person on a rock at night in control of a torch

One of the great things about the book The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., is that it is written for laypeople and practitioners alike. No matter whether you’re the one lying on the couch, so to speak, or the one with the credentials, the book contains massive amounts of research-based insights.

One point that Dr. van der Kolk makes over and over is that not every strategy works for every patient. The key, whether you are the person in search of healing or the therapist, is to find the strategies that work, and move forward with those. That sounds like wisdom to me! That being said, the doctor explains that an overriding principle applies when people seek to recover from trauma:

“Trauma robs you of the feeling that you are in charge of yourself, of what I will call self-leadership in the chapters to come. The challenge of recovery is to reestablish ownership of your body and your mind—of your self.”

This passage occurs on the first page of the last section of the book, “Paths to Recovery,” which takes up nearly half its pages. In this section, Dr. van der Kolk offers information on a variety of ways that people can move toward self-leadership. These strategies are as diverse as the people they help. Some require a group of people, some require one-on-one sessions, and some require the seeker of relief to be alone. Some require help from a trained professional (in psychology, yoga, theater, choir, or another area), and some require merely a willingness on the part of the seeker of relief to try something new.

Dr. van der Kolk further refines what it means to develop self-leadership. Here is his explanation of what self-leadership entails, no matter which strategies one uses:

“For most people this involves (1) finding a way to become calm and focused, (2) learning to maintain that calm in response to images, thoughts, sounds, or physical sensations that remind you of the past, (3) finding a way to be fully alive in the present and engaged with the people around you, (4) not having to keep secrets from yourself, including secrets about the ways that you have managed to survive.”

All four of these involve taking control over one’s life. Learning to be and remain calm is the same thing as learning to control one’s response to emotions. Learning to stay in the present (and not the past) is the same thing as learning to control one’s experiences. Engaging with other people is the same thing as taking control over one’s ability to receive something essential to all people: human companionship and love. And being honest with oneself is an essential first step in taking control over one’s life—as opposed to letting one’s fears control it.

In writing this post, I suddenly remembered a short story I read in college, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. At the time, I did not understand why my professor thought the story was so great. I reread it just now, and wow—do I understand now. (Oh, the things I wish I had picked up on at a younger age!)

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is about a woman experiencing “nervous depression.” Her husband and her brother, both physicians, insist that the cure is for her to do as little as possible. She must not do anything she loves, such as writing or visiting with loved ones! No, she must stay isolated at home, mainly in bed, until she recovers. The poor narrator trusts these authoritative men more than she trusts her own intuition. Things do not, needless to say, end well.

If you are hoping to recover from trauma, the last thing you need is for someone to further restrict your agency. And note that Dr. van der Kolk mentions both writing and loving human contact as strategies for developing self-leadership. But also note: the answer is not to stop listening to the advice of loved ones and professionals. Rather, it is to listen to them with a grain of salt. If your gut tells you a recommendation is a bad idea . . . it probably is. Even if the person giving you the recommendation is a doctor, your husband, or both.

Who’s in charge of your life?