Applying the Heroic Journey to Healing From Sexual Trauma

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The heroic journey was made famous by mythologist Joseph Campbell and even won Emmy Award for his series on PBS about the topic, but the heroic framework has been around since humankind. Found in every culture around our planet and in every spiritual tradition, the framework is timeless and universal and shows us that individuals, families, couples, communities, organizations and nations experience many examples of the heroic framework when we face challenge, rites of passage, loss and even trauma.

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The framework is familiar to everyone – except we sometimes don’t know we know it, for it is used as entertainment. All of full-length animated movies for children by Disney and Pixar are built on the heroic framework and so are nearly every movie nominated for Oscars, Golden Globes and SAG Awards. Also found in great literature for centuries, these all teach that the budding hero or heroine faces great challenge…the antagonist element of life. The antagonist is the element of life that threatens to stop, delay or sabotage us from reaching our goal or healing. In great stories, it is often portrayed by the bad guy, bad gal or a monster of sorts. The initiate (budding hero) must find a way to transcend the challenge. Many traumatic situations in life become the antagonist: abuse, trauma, profound loss,PTSD, a terminal or chronic illness or addiction – to name but a few.

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The lessons embedded in the stories which capture the masses have the secrets of transformation and resilience. If we study the stories, rather than simply using them as mind-numbing entertainment they become a map of resilience or post traumatic growth. Once the “map” is learned, it gets reinforced anytime a person watches a blockbuster movie, read great literature or study the great writings of their spiritual tradition – if they have one.

What people can learn from studying the heroic framework is:

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 Each challenge a person faces can have great meaning in their life if it is successfully traveled
 Some journeys will have solo times and also times where we have to learn (again) to trust others
 Each journey will utilize strengths which helped us to survive previous challenges, but does also require some on-the-job training which will require new skills
 The deeper journeys of trauma and/or profound loss will take us to “trench time” or what has been called “Dark night of the Soul,” “Night sea journey,” “Desert time,” “The dry well,” “The Abyss,” “The basement of the soul,” or even “Belly of the whale time.” Trench time requires us to release something to transform: maybe a belief system, a relationship, an old behavior which no longer serves us, or a no longer valid way to see ourselves.
 The framework teaches us to discern when to be tenacious and tough and also when to let go.
 The heroic framework also teaches ownership of our life and that when we face our greatest fears and negative voices within, we can transform.
 Each challenge, when identified, grieved and transformed can reveal the strengths within us to grow from struggle and pain.
 The framework also teaches every element found in all evidence-based treatment, as well as everything common with resilient people and systems of people and Post Traumatic Growth.

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Learning about resilience through the heroic framework is also memorable and easily meshes with their favorite stories and movies, if we teach new ways to see that story.Storytellers for centuries have taught through story. What has been missing in our more recent culture is someone connecting the dots between the stories and the lessons and how they will teach them lessons all through the developmental stages of life.
Become like one of the ancient storytellers. Learn how communities and individuals for centuries found ways to make it through painful life experiences. Help them learn the lessons, like what Wayne Muller teaches in his quote below:

Within the sorrow is grace

When we come close to the things that break us down

We also find that which breaks us open

And in that breaking open we uncover our true nature

Blueprint for Resilience

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jack-sparrow-pirates-of-the-caribbean2Humans, as well as animals, are born with a blueprint for resilience. We are born with a predisposition to survive in order to keep the species thriving. Part of the program is to enable an organism to fight, flee or freeze, depending on the type and frequency of challenges and threats in its life. During the formative years, we become skilled at responding to certain types of threats. When humans and animals are repeatedly exposed to the same kinds of threats, their survival response becomes habituated. When not exposed to a lot of threats and challenges, survival responses are less predictable and automatic. Any threat can be perceived as life-threatening, when it fact, it may not be. For instance, being put on the spot, sensing a change in a relationship or a loud noise in the middle of the night may actually be life-threatening for a very few, but simply feel momentarily life-threatening for others.

