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!

Webinar and question session regarding ‘The Myth of Normal’ with Gabor Maté

A week ago, we gathered with a few people to listen to a webinar with Gabor Maté as the main guest, organised by Science & Nonduality (SAND). Gabor answered questions about his new book, ‘The Myth of Normal’, written with his son Daniel, and related themes. I would like to share some of the topics that were discussed.

The session begins with some general reflections. It talks about how important it is to first establish that you are suffering, that you are not happy. When there is pain, it is good to be curious about the source of your suffering without judgment (‘compassionate inquiry’). Compassionately examining your own anxiety and loneliness is the first step to healing. Books, therapy, body-oriented exercises, and spiritual practices such as meditation and the like can also be helpful.
In everything you undertake within a social context, it is good to remember that every system (relationship, family, work environment, society) is intent on maintaining itself, among other things by reinforcing beliefs that guarantee the survival of that system. Beliefs and attitudes that tamper with the system are ‘difficult’. If you do not share the values of the system or oppose them, you are unlikely to achieve a position of influence within that system. This is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to change toxic dynamics in a system.
There is certainly also a cultural component in this: there are ‘indigenous tribes’ where there is ‘intelligent governance’, leading the community in a way in which it is not tolerated that leaders primarily serve their own goals. If that happens, they lose their position of power.

During the reflections, among the approximately 800 participants, quite a few Zoom hands have already gone up in the air from people who would like to ask a question, which will fill the rest of the webinar.
One of the first questions is about the relationship between parents and children when there is disagreement and constant hassle. How do you handle that? How do you ensure a more harmonious interaction? Who bears what responsibility? It is discussed that parenting is not a democratic institution, since adults simply bear responsibility for their children, whom they supervise and about and for whom they have to make decisions. There is a certain degree of hierarchy and dominance. Where things go wrong is when it amounts to exploitation or coercion, when children obey under the pressure of fear of sanctions. A distinction is made between authoritarian and authoritative parenting: dictatorial or tyrannical (which leads to struggle and resistance) versus naturally inducing respect and showing involvement (with fairness, good sense, and understanding). There is also a difference between the role of ‘parent’, with a certain hierarchy, and the relationship between parent and child, in which equality is the essence.

In this part of the webinar, Gabor also refers to a presentation by him and Daniel together in 2016, entitled ‘Hello Again’, in which father and son both give a talk, are then interviewed and subsequently answer questions from the audience. (Anoter, very recent edition of such a conversation can be found here and there are more.) These conversations are both hilarious and profound. Daniel begins the 2016 interview by saying that he feels blessed to have a father who is so much ‘willing to look at himself’ and is ‘reflective’. ‘Kids’, says Daniel, ‘get the message under the words’ and that is why it is often difficult to have a conversation about what really matters, as there is so much beneath the words that perhaps even the parent is unaware of. It is good and pithy to remember that in an adult relationship there is no 50/50 responsibility for the interaction, but that both partners bear 100% responsibility for their own part.

The mother who asks a question during the webinar about her daughter, with whom everything is now very difficult, feels a lot of powerlessness and anger. When she talks to Gabor, his quickly concludes: “Your child is not your problem. Your trauma is your problem.” A short conversation follows and the mother soon becomes very emotional because she realises that there is indeed still a lot of pain from her own childhood. She gets the warm encouragement to seek help so that she can feel more peaceful and then really be there for her daughter, so that she herself first gets what she can’t give right now.

A young man would like to learn how to drift less, how to master that his ‘tuning out’ is no longer his standard response to complicated situations. Two years after starting his studies he dropped out and he now has a part-time job and is working to discover and heal his trauma so that he can continue on his way through life. He realises that there are ADHD symptoms. Gabor’s estimate is that there was a lot of stress with his parents during his childhood; there also appears to have been anger and shouting. Only by dissociating could his brain protect him against all that. Therapy will be important for his recovery. What also matters, is taking good care of his body, living a life that supports his health. In addition, he can train his mind, for example through meditation. Developing more awareness for the moments when he dissociates is also helpful. These approaches together provide a form of ‘reprogramming’ of the internal environment.

