In my most recent work with a 6 year old girl who has all the signs and symptoms of PTSD, I’ve recently been reminded of the power of feeling. Many adults in this child’s world view the times when she experiences a trauma trigger as ‘bad behavior’. It was on one of these days when her grandmother brought her to session carrying the behavior plan which she had been given at school. Grandma took a few minutes to explain the new behavior plan to me, and during this time I observed my client’s mood change from excited and happy to embarrassed, as she covered her face and began to cry softly.
One of the first things I do in each session is have a feeling check-in, but I saw in this a golden opportunity to expand the check in talk to include body sensations. I asked what she was feeling and she replied “sad”. I was curious about her covering her eyes and asked if there was possibly another feeling that accompanied her sad feeling. What was the feeling which caused her to cover her face in the waiting room? She said that she wasn’t sure to which I replied that sometimes people cover their faces when they feel embarrassed. She asked what embarrassed meant and I attempted to explain it in child friendly language. I asked body location and sensation questions about the feeling she experienced when she covered her face. Almost instantaneously, she reported that the feeling was “in her cheeks, and it felt hot”. Simple, yet powerful!
I have witnessed these simple, yet powerful realizations in other children, as well. While it no longer surprises me, it continually amazes me that children have an untainted innate ability to recognize what their bodies are telling them…even when they don’t necessarily have adult words to name them. I also wonder when and how this ability becomes buried as we mature into adults. Is it when the child begins to recognize the high importance our culture places on knowing and the low importance it places on feeling? Is it when the child is raised in an environment where adults don’t talk about their feelings? Is it when they are shamed for feeling a certain way and begin to believe that it’s just better to suppress certain feelings? Or, is it when a child has been so disregarded and mistreated that suppressing their feelings feels closest to survival? I think it’s probably any or all of the above…but, there I go…falling into the thinking trap!
In this moment, I recognized that I have to continue to ask myself a different question. What is it that I feel when I see these simple and powerful moments of recognition in children? For me, it’s a universal sense of hope that everyone has the ability to heal...by first becoming more aware of their feelings.
Brené Brown, a researcher who has spent years focusing her work on shame and perfectionism, tells us in her recent book entitled The Gifts of Imperfection, that “the less we talk about shame, the more we have it”. She advocates for people to develop “shame resilience”, and the first step in doing so is to “cultivate an awareness of our physical shame symptoms”. It’s true…how can we begin to talk about and recognize when shame is happening unless we first feel it?
The avenue to healing that our culture travels is generally not the avenue of bodily sensations. However, I feel it’s an extremely important avenue at least with which to begin treatment. I continue to ask myself what I “feel” may be happening for my clients, and to “feel” what is happening for me as well.
Debbie Carter is a counselor-in-training who is interested in helping children and families heal from trauma, grief, and loss through play therapy; for more information http://www.linkedin.com/pub/debbie-carter/23/7a6/801.