The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

Bessel van der Kolk

Book review by Melanie Rowen

In “The Body Keeps the Score,” psychiatrist Bessel Van der Kolk explains how traumatic experiences leave a lasting impression—not just in our conscious minds, but actually in our bodies. The book also explains why human beings need to have deep connections with each other in order to be able to recover from trauma. As I read it, I found myself wanting to recommend it to all of the mediators I know—if we are committed to going beneath the narratives of conflict, we need to attend to how the body experiences, knows and remembers what our conscious minds do not. And fundamentally, as mediators we are here to shore up the connections between people. For anyone interested in exploring these ideas from a neuropsychology perspective, “The Body Keeps The Score” gives an accessible and engaging overview of the science of trauma, offering insight into how we can better understand ourselves and others.

Purchase the book >>

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Blame and Vulnerability on the Beach in Mexico — by Gary Friedman

Last week we completed our fifth SCPI program in Mar de Jade, Mexico, with the theme of blame and vulnerability.  With participants from Europe, Canada and the US, Norman Fischer and I explored the depth of our personal relationship to blame and vulnerability  as they  impact our work with clients.  Central to all of our SCPI programs is the recognition that our responsibility to our clients compels us to understand ourselves.  

We made some interesting discoveries.    We all easily recognize the problems that blame presents when it arises in conflict: blame cycling into escalation between parties, trapping them in defense and attack mode, disempowering the blamers by placing all of the responsibility on the other.  It also protects the blamer from not only outside attacks, but also from recognizing the layers of vulnerability underneath that can hold the key to opening the lines of communication between parties.   

What is more subtle is to recognize the positive qualities of blame particularly for those people who have felt powerless  to stand up for themselves rather than allow themselves to be doormats for someone wanting to overpower them.   Being able to distinguish between whether the use of blame is helpful to dealing with the conflict or problematic can be a significant challenge.

We also discovered that when, as conflict resolvers, we pretend to ourselves that we are not angry, upset or blaming of our clients, the cost is often loss of connection with our clients.  When we admit our own sense of blaming, at least to ourselves, we have the opportunity to investigate it to reconnect with the people we’re trying to help.

 So when we make blame wrong, or blame blame, we are reinforcing conflict professional tendencies that if recognized and worked with can open a door not only between us and the parties but between the parties as well.

While it is true that blame often protects us from seeing our vulnerabilities, it can also be true that blame and vulnerability can exist simultaneously.  Dramatic examples of this are occurring in the Me Too movement, particularly with the athletes in Michigan speaking up in court against their abuser with full expression of blame and vulnerability.  Particularly turning self-blame, as some did, into a more accurate pinpointing of the blame to the outside can be empowering.

With respect to vulnerability, we also explored how our fears of being weaker by showing our vulnerability are often not realized when we express it, which often is accompanied by feeling more, not less, powerful than when we keep it hidden.

Most of all, our universal experience in spending a week together exploring these themes in our cases and our lives create support that we will all be able to carry into our lives back home.

We’ll be working with this same theme in Talloires, France from August 28-31, 2018.  

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Cutting to the Heart of Our Lives – CIRCLES by Gary Friedman

There is a wonderful new documentary that has just been finished that I find quite compelling for two reasons.  First, it’s a film done by my son, Cassidy Friedman.  I have always found anything he does compelling.  The second reason, which I think would be of more interest to you, is that the film focuses on the professional and personal life of an extraordinary conflict professional in the restorative justice field, Eric Butler, who is part of the CUC teaching team in our next mediation training program for mixed race participants.  A Hurricane Katrina survivor who works to keep Black teenagers in school in Oakland, California.   Eric finds his personal and professional lives colliding when his 15-year-old son goes to jail for a crime he didn’t commit.

For so many of us doing this work as mediators or other conflict professionals, walking our talk means a lot.  The effort for us to be congruent in our personal lives with our professional aspirations promises the possibility of an integrated life.  For those of us coming from a background of law, the experience of finding ourselves living a contradiction between our personal and professional lives  is a frequent motivation for us to work as mediators or other conflict professionals. We watch Eric struggle with the disparity between his remarkable ability to connect with and touch the lives of high school kids at risk of entering the school-to-prison pipeline and his failure to reach his son at the crossroads of the same tension.

