Book review ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’ by Viktor E. Frankl

A little booklet it is, in its 2004 paperback version, but a crucial message it contains and so a classic it became. Originally, the book was written and published in 1946 with the title ‘Ein Psycholog erlebt das Konzentrationslager’ (‘A Psychologist Survives the Concentration Camp’) and then in 1978, with the English translation, it got its new title, that aptly summarises the book: how to find meaning in even the most ghastly plights.
Viktor Frankl was born in Vienna in 1905 and died there in 1997. He studied Medicine there, specialising in neurology and psychiatry. He focused on depression and suicide and the knowledge and insights this brought him, he took with him when he was deported first to Theresienstadt (1942) and later to Auschwitz and Dachau (1944). The book basically consists of two parts. Part 1 is an account of his stay and travails in the concentration camps and Part 2 is an explanation of ‘logotherapy’, the psychotherapeutic method he developed already before the Second World War, but that he meticulously described and practised post-war after his return to Vienna.

Logotherapy is sometimes called the ‘Theory of Meaning’, because at its core it deals with the question of how to find meaning (logos meaning ‘word’ or ‘meaning’), to remain resilient in the face of adversity and injustice. There may be many reasons to lose hope and faith, and one may be robbed of personal freedom, but there is one freedom, in Frankl’s view, that cannot be taken away from any person: the choice to decide how to respond to external circumstances. In the context of ACEs this is quite relevant, seeing that the essence of trauma is losing the connection to one’s true self. If there are ways to nurture that connection and remain authentic, it is important to share those with people who have (had) to go through dire circumstances.
At first, Frankl wanted to write the book anonymously, but he changed his mind and felt he had to ‘have the courage to state [his] convictions openly’ (p.20).

His first-hand description of the proceedings in the camps is impressive. Most readers will have something of a general knowledge about what these tragic places were like, but the clarity with which Frankl looks back at it, is admirable. Those circumstances were so dreadful that he writes one can hardly blame people ‘for trying to dope themselves’ (p.24), either with alcohol or by any other possible means.
He describes the phases people would go through upon entering the camp: shock (at first paired with painful emotions like longing, pity, horror, and disgust), apathy (emotional death, not caring anymore, an attempt at self-protection), and lastly the psychological response after liberation.
This third and last stage was difficult in the sense that joy had to be ‘relearned’: ‘The pressure which had been on [the prisoner’s] mind for years was released at last [and] his desire to speak was irresistible’ (p.96). Frankl describes this process as ‘from that war of nerves to mental peace’ again (p.97). Ideally this is done very slowly, step by step, so as to prevent ‘moral deformity’ in the form of revenge being taken and doing harm to (properties of) offenders.
We can see a parallel here with other kinds of trauma: feeling happy again, letting go of pain and loss, can be difficult, if those have been your developmental habitat for a lifetime.

The biggest part of the book, however, is focused on the second stage, that of apathy and how to either deal with or prevent it. Some people were able to achieve ‘spiritual life to deepen’ (p.47), Frankl writes:

They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature (p.47).

He describes it as the ‘survival of the sensitive’. What under normal circumstances might be described as dissociation could under severe adversity be seen as identification with the riches of inner life by drawing on previous experiences such as love and joy and gratitude, humour and curiosity. All of this is what we could see as ‘the wisdom of trauma’, using the mind’s abilities to survive the unbearable present. It also means that the more abundant those previous positive experiences are, the greater the likelihood of people being able to draw on them, or, put differently, to manifest resilience. Frankl says: ‘An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior’ (p.32). In line with this were prisoners’ efforts to disappear in the crowd, so as not to draw attention to themselves, whereas in normal life, people may love to be seen and recognised for their unique individuality. Tiny pockets of privacy and solitude were considered pure luxury, moments to connect to Self again (p.61).

Yet, humans are not merely the product of biopsychosocial factors, Frankl states, pointing to the emotional, spiritual dimension of mankind. Throughout all of life, ‘everything can be taken from a man, but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstance, to choose one’s own way. (…) It is this spiritual freedom – which cannot be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful’ (p.75,76). Remaining ‘brave, dignified and unselfish’ (p. 76) within the suffering, while nurturing hope and faith for better times to come, can give a deeper meaning to life. It can even lead a person to reach immense personal and spiritual growth.

