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Head, Heart and Hands

by James Scott Smith, MS

James Smith, M.S., is a Founding Partner and therapist with Sexual Offense Resource Services, Denver, CO. Formerly a Clinical Administrator with Griffith Center in Larkspur, CO and Director of Day Treatment Services at The Sycamores in Altadena, CA. He specializes in the application of cognitive-behavioral principles to various treatment settings and currently treats male adolescent survivors of sexual and violent trauma.

Along the coast of southern California there lies a stretch of beach where the locals come to watch tourists meet an unsuspected fate. The shoreline looks the same as all the rest that stretches north and south as far as the eye can see. But beneath the surface of the water lies an irregularity that creates a oceanic phenomena called a "shorebreaker". During the height of the tide the surf interacts with the ocean floor and throws up an unusually high and thunderous wave, seemingly out of nowhere and without warning. Imagine being the tourist and you've come to dance ankle deep in the last whisper of a wave only to find yourself face down with a mouthful of sand and saltwater. When you finally orient yourself to the seawall you'll find a smiling local pointing to a sign that reads "Don't turn your back on the ocean".

Like the sand and the sea, our thoughts and feelings have interacted with one another since birth. Through the blended experience of nurture and trauma we have developed our internal shoreline, having our own irregularities, and with a unique expression of how we view ourselves, others and the world. For those of us who have been touched by sexual trauma, the interplay of thoughts and feelings can be as troubling as an unseen wave, disjointed from the time and space of current circumstances, often leading to patterns of ineffective behaviors that pin us down or make us timid in the face of a challenge.

This is a theoretical sketch that applies to the practice of recovery, surviving and thriving. We are interested in the elements of the human attitude that revolve around the soul of survivors of abuse. We want to learn more about how thoughts effect emotions which in turn drive our behaviors. In particular, we share a common task of moving alongside the client or friend who is living under the tyranny of anxious reactivity, a pervasive predisposition to see the bulk of life's dynamics as a clear threat to a fragile self, with accompanying debilitating emotions and ineffective behaviors.

Anxious reactivity is generated by thinking errors. Cognitive distortions shaped by the experience of trauma perpetuate the debilitating emotional response of helplessness, rage, depression, and fear. Our overt social behavior will be limited when generated by a head full of misperceptions and a heart full of pain.

Imposing truth on a distorted mindset is difficult work. Experience has taught us that grief can be avoided in a myriad of ways. The helper or interventionist carries the truth to the struggling client, making it safe for detailed disclosure. In context, the abuse episodes of childhood or beyond have played a role in the formation of the client's personality. The abuse episodes combined with the silence that follows are powerful, there is no question.

Healthy Intervention requires the incorporation of truth, instilling new reality in the very body of the recovering victim. We have seen and heard victims of sexual abuse share stories of compulsive behaviors. We often witness the physical armoring of obesity resulting from addiction to food. Alcoholism and drug abuse are common maladaptive alternatives to grieving one's way to fuller recovery. Power and control disorders that ruin marriages and other relationships can become insidious residents in the home and office. The survivor's hope is found in principles of health being patiently and tediously reconstructed into daily existence.

Grief is raw emotional reality crashing hard on the shoreline of conscious thought. The survivor gives a name to feelings of toxic shame, horror, abandonment, confusion, self-loathing, and rage. Tears are shed, the throat aches with a surge of release, the physiology of the client thaws in the presence of safe and challenging truth. When given a voice the interplay of overadaptive and primary feelings find it's way into expression and takes on new meaning. The hands are poised for healthy redirection while waiting "palms up" in the presence of grief.

Behavioral change can result from having accepted truth and continuing the grief work. But it is vital that the survivor be encouraged to use adequate doses of planful forethought when charting his new course. Often, it is necessary to set goals, make plans, repetitiously approach new challenges, and carefully assess the positive or negative results with a trusted helper. Creating "files" on success and failure anchors modified behavior into patterns more likely to allow for establishing healthier relationships with self, others, and the world.

Over the years of conscious recovery from abuse the survivor is challenged to grow toward a ever-deepening sense of creative integrity, a symphysis of the attitudinal components resulting in primary emotional experience and meaningful expression. Most major theories in the field of growth psychology offer a unique spin on the concept of one's head, heart and hands working together on behalf of their owner. Our quest is that of achieving this ongoing growth state.

Narrative repair is the cognitive piece in the cycle of creative integrity. It is the re-writing of the life story. The metabolized trauma remains only part of the script, not the main theme. Identity formation is centered on the truth, the principles of healthy growth and change over the life-span. Sexual trauma in one's personal history is included as tragic reality that is subject to more a powerful life-force of character development, forgiveness, resiliency and love. Survivors become thrivors as we demonstrate to the world around us that our belief system is positively focused and characterized by hope.

Proactivity and planful forethought concerning one's course of action is more likely when the attitude is driven by primary emotions. Descartes' classic ensemble of wonder, love, hatred, sadness, joy and desire are a reference point to which the thrivor can look when gauging one's emotional growth. These "abilitating" emotions are essential to healthy human interaction and spiritual expression.

Self-directed behaviors are self-evident. Each story of recovery is phenomenological. The thrivor manifests a unique expression of his own soul. Substantial healing from the wounds of sexual abuse allow the thrivor to give away from his self in charity and compassion without commiserating and without guile. Something good and of lasting value is bound to rise from the pain of voluntarily giving up the identity of victimhood and becoming a creator. The head, heart and hands of the thrivor combined in unified expression have a gift to offer his world.

The journey from a life-style of anxious-reactivity toward creative-integrity is not linear or simply chronological. Time and distance from the origins of abuse are not healers. We take each step simultaneously because we will always bear traces of reactivity while living a life characterized by ever-increasing creativity and integrity. Smug denial of the need to always grow and change is regressive behavior suggesting a need to explore the suppression of pain or the unwillingness to give up ineffective behaviors.

We are not tourists walking along our own internal shoreline. We have found it necessary to become sophisticated in the knowledge of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Below the surface of consciousness lies the irregularities that can create beauty and power instead of chaos and devastation. Integrity of thought, feeling and behavior allows us to read and heed the signs that say "Don't turn your back on the ocean".