When I work with clients who are survivors of trauma, I often use the metaphor of building a house to explain the three stages of healing from trauma (based on Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery).
- The Foundation: Safety, Stability, Self-Care, and Support. Before you build the rest of the house, you have to have a solid foundation. The foundation of healing from trauma is to learn how to ground yourself when you are feeling distressed due to your trauma history. Also, you need to have your basic needs covered to build this solid foundation — a safe place to live, food, clothing, a way to support yourself.
- Walls and Rooms: Feelings and Memories. This is the stage that most people think about when they think about healing from trauma. It’s what is always shown in the movies or on TV when you see a therapist helping a client with trauma. Many people expect to jump right into telling their trauma stories and expressing their feelings when they start therapy. But if you don’t have a solid foundation and you try to build the walls and rooms of the house, what happens? CRASH! Everything comes falling down and you have to start all over. Only when the foundation is in place does it make sense to proceed to exploring your feelings and your memories. One of the goals of this stage is for the trauma survivor to be able to tell her/his story without detaching or intellectualizing or completely breaking down.
- Roof: Reconnection and Healing. This is the stage everyone wants to get to. Immediately. But putting a roof on top of a poorly built house with a weak foundation will be ineffective at best. During this phase of reconnection and healing, trauma survivors learn how to have healthy relationships, make sense of what happened to them, and move on with the rest of their lives.
Healing from trauma can be a difficult process. With help from a therapist who knows about trauma, healing is possible. Just don’t try to put the roof on before you start on the foundation. If you are looking for a psychotherapist in the Boston area, contact me to start work on your foundation.