As one of my teachers Janina Fisher writes about in her groundbreaking book, Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors, many of us have had to “fragment” in order to get by in our daily lives. As in, we compartmentalize parts of us that have experienced trauma, so we can carry on with what Fisher calls our “normal life selves” driving the bus of our actions and consciousness. However, when a trigger comes up, it can feel as though we are taken over by a traumatized part. This can look like a typical survival response, fight flight freeze fawn attach etc. Or, we can feel a different age, like a younger version of ourselves.

Internal Family Systems, developed by Richard Swartz, teaches that most of us, trauma survivors or not, actually contain these multitudes like a family contains different systems. We have different parts to our personalities (who interact like members of a family or group.) We can have parts like our perfectionist part, our wounded kid part (or inner child, IFS is a more complex version of inner child work) and more. No matter what, at the center of everything, this core self, that we can learn to connect with in order to center back to who we truly are, what our real desires and motives are at their truest form (I call my core self my Andrea-ness.) There are things in my life I know I would have loved without trauma (cooking, animals, nature, reading, writing, my queerness, the love I have for my body) and when I am connected to that part of myself I feel the most centered & embodied.

What typically ends up happening, is that we learn to reject certain parts of us. Either because they weren’t embraced or accepted (I banished my queer part after my first attempt at coming out failed, and she was locked away for 10 years, the longest period of time where I felt the least like myself, like my life was not mine) or because we don’t want to see the trauma they went through because it is painful & overwhelming. Oftentimes, we develop protector parts. These parts step in front of wounded, kid parts to keep them safe. We can find ourselves living life in these protector modes, whether it be through codependency, perfectionism and overworking, or drinking, drug use, gambling, overspending, and dissociating. These protector parts learn survival coping responses to minimize pain, to distract us from our past or present trauma. The most dear, needing of love and care parts of us get shoved somewhere that our protectors believe they will be safe. However, this cuts us off from ourselves and makes those hurt parts feel even more unloveable.

Getting to know our parts means learning who these protectors are and who these wounded, banished parts are, and sending both parts love and compassion. They have truly stepped up (protectors, going on with life selves) to keep us safe, or they have retreated (wounded parts) to avoid further harm and to try and find safety. Getting to know these parts also means finding a language for how to best understand them for ourselves, cognitively. This is different for everyone. For me, I have my kid part, my teen part, my young 20’s part, and then my Andrea-ness. I also have some protectors in there like overworking & over scheduling, or my dear fight response. For others, they think about it purely as their survival parts (fight, flight, freeze, fawn, attach), and for some, they have their protectors and their wounded parts, each one with a different archetype (the lost child, the firefighter, the productive worker etc.)

Part of cultivating a relationship with these parts is also locating where they live in the body. For example, I know my kid part lives in my chest, and when my chest gets tight and I feel like I’m going to cry, she needs some love and attention. I know my protector part of overworking is in my sympathetic nervous system, and when I get too keyed up around planning and productivity, I need to ask her to take a step back.

We can get a little more control over these parts (instead of having them running the show) by locating them, finding out what they need, and asking them (or showing them with some somatic movement) to take a step back, so what Susan McConnell calls in her incredible text Somatic Internal Family Systems Therapy calls our “embodied self”, can take the driver's seat of our emotions and actions.

Utilizing our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that goes offline during trauma or a trigger, we can remind ourselves we have been hijacked by a part, and this consciousness brings our PFC back online, helping us get out of our emotion and survival brain (limbic system & brain stem.)

More than anything, we want to build a loving relationship with these parts, with so much understanding for what they have been through, why they are here, and find ways to give them what they didn't get. Love, compassion, a break, safety, awareness, a hug, creative time, time in nature, space to cry, space to be heard.

You can learn more on parts work in the books mentioned above and here (and stay tuned for an upcoming workshop!):

Self-Therapy By Jay Early

Self-Therapy Workbook by Jay Early

Radical Compassion by Tara Brach

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I always thought I hated the gym because something was wrong with me. I was broken, lazy, not athletic. As I’ve grown to learn more about the body and what we need to feel inside ourselves, I now understand my aversion (other than the obvious body shame and diet culture that happens there).

When we exercise to check a box, to complete a certain amount of time, to “do what we have to do”, we check out. The image I’m thinking is younger me, on a machine, watching TV and trying to pretend I wasn’t working out.

When our connection to movement isn’t about being inside of ourselves, completing that stress response cycle, and even having fun (yes it’s possible) we leave. Movement is a gift. For some people it very well may be running or lifting at the gym and if that’s you that’s wonderful IF YOU’RE INSIDE YOURSELF. Not necessarily for every single moment, but at least sometimes.

When we push through because we “should” we don’t get to connect with our bodies. We ignore our bodies signals of “stop this is boring” or even sometimes “stop this place is triggering”.

80 percent of our experience is processed through the body.

