The middle phase of healing from trauma: Sorting

Instead she came to look for a parent, and sought to initiate what I suggest is the hardest kind of conversation, because rather than meeting the first requirement of human interaction—the presentation of a coherent self—her conversation is about the very inability to be any longer coherent; she is presenting instead two selves, not because she is crazy, but because she is evolving.
— Robert Kegan, Evolving Self

A big piece of the work of healing from trauma, or healing from anything, really, is sorting. It’s not the first piece of work. It’s not even the second. It’s dead center. In the beginning you prepare, you gather your resources. You plan. You chicken out. You get distracted. You rationalize. You work really hard to do anything else. And then you gather your courage. You set out. You head in.

In the second phase you take things apart. You pull all the stuff out of the closets and drawers. You pull down the broken pieces and the pieces that were screwed willy-nilly into the walls. You pull the furniture away from the walls and look to see what’s behind them. You take things apart and things come apart. And often you can feel like all that is there is a big mess. Or you just feel like a big mess. In this phase you are looking at your story. Looking at your loss. Looking at what happened. But you are also looking at all the ways you patched things back together. Covered over the holes. With plastic, with plywood, with a picture frame.

You are looking at all of it—and really, you never have, really looked at it. Looked at that corner. Looked at how things were nailed together, glued together. Looked at the mess behind the mess, and all the ways you lived around it,

And then comes the third phase –where there is a lot of sorting. You take things out of the big mess you made---out of the stuff that had been stored for years in the back of the closets: ideas, beliefs, sorrows, hopes, stuff. You take it and look at it. You look at it each thing as if it were old clothes and ask yourself, “Does that fit me now?” “Have I outgrown it?” Is it me?”

And you can go further with your questions “Does it make me my best self?” “Does it strengthen who I want to be?” “Why am I still carrying that around?”

Sorting takes time. And it doesn’t always feel satisfying. Or even look like work. For a lot of the work of sorting you are still sitting in a big mess. It takes time to hold each of your pieces carefully. It takes time to not know. To not want to part with it. To put it back in the pile again hoping you know the next time that you pull it out.

And sorting doesn’t always feel good. Sorting through trauma and loss in real life is not what you watch in the movies—where they leave behind a house or relationship or some object or possession—and music starts to play, and the hero of the story immediately starts a new life. In the movies, the person sorting always seems to ‘know’ exactly what to do and why they are doing it. This is because they have a writer. In real life there is trial and error. In real life there is uncertainty.

When you let go of some things, it can be hugely painful, even if you know it's time to let go. And sometimes it can be hugely painful to see the things that you must keep, that are a part of your story, your history. The things that make you who you are, even as you would rather toss them. It can be so hard to know because sorting is really an act of growth. Growth through awareness. Growth through feeling. Growth through curiosity.

Sorting is an act of growth because in the process of sorting you are holding different parts of yourself as you ask yourself the questions. You are holding the you that you were. The you that experienced the loss. The you that survived it all. And you are holding the you that you are now. The you that sees a new future. The you that can see the past differently.

It is not easy to hold both parts of yourself equally and not play favorites. It’s not easy to not collude with old habits or ignore hard learned lessons. To see either only loss and sorrow, or only light and possibility. Sorting requires that you hold it all—so that you can keep the work you have done and honor it. And so sorting is best done with help. No one heals alone and sorting is well served by another brain and another heart and a careful non-judgmental eye.

A helping brain, a helping heart, a helping hand, another eye—it does more than you can imagine. You can only feel the loss—they see the possibility. They hold your other side. You can only see the mess—they see all the treasure you have. You think you are all done: they pull open another drawer, filled with things you tossed inside. You are exhausted and sad. They are determined and feel helpful.

For people who have experienced trauma or massive loss—who have spent years throwing things into the back of their emotional closets (or actual closets, garages, basements,..)—it can seem like an impossibility to even imagine letting anyone see or help you with the big mess that you are sorting through. The shame of the mess. The shame of not knowing. The shame of needing help. Of being seen in the light of day with all of your ‘stuff.’ But sorting is just too hard to do alone.

Sorting happens on all sorts of planes. Some of the sorting you need to do for healing happens in the emotional realm. I have found it so helpful when my therapist was able to hold the present for me while I sorted the past. It was like having a rope that would keep me tethered to myself—and the world I was living in and creating. Or she could also hold the mistakes that I can make without judgment—as something I do—and need to figure out how to live with. When you have another brain and another heart you can have the ability to really look at something because you aren’t as afraid. And you can’t really sort if you can’t really look.

And sometimes the sorting we do is of the ordinary, or everyday world—but can be equally life changing. This week I had the heart and helping hand of my sister-in-law Lucy while I sorted through things in my house—and her ability to care, and yet not be attached to my things—meant there was a new freedom to appreciate things or question their use. Her ability to keep pulling things around, and keep going back into different corners meant I couldn’t use my old habits—or my old ways of seeing, I had to look again. The other day I talked about containers and healing environments and they are relevant here—because it’s not the what that my therapist or Lucy did—though the what was fine. It’s the how. It’s the ability to be held without judgment—which is not the same not getting feedback. They both had opinions—but their opinions were in the service of my healing, my growth, my becoming who I want to be. And both were able to hold my struggle, my disappointments, my sadness and my shame –without getting tangled in it.

And this kind of environment—the ability to be held as the you that you were, and the you that you are now, and even the you that you might be—this is hands down the most healing and growth –producing environment there is. When people allow us our messes—our ability, as Robert Kegan says, to show up without having to be a coherent self—when we don’t have to hold it all together—which you absolutely cannot do if you want to sort then we have the gift and grace of healing.  

© 2015 Gretchen L Schmelzer, PhD