Episode 9 – Finding Compassion for Ourselves and Our Own Stories with guest Dr. Robert T. Muller


Rebecca: We are beginning our series, “All Relationships Can Heal” with healing your relationship with yourself. Today we are going to be talking about trauma, triggers, validation, and vulnerability, and we are very lucky to have with us today 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 to us, healing is critically important to us to help us come back into wholeness.  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. Muller 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.  So welcome, welcome, welcome Doctor Muller.

Dr. Robert Muller:  Hello, hello, hello. Thanks so much, I am really glad to be here. Oh, I really appreciate it. 

Rebecca: I have just spent the last month or so reading your new book and I love the way you have woven together your own personal story and your family history and the work that you do with clients. You have such a lovely way of being with someone’s story and being with your own story. And understanding your own journey and how that impacts the people you are sitting with.

Dr. Robert Muller: Thank you! Oh, that is really nice to hear. It was important for me to bring in aspects of my own story, particularly because I think everybody has been through something that they can connect to around this issue of trauma and I wanted to be honest and transparent about what made me interested in the field. So, it was important to me to try to connect it.

Rebecca: Yes, absolutely, and it weaves together this incredible story because it is not about someone over there.  This is about all of our stories in one way or another. 

Dr. Robert Muller: Thank you, thank you, yes. I do talk in the book, and maybe we will get to it today about what did bring me into this field.

Rebecca: Actually, that is where I would love to start. Trauma is a big field and for some people it’s like oh gosh, trauma… We are going to talk about the bad things, we are going to talk about the scary things that happen, what got you interested in it? 

Dr. Robert Muller: Okay, I am happy to start with that. When I started in the field, I did not realize that the thing that brought me in had brought me in. In other words, I got into it because I really thought it was an interesting field, a lot of research. And I had a really interesting Professor that kind of inspired me, and that’s what I would have said had you asked me that question 15 years ago. (That was) somewhere in my early forties. So I was already doing this work when I finally realized what I thought got me into it was not what really got me into it. And I started having more conversations with my parents about their past and I started having more conversations with them particularly about the Holocaust. And I realized at some point, what really got me into this field, was their history and the history that my taking in their history and connecting to it. And so specifically my parents, as I talk a little bit about in the book, (My) parents were children during the Holocaust. Oh, my mom was about six or seven and my dad was about 10. My dad’s father was killed, my mother’s parents were not killed, but they both experienced many months of being very, very frightened. My mom was hidden, separated from her parents. It made sense to do that because they wanted to hedge their bets by separating the children and having them be with Christian families. It would be more likely that they would survive. That was my mom’s parents’ strategy. And my dad’s father was taken away and he was abandoned essentially and taken into the care of his uncle. Essentially, it was because of Christian relatives that my parents survived. I am Jewish, my parents are Jewish, and they were very close to getting killed at several points in their childhoods.  After the war, my father, having lost his father because of the Holocaust, he had to go and start working and become the man of the house at only 10 years old. He started working and making money because there was not enough money. And so between my father’s mother’s salary and my father’s salary at aged 14 when he started working as an upholsterer, that is how they survived in Soviet Hungary after the war.  I talked about this in the book, my parents essentially, I think to a large extent, lost their childhoods, to experiences that I would consider to be very traumatic, cultural trauma, family genocide, cultural genocide. Both of my parents experienced that. I grew up with lots of stories about the Holocaust. Many people in my family did not have stories about the Holocaust because their parents did not want to talk about it. So, this idea of how people deal with their story of loss, cultural loss, family loss. Some families talk about their stories and some families hide their stories, sweep it under the rug as a way of coping. Those issues were really relevant in my life ever since I was a kid. But I did not realize until about 15 years ago that these stories had such an impact on me, and so that’s what really kind of brought me into the field of loss, trauma, dealing with people’s loss, finding a way to talk about it .

Rebecca: I think that is so important, and that is a theme I saw throughout your book. We have to talk about these things, there are so many things, and I see that with the people that I work with, that there are so many things that are difficult to talk about. And that in our families (when) we do not talk about the stories then they take on a life of their own and we really don’t understand the impact of not talking about it.

