Feeling Seen: A review of The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel van der Kolk

by | Aug 13, 2018 | Publications | 0 comments

This post is part of a GHF Blog Hop — check out all the other great reviews!

I am aware of the controversy surrounding Dr. van der Kolk’s recent separation from the Trauma Center which he co-founded. While it is an important issue, I would like this post to focus on the content of the book and what might be helpful or not with it. There is a great discussion here about the controversy if you would like to participate.

“Oh, yay, just what people will want to read about — trauma!” said the voice in my head as I contemplated what to write about for this blog hop. But as much as we hate to think about it, trauma happens. Further, I’ve come to believe that with a neurology which is more reactive to certain kinds of stimuli, there are some experiences which would not necessarily cause trauma in more neurotypical individuals which do cause trauma for some gifted/2e folks. This makes it all the more important for parents, teachers, clinicians and others who care about this population to get a good grounding in what trauma is, how it affects the brain, and what strategies can be employed in helping someone recover.

Enter Bessel van der Kolk’s in-depth exploration of trauma, The Body Keeps the Score. Dr. van der Kolk’s 2014 book explores a wide variety of trauma-related topics – a wide enough variety that there may be other posts later about this book- including the neuroscience of trauma, the impact it has on developing brains, the long-term effects of childhood trauma on adult experiences, and of course pathways to recovery from trauma.

Van der Kolk’s book does not address giftedness in any direct way, but there is one aspect of trauma and childhood he discusses that I think is extremely relevant. Looking at the research on childhood trauma, and the impact of parenting on resilience, I was struck by this key idea, which is true for all humans, but particularly true (and poignant) for gifted and 2e folks: Trauma almost invariably involves not being seen, not being mirrored, and not being taken into account. Does every experience of not being seen lead to trauma? Of course not. But repeatedly not being seen does damage over time, even when more obvious, directly abusive behavior is not happening.

Not feeling seen is one of the most common issues that my clients need help with, and also one of the most indirect – most people who are accustomed to not being seen don’t realize how important it is until they finally get to have that experience. I believe that being sure that a client feels seen and heard is one of the most fundamental aspects of a good therapeutic relationship – indeed, for some folks, it IS the therapy.

What is this “being seen” anyway? At a societal level, it means feeling like you have a group that accepts and supports you, that you belong somewhere. On an interpersonal level, it’s the feeling that “hey, that person “gets” me”. It’s what we mean when we use the phrase “Loving someone (or one’s self) as they are.” It’s the spark of recognition that you feel when you make a rather obscure joke and the other person snorts their milk through their nose. At an institutional level, it’s being given the accommodations and scaffolding you need to be successful. In the parent-child relationship, it’s the child feeling that they already have their parent’s love and approval – performing well at something and feeling their pride is just icing on the cake.

What about not being seen? What does that look like? In its more subtle forms, it’s messages about being weird or not belonging to the group. It’s a parent or teacher always focusing on what “needs to change” rather than what is. It’s being ignored – whether that’s when you are excited about some new thing, or whether you are asking for what you need. It’s gaslighting – the denial of your felt experience, statements like “You don’t really feel that way….”. It’s interacting with some professional “expert” who attempts to engage in business as usual, and either becomes bewildered or angry when their typical approach doesn’t give the results they expect. And it’s also the wrong kind of admiration – when you tell your story, looking for ideas or support from someone, and they come back with “Wow, you’re so <smart/strong/talented>! I could never do what you do!”

Not being seen undermines our sense of self-worth, and our belief in our ability to interpret the world effectively. It also leads to denial of parts of ourselves, shutting off the pieces that others reject, in an effort to be accepted. It makes us become dentists when we really wanted to be pilots, and spending the bulk of our adult years being a good, but depressed and bitter dentist. It prevents us from being in touch with what we truly want and need, and leaves us at risk of being targeted by folks who would prey upon those weaknesses.

The good news is that once you make it a point to be sure those around you feel seen, it sort of spreads. If you are a classroom teacher, you have the ability to create a classroom culture where it’s just part of the fiber of the day that everyone deserves to feel seen and heard. As a parent, you can give yourself permission to enjoy your child as they are, and take a break from the constant worry of whether you are doing enough to “fix” your kid. And don’t forget your own self – you can also work on finding places and people that support you in being seen. Get support from a friend or therapist if you need – it’s important and you deserve it.

There is a lot more to this book, and if you are wanting to delve into how trauma works, I would recommend it, with one caveat: if you are a survivor of trauma yourself, you might find certain parts of it triggering. I expect that the section covering the neurological impact of trauma will be particularly interesting for most readers. I leave you with a final quote that I felt captured the importance of being seen beautifully:

The roots of resilience…are to be found in the sense of being understood by and existing in the mind and heart of a loving, attuned and self-possessed other. – Diana Fosha