Yes, Trauma is Real

Life is difficult. I continue to be distressed at how often people desperately try to minimize life’s complexities. Last week I was involved in a conversation in which two people were questioning the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The amount of disinformation was alarming. One person said, “I mean, can’t people just move on?”

That disturbing conversation was followed by another in which good friends brought up their own experience with trauma. After the two conversations, I felt it was time to revisit the subject of trauma and talk about how it finds expression in the body.

There are three parts of the human brain – the reptilian brain, where our basic motor functions live, the limbic system, which controls our emotions and includes the hippocampus and amygdala, and the neocortex, the rational thinking part of the brain.

When trauma occurs, the amygdala, one half of the mid-brain or limbic system, decides how to respond.  Should I fight, run, or freeze.  The amygdala decides which of the three actions to take, based on its rapid assessment of the threat. It does so without consulting the hippocampus or neocortex.

The other half of the limbic system, the hippocampus, takes information into short-term memory, and turns it into long-term memories. The stress hormones released during a terrifying drama, cortisol and norepinephrine, put the hippocampus in super encoding mode, making the most powerful parts of the experience vivid and unforgettable.  The rest of what was going on is not recorded at all.

If the amygdala tells you to fight or run, the hippocampus keeps working, encoding those vivid memories.  If the amygdala chooses to freeze, the neocortex and hippocampus both shut down and you dissociate and disconnect from your body.  Dissociation is the brain protecting itself from consciously participating in what the amygdala has decided is about to happen. When the amygdala chooses to freeze, you end up with no conscious memory of the event, because the hippocampus and neocortex have shut down and stopped recording. You do not remember the trauma in your consciousness.  You do, however, remember it in your physical body.

When I moved to Colorado, I became a mountain biker.  If you mountain bike in Lyons, Colorado, you are going to encounter rattlesnakes.  It is amazing how quickly my body responds when I round a bend and see a rattlesnake on the trail.  Before I have a conscious thought, I’ve stopped the bike on a dime, or swerved around the snake.  The amygdala decides what action to take. After the episode, my whole body starts shaking.  I get to a safe place, pull off the trail, and literally shake out my arms and legs, like an animal does instinctively after it has been traumatized.  By taking the time to literally shake the trauma out of my body, my body releases the tension, and by the time I’m home neither my brain nor my body are traumatized. I have an interesting story to tell, but my heart does not start beating rapidly when I tell it. By literally shaking my arms and legs, my body has neutralized the trauma.

But imagine if your amygdala told you to freeze, and your hippocampus shut down, and the memory of that trauma went straight into your body, without any memory being encoded on your brain and without a chance to shake out the trauma afterwards.  When that happens, you potentially have a long-term problem.  You may never consciously remember the trauma you experienced, but your body does.

The good news is that there are ways for the body to be healed of the trauma – ways that do not require remembering the trauma at a conscious level. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is one effective method for healing trauma held in the body.  The eye movements, hand taps and buzzes of EMDR mimic REM sleep, when information moves from the limbic system into the cerebral cortex, where it is processed along with other memories. That is why we feel so much better after a good night’s sleep.

EMDR targets specific memories locked in the body and moves them to a part of the brain (the neocortex) where they can be processed. EMDR can be intense, and it is best done with a practiced therapist who can make sure the trauma is contained before you leave the therapy session. For those who find EMDR too intense, somatic therapy (a body-oriented approach to healing trauma) or trauma-informed yoga can be helpful. One of the best books about understanding how trauma is healed is Peter Levine’s Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma.

As a pastoral counselor, I am not trained in the methods listed above, though my partner at RLT Pathways, Cathy Williams, is trained in EMDR and does specialize in working with adult survivors of sexual trauma.

My training is as a pastoral counselor. My Doctor of Ministry degree is in Pastor Care.  Pastoral counselors have the same basic training as other counselors and psychotherapists, but also approach their therapy from a spiritual perspective. That does not mean invoking scripture, as many evangelical therapists do.  It means recognizing that all of us are essentially spiritual creatures, engaged in a search for meaning. A pastoral counselor acknowledges that spiritual dimension, and the often unconscious part it plays in our lives.

My work is primarily person-centered, which means I do not assume I have answers to my client’s issues. The client has the answers to his or her own issues, and it is my responsibility to help the person remove the obstacles stopping them from discovering their own answers.  My work is also primarily psychodynamic. Psychodynamic therapy looks at the maps we create early in life that need to be adapted and changed as we progress through life. Unfortunately, too often we become stuck with maps that served us as vulnerable children, but do not serve us as adults.

I do work with religious trauma, which is all too common in the United States, particularly among evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. Much damage has been done by conservative religion, and it can leave open wounds that take a long time to heal. In working with my clients, we work through the healing process, primarily through gaining new insights and creating new maps.

