Welcome to the first “Ask the Dramatherapist…” post!
**Disclaimer: I will write from personal and professional experiences, because ultimately, that is all I can offer. Each therapist will have a slightly different stance on a subject, a theory, or a technique. This is not a reflection of the different professions themselves, it is merely a reflection of the humanity of each therapist, what they resonate with, and what each one of them brings to their respective profession and training.
This month’s question:
Is there an instance in which seeking therapy would open old wounds and leave someone worse off than if they hadn’t ‘turned the stone’ in the first place?
This is a very important question. It is also a question many people have prior, during, and after therapeutic processes, as it is a question which conjures up a certain level of fear, insecurity, and doubt. And I would also add vulnerability to that list.
Therapy, in general, will bring up vulnerability. It is impossible to escape that. I find that there are two main types of people who attend therapy: those who proactively want to know more about themselves and use it as a personal development tool, and those who, for one reason or another, feel forced to seek help – both voluntary and involuntary. In all cases, there will be a conflict between the parts of the Self which want to heal, and the parts which want to remain the same. The resolution of this conflict – the Integration of the Self – will involve cessation of control, opening up to honesty, leaps of hope and compassion, and visits to past, present, and future.
This Integration doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. It takes energy. It takes trust. It takes relationships based on compassion and boundaries. It takes process. The process of therapy is a very interesting one, because it involves a relationship between two human beings, whose only difference is that one of them has studied and been trained to facilitate healing processes. They both have wounds – old and new – and they are both constantly learning from them.
And this is where a therapist’s training, and, I may add, their own experiences of therapy and healing, come into play. Which theories have they learned and practiced? How much therapy have they had in their own lives? How much processing of their wounds have they done? For instance, some professions require that a therapist attend therapy whilst training, and others do not. Some theories defend that one should always go to the old wound and re-experience it, others focus more on present and future, others offer a combination. Some theories incorporate the body in the equation, others do not.
The first thing that strikes me about the proposed question is the expression “old wounds”. Does a wound ever stop being a wound? Wouldn’t healing entail that a wound is no longer there? What is a wound? Are we talking about trauma here?
None of us can escape wounding. But wounding may have widely disparate effects on people. And wounding comes in many different manifestations. It may be extreme or subtle. It may happen in an instance or progressively over time. It may be intentional or unintentional. It may lead to death or life. It breaks people down or it breaks people through.
Whatever it does, though, wounding does cause breaking. It breaks us open to feelings, experiences, learning, pain, love. But do we stay open or do we shut down? Either option will involve vulnerability, but this will be experienced very differently depending on the option. Open vulnerability involves willingness and understanding to experience both pain and love – the foundations of human and spiritual growth and development. In open vulnerability there is an acceptance of the circuitry of life: something is born, something lives, something dies, something else is reborn. It assumes and thrives on connection and fluidity. Closed vulnerability involves refusal of this circuitry. It is living, but there is an undercurrent of fear, insecurity, and doubt. It assumes and thrives on separation and judgement.
Is there wounding that does not affect a person’s life? Yes.
Is there wounding that affects a person’s life? Yes.
My experience of more than 100 individual and almost 400 group therapy sessions has led me to look at wounds in the following way:
- What is the initial presentation of the client? What do they want and need from therapy? Why did they come to therapy? This varies greatly, but usually there is a perceived, potential or actualised problem. Some kind of barrier or blockage that is preventing them from being and feeling happy or content with their lives: relationships, work, family, self, etc.
- What is the current pattern of behaviour causing this blockage? How is it affecting their lives in the present? What is the relationship between behaviour and emotion? What is the dynamic between thought and action? How does the body feature in that equation? What is the STORY that they are telling themselves? Who are the characters?
- Where does the story start? When was the first time they felt whatever they are feeling right now? This is the first visit to the past. The aim is to first figure out the origin of a pattern of thought, feeling, behaviour. Once we get there, it is important to assess: is the wound open or closed? Do we need to explore it further, or are we able to acknowledge, honour, and leave it be? This takes us back to the questions above: is the person still affected by it, or has the person actually moved on?
- Is the story still relevant? For example, fears usually appear for a reason. They are a defence mechanism. But what usually happens is that we continue to use and experience that fear beyond its expiry date. The initial situation for which we needed fear no longer exists, but we keep the fear – the thought, feeling, behaviour pattern. It’s the same with our life stories. Do we need to keep telling the same story? Are we doing that out of necessity or habit?
- Create and rebuild bridges between Past, Present, Future. How does what happened then, affect someone now, and how can they move forward? This is the process I follow in my therapy work, but it’s not necessarily linear. It is often cyclical. It is a constant negotiation and assessment of how much Past one should visit in order to benefit the Present and Future.
I don’t believe in exploring a wound for the sake of it, and I’ve witnessed instances where exploration was not beneficial. And I admit, I may have crossed a line a few times in the early days of my training. And I also admit, I’m not exempt from crossing them again. New situations arise all the time, we are constantly learning, and no one is perfect. But in those instances, the main concern is working with the person to re-establish the boundaries around the wound, and between us.
However, I do believe in the power of re-visiting something and changing one’s perspective of a situation, person, or the Self. What I have learned with that, though, is that someone needs to be ready to go to the Past, on their own terms, in their own time, when they decide to do so. The therapist is there to show the different options, not to choose one.
Wounds can be tricky though. We may live for many years and decades without many effects of a wound, but then something seemingly unrelated is able to re-trigger some unresolved trauma: a diagnosis, a car accident, giving birth, someone’s death. Everything in us is connected. Nothing exists in isolation. Old wounds are often opened up again in therapy because sometimes resolving work-related anxiety or stress is connected to how someone’s parents spoke to them as children; sometimes a life event, such as a diagnosis, will actually release a blocked memory and a significant childhood trauma is suddenly re-opened and everything that was trapped in the body, mind, and soul of that person is released and begins to demand attention and healing.
Thus, seeking therapy may often open old wounds. Not because it’s planned, or necessary, but simply because our life events are connected, and if something is triggered here, it might re-trigger something over there. Both client and therapist are unaware of these dynamics until they actually manifest themselves. It simply comes down to this: we don’t know, until we do.
What happens in those instances is that a negotiation should take place between client and therapist: what does the client want to do? Do they want to go back to the wound, or do they want to manage it as best and efficiently as possible in the present moment, and in the future? The client always decides in Dramatherapy. I show them the options, and they choose. I often have clients in my Addiction work who want to manage their drinking or drug taking, and don’t want to consider sobriety. My role is to show them the options, and they choose. Not me. The same with wounds and trauma.
Is it okay for someone to change their mind about their choice? Of course! Always!
The bottom line is this: therapy may or may not open up old wounds. If it does, then the therapy space is probably one of the safest spaces to take care of that. The problem lies in the fact that, sometimes, in the exploration and integration process, the old Self wins. The Self that wants to remain the same, that prefers the comfort of known pain and suffering instead of unknown potential and transformation, will take over, close the wound, live in closed vulnerability, and stop treatment. This is not optimal for the client, but if it is their choice to end treatment, then it is their choice. The being left worse off is not necessarily about the content of therapy sessions, but about the duration of therapeutic treatment. Sometimes treatment is cut short for a variety of reasons, and therein lies the potential danger of feeling worse off, because if a wound is re-opened and then left untreated, it will cause further damage.
Thank you to my friend who submitted the question, and I hope this helps to understand the therapeutic process a bit better.