The things we read in books about healing, our sessions with healers/therapists, changes we are making in our lives, can be physically integrated through a practice of connecting with our bodies in a loving, mindful, and intentional way.

This can literally be breathing. Or self massage. Or stretching. It doesn’t have to be the biggest thing. But when we care for our physical selves, when we inhabit our bodies, when we gain mastery over something (a new skill, a new breath pattern, a new pose) or feel something click into place inside of us, or connect more deeply with ourselves, we heal.

Some ideas for trauma informed, body positive or neutral, and healing movement:

1. Do something with a friend! Activate that ventral vagal nerve that lights up when we are engaging with someone! Compliment each other. Ask beforehand what kind of compliments each of you wants, do they need to be only about skill or about a particular part of the body? Invite each other to connect with your bodies, together, i.e. “stay with that breath”, “we are here to have fun”, “you are so strong”.

2. Take a body positive or at least body neutral class! Still ventral vagal activation through having a teacher and classmates. Here, there are no phones, no screens, but plenty of connection! Call a studio ahead of time and ask about the language they use and the purpose of the class, i.e “Hello! Is this class going to use any language about weight loss?”, “Are there hands on adjustments in this class?”, “if this teacher body positive, neutral, trauma informed?”. When we advocate for our needs we also heal. If the class isn’t for you and is triggering, walk out. That in itself is deeply healing.

3.Get outside! Take a walk/run/hike. Breathe in fresh air. Connect with the earth which also lights up that ventral vagal!

4. Stay at home if it’s your safe place and check out someone like Yoga with Adriene whose on YouTube FOR FREE and very warm & positive.

5. Work with a body/queer/trauma informed trainer. There are so many wonderful folks out there who want to help you get strong, connect with yourself, and who won’t resort to body negative language to motivate you. People like Q GRIT Fitness & Decolonizing Fitness

6. Breathwork! Breathing is movement. When we breathe, we healing. When we breathe through discomfort, we build lung capacity and muscle in places that can help us re-pattern our body to breathe more deeply on a regular basis. Check out Jennifer Patternson’s new book The Power of Breathwork or a breathwork class near you.

7. Pick up Thomas Hanna’s book Somatics. It is full of low impact movement exercises to help you connect with your body and undo the every day physical trauma of living in this world. In no way is it about exercise or losing weight.

And again, whatever that practice is needs to be affirming for your body, as it is, today. Having any other frame can release stress hormones and totally defeat the purpose of this important practice. You deserve to be inside your body in a way that is healing and exciting, not stress producing or shaming.

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Kink & BDSM have long been pathologized and stigmatized in the mental health community and general society. Wanting to incorporate intentional power, pain, bondage, and dynamics have been viewed as due to someone’s trauma history or mental illness. However, more therapists such as myself and other folks in the BDSM community have been making connections between somatic and relational healing, and kink. Regardless of someone’s trauma, which may look exactly like their kink or not at all, kink provides a container for a somatic & relational experience that can re-write our narratives about ourself, form new brain pathways, and help us return to our bodies. Below are some of the (many) ways BDSM & Kink can be framed for healing purposes if done within a safe and healthy relationship container (which could be a long term relationship or a carefully negotiated pick up play scene at a party!).

Experiencing a safe, predictable container.

Much like the therapy office, having the same day and time for an appointment, and discussing goals and treatment modalities with a therapist, kink can provide a similar safety container, if done in a safe place and with safe people. There is a scene, which is the time and space in which play happens, and before then planning between partners about what is ok and not ok to happen in that scene. There is predictability, which calms and heals the nervous system.

Completing our stress response cycle

Similar to other physical practices, kink can invite stuck traumatic stress energy that is pent up to be released. Through movement and expression, we release this energy that is no longer serving us. Here, we get to do this while also connecting to another person, and a larger community.

Connecting with our felt sense

Kink done well invites us to connect with our internal sensations. It asks us to be in touch with how things are feeling for us inside of our bodies, and name them to our partners, whereas other physical or sexual activity can never invite us to drop into embodiment.

Getting a corrective emotional experience or a “mismatch”

If we have experienced trauma, harm, or misattunement in the past (which I could argue everyone has), then kink can heal this due to the need for extreme attunement. Here, we get the experience of being attuned to. Here, we get to change our narratives about ourselves in relationship (it can be safe to be known, we can choose what happens to our bodies, we can set boundaries).

Getting to experience safe attunement

As mentioned above, here our attachment systems can get a new experience of someone being tuned into our emotions and sensations and needs, and having that be safe. During a scene, partners need to be aware of each other to an extreme level, and in a healthy dynamic, that leads to more closeness and better play. This is different than someone being attuned to you and using that knowledge as a way to manipulate or harm you further. This is also different than someone not attuning to you, and the experience of being abandoned or uncared for.

Kink & BDSM is another opportunity for embodiment and healing. To find out more, I have an hour long workshop available here for purchase and download.

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