Next week, we will discuss Part 2 of the book.

The lived experience, Episode 9 – This week: Hester, Part 3 (final)

Last week Hester told about her period of illness. Today she takes a closer look at a number of forms of therapy and we read about where she is now.

She says that although she could not find her healing in the mainstream care system, the alternative circuit also regularly failed to improve her health or even caused damage. Some therapists used her difficult situation to feed their own spiritual egos. They asked her to grant them an experience of success; one even advised that she take her own life. It meant that in her desperation she also had to be alert to people abusing of her health issues: “I find that dangerous, such an attitude in which you, as a traumatised client, have to protect yourself against the therapist. Then you will not come to a pure form of healing.” However, the regular healthcare providers offered no way out either. They repeatedly came up with only one solution: more medication. “When I refused and said that I wanted help, but not endlessly more medicines, they refused help and I was deregistered from all kinds of circles. Then there was only one thing left for me: to completely turn inward. I had a conversation with ‘Above’ and felt that I still had something to do in this world, but my life energy was drained, gone, exhausted. I considered lying down in bed and to just wait until I would die, because no one had a solution. Believe it or not, but then I approached people from a holistic reflection circle and told my story, in tears. They organised not just a local, but a national meditation for me. Then peace came to me. I felt that I wanted to go back to the bioresonance therapist I had been to before. His guidance and approach, including that of the toxic load, finally helped me and saved me. My doctor, however, was sceptical. He called it all placebo effect, but until then, he had also not been able to help me.

My illness has made it necessary for me to deeply feel everything that has happened in my life. I think I can say I have seen the deepest darkness and now understand how things have had their impact. Then the pain let go of me and at the moment I am doing very well. My energy is limited, but it is nothing compared to how it was and I am extremely grateful for where I am now. Doctor Sarno’s pain reset method certainly helped me with that. I remain alert to how the past can still have an impact on how I feel or experience things, but all of that has a completely different character now, compared to before. I think I have lived through that enough now. That does not alter the fact that my body is still tired quite quickly and that I then get symptoms that I deserve to take seriously, even if my head actually wants to continue with something. There is still a certain vulnerability, but I can live with that now.”

In response to her remark about ‘not being able to feel well’, we talk about the question of who she used to turn to as a child if she had strong feelings. She thinks and says: “Do you know that I don’t remember…?” Somehow that says a lot, that for her, no one clearly comes to mind with whom she can link a sense of security. “I didn’t have many friends either; our family was so closed off, such a small world, that we were not really prepared for what it takes to meaningfully connect with other people outside the home. It’s not so bad anymore, but I still prefer the one-on-one meeting; superficiality does not make me happy.”

From her need for depth, she sometimes still falls into the trap of doing more than her body can handle: “I could call that a bad habit – certainly. From my willpower I think that I can go on for a while and recover again tomorrow and that remains a quest…” She falls silent for a moment and thinks. “A quest… how can I really sink into my body, less in my head, and find that relaxation there, really feel that it is good and safe and then let go of the stress? Learning that is an ongoing process, which I sometimes feel resistance to. When will it be ready? At the same time I realise that sometimes I still don’t really know what I’m feeling, so that definitely takes practice. And what also requires practice is that when I am tired and feel restless, I also take real rest and do not numb the unrest with ‘crap’ from, for example, social media. That is often a struggle: numbing one unrest with another… not good, but silence is hard for me. It makes me rebellious, because it gives me the impression that my life is still too boring, and so I look for stimuli, when I actually need rest. By now I know that I can feel, but I do not always feel in a sound way. Then I override with my head what my body has to say. With all that has happened, I now understand a lot better that a lot of my behaviour was necessary to get me out of the situation I was in, with all the ancestral dynamics involved.”

After all the personal aspects, we zoom out to the social perspective. I ask if she feels that the influence of childhood is given enough attention. “No, I think there is too little recognition for it. Even in a trauma centre where I was, the views on trauma turned out to be completely outdated. I think that the insights that experience experts could provide in all kinds of organisations, are very valuable. We just need more knowledge about what it means to experience and heal from trauma. As you said, there is a difference between ‘healing’ and ‘curing’, and while I am not completely cured, I am certainly healed. The impact of pre- and perinatal trauma, the influence of growing up in a dysfunctional family, ancestral trauma… there is still a lot of work to be done to make all of this widely known!

