As human beings move through life, it’s no secret that everyone is affected in some way by its challenges and tribulations. If you think about it, life is filled with unpleasant experiences and traumas that can greatly diminish your enjoyment and feelings of freedom in your everyday reality. This is what often brings people to the point where they seek therapy, coaching, or deep inner-investigation for the purpose of trauma healing with the ultimate goal of insightful meaning-making and, ultimately, post traumatic growth.
It can be enticing when a person begins their inner-work journey to delve deeply within to the core traumatic experience they believe keeps them stuck and unhappy. Though different psychological methodologies hold varying perspectives about how to best approach trauma healing, the “stacked brick” theory from my psychotherapeutic work speaks to proceeding with intentional care and patience. Even if your inner system grants you access to your deepest trauma on Day One (which it rarely does because of its bult-in self-protective mechanisms), it’s generally not a good idea to plunge head-first into deep trauma. This kind of rushed attempt toward healing can actually re-traumatize a person by exposing them to deep psycho-emotional material they may not be ready or fully resourced enough to tolerate.
Instead, I encourage my clients to proceed along their healing journey in layers.
As we move through life, collecting experiences of all kinds (including trauma), our adaptive human systems learn and evolve in unique ways depending on what we encounter. In so doing, we build layers within ourselves that protect us from the fragile and unstable feelings we encountered along the way when we met circumstances that were deeply painful and wounding. It tells us, Whoa! That was painful. Next time I am in a situation like that I’ll avoid the circumstances that resulted in my traumatization.
We might avoid certain relationships, armoring-up with protective behaviors like numbing and perfectionism, or disconnecting from reality in moments of dissociation and distraction. Our inner layers stack upon one another like bricks, burying the deepest, scariest experiences far beneath where they will remain contained and out of sight (though unhealed).
Trauma healing is the process of removing the bricks, one by one, with care and intention. When engaging this work it’s essential to remove each layer from the top-down. Here’s why: If you snag a brick from the bottom of the stack — maybe a troublesome old trauma with origins early in childhood or related to deep core identity — its removal could very well de-stabilize the entire stack and effectively collapse everything you adaptively constructed throughout the years to ensure your safety.
One of the main tenants in this method of trauma healing is that our systems do what they do for a very good reason. Most likely, everything we do is done to preserve and protect us — even if it may seem maladaptive or unhealthy on the surface. An example of this is excessive substance use. On the surface it may seem destructive and unhealthy, and it is. But deeper down it serves an important function. Perhaps the substance use is meant to numb and divert your attention from inner wounds that might paralyze you with fear or overwhelm if they were allowed to be felt. In such a case, it would be detrimental to de-stabilize the system by singularly treating the symptom of the problem (which would be the substance use) and neglect the core reason for the symptom in the first place (which would be the original trauma).
This is where layers come in. Our inner systems create sophisticated scaffolding to protect us by allowing us to only access facets of ourselves that feel emotionally, psychologically, and physically safe. The top layers are the most accessible and are the least disruptive if removed. Therefore they’re the most intelligent place to start.
Bit by bit, as you move through the layers of your inner world, your system will grant access into deeper and more profound healing. This process becomes increasingly effective as you build trust within yourself while you inquire, navigate, and respond to the inner wounds and ruptures you encounter. When you successfully identify and heal a layer, it naturally clears space for exploration into something deeper. Patiently and with care, this is how you develop a thoughtful container to tolerate the discomfort and insight that arises during the powerful process of trauma healing.
Elements of the container you develop can (and should) include the skillful support of a licensed therapist, certified trauma-informed coach, supportive community, and aligned relationships. Profound healing happens when we allow ourselves to receive the help and support of others.
Below is a checklist to consider if you’re ready to begin scaling the layers of your inner stack of bricks:
1. Start at a stable baseline. Are you emotionally and psychologically stable and in good mental health? If you have a mental illness, be sure that you’re being properly treated and that your medications are well managed. Trauma healing requires that you begin at a stable baseline.
2. Tap your network of support. Do you have a strong community based on friends, family, professional support, and loved ones who can help you process your experience? We heal best when we feel loved, cared for, and supported by trustworthy community.
3. Ensure that you feel fortified. Do you have capacity and space in your life for intense emotional and psychological content to be explored? If you are too busy, tired, or under-resourced, this work will feel exhausting and overwhelming.
4. Know what centers you. Are you familiar with the kinds of coping skills and creative expressive modalities that work best for you to process your emotions? Consider writing, being in nature, meditation, connection with loved ones, and other such resources. Trauma healing requires integration and processing.
Trauma healing is deeply meaningful and gratifying. It can open you up to wildly enhanced levels of peace, joy, and freedom when engaged with thoughtful care. Consider moving through your traumatic experience with attention to the layers within yourself, and potentially invite a skillful licensed therapist to guide and support you for greater insight and regulation. When you’re intentional about moving through life with a healing perspective, you positively impact your ability to learn from your past experiences and integrate them into meaningful wisdom you can use moving forward in your life.
Kate King is a licensed professional counselor, board-certified art therapist, radiant life coach, published author, professional artist, and creative entrepreneur. She expertly teaches a unique transformational healing strategy that integrates science, psychology, creativity, and spirituality. Her new book is The Radiant Life Project: Awaken Your Purpose, Heal Your Past, and Transform Your Future (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Nov. 1, 2023). Learn more at theradiantlifeproject.com.