86 – Empowerment Through Choice with Julie Long

written by Julie Long (Founder and Counsellor) on 21/10/21

Conversations with Safe Harbour Therapy
86 – Empowerment Through Choice with Julie Long
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For this week’s episode, founder Julie Long, reflects on choice … how choice might empower us and how the lack of choice might dis-empower us and thus affect how we think, feel, and respond to our world.

Empowerment Through Choice

When we experience an adverse life event or a trauma it usually involves something happening to us that is not our choice. Perhaps you were driving home from work and were hit by another car or maybe you’re noticing that your job does not suit you anymore but you need to provide for your family so you continue on at the job. Maybe you grew up in a family where there was domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness or neglect and since you were a child and depended on your family to survive, you didn’t have a choice perhaps to leave and grow up somewhere else. Maybe your partner left your relationship and you now found yourself single and living alone. You may be someone who wanted to have children and have been struggling with infertility or perhaps you had a child who was born with special needs or are caring for aging and disabled parents. Maybe you were born in a body that you do not identify with or maybe you were in an accident that has left you unable to move your body as you used to be able to move. All of us have experienced a lack of choice and more recently with the Covid-19 pandemic.

So if these experiences happen often where you don’t have choice or are even coerced or forced to endure situations not of your choice, your nervous system automatically responds in the way it has learned will help it survive.  Hebb’s law tells us that neurons that fire together wire together. So your nervous system will remembers the cues to activate that learned response so it responds in a way to protect itself from any perceived threat in the environment. Maybe over time you might find yourself resounding automatically as it had in the past but in the present you might notice that your response does’t fit anymore or isn’t the response you prefer. So it’s almost like your body is responding in a way that you’re not choosing.

Research has shown that there are different ways we respond in order to survive – maybe you have heard the phrase fight flight freeze or disconnect but submit, collapse, and fawn or people please are also ways we respond to protect ourselves. We might engage in responses to protect ourselves from our perceived threat in a myriad of ways: anger, depression, anxiety, or maybe it might look like numbing ourselves in social media, tv, alcohol, drugs, shopping, tv, sex, work, food, gambling, sleeping, etc. Over time these survival patterns might become habitual and they may end up hurting us and those around us instead of helping us.

How do we get out of these survival patterns that were adaptive in the past but are no longer serving us and have become maladaptive? How do we choose another way of responding when life might not have given us the opportunity to learn another way because of the different life experiences you’ve endured and perhaps are continuing to endure in the present?  

When I read the book by psychiatrist and trauma researcher Bessel van ver Kolk entitled, The Body Keeps the Score, I was introduced to Trauma Centre Trauma Sensitive Yoga developed by David Emerson; and with Jenn Turner it’s undergone research trials for it’s efficacy in using neuroscience, attachment theory, and trauma theory to support trauma survivors to safely reconnect with their body and engage in their life more fully. In 2019, I completed their foundational training and am currently certifying in the TCTSY practice whose principles are to use invitational language, noncoercion and choice, for trauma survivors to engage in a shared authentic experience with the TCTSY facilitator so the participants or survivors might safely reconnect with their body in the present moment. 

Much of the practice was inspired by the trauma research of Dr. Judith Herman who wrote the book Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror.  In her book, Herman says, “The first principle of recovery is empowerment of the survivor. She must be the author and arbiter of her own recovery. Others may offer advice, support, assistance, affection, and care, but not cure.” This concept of benevolent coercion has had a profound impact on me as I reflect on my life as a daughter, sister, former teacher, counsellor, therapist, wife, friend, and community member. Choice is everything. As Herman indicates, “No intervention that takes power away from a survivor can possibly foster her recovery, no matter how much it appears to be in her immediate best interest.” Choice is power and when choice is taken away from us we lose our power. 

Invitational language or offering someone choice can happen in everyday interactions with a partner, sibling, child, coworker, parent, student, community member. For example, if you’re a teacher you might offer your students the choice to showcase their knowledge of the topic through written, oral, or artistic expression rather than offering one option, knowing everyone is different. Or when speaking to your child you might say, “You can choose your pyjamas to wear tonight. You might wear the baseball pyjamas or maybe you might wear your dinosaur pyjamas. It’s your choice.” Is someone more likely to engage in a behaviour if they have a choice in how they will engage in the specific behaviour? 

In this podcast, I offer a 5-minute version of a trauma sensitive yoga practice inspired by a facilitator whom I appreciate by the name of Valerie Racine. You’re welcome to listen or maybe you prefer to engage in the movement and practice the forms, it’s your choice. 

After listening to this podcast, maybe you might reflect on choice in your life as you interact with yourself and others  and possibly notice what it’s like when choice is offered and when it’s not offered … whether it empowers or dis-empowers you and those around you as you journey onwards in your life.  

Learn more and connect with Julie Long, Founder and Counsellor.

Read more about Yoga services at Safe Harbour.

References:Herman, Judith. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. Basic Books, 1992.
Racine, Valerie. TCTSY Virtual Practice October 2, 2021
van der Kolk, Bessel A. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books, 2014.

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