes, it’s just I’m sitting here listening to, and I’m remembering my own beginning of my own healing journey. And I had decided I was going to write, I was going to write my story. I was going to write down, and I sat with my pen in my hand and I had no idea what to write. I had no idea where to start and I did end up in therapy. We teased out the story, but I want it just validate that that’s such a critical place to get to that point where you say there’s something. I don’t necessarily have words, I can’t necessarily say, oh, it was this or this is what’s coming up, but something doesn’t feel right and I need to do something. For me it was my neighbor, my neighbor said maybe therapy would be a good idea.
Dr. Robert Muller: Okay.
Rebecca: So I’m just–, because I think that we all have these moments where we realize there’s something here, there’s something that needs exploring, but we don’t yet have the words. We don’t know where we’re going, we don’t know where the story is going and we need somebody to help us ask the questions so that we can start seeing our story. We can start seeing what’s showing up for us at this moment because it’s in this moment. The story is showing up right now.
Dr. Robert Muller: Exactly, exactly and for me personally, when I was in graduate school, that’s when I realized that it would be really good for me to be in therapy. My girlfriend at the time broke up with me and I felt this overwhelming abandonment that just felt like the world was going to fall apart. And it was in therapy and I didn’t, I mean I had a suspicion, but I didn’t know exactly where this was going to go.
But where it ended up going is talking about some of the emotional abandonments that I had as a kid and some of the struggles I had in relationship to my relationship with my father. And some of the ways in which we struggled so much when I was a kid. Remember his father was killed in the Holocaust and he didn’t really know how to be a dad. He just–, he was trying to make it up and he was doing the best he could but, the struggled with how to be a dad.
And I struggled with what it was like to grow up with him not knowing how to kind of, what he was doing until he kind of figured it out. And so it was really helpful for me to realize that through the process of my therapist, I didn’t know that’s what it was going to go. I didn’t, I didn’t know, and it’s something that we kind of discover as we walk along in therapy.
Female: Yes, I think it’s showing up with curiosity about your own story. We don’t know where this is going. It’s like a–, it’s like a book that you’re starting to read and you don’t know where they’re going with this, but it’s yours. It’s your story.
Dr. Robert Muller: Right, right, right, right, exactly. And you have the–, I tell people with trauma, sometimes people wonder, like this metaphor of the book is a very helpful metaphor. That trauma is a chapter in your book, but it’s not the book of your life. And it shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t be the story of Jessica, how I was raped or whatever. That shouldn’t be your story. I mean that’s a chapter and it’s a very important chapter and it may be a chapter that affects all the remaining chapters. But all those remaining chapters, well there are several that have been written since the event or events and there’s a whole bunch of chapters left to write and we will see how those get written.
And you know what; you have some power over how those chapters get written. And so then we can sort of, think of trauma as a very important chapter in the person’s life is very, very important. And like I say one that will affect all the other ones, but it’s not the only chapter. And so we come to a place when we go through good trauma therapy, where we learn to live alongside the trauma. It is part of who we are, but it’s not all of who we are; Its part of our identity.
Rebecca: Right, I know one of the things that happen in trauma is that it’s disempowering and there is this piece of if we can rewrite that story that’s empowering. We aren’t stuck with this chapter that’s going to bleed into all of the others and that’s just our life. It’s a chapter. We need to understand it. We need to see how it’s impacting us, and we get to rewrite it. We get to rewrite the next chapters. We get to make this different for ourselves.
Dr. Robert Muller: Yeah, yeah, and exactly. It can be very empowering to realize that it’s not all of your story and that you can make changes in your life. And that those changes will be a difference that actually makes a difference for you and how you feel about the world and your place in it. So, yeah, yeah.
I’m Rebecca Thompson Hitt and this is the All Relationships Can Heal Podcast. We’ve been speaking with our guest, Dr. Robert T Muller author of Trauma and the Struggle to Open Up. We’ll be back again tomorrow for our final episode with Dr. Muller about vulnerability, family secrets and learning to live alongside our trauma because we “can’t amputate our story.”