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The two primary types of survival “software” are: hyperarousal and hypoarousal, both are assets for different types of threats. The “hyperarousal” style prepares the body to TAKE ACTION. Fight responses move us toward the threat and flee (flight) move us away from the threat. The “hypoaroused” response prepares the organism to surrender, hide or even to die without extreme pain. Some theorists believe that there may be a genetic predisposition to the styles, as well as an environmental influence.

The survival style engages all aspects of the body. Heart rate, blood pressure, speed and placement of respiration, size of pupils, and the parts of the brain activated which impacts how we process information, the timing and type of hormones released, how the blood pools in the body all depends on our type of survival “software.” Each style has assets which serve to assist us and liabilities which can have negative consequences.

HYPERAROUSAL

During a hyperaroused (fight or flee/flight) survival response, the body is preparing for movement, so heart rate, blood pressure and respiration increases and the breathing becomes high in chest, rapid and shallow (instead of diaphragmatic breathing or “yoga breathing”). Stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, flood the body to enable the engine to move. During a this type of response, the eyes focus in, narrowing, usually causing the eyebrows to furrow (unless Botoxed!) and making others possibly perceive them as hostile, irritated, impatient or disrespectful. Although a fight response is the expression of taking action by moving toward the threat, it typically does not result in verbal or physical aggression. An emotionally healthy person with this habituated response may become directive and take charge (like the photo of Margaret Thatcher to the right) when a challenge or threat looms, which can be an asset in situations which require immediate action, but a liability when more subtlety or restraint is needed. Because an activated fight response usually moves an individual into an “efficient communication style,” statements may be short, to the point, with a clipped, pressured tone and higher volume and hand gestures may be choppy and emphatic, but not usually menacing. The fight response individual gives off an alpha-like energy, much like the dominant animal in a pack. “Efficient communication” is the antithesis of “relational communication” and this is one of the primary liabilities of fight style individuals. Sometimes a “fight” response person may get a focusing facial expression (think Snoopy when he is in the tree pretending to be a vulture). The facial expression in conjunction with the louder volume and efficient communication may appear to be angry when it may have nothing to do with that emotion. In fact, a fight response can activate another’s survival style. Let the games begin!

The flee response is also a hyperaroused response with similar physiology as the fight response, but with a much simpler goal – to be removed from the threat at hand. The asset is decreased exposure to intensity and the liability can be removing themselves prematurely from situations that may be worked through. The flee style is often very animated physically, sometimes giving off the impression of being nervous or flighty, which may not be true.
HYPOAROUSAL

The single hypoarousal response is seen, initially, as outward inactivity. In particularly intense situations, the organism may “fold” or “collapse.” The inactive response can give time to stop – look – listen and assess without being noticed.

A person with a fold response typically becomes very quiet, very still while as their heart rate and respiration slows. They may hold their breath (on the exhale) for long periods of time, causing flat affect and muscle flaccidity. Because of the inability to project their voice without the breath support, their vocal tone often changes as well, particularly common with women. In intense situations the voice may get breathy, soft, higher pitched or strained. Men often yawn (the photo above is of Tony Blair – who may or may not have a preference for hypoarousal) repeatedly when the response is activated and females may be more likely to sigh a lot under these circumstances. When the person becomes less animated and less vocal during conversation, their body stills and they often automatically protect their core (abdominal) area, such as their legs coming up in a casual fetal positive, hugging their legs, placing a pillow or blanket in front of them. The bodily responses which helped the hyperaroused responders respond to the threat, temporarily disables the fold responder. The release of stress hormones are delayed up to 24 hours and the respiration and heart responses are inverted.

HYPOAROUSAL + HYPERAROUSAL

A “freeze” response is a combination of hyperarousal and hypoarousal. Internally the body may be revving, much like the hyperaroused fight/flee but outwardly it may look like fold. They, often, hold their breaths – more often on the inhale which often creates muscle rigidity and tightness. The assets for a slight freeze or fold response is being less likely to interrupt others, they may come across as more of a “team player,” less likely to activate overt conflict, and may be perceived as cautious and thoughtful, which may or may not be accurate. There may be the desire to verbally or physically response or react, but may become “stuck” in acting on the desire. The liabilities can be, difficulty being assertive (particularly in the situations when they most need them), may not take a stand and may not outwardly show their abilities and strengths as easily during high-stress or fast paced situations. These behaviors will be seen in all types of situations, from early childhood, school and work settings and in relationships. In cases where these individuals have experienced a great deal of life trauma, they are more vulnerable to being re-traumatized because of the freeze/fold response.