I have also experienced things on a spiritual level that I don’t want to make public now, but really… we are spiritual beings as humans and that is something that often gets snowed under in protocols and fixed structures. Many approaches in mainstream healthcare are very cognitively oriented, but trauma runs so deep… With your cognition, you cannot reach that at all. That requires something completely different. You may need complementary care for that, but as said… there the spiritual egos are so big sometimes that it is dangerous. I have also sometimes felt really not taken seriously in that field. And when you finally do get treatment from someone, you sometimes have to wait weeks or months for follow-up treatment; that I also find very problematic. In the meantime, nobody knows how you are doing and sometimes you have nowhere to go if a previous session has released a lot that deserves guidance.”

When we talk about what a child needs in the early phase, she immediately has a clear picture: “An environment that is as open as possible, where everything is allowed to be there, where there is no judgment on what you feel and say and on what concerns you emotionally… where there is understanding for you. And in addition, I think it is important that we do not forget about the body. There may also be a toxic load that needs to be cleaned up.”

We end with our three basic questions.
What gives you hope?
“That we as humans are so strong that you can even get out of such an almost hopeless situation as I was in.”

What is number 1 on your bucket list?
She beams and smiles when she replies: “Aaah, yes… publishing those children’s books! Hopefully I will find someone who can support me!”

And what are you currently very excited about or what do you want to be working on?
“That is not difficult either! I am currently doing a spiritual course, four online workshops and I love that. I do it at my own pace, but enjoy that I can do it that way and that I am now again able to!”

We wrap up. Hester indicates that she really enjoyed sharing her story in detail with someone who can receive it as it is, who listens to it and takes it seriously. “I don’t know if I want to go to therapy again; I think that this new phase and the quiet integration of everything I have learned in the previous stage will suffice for me for now. I am especially grateful that I am where I am now, again, after such a crisis, and it was good to be able to talk about it in peace!”

The lived experience, Episode 9 – This week: Hester, Part 2

Last week we heard about the beginning of Hester’s life. Today she talks about her illness.

She got married, became pregnant and with that began a period of many sad, difficult experiences. The first pregnancy ended in miscarriage. The second pregnancy brought a daughter, who was a single-born twin. Another pregnancy followed, which also ended in miscarriage. Then a second daughter was born, her parents divorced, and a third daughter was born, also half of twins. “This youngest daughter still suffers a lot from that. She feels like she is still looking for her other half. The amazing thing was that during that pregnancy the eldest said that I had two babies in my belly and she also suffered from the loss of that other child. I was bleeding, but also remained pregnant, so the situation was clear for us. My childbearing years were intense because of this and have worn me out. Moreover, I already suffered from TMS (Tension Mysositis/Myoneural Syndrome); I was really always in pain and, like my mother, was often close to exhaustion. Subsequently, my husband also became seriously ill and, in addition to non-regular medical treatments, it took time before he was able to function properly again. When our youngest daughter turned 3, both my parents passed away in one year. All in all, we have had some really tough years. At a certain point it also turned out that, in addition to my pain complaints, I had a heavy toxic burden. I think that as a child I was already emotionally exhausted and that my survival instinct and the spiritual knowledge I already had got me through my crisis.”

With this term ‘crisis’ she refers to her illness of five years ago. After the first miscarriage, friends gave her a book about spirituality that gave her a feeling of ‘coming home’ and that encouraged her to go deeper into that area. “From then on, like some kind of hungry soul, I read, read, read, even though after high school I thought I would never read again! For me, the essence of my soul lies in spirituality and creativity, and that reading has helped me to find something to hold on to. For example, I have come to see that I am not the type to ‘market’ myself. Work where I have to profile myself commercially… that is not for me. For example, I like to write, but publishing my children’s books… I would have to find someone for that. Also poetry, mandala drawings, postcards… I can’t make a business out of it, but now that I’m better, unlike during my illness, I finally feel the space to think about how I could handle that.