Another woman is also looking for more inner balance. There is a calm exchange of thoughts and then Gabor refers to the idea that had lived in him for so long: “Everybody can heal, but not me.” This idea, he says to his conversation partner, who is now in tears, is a trauma imprint. It is the wounded child in us that struggles to believe that healing is possible, after all those years when things felt painful, when expectations were not met, when fear prevailed, when our needs were not seen and when our brain developed on the basis of those experiences. In addition, it is very difficult for sensitive children to see and perceive things that the important adults around them do not see or do not speak about, while this energy continues to resonate in the system.

Short conversations are held with various people throughout the webinar and it is impressive to see how gently their problems are approached, how they are kept ‘on topic’ and how there is a constant appeal to their inner wisdom.
By no means are all questions addressed – the hour and a half are insufficient for that. Gabor suggests a sequel shortly and Zaya and Maurizio from SAND are happy with that offer.
Last Monday, I received the replay link, but you must be logged in and registered and have donated to watch the webinar again. Sharing that link is therefore not very useful. The email also contained a few resources mentioned during the webinar that I am happy to share:

·       Mari Swingle book: I-Minds: How Cell Phones, Computers, Gaming, and Social Media are Changing Our Brains, Our Behavior, and the Evolution of Our Species

·       Dr. Shimi Kang book: The Tech Solution

·       Dr. Gabor Maté book: Hold on to Your Kids

Would you like to join one of the webinars…? Check out the SAND website for the dates and topics. We wish you lots of inspiration with the ‘Hello Again’ conversations linked above and good and loving conversations based on compassion with your dear ones in the week ahead! We look forward to seeing you again in 2023!

Compassionate Inquiry – an exercise

Last week we concluded the book review of ‘The Myth of Normal’ with Part 5.
In it we also mentioned an exercise in ‘compassionate inquiry’. We would like to take a closer look at this.

The Dutch saying goes that ‘voorkomen’ (prevention) is better than ‘genezen’ (curation). However, there is another approach that precedes prevention: amplition. The word ‘amplition’ comes from the Latin verb ‘amplire’, which means ‘to magnify’, ‘to increase’. Amplition is about giving more attention to what gives you strength and keeps you healthy. It is a very salutogenetic approach: you look at the question of what causes health (saluto-genesis). That’s a different approach than being concerned with what you should avoid in order not to get sick.

An important element of your daily well-being is meaningfulness: you can be physically as healthy as possible and have so many material things around you… when life seems meaningless and you feel no purpose or importance in the things you do, then your well-being will drastically decrease. Meaningfulness is also sometimes referred to by the Japanese term ‘ikigai’, that which gets you out of bed, your ‘raison d’être’, that which makes you happy and satisfied, that which gives meaning to your existence. Therefore, it is valuable to keep a finger on the pulse of your authenticity in this, whether you know and pursue your ikigai, or whether you let yourself be kept away from it for all kinds of reasons. (We will shortly review a book on ikigai soon.)

If you notice that you do not experience enough meaningfulness, you can talk yourself down: “Done nothing useful again, didn’t work hard enough again, what a sucker I am, why can’t I get it done, I can do this no, I’m too stupid/lazy/incompetent for it, this will never work”… and whatever else you can come up with. Many of us have grown up with that voice in our heads of first someone else (often a parent or teacher or boss), which later passes silently into our own ‘inner critic’, the voice that constantly judges your actions negatively – condemns them, an ‘intruder’. With this approach you are not being very kind to yourself. It is probably not the way you would talk to a dear friend. Can that be done differently…? Can you learn to handle that in a more compassionate way? Yes, that is possible!

Chapter 28 of The Myth of Normal provides you with a compassionate inquiry exercise that you can do all by yourself. You don’t need a therapist or expert for it. You can get started with it on your own, with a frequency that suits you and that you may slowly increase if you notice that the exercise is doing you good. How does it work?
You sit down regularly, at least once a week but preferably more often, to answer a number of questions honestly to yourself while writing. These questions are the following six:

Question 1: In my life’s important areas, what am I not saying no to, although I do feel a to?