Most individuals have preferential styles when under great stress, ill health, chronic pain, grief or in a chaotic environment. It is essential to recognize the resilience assets of these styles, yet not use them to put people in a box. Understanding the body styles, as we might the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), can help family and work systems understand and work together more effectively. With training, therapy and/or education, people can learn to modify their style when it is no longer serving them. So, embrace your resilience blueprint and go forth and thrive.

Superb additional resources are any books and articles by:

• Bruce D. Perry, M.D.

• Pat Ogden, Ph.D.

• Peter Levine, Ph.D.

The Gift of Resilience: A Parent’s Great Legacy

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The holidays are complete for another year, yet I continue to reflect on the gifts received and one of my favorites is one that I have opened daily the last 55+ years. The gift given to me by my Dad has been one of the two best, for I use it personally and professionally every day. From the time I was three or four, my Dad taught me the heroic journey framework of resilience through story-telling.

Children do not learn resilience by osmosis, or having a roof over their head and food on the table. Love alone does not teach resilience. All those things are certainly important, but children can actually be resilient without those things. A child surviving without love, consistency and safety is not necessarily going to be an empowered child – and neither is one who is given everything they request with truckloads of affection on the side. Teaching your child resilience is an additional and conscious process. Role modeling resilience is helpful, but intentionally teaching a child the framework gives them an added aspect of assessing, learning, perceiving, giving hope, changing perception and taking action.

My father began by sharing stories– some fictional, some real, and some embellished – and those stories continue to teach me significant things about life through them. For instance, I was taught how there are times people will experience doubt and confusion or that fear was a normal part of life, particularly when we try something new. He taught the difference between imagined fear and the type of fear that is essential in intuition. As he normalized those emotions through the different stories, he would then teach how to get through those feelings. He gave me many gifts in the framework and how to transform a challenge. As he did mentored, I began to learn the very pattern of challenge…the separation (or the call), the initiation and the return. I learned that life was a transformational journey.

He taught me about the “antagonists” or antagonist energy that threatens to stop, delay or sabotage the journey and that how some antagonists are actually mentors in antagonist persona. He didn’t portray the antagonists as inherently bad or evil for we all end up playing that role sometime whether we intend to or not. If you have ever been the parent of a teenager, you probably relate to being perceived as your teen’s “antagonist” and that teen doesn’t see the mentor persona underneath at those times when you are trying to teach boundaries or allowing them their logical consequences from unwise choices.

By teaching me the heroic journey framework I became an initiate on a journey – not a victim to life. Teaching me the framework did not keep me from experiencing trauma, but it gave me the tools of resilience and the ability to come through trauma and eventually learn positive things from it.

My father also taught me wisdom that comes from the hardest journeys. Dad role modeled how a person could survive and thrive after horrific childhood trauma which also include losing a beloved parent at age nine and live through the Great Depression. He was a positive and wise man who was always teaching inspiring me daily. I was shown about getting through without being jaded by life.
Many decades have passed since his death yet I learn daily from his teachings. I had to use his powerful lessons to get through one of the greatest losses in my life – losing my father who was my very own Obie Wan Kenobi. It was so terribly painful and terrifying, but I had the tools – his legacy – to make it through.

Having never birthed any children in which to pass the torch, I teach my clients – as a psychotherapist & resilience coach the framework and wisdom of the journey. When they come to me in their grief, trauma and loss, I hold the sacred space of that loss and eventually begin to weave in the elements for them to see their own heroic journey…for that is how trauma and loss can eventually be transformed.