Our family grew up and I certainly experienced joy and gratitude in it. Still, in retrospect, I think I was in survival mode a lot. When the kids had moved out, life felt like a dark hole. Existential life questions arose about where I come from, who I am and why I am here. I thought: ‘I just have to do something in society, otherwise I am a ‘failure’ and then I picked up something that again did not suit me. We moved many times and everywhere I tried to make a fresh start. With volunteering and various artistic activities I certainly had happy years, especially from 2011 to 2018. After that I followed a therapy that completely destroyed me. Moving, going through menopause, physical complaints, blockages in the emotional part of my brain… I wanted to take a kind of sabbatical, but the chosen therapy turned everything upside down and said that afterwards I could let all of my pain go and then I would be ‘done’ with it. However, that form of therapy does not examine in advance the state of your emotional stability and capacity. I panicked and my whole system said ‘no’; I was too full with everything.

Although I now see that the collapse was necessary, because as a child I had really locked away everything, it was extremely intense. I had never learned to really feel and then when I fell ill, feeling was all that remained. I could not ignore it anymore: I had to feel and feel everything, in the two and a half years that I mainly lay in bed. At the same time, my brain actually did not have the capacity to process all stimuli and emotions. I felt like I was going crazy and it actually seemed that way. This led to a procession of health care providers prescribing me a range of medications and, in particular, psychotropic drugs. It is my firm belief that they have largely only made me sicker instead of better. It made me even worse than I already was. They put a veil between my physical body and my soul; this is how it felt: as if due to the negative power of the medication I could no longer tap into my own strength and the light within me, my self-healing capacity.

Years later I started to wonder what it was that I had really needed and couldn’t find or get from any therapy or healthcare provider. I think what I would have needed is to lie on a treatment table with someone in a very safe space and be touched in a very gentle way, which would have allowed me to learn to feel again. I needed a therapist who, in tiny steps, could take me closer to the pain of the past, to the moments when I had felt unheard and to the pain and sadness that had become stored in my body as a result. An example of this is that my tonsils had to be removed. At the time, parents were not allowed to stay with their children and very young children were then utterly alone in such a hospital. That frightened me so much that I left my body. I fell unconscious and saw the whole operation, the doctor with the lamp on his head, the surgical gown, the high chair, the balloon… I saw everything, but I hid that experience deep within me. The fear of abandonment, which I already had, was further fuelled by this and during my illness I noticed that my body wanted to rid my body of all those events stored in my cell memory.

More things have happened that all fit within that framework. Some of them also have to do with that previously mentioned guilt-shame-infamy program that was so deeply embedded in my mother. If something was supposedly my or my mother’s fault, it created shame and then I or she was an embarrassment to the social environment. That is a very toxic dynamic to grow up in. The conviction arose that if only I didn’t do this or that or the other… then my mother wouldn’t be so unhappy. Originating in church dogmatics, there was also a lot of fear of going to hell. Because of my illness I came to see that all that burden was not mine, but my mother’s and that I don’t have to carry it.

It was no easy feat, however, to work through all of that. I was ill for about three years and there were times when I cried for ten hours a day; sometimes there was howling and screaming, of desperation and anger and compulsions, and the effects of the medication. I tried to get rid of everything and talk it off, so I sometimes talked all day and regularly went from one panic attack to another. There was actually no way to live with me at that time, so it was also extremely intense for my husband. In the end it was all healing, for me, for him and for our relationship, but it was a tough journey we had to go through.”

She tells how she slept only three or four hours a night for four years, how her nervous system was so overworked that she was both hyperactive and apathetic, depressed and manic as well as psychotic, and how she has seen as many as 50 therapists and how none of them could help her any further, especially since there were times when she could only talk for five minutes before she was totally exhausted again. “I also received a lot of criticism, that I was selfish and had to think about my family, that I had to adopt a different mindset, that I had to be a bit more positive, that I had to continue with certain trajectories longer, although everything inside me screamed that I was unsafe. The anger of others, however unjustified, then fed my guilt again. I found all of that so complicated because I felt that the way I was… that that wasn’t my true self. I really wanted to get better, but I couldn’t and it made me desperate. I was afraid I would not survive it all. In the end, the solution only came when I stopped looking for it.”