Eschewing the formulaic approach to restorative justice, Eric connects with the kids he is trying to help through extraordinary empathy, unwavering  commitment to the students and total authenticity.  As a result , these students find a kind of support from Eric that many of us count on from our parents but which is rarer and life-changing, and for many of them, missing elsewhere in their lives. Yet Eric’s son; Tre, feels the same lack of understanding from his father that Eric provides to the others. As the story unfolds, we watch from the inside as Eric and his son come to terms with Tre’s growing up that allows Tre to avoid the abyss.

Eric’s work is very much in the trenches of the conflict resolution field, the schools where at-risk youth predominate.  We watch him find the support he needs from the school principal to break the norms of going through the motions to make real connections that penetrate to the inner lives of the students.   We also get a look at Eric’s own background and challenges in his own growing up and the support he was able to find to escape the same fate that met many others without sufficient parental understanding  and support.

The film is now entering its phase of the film festival rounds and will be shown at the Oxford, Mississippi festival in February.  If you’re interested in the film, let us know and we’ll keep you in the loop so that you can have a chance to see it and you can also follow the film by searching @restorativejusticefilm on Facebook.

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Speaking Truth to Power: Mediator’s Roles by Gary Friedman

As neutrals, most of us work pretty hard to keep our opinions out of the mix in helping parties reach agreements.  As a matter of fact, in the Understanding Model, that is one of our agreements with parties in deciding how to work together.  In this supercharged political environment with the headlines of sexual harassment, racial discrimination and a whole host of situations that show up in our offices or impact the people who come to us, we have a particular challenge in keeping quiet about our opinions when that poses a danger of allowing a more dominant party to take advantage of a party more inclined to avoid or accommodate to adapt to a situation.

Part of our agreement with the parties includes two exceptions to our not weighing in with an opinion.  One of the exceptions is that we weigh in when the parties are making an illegal agreement, that is, one that would not be enforceable by a court.  That’s pretty clear.  The second exception is that if it seems to us that one party is taking extreme advantage of another, we want to leave room to speak up and even refuse to draw up an agreement that in our view would be unjust.  This is a tricky bit of business, because there are many agreements the parties might make that we would not agree to if we were a party.  That’s fine and that makes sense.  But how do we determine the difference between such instances and becoming accomplices to injustice.  Isn’t this rather subjective, one would ask?  Yes, of course, but that does not mean that because it’s subjective, we stay silent.  It does mean that we need to be quite clear that our consciences are part of the mix in determining how we operate as mediators.

So how then do we work within ourselves to be able to find the line that determines whether we speak up or not? First, we need to distinguish between our speaking up and the consequences of doing so. It may well be that our expression of an opinion leads to a conversation where we realize that we are off base, that some prejudice of ours has blinded us to the fact that the parties’ agreement does make sense for them.

Second, and this is probably the most important part of it, we need to distinguish between the dynamic between the parties and the substance of their agreement.  When the agreement appears to be the result of one party speaking forcefully or aggressively and the other party withdrawing or retreating, we need to scrutinize the result much more carefully than when there seems to be real give and take between the parties.  Of course, when lawyers are participating in the process, there is much less danger of this taking place.

If the problem is not the dynamic but a reaction to the substance of the agreement, we need to ask ourselves the following questions. Are we uncomfortable with this agreement only because it differs dramatically from the law or the likely outcome in court?  Here we need to recognize that even without mediation, when lawyers negotiate with each other, they often recommend to their clients results that they know would leave their clients worse off than going to court.  Why? Because for a number of situations, it is more important for clients to be able to put the conflict behind them than to go through a prolonged litigation process even if the likelihood is that the result would be better for them.