Movies and books are the great story tellers now and mentors like Obie Wan Kenobi are not the norm. Children and adults are inundated by heroic framework stories, with no one to connect the dots – “how is that like your life?” We need to return to the great story-tellers who don’t stop at the story, but teach great wisdom with the story being the framework of resilience.

Would you like to join me? Learn how to take the great stories around us and utilizing them to teach how we live our own version of the journey…the mentors, the allies, the antagonists, sometimes the dark night of the soul or belly of the whale moments. All the elements teach us something essential in our journey. Every time we go through a journey consciously, we develop a bit more trust in self and trust in our life journey.

Some initial questions to identify a journey in your life:

• When you think back over your life, identify a time of great personal challenge that no longer holds great emotional intensity.

• When you were in that time of challenge, what was your personal self-talk (i.e. “I can’t do this” or “This isn’t fair” or “This is going to kill me.” Maybe it was something more positive like, “You can do this” or “You will learn from this”)?

• What was the most difficult part of that personal challenge?

• What internal qualities do you possess that helped you to get through that time? Things like beliefs, past experience, character like tenacity…

• What external factors assisted you to get through that time? Maybe people, groups, activities, books, classes, medication and other things helped you through. What are yours?

• What POSITIVE things did you discover about yourself and life in general from coming through that time in your life?

• How has at least one other person been positively impacted because you made it through that time?

• If we could take that scene in your life and plop it into a movie, what would be the soundtrack running in the background? What type of music, specific song or even noise would be playing?

• The Scouts get a badge when they learn a new skill. If you were to design a badge or have an object you could place on a necklace or a keychain that would symbolize the wisdom that came from that time in your life, what would it be?

• As you reflect on the answers to the above questions, what do these answers indicate about your ability to make it through future challenges?

• Is there anything you would wish to do differently?

You have just found some important elements about your own heroic journey….a small gift from my father to you.

2015

Additional resources:
The film: Finding Joe
Heroic Journey webinars, discuss groups, clinical continuing education seminars and more at www.theomnibuscenter.org

The Awakenings – The Next Decade

 

More than a decade ago this week, the lives of millions of people changed…many profoundly.  On September 11, 2001, at home after having just returned from a double lecture tour and preparing for another, I watched in horror how life can be turned upside down in an instant. At close to 9am central time, the news of the attacks on U.S. soil hit the airwaves. As billions of people around the world became riveted by the visceral reminder of life, death, impermanence and priorities, I experienced my second powerful awakening for that year and it literally changed the trajectory of my entire life and continues to do so.

Just six months and ten days before that pivotal September morning, I was outsourced (along with the entire department) from a job of which I gave my whole focus to. My work family of twelve years was split apart by a corporate board, but there was very little time for finger pointing, I was unemployed and I needed to focus on replacing my seemingly “secure” job. Although that pre-9/11 wake-up call was disorienting and terribly sad, it quickly forced me to launch the beginning of a new way of living “fearlessly.” For me, that key word, “fearlessly” means to disregard the fear and go forth anyway.  Aside from my adult career dreams, there was no idea what to do next. The choice was made.  There was nothing to lose at that point. Life dreams were chosen out of default.

The illusion of security in life is an interesting yet very uncomfortable process to untangle and if we are fortunate…we get to bust that illusion wide open.  People have a tendency to hook a sense of security to other people, things or situations as if our life depends on it, which it rarely does. It is a painful lesson it is to realize that illusion, one that is often filled with a sense of betrayals, emptiness and terror. Denial is strong and I don’t think I am the only one who has clung to magical thinking when illusions are shattering. In the midst of that evolution, it felt like I was working without a net, but the net was there, it just couldn’t be seen. The journey to learn how to trust the unseen was terrifying, and that journey continues to unfold ten years later. Perhaps it is an ongoing part of the life journey.
 
Six months after the outsourcing, I was beginning the early stages of finding my new professional footing when 9/11 occurred. That historical began to call me to look at my own mortality and my life priorities and the intention in which I live life.  As I boarded a plane a ten days later, the post 9/11 stories were starting to be made public. The search/rescue/recovery process was still ongoing, yet those of us on the outer circle of the event, were beginning being thrust into making meaning of the event. It would be years, if not a lifetime for those who lost loved ones.