Because of my church work and speaking schedule, I keep my pastoral counseling practice small, though I do currently have openings for a few new clients.  (You can contact me at My work with clients is usually longer term, as we explore the person’s past for insight into how they can move more wholeheartedly into the future.

Life is difficult, and we all need a little help along the way. In the past we were more connected to a network of relationships that could help us navigate through life. Nowadays, we need the specialists who can help us make the most of our lives. It is very satisfying to travel alongside my clients on the sacred journey to authentic, wholehearted living.

People Do Change Their Minds, But Only If…

In his book, The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt says people do change their minds, but not unless information comes to them in a non-threatening way. The book includes a host of other intriguing ideas, but that was my biggest takeaway. The second I read the words, I knew they were true.

Haidt uses the analogy of a rider on an elephant. The rider believes she is in charge of the direction in which the elephant is moving, while in fact, the elephant has been in charge all along. In the analogy, the elephant is all of the decisions being made by our unconscious minds. The unconscious mind is the part of ourselves that is truly in charge. Where does the unconscious self come up with its ideas? It establishes its hard and fast truths very early in life, while we are vulnerable children, incapable of surviving on our own. As it turns out, that ends up being a lifelong problem.

As a child I could never express the tiniest bit of anger or frustration with my mother, or I would be immediately rejected by her. Until I finally stood up to my mother when I was 35 (I tell the story in Chapter 18 of my memoir) I was still allowing my inner child to call the shots. That inner child was terrified of abandonment. The truth is that child remains within me. It is still my tendency to believe that if I express any kind of displeasure to those close to me, they will permanently reject me. (That it has happened recently in real time doesn’t help – chapter 14 in the book, if you’re wondering.)

The truth is that most people do not reject you when you become angry with them. They might become defensive, and attack you back, but eventually they come around. Relationships withstand conflict quite nicely. My rational mind knows that, but the elephant of my inner child still thinks she can never express anger, or say no to a request, or she will be disowned and rejected. When I listen to that inner child, it is not my conscious mind making the decisions. It is the elephant of my unconscious self.

That is why it is so important to constantly remind ourselves that we are no longer helpless children. We are now adults, and if we do happen to be rejected, the world will not end. We have the resources to deal with it. It is a constant battle to not allow important decisions to be made by the frightened child within.

The greatest human fear is abandonment. When we fear abandonment, our rational minds are pushed out the nearest exit. Truth no longer matters. Facts no longer matter. The reason they do not matter is because belonging is more important to humans than the truth. Belonging is more important than facts.

I have friends who want to get a Covid vaccine, but they are afraid of upsetting their parents, or their people, their tribe. Remaining in the tribe is more important than protecting their own health. They know that saying vaccines are dangerous is factually false, but in their tribe, it is socially true. The fear of ostracism wins out over protecting one’s own health. That is the power of the need to belong.

Which takes us back to where I began. People will take in new information, but only if it comes to them in a non-threatening way. If their tribal influencers tell them it is all right to get a vaccine, they will get a vaccine. If their tribal leaders tell them transgender people are mild-mannered Americans who deserve the same civil rights as everyone else, they will accept transgender Americans. The question, therefore, is how to reach tribal influencers? We influence the influencers by telling stories.

I get paid a lot of money to speak at colleges and universities, but I am willing to go to Christian universities at my own expense. Why?  Because I know if I can get in close proximity to the students and faculty and tell my story, minds will change. Suddenly a transgender woman is not a threat. She is just a woman. If a few of those who take in that story are connectors or tribal influencers, others will readily follow.

The goal is to reach a tipping point at which enough tribal influencers have taken in the new information that it is quickly accepted by the remaining members of the community. People can accept the facts, because it no longer means being abandoned by the tribe. They can say what they have known to be true for a long time, that transgender people are not a threat to anyone. They no longer fear being ostracized for speaking the truth.

There is a second way in which people take in new information and change their minds. It is when they no longer fear abandonment by their community, because they have a new community ready to embrace them. If you are an evangelical Christian, and you are affirming of the LGBTQ+ population, you will be ostracized by your evangelical church. But if there is another church ready to take you in, a church with a similar style, music and polity, you no longer fear abandonment. You have a new tribe waiting.

That is one of the reasons I say if Left Hand Church didn’t exist, we would have to invent it. There are many who want to leave the excesses of evangelicalism, but they fear abandonment. If they know they have somewhere else to turn, it is easier for them to stand up for what they know to be true.

There is yet one more method of bringing new information in a non-threatening way. Novels, biographies, and memoirs are ideal vehicles for getting a conversation inside someone’s head without the person fearing they will be judged by others. You can read a book in the privacy of your own home, at your own pace. You can enter the story, as you would if the person was sitting next to you in the living room. And your mind can be changed.

