A Safe and Necessary Distance for Healing


I woke up this morning to the crack of rumbling thunder in the distance. It was a compelling sound: close enough to see the storm, far enough away to watch it with interest and not fear. I am far away from home this week—working in Dubrovnik and my hotel room looks out over the Adriatic Sea. My room has a small balcony that is covered and I took my coffee out and sat and watched the storm as it dumped rain on the mountains across the way, as lightning shot down and thunder echoed along the coast. I am not sure why, but sometimes you can feel even safer, even more solid—when you are in a storm, but have just enough distance and safety to take it in. A safe distance from a storm can feel safer than when there is no storm at all.

For some reason, this storm so very far from home reminded me of how much I loved being in elementary school when there were thunderstorms. It would be nearly dark outside and you could watch the pouring rain through the big windows of the school, and yet inside it was bright and cozy and colorful. School was my safe place—so I think I could actually feel the dark and hear the thunder and experience myself holding what might have been otherwise frightening only because I had the safety and coziness of school to lean on.

It seems that in order to heal and hold what is hard, scary, or difficult that there is a requirement for a necessary safe distance.

Across our lives—no one escapes storms:  illness, loss, death, violence, grief, trauma. And when the storms of life hit you are in it: you are soaking wet, you are wind-whipped, tired, grief-stricken, terrified, anxious, angry, frustrated and disoriented. These storms often mark necessary times to seek shelter —to hunker down out of the storm. Hunker down enough to get through, to survive, and wait for the storm to pass.

But in the realm of healing from any real or repeated trauma I think that these storms—and their aftershocks tend to continue long after the actual storm. Sometimes weeks, sometimes months, sometimes years. The lighting continues to strike and the thunder continues to roll and your healing isn’t served by seeking shelter completely away from the storm, but rather the healing is served by being able to sit through the storms and observe them. And this is the healing of a necessary safe distance.

Last week I was working with some very tender and painful feelings—old storms, buried storms, storms that in the past had sent me running for cover—storms that I just wasn’t able to hold or to watch. And last week I had found just enough safe distance to sit and observe them— the storms were close enough to see, and loud enough to hear —there needs to be a certain clarity so that you can really see your storm.  And this clarity made it so that I could see them enough to talk about them. Describe them well enough that I wasn’t alone with them. They were close enough to see, but far away enough away so that I wasn’t as afraid—and I could stay still long enough to work with them. This necessary safe distance is such a special place and it can be such a hard place to find.

We don’t just find this safe distance within ourselves. We also, and maybe especially, find it within a relationship.  We can get some necessary and healing distance from our storm by talking to and connecting with another person—getting the story out of our heads and hearts and bodies and letting someone else see it: see it and hold it from their perspective. What is healing, what provides us some distance is not that they see it exactly from our point of view, which we often think of as the healing element, but rather that they can hold it from their point of view—that we can borrow this distance—even for a moment.

I think this might help those of us who are in the business of helping other people—whether we are therapists, counselors or parents or loved ones. It seems that there is a misunderstanding of empathy and what it means to help someone through a storm. While I both believe and teach that empathy requires us to see something from the perspective of the other, to feel what it feels like to walk in their shoes—and this is one of the necessary aspects of empathy— I also believe that what can be truly healing is that you can have empathy but also hold your center. You don’t lose your perspective entirely—you allow your perspective to be ballast, to create that necessary safe distance.  

And when you are the person who is being helped, it is important, and may even be comforting, to not only feel understood, but also to have a bit of space left open by the other so that your storm, your feelings, your experience are yours to observe, to hold and to see –that you can hold the whole of your experience and yet not do it alone. You have the benefit of another’s distance from your experience. To feel understood but also be able to see your problem from their vantage point.  I think we forget that in moments of empathy— there is a mutuality—there is the experience of the person who is experiencing the storm— but there is also the experience of the person who is listening and supporting and guiding—and part of the empathic healing comes not because the two people have the same experience suddenly, but because empathy allows the person who feels badly to both be understood and to borrow, even if for a moment—a necessary and safe distance from the storm.

© 2019 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD



Love, love, love

It is Valentine’s day. The day to celebrate love. And I suppose in some small way I want to put the word ‘love’ back in healing. I am all for science and I am all for modern medicine, but when we are talking about healing from trauma we are talking about healing trust and healing attachment and connection. We are talking about people trusting and connecting with other people and we are talking about people trusting and connecting with themselves.

For people who have been badly hurt, love seems a long way away. A country too far away to reach. A homeland one longs for.

I know there are lots of good treatments for much of what ails us physically and emotionally, but to that list or alongside that list we should add love.

The word ‘love’ gets tangled with romantic love and that is not what I am talking about, even if it is Valentine’s Day. Strong affection, attachment, devotion, enthusiasm for, fondness, tenderness, caring. Love isn’t the cure to trauma, but without it, it is hard to imagine healing. Love is what wraps what was wounded. Love is the cast that can hold that broken bone of the psyche steady as it knits back together. Love is what gets absorbed to rebuild what needs to be rebuilt. Love isn’t healing, but it is the raw materials needed to create it. Love is what is needed to, as Galway Kinnell states, “to reteach a thing its loveliness, to put a hand on its brow, of the flower, and retell it in words and touch, it is lovely, until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing.” 