The utter panic I felt every time the wheels lifted off the ground reminded me the actual parameters of authentic control in life.  While looking around the plane, I wondered if it was my last day in this life and if that last breath would be drawn sitting next to someone where no eye contact had even occurred. That is when I began to realize that much loneliness is a choice we make.
 
After September 2001, I began to leave my books and magazines unopened, my highlighters capped and started talking and connecting those around me (a bit of a stretch for a strong introvert).  Seatmates would often share stories of what and who they loved, what made them laugh and they would tell about their life passions and fears.  What made life their lives sing became clear…propelling me to reflect on mine.
 
During that time the wheels- up panic was replaced with a calm question: “Are you ready?” Meaning: if this was the last day of this life of mine, has it been lived with intention and courage? Am I living with regret or fear? What was I going to choose? Would love or fear be my life motivator?
 
How I was willing to live changed.  What I was willing to spend my time doing changed. Gratitude, courage, risks, openness and love became the predominant factors. If any given day was my last (which it will be at some point), I never wanted anyone I loved to feel unloved or disrespected by me.  Although I certainly haven’t done that perfectly the last decade, it is my conscious intention for those I care about to have no doubt they are loved. No one should leave this life without the experience of feeling cherished by someone.

No longer afraid to tell people what was appreciated and admired, with no regard to if they reciprocated, changed my life.  The transformation of the heart provides a freedom like none other. What a powerful living legacy for the thousands of people who lost their lives that day…that one person…maybe tens of thousands of people were inspired to open their heart and love without hesitation.
 
Life is uncertain. Most things are impermanent. What is it that is truly unchangeable?
 
If today was your final day, what would you wish to leave as your legacy? Love? Fear? The choice is ours…each and every moment. I choose love. 

 

www.theomnibuscenter.com

What Finding Nemo Has To Teach Us

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The full-length animated movie Finding Nemo is on a powerful story about life’s heroic journey and begins with a series of traumatic events in the lives of Marlin and Coral, expectant parents of 400 children (clown fish) about to be born.  As the movie begins, Coral and 399 of their children-about-to-be-born are lost to a barracuda attack, leaving only one “child” to survive – Nemo. Marlin must deal with the profound losses, his guilt that he could not stop the attack and having a “special needs” child, Nemo, who was born with a defective fin.

The loving and traumatized widower/father would probably be diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in our Western Medical model.

Nemo, an adventurous and vibrant little fish, wishes to break out of his father’s hypervigilence by getting outside the “perimeter wire” of the reef and see what life holds.  Through a series of events, goes off on an accidental journey, leaving his father with the dilemma of choices: What will rule his life?  Will it be love or will it be fear?

As actor Albert Brooks does so brilliantly, Marlin is anxious, pessimistic, terrified of what will happen because he knows that very bad things in life can happen, worries constantly, but becomes willing to change and heal. He chooses to face his fears for the love of his beloved son Nemo, and sets out on the journey to find and return him to the safety of their home.

Early in the journey, Marlin meets up with the seemly dingy blue fish – Dory – who is played beautifully by Ellen DeGeneres. Dory appears ditsy, forgetful, goofy and seemingly not very smart, but this wonderful mentor/ally/trickster is going to play a pivotal role as the initiation guide and mentor during Marlin’s transformation and help him find exactly what he needs to thrive in life…to truly live his life fully.