Next week we will read the conclusion of the conversation with Hester.

The lived experience, Episode 9 – This week: Hester, Part 1

We meet at a gathering about the influence of suppressed emotions on physical health. She has had a lot of experience with that and would like to talk about it in more detail. The time doesn’t feel quite right for a therapeutic consultation yet, but an interview… that sounds like a good idea! Not long afterwards, Hester (pseudonym) comes to my practice and with tea and sweets and candles we have a couple of good hours together.

“I decided a while ago that I don’t want to make myself small anymore, that guilt, shame, infamy and judgment can all be put aside and that I can take up space, purely for who I am, and to share my experience of overcoming a deep crisis with very serious illness with others who may benefit from it. That is really why I’m here with you right now. I have had to deal with an intense sense of inferiority for much of my life and my illness helped me a lot to overcome that.”

We first make an inventory of the nest she comes from. She is the second in a family of four children. Her parents divorced after 39 years of marriage; she was then pregnant with the middle of three children. She recently heard in a lecture by Anna Verwaal that the influence of prenatal trauma as a result of stress on the mother can be great. “My own situation has repeated itself with my daughter. My parents lived with grandparents in the house, next to their business, and due to circumstances the house and business had to be torn down and we had to move. My mother was pregnant with me at the time and my father became unemployed. My parents were well matched intellectually, but socially they came from a different background. The conditions forced them to move to a social housing area and I had the feeling that my mother was very unhappy there – she was not used to that. I was born two weeks before that move and my mother was completely exhausted and over-stressed. It was not talked about, but I have always felt it. Due to the stressful circumstances, my father decided it would be better to take me to a befriended couple without children for a while so that my mother could have more peace. I don’t know exactly how old I was or how long it lasted, but I was really still a newborn baby and so I was separated from my mother, while my sister stayed at home.

This Aunt, as I called her, was a sweet, quiet woman and she really saw me as her child. When I went back home after a while, the attachment with my mother did not work out. I did not start talking until I was two, and with every little thing or ache that was difficult, I wanted Auntie to come. When I developed constipation, the GP ordered a six-month ban from Auntie, so that I would get attached to my mother again. I have had a good relationship with Auntie all my life and all my memories up to the age of six are with her. However, I know almost nothing about home. The whole situation has created separation anxiety in me and sometimes that still plays up.

And strangely enough… when I was pregnant with the youngest, I was also completely overwrought. We lived in a strange house with a nasty energy and moved house in the eighth month of pregnancy. When this highly sensitive daughter was pregnant herself with her second child, she also lived in an uncanny home in which a woman committed suicide and then she also moved when she was eight or nine months pregnant. I really wish my granddaughter that this doesn’t happen to her too and I sometimes wonder what it is that this happened three times. What does that mean? Fortunately, I can talk to our daughter very openly about it, but you can’t undo it.


Anyway, I still have a lot of unanswered questions. As a child I was always very absent, as if I was on my own cloud, living in my own bubble. My parents were very proud of my eldest brother; he was glorified and could do no harm in their eyes and I used to think, ‘Why am I not being seen and heard? Am I not sweet and good? There is place for me, too, no?’ I felt misunderstood by my mother at the time. I was always different; I was highly sensitive and kicked down sacred cows. Once home from school I had to get rid of my excess energy and I was very busy, but then I would lock myself in my bubble again; they did not understand me. I had and still have trouble really physically living in my body, so to speak, and I cried a lot as a child, for seemingly nothing, and I could be very dramatic… Even now, my pain threshold is very low. Still, compared to the rest of the family, I was a rebel and didn’t fit into my mother’s guilt-shame-infamy program. Everything had to be neat and well-behaved and I was not.”

She says that after the move, her father first found a new job, but then fell ill and from the age of 46, when Hester was 11 years old, was always at home and never got better. Her mother was busy with the children and taking care of her husband. Mother found it very difficult that years after the third child another child came. She was constantly on the verge of exhaustion. Both parents, according to Hester, have tried incredibly hard to make the best of it, yet the family led a very limited life, with a very small social circle. This had repercussions on the children and also on the marriage, which, after almost forty years and therapy by the mother, still failed.