My heart has been warmed by the evangelicals who have read As A Woman – What I Learned About Power, Sex, and the Patriarchy After I Transitioned. I hear from them almost every day. Some are from my old denomination. Others never knew Paul but feel the need to reach out after they have read my story. It is the major reason I hope the book sells well. I believe it has the power to change the narrative, narrow the divide, and bring us a little closer together.

It will not be easy to close the great American divide. But it is not impossible. We must begin by telling stories, bringing new information in a non-threatening way, one person at a time.

And so it hopefully goes.

You Do Not Have to be Good

This week – a word about guilt.  Yeah, that should keep everybody reading…

Most of us know the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is believing you’ve done something bad. Shame is believing you are bad. Guilt can be good. Shame is never good. There are also guilt-based and shame-based cultures. In a guilt-based culture, there is no greater moral failure than violating your own conscience. In a shame-based culture, there is no greater moral failure than losing face. America has always been primarily a guilt-based culture, though of late we see shame-based ideas gaining strength in ways I find disturbing. At the moment, however, we remain a culture in which the greatest moral failure is to violate your own conscience.

With that in mind, I want to look at the three different types of guilt. Guilt as responsibility is the kind of guilt with which we are best acquainted. Guilt as responsibility is recognizing that I have done something wrong that brings harm to another. After recognition, it is my responsibility, where possible, to make restitution. After recognition and restitution, I am released from my guilt. Most of us have plenty of experience with guilt as responsibility. We live it on a regular basis, maybe even this week. Not that I am confessing to any specific guilt-producing failings in the last day or two, mind you.

A second type of guilt is pseudo-guilt or false guilt. False guilt is what you feel when you establish a healthy boundary for yourself but feel badly about it. For reasons buried in your childhood, you do not think you have the right to meet your own needs before meeting the needs of another.

I used to have a friend who was constantly asking me to set aside my own needs to meet his needs. Much to the chagrin of Cathy, my wife, I always readily complied. When you do not think you have permission to take care of yourself, you acquiesce to the needs of others. Unfortunately, when you do that, someone close to you will pay a price, and it will usually be the person or people with whom you feel the most secure. Most often, it will be your spouse. You take advantage of the person who loves you most so you can meet the needs of another in whose love you are not secure. And you do it all because if you dare say no, you’ll feel guilty about it.

Most of us were taught to be polite rather than honest, accommodating rather than self-protective, and submissive rather than assertive. To be anything else makes us feel guilty. False guilt is a defense against the deeper anxiety of not feeling permission to be yourself. The solution is to give yourself to permission to establish boundaries that protect you. You cannot love your neighbor if you do not first love yourself.

The third kind of guilt is existential guilt. This is the kind of guilt Nikos Kazantzakis was talking about when he said, “By the time you’re 50, you have the face you deserve.” Existential guilt involves recognition of wrongdoing, but without restitution or release.

I make my living speaking. For as long as the market smiles on me, I am paid handsomely to speak at corporations, conferences, and universities. Speaking is one of my gifts. But we all have shadow sides, and our shadow sides are usually our strengths taken to an extreme. Therefore, reflecting on a conversation I have just completed, I will sometimes think, “Paula, it would have been all right to have an unexpressed thought.” I think out loud, and my unedited thoughts are not always helpful to the people with whom I am speaking. Talking, when it would have been better to keep my mouth shut, is one of my shadow sides.

For as long as our strengths are with us, our shadow sides will be along for the ride. They are a part of the fabric of our being. The best we can do is recognize and name these shadow sides. Making restitution is difficult, and there is no release from the existential guilt of knowing that try as we might, we will never be able to undo all the pain we have brought into this world. The best we can hope for is that the recognition itself will enable us to keep those parts of ourselves under wraps a little more often.

The older I become, the more my shadow sides become known to me. The more my shadow sides become known to me, the more existential guilt I feel. I have discovered there is only one remedy for existential guilt. It is the recognition that grace is enough. To use a variation of a Paul Tillich phrase, grace is accepting that you are accepted even though a part of you is unacceptable. You must come to truly believe that you are enough just as you are, no questions asked, no changes required. No wonder the opening words of Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese are so dear to my heart:

You do not have to be good

You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles

Through the desert repenting

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

Love what it loves

Alone, Together

I spoke for the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina this past weekend. I went with my co-pastor, Kristie Sykes, and we had a wonderful time, though I do think she caught on to my plan to conveniently not have any cash when it was time to eat from the food trucks.