Question 2: How does my inability to say no impact my life?

Question 3: What bodily signals have I been overlooking? What symptoms have I been ignoring that could be warning signs, were I to pay conscious attention?

Question 4: What is the hidden story behind my inability to say no?

Question 5: Where did I learn these stories?

Question 6: Where have I ignored or denied the yes that wanted to be said?


Ad 1
Where did you feel a no, but did you hold it in or did you say yes, although you did not support it? With whom and where is it difficult to say no? And if you do say no, can you feel comfortable, determined, guilt-free? Do you blame yourself afterwards for your no? What price do you pay for your yes, if you wanted to express a no?

Ad 2
An unspoken, but desired no, can have all kinds of consequences: physical (back problems, insomnia, stomach ache, fatigue, headaches and more), emotional (sadness, fear, boredom, loss of joie de vivre and sense of humour) and relational (resentment towards the other, estrangement from loved ones, aloofness, lack of libido).

Ad 3
The aforementioned physical effects are important to observe. After all, when stress arises in your body, you become more susceptible to illness and chronic social and health problems. The body often tells clearly what it likes and what it doesn’t like, but we often forget or are afraid to listen to it and take the signals seriously. Understandable: their meaning can be intense.

Ad 4
Behind your unspoken no there are often different beliefs, which together form a story that you tell yourself over and over again to explain, justify, and rationalise your choices. Your choices and stories therefore seem ‘normal’ and true. They are also almost always consistent with your life experiences, but they deserve a closer look.

Ad 5
Our self-image usually forms early in life under the influence of how our closest attachment figures interact with and respond to us. We are not born with a negative self-image, so to speak. We often take things personally when they are not. This question invites you to honestly examine where your story has to be maintained and where it is allowed to change.

Ad 6
When you do not dare to show your authenticity, you probably do not say no to certain things, even though they do not suit you. Conversely, you may not say yes to what would feed your happiness in life. Maybe you are afraid of reactions from your environment. Maybe you think you’re not worthy of certain things. Maybe there are beliefs that make you think you shouldn’t do something. However, our ‘ikigai’, our purpose for meaning, wants to be expressed. When it just slumbers inside, it either kills our creativity or explodes in a very clumsy way. Expressing it, putting your goals into the world, saying yes to them, can have a strong healing effect on your well-being and health.

It is a simple yet complex exercise, if only because it demands some discipline: it requires you to make time for it on a regular basis. Above all, it asks that you be honest and that you literally dare to face what you have to say to yourself. You write, you give words to your feelings, you write down what you have observed in your body in the past week or the past few days. You may see certain themes come up again and again and with others you can be relieved to see that you are making progress, that you are taking yourself seriously, that it makes your body happy.
I have begun; I have chosen a nice, inviting booklet in which I have written down the six questions on the first page as a reminder. I experience writing from compassion as a pleasant process throughout the week. It makes me more aware and that is the beginning of all forms of change, including those on the way to more peace and well-being in your life. In other words… highly recommended!

Powerful inspiration, beautiful cooperation, and courageous steps

Thursday 29 September was an intensive day with beautiful, inspiring conversations and encounters!

The day started with the first team meeting with colleagues from the IkiBuntu Foundation, with whom ACE Aware NL will collaborate intensively in the coming period.
I met one of the founders, Ilona Schra, during my fieldwork for the master Medical Anthropology & Sociology. We were together at the same meeting about a research project on the concept of Positive Health, where she was present as a student for the master Healthy Aging. We started talking, met a number of times afterwards and turned out to have a lot in common in terms of views on health and what it takes to lay a solid foundation for it through fulfilling the basic needs of children. She and her fellow student Wout Peters subsequently set up the IkiBuntu Foundation, whose six pillars are a supportive network, nourishing food, natural exercise, consciously relaxing, living a meaningful life and waking up well-rested. The name comes from the merging of two beautiful concepts, namely the Japanese ‘ikigai’ and the African ‘ubuntu’.