Hester started the atheneum after primary school; that was tough for her and she actually preferred to go to HAVO, because music was now an official exam subject there and that would help her to go to the conservatory. However, her parents wanted to keep her at the atheneum: their daughter would do what they could not have manifested themselves. She was not allowed to go to HAVO. She completed the atheneum and felt she never wanted to touch a book again. Music it would be: the conservatory in The Hague, moving out, although it was only later that she realised that she had no idea whatsoever about what she was really interested in. She had a wish to go to Poona and become a follower of Bhagwan, but that, too, was not an option for a decent Catholic girl. Do your best, be good, study, find a job, start a family… that was the expected course of events.

“I just wasn’t equipped to stand on my own two feet at all. I was not brought up that way; I didn’t know how to make social contacts, I couldn’t find my way. Every weekend I would go home and take my laundry with me…” She shakes her head at the image of a girl who had to survive in ‘the big world’ from a small, protected family environment: “What a drama it was… I played the flute and knew from the start it wasn’t for me, but at least it was better than the secretarial course my parents suggested. I thought… if I have to do that and then stay at home, I’m going to die; I can’t handle that. Other options, such as dietetics or the library academy were also reviewed, but somehow they all didn’t fit. After the third year I stopped in The Hague and eventually I finished the conservatory in Maastricht. The requirements there were not nearly as high; there it was much more like a properly structured school and more manageable and I was able to keep up and pass my exams there.”

She tells how from an early age she felt like a square that had to be squeezed into a social circle: “Always neat, always behaving decently, adapting… but I was rebellious! I wanted to live my own life! I wanted to look different! I wholeheartedly wanted all of that, but I hadn’t been able to develop the skills and confidence to actually do it. I was a good, almost depressed, otherworldly, lonely, poem-writing adolescent girl…”

These qualities made her also stage frightened, so a career as a musician was out of the question. She taught, but because of the high unemployment especially as a substitute, and she also experienced little pleasure doing so. She now had a conservatory diploma, but was not working as a musician. Instead, she worked with children who had to take recorder lessons before they could play a ‘real’ instrument – it felt like a pastime that lacked passion. Little did she know at the time that this was the end of a phase in which she did paid work.

We’ll hear more about Hester next week.

Aspects of (in)secure attachment – a team training

The training had been in the pipeline for so long and yet it just did not come about. Busyness on all sides, difficulty synchronising calendars, bottlenecks in budgeting… when would it happen? My contact person and I regularly got in touch in an attempt to prepare a team meeting in a concrete way, but that was it. Now that we had finally been able to find a date, from my passion for the subject I had of course eagerly said ‘yes’. The knowledge must go into the world! People have a right to receive insights that help them better understand their own grief and to understand where ‘bad habits’ come from! So yes, let’s get together with that group and share knowledge!

When I was preparing shortly before, I realised that we had not discussed any compensation for my work at all. I dropped the financial issue into the app. “Would you like to call?” was the answer. After a few minutes the conclusion was: “If I have to agree a fee on such short notice, they will probably say that the training should not take place, so if you insist, we will have to cancel and look for a new date.” We sat on opposite sides of the line together in a deadlock. Was this what we wanted? No. Did we understand each other’s point of view? Yes. We then brainstormed together, focussing on a solution. Providing training that supports both residents and their counsellors in trauma-sensitive attitudes – that is simply adding value and that deserves a fair reward, even if it is difficult to free up budget. Running a healthcare institution in a way that departs from the standard protocol forms and does much more justice to the individual stories – that is simply adding value and that deserves a fair budget, even if it is difficult to find. How might we address the dilemma caused by what was experienced as an overall lack of money? We found a nice solution: I would provide the agreed training and in return we would schedule a meeting with the director of the foundation to explore how my expertise could be used more broadly and lead to a paid training series for the entire organization. A remedial educationalist and a group leader would also be present at the now planned training, so that they too would get an impression of what I had to offer. So we agreed and we were mutually happy with this decision.

