Pondering Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a word that we hear thrown around a lot, but what does it really mean and how important is it in the context of trauma?

Typically, the word “forgiveness” is used to describe the arrival at a state of peace, that involves a letting go of anger and resentment towards someone who has harmed us.  In the context of trauma, we tend to think of an abuser, perpetrator, or even an event.  We also tend to talk about forgiving ourselves.

All of these ways of talking about trauma seem to elude to a particular trajectory with an endpoint where we are healed, calm and wise. Now I don’t doubt that this is possible, but I don’t think that forgiveness is an endpoint, a necessity or a feeling state that is static.

As humans we are fluid, dynamic beings who are in flux. We can feel many conflicting emotions at any given time, or alternating feelings from minute to minute.  Our emotions cannot be tidily stored in a box or arrive at a finish line. Today we may forgive someone who has harmed us, tomorrow our rage may arise again. For years we may feel a sense of relief and of having moved on, and then suddenly another layer of our trauma is peeled back and we feel mired in darkness and uncertainty again. We may have a sense of compassion for a perpetrator and simultaneously feel anger towards them. 

There seems to be a purity model that is associated with healing and moving forward. Society gives us the sense that we must cleanse ourselves of certain emotions or feeling states such as rage, animosity, or a desire for revenge.  

Despite our society ascribing to very linear models of healing and growth, the reality is much messier. We create words to make sense of things, to ease our fear and our suffering, but at the end of the day these concepts cannot capture our inner process and the complexity of being human. 

The Art of Boundary Setting

Setting boundaries, in order to better care for ourselves, isn’t always easy.  We live in a culture that expects us to do it all and have it all.  Listening to your body and slowing down aren’t associated with success and acclaim. Especially as women, we are expected to give to the point of depletion and then give some more.  Our identities tend to be tied to our credentials, creations and ability to multi task and manage. 

Finding a balance between giving to others, doing what needs to be done and making sure our own tank is full is a delicate art and most of us haven’t had this gentle  equilibrium modelled for us.  Perhaps we grew up in a home where taking care of others was a way to feel needed and important, or a home where we had to take care of everyone and take on a parental role far before it was developmentally appropriate. There are many family of origin scenarios that can make boundary setting particularly challenging.  So how do we break out of this rut and start tending to ourselves?

I like to think of a boundary as an energetic or physical field that can protect our vitality and emotional equilibrium.  Some common signs that we need to strengthen our boundaries are fatigue and anger.  When we tune into these states within ourselves, we often find that we have a felt sense of being overwhelmed, depleted or violated.  We may intuitively know that what is required of us is boundary setting but this can feel challenging, especially when we have beliefs around other peoples’ needs being more important than our own, or fears around not being loved if we say no.

Knowing what our boundaries are and honouring them isn’t always easy and can be a lifelong process that requires flexibility and attunement.  A simple place to start is to just notice when we feel run down, agitated or angry and allow ourselves to notice the quality of those feelings in our body.  Do we feel constricted in our chests? Tingly in our limbs? Just know that whatever those sensations are, we don’t need to change them.  They are important messengers that are giving us information about what we may need.  When we really listen we may notice that underneath the anger or fatigue there is grief, longing or fear that is driving us and making it hard to set a much needed boundary.  Think of this as a gentle process of noticing.  There is no pressure to change or do anything.  We can simply start by allowing ourselves to notice what we feel.  Asking ourselves what we may need, even if we don’t feel quite ready to provide it.  Start where you are. I trust that the rest will come.

A Different Kind of Mother's Day

What if we did Mother’s day differently?  Mother’s Day emphasizes saccharine displays of affection and appreciation, regardless of our authentic feelings. Today I’m imagining a mother’s day that allows space for grief as well as joy, for anger along with appreciation, for both longing and gratitude.  This is a call for connection.  Let’s focus on connecting with ourselves and those we love, even if it means skipping the platitudes and expectations.

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Becoming Trauma Informed

Often the word trauma conjures up very specific and dramatic events, but trauma can also be more insidious and subtle. For many, it's a childhood spent feeling unseen and unheard, despite the fact things looked normal to outsiders. For those with a history of trauma, accessing certain services can feel frightening and can prove to be a difficult and disappointing experience.

As a care provider, becoming trauma informed is a gateway to better client relationships and being able to offer more compassionate care.

Whether you are a naturopath, doula, midwife, massage therapist, acupuncturist, doctor or other care provider, there is a high likelihood that many of your patients or clients have experienced some type of trauma at some point in their lives. 


What does it mean to be trauma informed?

Being trauma informed means that you are educated about the nature of trauma and its multitude of effects on a person’s life.  It means tailoring your services so that you take the client’s reality into account and place a priority on their sense of safety and well-being.

What is trauma?

Trauma occurs when an individual feels emotionally and/or physically powerless, overwhelmed, unable to cope and cannot integrate the emergent feelings and sensations. This may be a single incident or it may be a long term environment that continually erodes a person's sense of safety and agency.

What is traumatic for one person may not be for another. It is a person's subjective understanding and experience of a situation that is critical. 

How is trauma experienced?

“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.”

― Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma


Here are some basic steps you can take to provide care that is more trauma informed:

1)      Recognize that trauma experiences are not rare or unusual events. Your client or patient may have a history of trauma that they may not disclose or even recognize as trauma.

2)      Make establishing safety a priority in all your client relationships by breaking down power hierarchies. 

a.       This can be done by emphasising a client’s right to make their own informed choices and putting the locus of control in their hands.  Consider all interactions to be a collaborative process.

b.      Learn about the impact of gender, race, sexuality, culture and class on people’s experience of trauma. Consider how these factors may affect your interactions with clients.

3)      Avoid judgement and shaming.  Many presenting problems or issues that a client is struggling with may be coping mechanisms that were adopted to get them through difficult or overwhelming circumstances.  Focus on the resilience that has allowed the client to get this far, and support them to increase adaptability by finding coping mechanisms that are better suited to present circumstances.


For more information on how to be a trauma informed practitioner, please contact me at andrea@andreapapincounselling.com

As a care provider, becoming trauma informed is a gateway to better client relationships and being able to offer more compassionate care.