Monday, February 3, 2020

How a Self-Defense Program Made Me a Better Trauma Therapist, Part 1: Finding My Voice

I spoke to my “attempted rapist” after I’d landed multiple kicks to his face and groin. I confessed to him—an instructor acting as an assailant— that I fear raising my voice in public because I’m afraid to appear rude, dramatic, or “crazy.” I had the heartbreaking realization that I’d rather risk being harmed than offend someone.

Two years ago, I completed IMPACT Chicago’s Core Program, where “participants learn and practice a range of tools and strategies to increase their choices when faced with uncomfortable, intrusive, or dangerous situations.” I’d recently moved to Chicago from a small town in Missouri, so I planned to take a simple self-defense class in order to feel more confident walking alone at night. Instead of a simple class, I found myself in the midst of a life changing experience. 

As a trauma therapist, my voice is a valuable tool. I use my voice to foster safety, connection, acceptance, and growth. I’ve spent years teaching my clients how to create and communicate healthy boundaries designed to keep them safe. Yet, I focused too much on words - which is only one part of using one’s voice. IMPACT taught me the importance of expressing intent by focusing on the volume and tone of one’s voice. I learned that I can use the perfect words, but if my expression doesn’t match my intent, my message will not be effectively conveyed. There is a noticeable difference between the phrases: “Stand back” and “STAND BACK!” Same words, different meaning. To feel comfortable using my voice in order to promote my safety, I needed to address the obstacles that had been in my way. 

There are many reasons why people are hesitant to use a heightened volume and tone of voice in public to promote their safety. The most common obstacles that I’ve seen from my clients are trauma, anxiety, sexism, racism, a lack of trust in the legal system/law enforcement, and low self-worth. I discovered that my own obstacles were sexism and trauma. Society taught me that a woman who yells, regardless of the reason, is unstable. So, having internalized societal expectations, I almost never raised my voice. In addition, my parents taught me that yelling and/or a firm tone of voice is a warning from someone who is planning to harm you. Thus, my trauma response is to not yell or sound firm so that I don’t harm anyone or give them the impression that I will. IMPACT taught me how to yell and be firm by having me repeatedly practice yelling boundary-setting phrases with my peers. It was extremely uncomfortable, and at times I froze up and couldn’t speak. But, the more I yelled, the more comfortable I felt using my voice. 

After IMPACT, I began to place less focus on my client's words and greater emphasis on their vocal expressions. I started encouraging my clients to practice using their voices during their therapy sessions. These interventions consisted of role playing, desensitization behavioral exercises, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), and somatic experiencing. One of my favorite exercises is having clients scream a neutral word in session, then in public. They chose a word that’s not threatening, offensive, or one that could be perceived as indicating an emergency. Words such as, “SWEATERS!,” “TACOS!,” or (because my practice is based in Chicago) “COLD!” This exercise has helped my clients not only to practice using a loud voice and firm tone in public, but it desensitizes them to any anticipated negative consequences associated with using their voice. Yes, people may judge them or stare at them. But, there usually aren’t any significant consequences and this intervention can help clients become more adept at using their voices to protect themselves.

I learned that the more that I’m able to use my voice, the more my clients feel safe to use theirs. 

This post was first published HERE. Reprinted with permission from Amanda Gregory.

Amanda Ann Gregory is a psychotherapist, author, and speaker. She practices in Chicago and specializes in trauma, attachment, and anxiety treatment. She has written for Highlights Magazine, Addiction Professional, Adoption Today, Holistic Parenting, New Therapist, and Psychology Tomorrow.

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