The day was there; I called my contact person to say that I had arrived at the premises. He did not answer. I waited a while and called again: “Yes, I will be right there, but we are in a very heated meeting and I cannot leave right now. Have a seat downstairs.” Phew… I clearly felt the tension. A moment later he came down: “Hi! Good to have you here! Yes, it was quite intense and I cannot say a word about it – it was that complicated. Come on, I will take you to the room.” We walked upstairs and I entered the training room. It was noisy and still pretty filled with people. Some had gone out for a cigarette or to get some air, but the tension was still there. I unpacked my bag, connected my laptop, laid out the materials to be handed out and poured myself a cup of tea. I was curious what would happen.

When everyone was inside, I handed out a print of the Mood Meter developed by Marc Brackett. I said that as far as I understood that they had all had a rough meeting and that it makes a lot of difference what your mood is when you work together. That is why I said I wanted to do a round to gauge that mood. A lot came up: worried, irritated, restless, disappointed, pessimistic, pissed off, despondent, tired, shocked, angry… Fortunately, there were also some people who mentioned that they felt calm, relaxed, hopeful. However, the high, unpleasant energy clearly prevailed. I explained that if that sets the predominant mood, it is probably more difficult to pay attention, stay focused, and absorb new knowledge. I said it is nice if there are also people in such circumstances who can stay calm and who can help to co-regulate the restlessness of others, so that together you can return to a more calm, less stressful state of mind.

So already after five minutes we were fully immersed in everything that has to do with secure and insecure attachment, with stress regulation, with balanced functioning, with whether or not you can empathise with what the other person is going through and what they need. It was good to know this; this inventory helped me enormously, because I noticed that the mood was a bit wild and unhinged. They all had had to keep their heads together in the meeting and, after the break that was actually too short, they had not really calmed down at the start of my training. Therefore, I felt no annoyance or impatience when I noticed that they began to go back and forth, responding to each other’s input with teasing and humorous remarks. They had yet to rage. This was not about me; this was about the problem they had been discussing and what it had stirred up in them.

Nevertheless, the team leaders wanted them to learn something from my story and after a few minutes everyone was asked to try and maintain their focus again. I asked them to get up and arrange themselves in alphabetical order and answer three questions in pairs: name, age, and place of birth; the most difficult thing in contact with other people; the main goal in their work. After some puzzling, they all had a conversation partner and they exchanged exuberantly. They were then asked to introduce their neighbour to me, and here, attachment-related aspects also came to light. How difficult or easy is it to listen carefully and reproduce what the other person has told you? How open are you in answering the questions? How vulnerable do you dare to make yourself? Do you like to talk or do you prefer to listen? Does it feel like an opportunity or a threat to tell something about yourself? Do you implicitly encourage the other person to open up by revealing yourself first or do you give socially desirable answers? Do you have to think long and hard about your personal characteristics and ideals or are they perfectly clear to you?

The feedback showed distinct differences in the degree of vulnerability that everyone had been able to muster: self-protection is still indispensable sometimes. At the same time, there were wonderful similarities. It was great to hear that there was so much motivation across the board to make a positive difference for residents and clients. There was also a clear drive to eradicate injustice, to provide quality of care, to encourage trust, fairness and safety.

When explaining ACEs, I handed out the score sheet. To ensure the safety and privacy of all the people present (especially after the frenzied meeting that I suspected was linked to ACEs), I added a small blank piece of paper for people to write their scores on. Folded and then handed to me, they did not have to say anything out loud and even I did not know which score was whose. Still, the scores were impressive. Fortunately, there was also five times a zero, but also a 6, a 7, twice an 8, a 9 and twice a 10. A group of about twenty people and seven people with a 6 or higher… that is quite something. That means there is a lot of spicy life experience in the team, to put it euphemistically. It was therefore not very surprising that halfway through my story some people left. The combination of the meeting and what I had to say was too much for them. The team leaders handled it admirably. It was explicitly stated that everyone was allowed to take care of themselves and that leaving the meeting had no consequences for their position in the team.

One of the team members was Joy, whose story we published as a blog last week. The team listened attentively to her, despite how fatigued many of them were. This was their colleague and she spoke openly about the misery she had endured. Many praised how she uses her own experience in contact with residents and how her raw childhood experiences are extremely valuable in this regard. It was my pleasure to present her with a copy of José Al’s book on childhood trauma, as a thank you for her blog and encouragement for her work.
The training will certainly be continued soon and I look forward to supporting these motivated people in their important work!