Dr. Robert Muller: Exactly, exactly. Now, for many people, it is very hard to talk about it so it is easy to understand. I certainly don’t want anybody to feel blamed if they cannot. I think people do not talk about these traumatic events because it is a way of coping. If they had a language for it, if they had a way of dealing with it, I think they would. But they try offering to engage in these coping strategies as a way to avoid it because it is so scary, so it is their way of dealing with it. But what we find from research is that if you can help people find a way to connect to their stories, that their families do better. Research on family story shows that in families where they can actually tell stories about their past and parents can talk to their kids about stuff that happened to them, even if it is  traumatic event, but tough stuff they have been through, that their kids find it so much easier to talk to their parents. There is a kind of vulnerability that the parents demonstrate so that kids feel opens the door for them. Family storytelling can be a very good vehicle to be able to form family connections. And there’s a lot of good research about this. I forgot the name of the researcher that I site in the book, but there have been a few studies that have looked at family storytelling and how helpful it is to families to be able to cope with difficult events. Losses and different developmental transitions and things like that.

Rebecca: So, let’s talk a little bit because you’re touching on, again, the idea of trauma and that there are sometimes really big events, which we can often all agree that ‘this was traumatic. This was a loss. This was difficult.‘ And then there are these other things that happen to and we’re talking about all of them. So, can you expand a little bit on that idea of traumas or just things that are difficult even and that we might get stuck somewhere? 

Dr. Robert Muller: Sure. So, in the field, there’s a lot of discussion about defining ‘what’s post-traumatic stress disorder? PTSD? What’s trauma and what’s extreme stress?’ And a little bit of these debates is kind of arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. In other words, some of it is just language. But I think when we talk about trauma; we talk about a response to an extreme life situation. And people respond to extreme life events in different ways. Some people respond by being able to deal with it, by being able to manage through those situations and they’re not permanently affected. Other people are permanently affected.

And it’s not that some people are better than others. But we all have different vulnerabilities. Some of these vulnerabilities are genetic. Some of these vulnerabilities are strengths that our families bring us. So, people who have lower self-esteem, people who have had families where there’s been a lot of mental illness. They have a lot more difficulty coping with extremely stressful events. Others who have had more resources, who have been privileged enough to have families where parents have been able to talk with them or were they have you no better opportunity for good self-esteem because of positive messages that they’ve had from childhood onwards, those individuals are have a greater likelihood of being a little bit more resilient. And even in the face of extreme stress are less likely to develop full-blown PTSD.

And so, different people respond to extreme stress in different ways. And again, whether we talk about something being a traumatic. What’s important is to take an inventory of what your response is to the extremely stressful and difficult life events that you’ve been through and to try to be honest with yourself and to find people to talk about those events with.

Rebecca: So, let’s talk a little bit because I think many times when someone brings up this idea that there’s something difficult that happened, that there was a trauma, we discount the distressing things or something that may be distressing to us. And it doesn’t matter whether it was, you know, the Holocaust or whether it was the way that your dad looked at you when you didn’t do something you were supposed to do. It can create this distress in you.

Dr. Robert Muller: So, different people respond to highly stressful events in very different ways. And what’s important is that we recognize that when people work with trauma survivors or when people have had loved ones who have had traumatic events that they recognize that, to a large extent, it’s subjective. If people have experienced overwhelming life events, and they have an extreme reaction to it we don’t want to judge people on that basis. In the book I talk about, and I’m not sure if this is what you’re alluding to Rebecca, but in the book I talk about a case of somebody whose dog passed away and I talk in the book a little bit about how I struggled as a therapist with how to react to this person initially because this person had this much more extreme traumatic event where their father had killed himself.

Now, I don’t want to minimize the extremity of someone’s father committing dying by suicide. It’s an extremely serious event. But when this person came in to see me for therapy, that’s not where they were at. That’s not what was on their minds. And I kept wanting to turn it back to connecting to the loss of their father. What I had to do initially… we eventually did get to in therapy, we got to the issue of the loss of their father and that was fine, and we did good work. But what I had to do as a therapist was meet them where they were at, which is that they were grieving the loss of their beloved pet. And they were having nightmares about the loss of their pet. They felt guilty about the loss of their pet. They loved their dog. They felt that their dog loved them in a way that nobody else could. Nobody else gave them unconditional love the way their dog did. And until I was able to sit with that and connect with them around that, I wasn’t able to do good work with them.