Ikigai is about meaning. What do you get out of bed for? What drives you? What things are worth living for? Four elements come together in it: what you love (passion), what the world needs (mission), what you can be paid for (profession) and what you are good at (vocation). If they all come together in what you do, then you have found your ikigai!

Ubuntu is a concept that roughly translated means ‘I am because we are’ and is broadly about humanity, about service to the community of which you are a part. You can define this community small and large (your family, your neighbourhood, your work environment – ​​the world!), but the core is that as a person you are connected to humanity as a whole. It is about not feeling threatened by others, but being confidently aware of your own value for the whole, making your unique contribution to that whole and feeling that with the suffering of a part of humanity, humanity as a whole gets damaged and needs healing.

Both concepts, brought together in IkiBuntu, fit in beautifully with the seven pillars of ACE Aware NL: connection, compassion, courage, curiosity, confidence, kindness and resilience. These concepts are both a precondition for and a result of positive life experiences. How do we get there?
The formation of our world view starts very early, much earlier than often thought. When you are exposed to a lot of stress hormones in your mother’s womb, because she is having a hard time and has to endure a lot of adversity, then you, as an unborn baby, already get the sense that the world is a threatening place. Your mother’s stress hormones, reaching you directly via the umbilical cord and influencing your rapid development in the womb, make you establish a stress regulation system that is on alert from the start.

If the living conditions after your birth do indeed turn out to be stressful and worrisome, that early imprint is confirmed again and again; it then becomes deeply ingrained. Your worldview is intensely coloured by traumatic early experiences and probably influences your behavioural patterns as well. Under difficult circumstances this is ‘adaptive’, helping and supporting. However, it often later becomes ‘maladaptive’, hindering and undermining. It takes a toll on your entire organism, on the constant feedback between all your organ systems. That has an impact on the beliefs with which you go through life. Those convictions are not a conscious choice, but a ‘default setting’, a basic attitude that is based on your very earliest experiences. This can lead to beliefs such as ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘I can’t do this’, ‘I can’t count on anyone when it comes down to it’. Such thoughts make it difficult to reveal your spontaneous personality and your radiant authenticity. They are trauma reactions to what you had to deal with at the beginning of your development and which left you feeling overwhelmed because of the lack of support.

These kinds of beliefs and the behaviour that can result from them in the form of aggression, defenses, reticence, unhealthy lifestyles, addictions and even crime, therefore have a neurophysiological basis: your brain and your other organs are constantly in survival mode from a deep sense of insecurity. In that mode it is very complicated and almost impossible to focus on things like logical thinking, developing more patience and changing unhealthy behaviours. Your only goal is: to survive, to keep yourself upright, with everything you think is necessary for that and what helps you with it.

That is why it is important that everyone who cares for others, in whatever environment, is aware of these developmental processes. Knowledge about this helps enormously to interpret certain behaviours in a correct way. Why is your child ‘suddenly’ hot-tempered? Why are you jumping out of your skin? Why is your colleague being so snappy? What is the reason the doctor does not listen to you? Where does your customer’s aggression come from? Being aware of possible underlying stressors and then responding appropriately to the other person is the core of what we call a trauma-sensitive approach. You take into account that the other person’s stress system is overloaded by adverse experiences. That can also help explain a person’s behaviour pattern. This is often about behaviours resulting from that early imprint of lack of safety and security: fight, flight, freeze, fawn.

This is not a simple matter. That childhood was not as cheerful as we like to remember is often unconsciously present like a pink elephant in the room. Yet we do feel that there is something very great and essential that burdens and hinders us or the other. The emotions that accompany this are often suppressed for all sorts of reasons. They remain unspoken, with all the consequences that this has for the immune system that does feel that stress, even if it is not made explicit. Many people get stuck in healthcare and in therapies due to the lack of attention and recognition for the early childhood trauma they have gone through. They carry that with them and it has (had) an impact on their neurophysiology and stress regulation.