For now, you don't need to do anything different except maybe alter your stance-- allow the word 'love' to hang out with all the other healing words you use. Allow yourself to imagine the possibility that love can support your healing. It is both the way in, and the the goal, all at the same time. Play with it. Wonder about it. Explore it. You may even learn to love it...

Don't start the year with resolutions. Start the year with your questions.

Photo by Fidler Jan at Morguefile.com

Photo by Fidler Jan at Morguefile.com

The marvelous thing about a good question is that it shapes our identity as much by the asking as it does by the answering.
— David Whyte

This year skip the decisions. Skip the resolutions. Don’t resolve, change, vow, promise or start. Don’t start the diet, the exercise program, the life change. Don’t start the beginning of this year with the end—don’t start with a decision.

Start the beginning of this year with a question.  Maybe you already have a question. But if you don’t you can begin with the big “What if’s” in your life—What if I did, or What if I didn’t. What if I said ‘Yes’ or what if I said ‘No.’ What would it look like if I jumped in? What would it look like if I held back? What would it be like if I started something new? What would it be like if I did what I was doing entirely different? Or, what would it be like to really commit to the course I am on? What if I changed? What if I stayed the same?

Let this be the year that you invite your questions. Allow your questions space. Make friends with the questions that have been following you these last few years, tugging at you for your attention. Wishing for you to listen. To understand. To just give them a chance.  

We spend an awful lot of time protecting our old decisions, digging in our heels for old goals that are still tied to old shoulds and oughts. Shoulds and oughts that may or may not even belong to you anymore. Old goals which haven’t been updated or pondered. We protect these old decisions and old goals that desperately need to be asked new questions.

So start this year asking yourself some questions and notice the feelings that come up: maybe a bit of fear, maybe a bit of excitement? Maybe anticipation, freedom, wonder, anxiety? Maybe apprehension, anger, hope, courage? Can you sense a feeling of movement? Can you feel a part of you wake up—take notice—look around? It is actually hard to live in your questions without a feeling of stretching, of possibility, of growth. And please don’t look for answers, or a single answer to these questions. Not yet. Let the answers, the feelings, the possibilities rattle around inside you. Let the questions wash over you. Let the questions walk along side you. Let the questions simply rest next to you or curl up at your feet.

Let the questions, like a seed, grow a bit. Let them extend into the parts of you that need to feel more connected to your values and purpose. Let them extend in to the parts of you that have grown tired of yourself or in to the parts of yourself that you have forgotten. Let the questions inspire and embolden that voice inside that has waiting to be heard for so long—your own voice and not the voice of others.

This year, let yourself, as Rilke says, ”live your questions” and you may find that over this year you will gradually, “without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”  What are your questions?

© 2019 Gretchen Schmelzer, PhD

Some Reading that May Inspire Questions….

Letters to a Young Poet
By Rainer Maria Rilke

Holidays and Trauma: Holding Both

1970  d         .jpg

Holidays are rituals. They are traditions. They are anniversaries. And if you have experienced significant loss or trauma, holidays are an archipelago of memory and loss. Holidays come embedded with reminders and triggers and explosions of memory. That’s exactly what tradition and ritual are supposed to do. But holidays, unlike many ordinary days, are designed as full sensory experiences—they hit our sense of smell, our sense of taste, what we see, the songs we hear. It may be 2016, but to your nose, or your tastebuds or your ears—it’s suddenly 1943, or 1969, or 2003. This time travel at the holidays is true for everyone, not just for people who have experienced trauma, but it is faster for trauma survivors because the memories connected to the songs, or tastes or smells were more frightening and highly charged. They left a more solid imprint.

For many trauma survivors the problem is one of presence: it seems at the holidays you live in two worlds even more than you usually do. The world of the present and the world of the past seem to constantly collide, with the past just as present at times as the present. Perhaps the memories would be easier to hold if there wasn’t the constant pressure to not only hold them but to be happy the whole time. It’s this awful juxtaposition between the memories you hold and the outside expectation of fun. You are sitting at a beautiful meal in the present and you are hearing the violence in your head from fifty years ago. Yet no one at the table knows.

For people who have experienced significant loss, the problem is one of absence. Every holiday marks another occasion where someone or something is missing. It can be a time when the loss is felt so keenly, when you count how old they would be now, what they would think about this holiday, when you see the world without them in stark relief. You feel badly for enjoying something without them. And of course for many people—both are true—the presence of the trauma and the absence of loss. Soldiers who know where they fought during a previous holiday and the troops who didn’t come home with them.

So I say to all those who struggle with trauma and loss at the holidays—you are not alone. Like the tale of the mustard seed, it is unlikely you could sit at any holiday table in the world without finding a fellow pilgrim on the journey of healing—either from trauma or loss. The cure isn’t the modern notion of ‘moving on’—the cure is a more difficult task of holding both. You see when you try to just ‘move on’ –then its either the past or the present—you are jostled involuntarily from one to the other. But if you can build the muscles to hold both –hold that both the past and the present are true—then paradoxically the present can become more real. Holding both allows you to hold your feelings from the past and your feelings in the present as real and true. Holding both is not so much an effort as a softening. You breathe, you acknowledge, you hold, you sit. You don’t do anything in particular, but you don’t run away from yourself and you don’t expect yourself to feel differently than you do. Holding both allows an integrated whole memory to begin to form out of the colliding worlds, out of absence and presence. So start slowly, be kind to yourself as you begin this new practice, and as you feel more solid, reach a hand to someone who is just beginning.

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2016