They begin to traverse the challenges of the initiation time (The Jellyfish Jungle), they come in contact with some challenges which are very dangerous. They meet a group of sharks – 12 Step-style – which are struggling to give up fish (Marlin and Dory are fish). Marlin reluctance and doubt to continue is met with Dory’s persistence  to keep him going.  As Winston Churchill once said, “If you find yourself in hell, keep going.” Dory’s version of Churchill’s statement is a catchy little ditty she repeatedly sings, “just keep swimming, just keep swimming…”

As they travel deeper and deeper into the dark and scary sea, into the metaphorical basement of Marlin’s soul, he becomes more frightened that he will never see his son again and his life – as he knows it – will be over forever. In this journey, however, a part of Marlin is going to die and another part will be revealed…The Hero Within. The feeling of hopelessness washes over him. It is during this time of complete and utter emotional and physical exhaustion – which is not uncommon at this point in the journey that Marlin and Dory encounter with a whale when they are in the deepest part of the sea. Although it appears to be quite similar to a profound Major Depressive Episode, it is clinically and energetically different and is an extremely transformative part of the journey.

When they find themselves in the mouth of the whale, Dory has the discernment and wisdom to quit singing “just keep swimming” – for she knows better. With her companion and initiate exhausted, he is in the perfect state of being for the next step of the journey. This complete lack of energy, ego and stamina is actually Marlin’s greatest gift. When we no longer have any emotional or physical energy left, we are much more likely to surrender to the very thing which transforms us. Surrendering is, ironically, the only thing which allows us to continue this journey because our ego or false self has been shattered. This is also the dangerous opportunity for transformation and why Joseph Campbell once stated,

“Madmen and saints, swim in the same waters, what drowns one, will transform another.”

For people who their sheer will and intestinal fortitude have gotten them through, the belly of the whale time may feel like they have completely been broken in two, having failed completely. Yet, it is the greatest sign of wisdom about to spring forth. When we have reached a bottom of our understanding and we resign – to God, a Higher Power, a universal force or what is to be or to who we really are – we can be transformed. Illusions are shattered, the false self is gone, the authentic self and authentic life can be revealed.

Mentor Dory speaks very important words to Marlin. “Just keep swimming” is no longer appropriate at this place in the journey. She instead says, “Just let go.” Since Marlin doesn’t have the energy to argue with her, he seemingly has no other choice. Instead of clinging tenaciously to the tongue of the whale, Marlin and Dory let go for the ride of their life…first into the belly of the whale and then, and only then, do they get blown out the blow hole so they may continue their life journey (to find Nemo and other marvelous things). When we reach the end of our rope, life is usually calling us to let go and allow life to carry us for a while as we release control. In essence, transformation comes in the form of becoming a whale loogie.

I won’t spoil anymore of the movie for you, for this is only the first half!  Many more adventures and transformative moments occur as Dory and Marlin are free to continue their journey, all while Nemo is having his own transformative journey. With the most difficult aspect of the journey over, they have the strength and hope to continue after they realize the importance of letting go so a new part can be reborn.

The belly of the whale time or dark night of the soul is an extraordinarily frightening and exhausting time. We tend to have tunnel vision, a sense that we are losing everything in our life which we hold dear, yet it is not until we surrender our will, that we find we are transformed. Theologians and philosophers – for centuries – have written about this very topic. One of my favorite authors, was Henri Nouwen, who wrote 40+ books before he died. Nouwen said of this time,

“I was forced into the basement of my soul, to look directly at what was hidden there, to choose

 in the face of it all, not death, but life.”

The heroic framework is a Universal Monomyth, found in every culture around the world, in every spiritual tradition.  During the deepest and most transformative life journey’s such as trauma and loss, perhaps with a trusted “initiation guide” such as a therapist or clergy we can transform the pain into beautiful and transformative life gifts.

Journaling or discussion questions:

 

  • Have you had a “jellyfish jungle time”? If so, what did you fear most? How did you come through that time?
  • What or who helped you through it? How?
  • What were your feelings and thoughts about yourself and life as you traveled that time in your life?
  • Have you find yourself in the mouth of the whale, where you were completely physically and emotionally exhausted?
  • What illusions were you being asked to let go of?
  • What did you have to grieve?
  • What positive realities began to come to you?
  • What happened? How did move beyond that belly of the whale time?
  • How were you transformed by the event?
  • How did that transformation help others later?
  • What would you tell others about that time in your life?
  • How has the wisdom and lessons from those deep journey times been helpful to others?