The effects of suppressed emotions… that is the core of what the Emovere Foundation focuses on. After the great team meeting, I took the train to Ede last Wednesday, where in the afternoon and evening Emovere’s fourth friends meeting took place. The plenary sessions, the documentary about the road that Michelle Kraaij took to recovery, the workshops that were given in two rounds… they all had one vision in common: it is important to view pain complaints as signals from the body and to look for the underlying emotions.

It is essential that we recognise that by the time that, as humans, we move into any external setting, we have already spent a crucial formative time in our family of origin. That family was our beginning, the place we depended on as babies, as children. We therefore feel a lot of loyalty to that place and the people who belong to it. That also makes it understandable that a lot of resistance can be felt against looking for the cause of current (emotional and physical) pain in that place and those people. That old, sometimes all-encompassing sadness you feel… holding open or facing the possibility that it originates in your own origin… that hurts.

It takes courage to dive deeply into that, to where it gets dark and uncomfortable, but where also lies the key to insight, wisdom and healing. The injury arose in a social environment where the interaction did not go well. For healing, it is invaluable to build an environment where compassion prevails and an understanding of how the injury can affect a person’s life in an intensely sad way. You deserve to find and gather people around you who understand that, who don’t try to fix you, but just listen to your story first.
That’s what ACE Aware NL is committed to and we think it’s great that the film ‘Resilience’, which explains all this so impressively, is the center of the lunch webinar by Alles is Gezondheid, ProScoop and the Emovere Foundation in collaboration with ACE Aware NL.

Would you like to know more about it and plan a training or presentation for your organisation? Let us know; we would love to talk to you to work out the details together!

Zomergasten (Summerguests): the body and the experiences that are not forgotten

In the last week of August, in the run-up to the impending broadcast of ‘Zomergasten’ (‘Summer Guests’, an interview programme since 1988), there was commotion around the core figure of the three-hour conversation. Three academics had a warning for the Dutch people, which led to lively discussions on social media. In the last episode of the season, the stepping-down presenter Janine Abbring would receive as a guest the world-famous psychiatrist, scientist and author Bessel van der Kolk (1943), a man with Dutch roots who has lived in the United States since the early 1960s and has created furore as a pioneer and expert in the field of trauma. He did this, among other things, through his roles as an adviser or expert witness to international investigations and trials, such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after the end of apartheid and on the road to democracy. His acclaimed book ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ (translated into Dutch as ‘Traumasporen’, trauma traces) has as its core message that the intellectual brain is sometimes so overwhelmed by events that it uses the mechanism of dissociation as a survival strategy. The emotional charge of the experiences is deeply buried so that the one who endured the events can somehow continue with life. Conscious experience of the trauma would be too painful, too unbearable. However, the body has gone through all that toxic stress, and those experiences affect stress regulation, brain development, neurophysiology and thus the immune system, resulting in a range of potential social and health problems. The body carries everything with it: the body keeps the score. This view is clearly not yet universally accepted.

The three authors of the Volkskrant article (a professor, an emeritus professor and an associate professor) stated that Van der Kolk might be given room in the program “to spread incorrect and dangerous ideas” about repressed memories (de Volkskrant, 26th August 2022). They stated that he “makes a living popularising that idea” that traumatic memories are repressed and that many therapists who believe this are talking people into believing they went through all kinds of abuse and misery. They tell their patients that the physical and psychological symptoms they report to a psychiatrist “have arisen because they were once abused but the memory of it is hidden in their subconscious mind.” This approach would lead to “fake memories of abuse”. The client does not heal, but is “talked into a made-up traumatic past”, according to the article. The academics said they feared “disastrous consequences (…) for patients and their families”.

