As awareness of trauma-informed care has grown in recent years, we’ve stressed the importance offering an authentic healing relationship in our role as therapists. But another core concept deserves more attention: helping clients become aware of, and nurture their authentic self.
At this year’s Psychotherapy Networker conference (which I’ve attended almost annually for about the last 22 years) the amazing Brené Brown spoke about her work on authenticity and shame. She beautifully explained how important the client’s sense of authenticity is to the healing process in trauma work. Brené Brown’s work on authenticity and shame has always spoken clearly to me as a clinician, and this conference solidified my own recent thinking about how we recognize the role of the authentic self in trauma-informed care.
I believe authenticity and compassion for self are the two mainstays of trauma-informed care. As a trauma therapist, I work every day to help clients have compassion for themselves, and come to believe that being authentic is actually okay. Why is this so important?
Because without compassion for self, there is no safety in vulnerability, and therefore, there can be no authenticity!
And if we can’t be vulnerable and authentic, we can’t build meaningful connections in life.
I know that through empowering an individual’s self-compassion and authenticity, there is hope and healing. But first, let’s look inside at how shame, vulnerability and trauma impact one’s sense of authenticity a little more.
How Shame Squashes Authenticity
Shame is a heavy burden among trauma survivors. Individuals who have experienced trauma may develop false beliefs from years of shame around their situation. They feel ashamed whether they (falsely) believe the trauma was their fault or (falsely) that they could have somehow prevented it. If a trauma survivor believes they did “the wrong thing” which resulted in their being traumatized, they might feel like they have to blend in to stay hidden, or act in a certain way to protect themselves.
As Brené Brown mentioned, it’s common for trauma survivors to “dress rehearse tragedy” in order to try to “protect themselves” from future trauma. They may run through every scenario they can think of and come up with a plan for how to handle it. They may think, if they act in a certain way, bad things won’t happen. Really, this belief is an ongoing cognitive distortion that continues to reenact the trauma. Sadly, trauma survivors were powerless over changing their past traumas.
Brené said, “The greatest casualty of trauma and oppression is vulnerability.”
The effort to protect themselves from future trauma, or cope with feeling shame over past trauma, keeps trauma survivors from being present in the moment. As they continue to run traumatic scenarios through their minds, there is no room for joy. No room for being authentic. Unable to let their guard down, shame continues to hijack their lives—and authenticity, self-compassion, and therefore vulnerability are nearly impossible to cultivate. It can become a continuous vicious cycle.
For trauma survivors in particular, it’s tempting to believe that being authentic is too scary. The ability to tolerate being vulnerable is necessary to being authentic… and trauma can steal that capacity away. But it’s also possible to get it back.
How can a Trauma Survivor Become More Authentic?
The first and easiest way is to help the trauma survivor notice when they feel they’re not being authentic. Ask them to “notice what it feels like in your body when you’re putting on the protective mask. Pay attention to what feels scary or unsafe about the situation and ask yourself, ‘Is there room for self-compassion here?’” Help them ask, “Can I choose to tolerate a little vulnerability so I can be more authentic here?” Just noticing where you are in the process of becoming true to yourself is mindfulness, and that allows for being present in the moment!
Brown shared this quote from the movie, Almost Famous, and I think it speaks volumes:
“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” – Lester Bangs, in Almost Famous
To me, this means the only real thing, the only connection you can have with the world and others, is being vulnerable.
Brené also mentioned that in one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” I believe that courage and authenticity do go hand in hand. I know it takes a lot of courage to be real and authentic, let alone vulnerable, when it feels like the world failed you.
How Therapy Can Help
Therapy works to build an emotionally corrective relationship where, in a safe relationship with a therapist, trauma survivors develop the ability to be self-compassionate, vulnerable, and authentic. Non-trauma survivors gain this ability growing up in healthy, securely attached families—but it can also be built later in life! I want clients to know that one of the goals in therapy is to take what you learn about yourself, about your ability to be vulnerable, compassionate, and authentic and about feeling safe and secure—and bring that into the outside world with you, one relationship at a time.
Even though it may seem terrifying, being authentic and vulnerable actually brings more joy. One step at a time, trauma survivors can find the freedom and confidence within themselves to allow for more self-compassion and authenticity—which means brighter and more meaningful connections and less fear.
From Brené Brown:
- TED Talk: The Power of Vulnerability
- Book: Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
- Book: Rising Strong
From Kristin Neff:
- Book: Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself
- Info: What is self-compassion?
- Exercise: Self-compassion exercises