So that’s an important lesson for me, to take the person’s suffering seriously. So that when people go through what they subjectively experience as a traumatic event, we have to take their suffering seriously, not prejudge it and say “well this doesn’t count because it wasn’t sexual abuse or it wasn’t physical abuse” or something else that we put into the box of abuse or trauma. We have to understand the people’s traumatic events can vary depending on their own subjective reaction.

Rebecca: And I think about how many people I work with who judge themselves right there. As that story unfolded as you described it in the book, the woman was judging herself because, “Wait. why am I having such a hard time with this? Everyone around me thinks I should be over it.” And so, there is this place where we judge ourselves saying, “I should be over this. Why am I still struggling with this?” After the birth of my first child, I had pieces of my birth that I kept going back to and they weren’t even things that happened. They were things that could have happened just in the circumstances.

And I struggled with them. I was in so much distress. And I kept saying, “Why am I struggling with this? It’s over. Why can’t I just move on?” And it wasn’t until I could accept that this is where I was, that this is what was coming up for me and be with it that I could move through it.

Dr. Robert Muller: That’s such an important point. People will judge themselves, people will engage in this kind of self-blame. They’ll do self-invalidation. So, we talked about how validating people’s trauma is important in therapy, but what if the person invalidates themselves and they say, “I don’t deserve help” or “I was a wimp. I shouldn’t be whining about what happened to me” or that sort of thing. People will blame themselves. They will act as if they should be over it by now. And people get over these things at different rates and we can’t tell people you should get over it.  I had a client, a different client, whose son died by suicide and after six months people were telling her, “Well listen. It was a long time ago.”

And I said to her, “Your son was 22. You adored him. You had a good relationship with him. Six months is a drop in the bucket.” When someone loses a child, we can’t say what’s the right amount of time or what’s the wrong amount of time for someone to deal with their loss. It varies from person to person. And I like the example you gave about how women respond in a postpartum way to the birth of the child. I’m a male, but I can say that my wife and I can kind of relate, standing on the sidelines of what she experienced and conversations she and I have had together after the birth of our kids.

So, we have identical twin boys and it was a high-risk pregnancy. And so, she had all these ideas. She’s a psychiatrist and had all these ideas about exactly how the birth was going to go. And she struggled afterward with a lot of self-blame. And she talked about with me this idea that she felt that there was this, kind of female macho idea that if you’re the right kind of woman. Again, I’m speaking as a man, so I’m not trying to speak for women. I’ll just say that this how she conveyed this, and this is how I sort of understood it.

What she was telling me was there is this idea that many women feel, “I’m supposed to give birth in exactly the right kind of way and I imagine that this is how it’s going to go” and that they blame themselves very often if it doesn’t go exactly that way, exactly what you said, Rebecca. And I think that that’s something that I was interested in hearing her tell me about and learning about from her.  I didn’t realize that there was this kind of, “if you’re the right kind of woman, this is what you’re going to do and what you’re not going to do” or whatever. And you’re going to have these ideas about exactly how it’s going to go. It’s very interesting. But there can be a lot of self-blame around traumatic events and I think that fits very nicely with what you were saying. Rebecca: I’m Rebecca Thompson Hitt and this is the All Relationships Can Heal Podcast. I’ve been talking with Dr. Robert T Muller, author of Trauma and the Struggle to Open Up. We’ll be back again tomorrow to continue our conversation about parenting and trauma and how that can show up in our parenting relationships.

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Rebecca Thompson Hitt

Rebecca is the founder of The Consciously Parenting Project, LLC, and author of 3 books (Consciously Parenting: What it really Takes to Raise Emotionally Healthy Families, Creating Connection: Essential Tools for Growing Families through Conception, Birth and Beyond, and Nurturing Connection: What Parents Need to Know about Emotional Expression and Bonding), numerous classes and recordings, and the former co-host of a radio show, True North Parents.

Rebecca Thompson Hitt has 193 posts and counting. See all posts by Rebecca Thompson Hitt

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