And then it is Sunday evening, August 28, and I’m going to sit down properly. I want to hear this man, because I know his work, which is in line with that of other big names in the field, and I am curious about what he will provide the Dutch public with in terms of knowledge, considerations and visual material.
It is impressive, and when I watch the broadcast a second time, I am even more moved. Here is a true expert speaking, a man humble in all his wisdom, who, with humility and self-reflection, tells the story of elements from his field and reveals aspects of his life, and who scrutinises both himself and patterns of interaction. The still ongoing ignorance, despite the extensive research, does not go unmentioned either. Already in the first few minutes he tells that PTSD was still defined in 1980 as a very rare phenomenon. “That says something about how blind we were to the misery in the world”, he concludes. Later in the broadcast, he fears that little has been learned from Harry Harlow’s studies with monkeys in the 1950s and 1960s, based on the work on attachment by John Bowlby, who was a good friend of Van der Kolk. According to him, there is still too little attention for the suffering that many people go through and at two-thirds of the interview he wonders with some fierceness in relation to the Volkskrant article: “Who are those people who are so afraid of the reality about which I speak? Who are these people who don’t want to see how many children are being abused? Who are those people who cannot listen to what is going on in other people’s lives?”

Up to these critical questions, he has mainly been very mild and contemplative and shows film fragments that demonstrate how much the mutual relationships between people are coloured and marked by their life stories. With his first fragment, from the American television series Ted Lasso, he illustrates how important it is that people within groups and teams can tell the truth of their personal history in a safe way, in a secure setting. That history helps to explain why they sometimes behave rudely, lash out at others or build a wall around themselves, for example because their authoritarian father never allowed them to be weak. If attention is paid to this, says Van der Kolk, then people can use their idiosyncrasies for the greater whole and do not have to use them in a negative way against themselves and each other. When vulnerability becomes a virtue instead of a weakness, you can reflect on your own behaviour and learn to behave differently where necessary. However, you need the support of your social environment for that, because loneliness, he later says, is the most important aspect of trauma: “We are members of tribes, we belong together. We have to belong to someone, we have to have a home, especially as children, and if children do not find that protection at home with their parents, then they are alone in the world and then they have to find some kind of adaptation. A child usually says, “This is happening because I’m a bad person.” What arises is a lifelong sense of ‘there’s something wrong with me, or they would never have done this to me’. Not being seen is the most difficult thing for a child. The feeling that everyone is acting as if nothing is wrong, that the interests of the adults are more important than what happens to the child, that those adults cannot find the courage to bring things up: that is the real trauma. The child has no choice, no other reality, no other possibilities and therefore blames themselves for bad events. That leads to deep loneliness: ‘I am different, I don’t belong here, I can’t be here, I am a bad person, I deserve what happens to me.’ Such a belief becomes a major problem as you get older. Such trauma carries on for generations.”

He uses all kinds of fragments to show and explain how traumatic experiences become fixed in the body, how they keep coming back via different sensory perceptions, associated with deep emotions. People get stuck in that event as if it were happening today, instead of the event being experienced as something from the past that no longer poses any danger. That is why, he says, talking alone is often not enough, and sometimes it is just impossible because it triggers too much pain. That is why he has done more experimental research than anyone else into all kinds of body-oriented therapies and why he has also been cautiously enthusiastic about the results that can be achieved with psychedelics for some time now: “Under the influence of them, people can sometimes finally find words for themselves and their story and above all, they experience compassion for what they have experienced. Humans are meaning-making creatures; as a therapist you don’t have to put anything into them. Listening attentively and not judging is enough. When there are people who offer you a safe setting for your story, psychedelics can be extremely helpful. You then see other dimensions of your own life and of yourself.” In line with that, at another moment: “People usually do not want to remember bad things at all and that is why it is very difficult to talk people into things. By really feeling in your body what things have done to you and are doing now, you can learn to see and do things differently. You can learn to let go of the role and the beliefs you grew up with. If you cannot tell your own truth, it all gets stuck in your body and your heart will break. Then you will break other people’s hearts with your anger and bitterness. Connection is indispensable for us as humans.”

There is so much more worth mentioning. We therefore sincerely recommend watching the replay of the broadcast, so that everyone can decide for themselves about Bessel van der Kolk’s vision: is it ‘dangerous’ or urgently needed? You can watch (in Dutch) for a few more weeks via this link.

At least one question has remained unanswered: what would Van der Kolk, led by Ted Lasso, have thrown into the barrel as a sacrifice to exorcise the evil spirits…?! 😉