Outside of speaking at Left Hand, the Wild Goose Festival was my first live audience since Covid arrived on our shores. The people were wonderfully responsive, and they bought a lot of books, which makes my publisher happy. This was the second time I’ve given a keynote while the venerable artist Ken Medema sat at the piano and wrote a song themed to my message, which he sang as soon as I finished.  The audience was moved to tears.

The next day Kristie and I presented a workshop about planting Left Hand Church, which seemed to go quite well. We also attended enthralling sessions by Stan Mitchell, Josh Scott, and Brian McLaren, and enjoyed great music, including our own Heatherlyn and Jason.  The entire festival is held outdoors at a campground on the Appalachian Trail, and everyone in attendance had to be vaccinated, which made for a warm and inviting atmosphere.

I needed the Wild Goose Festival this past weekend. It was a balm for my soul. As I think a lot of us are experiencing, I am in a season of necessary inward focus. During this period, I am again reading James Hollis’ book, Swamplands of the Soul – New Life in Dismal Places. My first and second passes of the book were during times in which I was extremely busy and living with others. This reading is different. I live alone, and I have been lonely. It took being alone and being lonely for me to be ready to fully take in the book’s message. Some truths can only be received when you are looking inward.

In the book, Hollis quotes Clark Moustakis, “Loneliness is a condition of human life, an experience of being human which enables the individual to sustain, deepen, and extend their humanity. Efforts to overcome or escape the existential experience of loneliness can result only in self-alienation.”

I do not like what Moustakis suggests. I do not want self-alienation to be the result of avoiding loneliness. But I cannot make it untrue by wishing it to be so. After quoting Moustakis, Hollis continues with these words: “It is precisely our aloneness that permits our uniqueness to unfold.

He goes on to say we “inevitably overrate the value of relationship and underrate the value of solitude…The person who attains solitude is alone in his or her unique experience of the journey, yet such a person is conscious of an inner presence with which to dialogue. Out of such dialogue, the individuation process moves forward. How tragic, then, the repudiation of such an opportunity for growth.”

Um, okay. And where would this “inner presence” be found? Is alcohol involved, or gummies? Apparently, this “inner presence” is found beneath the ego with its constant demands. The “inner presence” is the realm of the soul. Hollis says the antidote for loneliness is to embrace loneliness.

On August 28 we had the first baptismal service in the history of Left Hand Church. Seven people were baptized by our co-pastors.  It was a beautiful evening on Lake MacIntosh, the mountains brilliantly purple in the fading summer light. I was baptized in 1961, in the baptistry of the Noble Avenue Church of Christ in Akron, Ohio. But as we began to plan for our baptismal service, I felt a strong desire to be baptized as Paula.

I surrendered to the hands of my co-pastor, Kristie, as she lowered me into the water. I had baptized her minutes earlier. I felt the water’s cool gentle presence all over my body. As she raised me from the water, still in surrender, I thought, “This is why immersion in water was the practice of the early church. To be lifted by another from the water into the air is surrendering to life as it is, not as you wish it to be, but as it is. For me, it was a surrender that brought forth Dag Hammarskjold’s words, “For all that has been, thanks. For all that shall be, yes.”  It was a surrender to life, which right now includes embracing loneliness.

We are born in water, shocked out of the womb into our aloneness as we take our first breaths.  I came out of the baptismal water ready to enter into my time of inward focus. I knew space was being held for me by those who collectively lowered me into the water and lifted me back up again. These people will keep an eye on me, reach out and touch me, and give me space within their cocoon of love. At its best, this is what the church is. It is learning to be alone, together.

A good marriage is also learning to be alone, together. I felt that throughout my marriage to Cathy, and I feel it from her still. I feel it from my children, my closest friends, and those rare and special friends you don’t see all that often who just somehow get you, as you get them.

I saw a few of those people at Goose. I spent an hour with the spiritual giant who used to lead our denomination’s largest mission agency at the time I led one of its large church planting agencies. His words were so powerful I committed them to memory. I spent a couple of hours with the pastor and theologian whose personal journey has added wisdom to his storehouse of great knowledge, and allowed him to bring words of healing and comfort into my life. The young pastor whose instincts for ministry are impeccable, thanked me for a probing question I asked about his experience with blessed failures. The therapist whose work on sexual education has helped many, greeted me as she always does, with genuine warmth and affection.

Wild Goose, Left Hand Church, my co-pastors, friends, and family – these are the people with whom I want to be alone together. These are my fellow-travelers. Some of them will run to the end of the platform and wistfully wave as my train slips away from the station, the ones who know that even when we are embracing loneliness, we are never fully alone.

This is a necessary and important time. Many of you understand. You have been here too. The call toward authenticity is sacred, and holy, and for the greater good. But sometimes it does call us into the deeper places we’d rather avoid.

And so it goes.