What this all calls upon us to do as mediators is to be straight with ourselves and the parties we are trying to help.  Critical to this is the ability to self reflect and notice our own internal dynamic to distinguish between our judgmental reactions and a more dispassionate analysis of what is going on between the parties or us and the parties.  Have we allowed a personal dislike of one person to impair our judgment or is there something else to this?  Part of our job is to make these discriminations and not let ourselves off the hook by deciding that our neutrality must lead to our muzzling ourselves and at the same time not use our reactions as a way of imposing our ideas on the parties we are helping by acting as judges or arbitrators.

All in all, keeping this and other tensions alive is a fundamental obligation we have to ourselves, the parties, and our world.  What a challenge.

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Trust and Positive Neutrality by Katherine Miller

Simon Sinek writes in Start with Why:

“Only when individuals can trust the culture or organization will they take personal risks in order to advance that culture or organization as a whole. For no other reason than, in the end, it’s good for their own personal health and survival.”

“Great organizations become great because the people inside the organization feel protected. The strong sense of culture creates a sense of belonging and acts like a net. People come to work knowing that their bosses, colleagues and the organization as a whole will look out for them.”

I have been thinking about trust in the work we do.  I have been thinking about the role of trust and trustworthiness in developing positive neutrality.  When we work with parties in conflict, we lower our guard and allow ourselves to be vulnerable with them as an invitation to do the same with us.  We hold ourselves in a place of openness and invite them to do the same.  Our openness and vulnerability creates a virtual net for the daring action of the parties in conflict to let down their guard and seek connection rather than defensiveness.

I’m intrigued by the idea of positive neutrality. It means to engage with each party as fully as possible for that party.  To open oneself to both and not choose between them.  It also requires allowing them to own their conflict.  Taking responsibility for their conflict would in some ways be closing myself off to them—to what is truly going on for them.  How does this relate to trustworthiness?  It does because if I am going to take over the conflict, then I disempower each party from coming to a resolution they own—if they worry that is true then they may not trust me with the whole of their truth.  If I take over responsibility for the conflict than I will ultimately be choosing between them or engaging in some form of power dynamic with them rather than staying in the supporting role.  People may WANT me to decide so they no longer have to sit with conflict but I understand that if I do, I give up positive neutrality—and the trustworthiness that comes with it—for the role of the arbitrator and that is a very different place.  There the parties trust me to make a decision –good or bad-but they don’t trust me with themselves.

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Dealing with Others is Dealing with Ourselves Dealing with Others

Remember: dealing with others isn’t just dealing with others.  We think of it that way, but that’s a mistake.  Dealing with others is dealing with ourselves dealing with others.  There are no others apart from us, and there is no us apart from them.  Our problems with others are our problems with ourselves and vice versa.  Recognizing this is the first principle.  Practicing the discipline of relationship is exactly training ourselves to understand and act in relation to others in ways we are not used to acting….   Gradually we learn that when we are different others are different too, because, without our understanding that we have been doing this, we have been co-creating with others the conflicts and interpersonal hassles of our lives.

By Norman Fischer

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Blaming is Useless by Norman Fischer

Blaming is useless. It is a smokescreen, a blind, a weight that drags you down and doesn’t get you anywhere. It is important to notice this as soon as you are frustrated and start blaming. Catch yourself. (This takes practice—you have to be quick.) Then focus instead on observing the actual feeling of frustration.

What does frustration feel like? Does your breathing tighten? Do your shoulders tense up, or does your face get red and hot? Do you clench your teeth? Your fists? What thoughts fly into your mind? Are there memories that come up? Visual images? What is frustration really like?

Oddly, if you accept frustration as frustration and study it without trying to relieve it by blaming or becoming angry, it will not overcome you. Instead, it will dissipate fairly quickly, or at least more quickly. You will simply digest it naturally.

Every human being already has a degree of persistence: we need some persistence just to stay alive, to hold down a job, to keep a human relationship functioning. All of us show up for our lives to some extent. We are all more patient and forbearing than we know, and we should recognize this and congratulate ourselves for it. We don’t need to create the quality of persistence out of nothing. Rather, we need to expand and strengthen the persistence that is already there. Cultivating persistence takes persistence.

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