embodiment

Healing from Trauma – Embodiment

One of the most important ways I figured out what was right for me was learning to listen to my body. The body possesses an instinct that moves towards wholeness and a sense of its own integrity. This can be seen with things such as wound healing, where a cut will heal because the body has a sense of what is right for it. The difference between pleasure and pain is one of the most primitive life instincts, even possessed by bacteria. These instincts can lead us to what is good for us and away from what is bad.

There are several things can go awry with this process. One is that dissociation can make it impossible to know what is good and what is not. If we are stuck in our heads we are dissociated from our body, and cannot know what is good for us or what is not good. This is a common consequence of trauma.

Another issue is the presence of super stimuli We do not live in the environment that we evolved for, and can be led astray by these super stimuli. They are in effect too much of a good thing. Examples of these include fast food and pornography. The problem with super stimuli is that they may have unhealthy consequences. In addition, they can desensitize us to healthy stimuli. Also they can create an addictive spiral requires more and more stimulation to create the same effect. This is known as the hedonic treadmill

One can learn to distinguish between the feeling in the body of healthy stimuli vs. super stimuli. Notice the difference between how one feels when eating fast food vs. eating a meal that is truly nourishing. Likewise one can notice the difference between connected sex and pornography. These super-stimuli can be okay in moderation for some people like any vice, but one must be very careful that they do not spiral out of control.

Coming into connection with the body can be a gradual process. This is where titration can be important. Relationship is also important in this process as it is easier to heal in the presence of a supportive other.

Healing from Trauma – Safety

The most fundamental principle of healing from trauma is safety. Without safety no healing can occur. Further, this safety is not a concept. It is something which is viscerally felt in the body and cannot be faked, no matter what thoughts one has about it. Also, safety requires control. The person must be able to control their boundaries in order to heal. This is the antidote to the lack of safety and boundaries they felt during their traumatic incidents. Spaces where these conditions exist are the key to healing.

This is something that I believe to be at cause for much of the incendiary rhetoric and toxic debate that happens around trans issues. It is something that made me reluctant to enter this arena. Both radical feminists, and trans activists, as well as the entire queer community are involved in an endless debate on what it means to be a woman or what it means to be female. Argument after argument is made and nothing gets resolved, there are only angry feelings, and eventually insults and threats. No one can seem to find common ground.

That is because this debate is not really about a scientific question, but it is about an emotional need, and both groups contain a lot of people that have been traumatized, particularly by men, and both need safety. However, these needs are also fundamentally incompatible in some ways which leads to the current impasse.

Because safety is a visceral, embodied response, what is relevant to safety is how the body responds. This has nothing to do with identity. The body needs what it needs to heal, and it doesn’t have to be rational. This might mean this process might be impeded by the presence of a trans woman, even if everyone affirms their identity on a thinking level. That is really horrible, and totally sucky for trans women, but the visceral embodied response of safety cannot be faked.

This issue was really brought home to me in my first therapy placement when I was still presenting as a woman and nominally female-identified. I was constantly being assigned lesbian clients because hey they requested a woman and I’m queer and they’re queer so seems like a good fit. However, this did not work so well because for me to be a good therapist for them they must feel safe. I found it particularly strange that once I declared myself to be male-identified, I was suddenly ineligible to see these clients and now eligible to see clients that only wanted a male therapist, even though I was exactly the same person!

Trans women experience their gender identities under constant assault. Further, trans women are also often in need of their own healing and can’t find the spaces for that. I’ve known a couple of trans women who were sexually assaulted, and couldn’t find groups to participate in due to their birth sex which was horrible and retraumatizing! Also it is no wonder that they would react angrily to this exclusion, as many of them are also seeking shelter from men and male culture, and are denied even that refuge.

There is no easy solution to this, I think there is space for multiple types of spaces, some that are open to all, some that are open to all women and some that are open to cis(?)-women (I feel like there is no possible term that won’t offend someone here) only.

I hope that both sides can have empathy for the other and maybe see what the emotional needs that underly the rhetoric are. For radical feminists to perhaps imagine what it is like to need healing and be deprived of even the spaces that they have for healing. For trans women to have empathy for the need for safe space, and that this does not necessarily violate their identity, but only is an artifact of the way trauma works. I think it is difficult to create such an understanding, but that it could start by attempting to imagine and empathize with what the underlying emotional need is under the toxic rhetoric.

Dysphoria = Dissociation

Dysphoria, particularly sex dysphoria, is a disconnect between the body and the mind. It is a person saying they are something separate from their body, and that their body needs to change. Their body is somehow making them unsafe, preventing them from being who they are, or just feels wrong to them. This is a kind of dualism, saying that we are something separate from our bodies, when on some fundamental level we are our bodies.

To become separate from the body is to be dissociated. Dissociation is not necessarily bad. It is a mechanism that evolved to escape from pain, and to escape from trauma. In moderation, it is a healthy response. When it becomes habitual, it becomes problematic. Habitual dissociation often arises in response to trauma. It is a great way to escape from pain, particularly if horrible things are happening which you have no control over. This mechanism provides a way to survive the trauma, and to maintain sanity. Unfortunately the habit of dissociation remains long after the initial trauma has passed.

However, there is a cost to be paid for dissociation. Dissociation means to be disconnected from the real needs of the body. Long-term dissociation is often done by retreating into the conceptualized self, which is the story that one tells about oneself. It is possible to become completely disconnected from the body and live in a conceptualized self. There is a price to pay for this. For one, such compensations are fragile. On some level the person knows this is false and requires validation from others to maintain the compensation. Also, the person mistakes the conceptualized self for the embodied self which leads them to following their conceptualized self rather than what is truly nourishing for them.
Finally, it is never enough. The original need that the dissociation was created for has never been healed.

For me, I suffered from intense sex dysphoria. I hated everything male about my body, from my size, to my large hands, to its hairiness. Changing my body did not heal this. My body became softer, more hairless, and curvier. I did not always pass, but I was often seen as a woman by others. This did not heal my relationship to my body, and my body was frequently wracked in tension. My back was twisted in knots. I thought it was because I could not change it enough. I contemplated various kinds of plastic surgery, but never went through it.

I did not think my body tension had anything to do with my gender, but as I began to heal my relationship with my body I discovered its natural way of moving and being. The very source of the tension was the attempt to present myself as female. Unwinding this tension was a slow process as I had to work through my negative feelings about being male, both feelings that it was unsafe to be a feminine male, and feelings that men were evil and it wasn’t good to be one.

However, once I did that I found that things such as body hair or other male characteristics did not bother me anymore. I even welcomed their return when I went on T. I also found that I was no longer plagued by frequent dissociation and intense tension in my body. Things are certainly not perfect, but much better than they were. I still have tension in my body, but less. However, the dissociation is gone. For me dissociation and dysphoria were intricately linked.