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The Wisdom of 'Symptoms'

Updated: Feb 18, 2021

Trauma is disruption.

Trauma is the violation of safety.

Trauma is the abuse of power.

Trauma is disconnection.

Trauma is oppression.

Trauma leaves behind core, multilayered wound(s).

Trauma threatens our very survival. And we as human beings are wired to survive.

As a trauma therapist, I always hear trauma symptoms before holding space for the core wound. What we typically call "symptoms"--anxiety, headaches, nightmares etc.--all hold a fragment of trauma endured.

“Symptoms” are entangled voices of the wound(s) desperate to hide and crying to be seen all at once. Experiences like addiction and dissociation are pathologized but deeply listen to their words and you will hear an unrelenting focus on safety and a fierce determination to protect the self. Whatever the external outcome of these experiences, they are rooted in this focus and determination.

It takes a high volume of these voices for us to acknowledge the wound. The louder they are, the more likely we will begin the work of raging, grieving, and restoring. Listening to these stories can feel inconvenient. It gets in the way of being productive! Even as we try and listen to the symptoms, they can feel continuous and unrelentingly loud. They can feel overwhelming and life threatening. Or it can feel like the symptoms are all we have and all we are.

To piece these fragments together and acknowledge the wound is to admit vulnerability. It means we must square with the reality that our power is limited and perhaps that some of the people we most desperately want to recognize our worth and dignity never will . Sometimes it feels safer to stay with symptoms as pathologies. To see the symptoms as the problem. To try and silence the symptoms without hearing the stories they hold.

But just as we are wired to survive, a deep knowledge within us will continue to work to regain equilibrium and honor our dignity-- sometimes gently, sometimes violently-- through these symptoms. These symptoms are often rooted in our bodies-- the record carriers of both our pain and resilience. Our bodies are the uncensored, raw, and real story of what we have endured, lost, survived, and overcome. Using symptoms, our bodies guide us.

We are guided to rage--thereby beginning to acknowledge we are worth far more than what has happened to us. And to motivate us to join community that dismantles the internal and external systems of oppression that continue to wound us.

We are guided to grieve--slowing down enough to honor the parts of us that were denied dignity. And to put down the responsibilities we hold that were never actually ours.

We are guided to let go-- reclaiming the space we were told we should not take up and walking away from the people we were told we were supposed to be.

We are guided to create-- discovering joy, play, adventure, and purpose rather than staying frozen in the same view of our self, the same relationships, and the same routines.

We are guided to connect--befriending those parts of ourselves that we abandoned out of shame. And daring to embrace flexible boundaries helping us to locate our communities, partners, friends, and family.

All this comes from the symptoms. Our task is to learn the language of the symptoms. Listen to the stories. And honor the wisdom they contain.


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