In this week’s episode, we begin a three part series on the subject of healing. What is necessary for healing to begin to occur? In answering that question, we are going to look at an extremely helpful tool known as the U-diagram. The U-diagram was created and developed by Cathy Loerzel. Cathy is the Executive Vice President of the Allender Center, where I learned much of what I talk about on this podcast. There is no way to experience healing apart from taking an honest look at those stories from your growing up years that hold intense feelings for you—shame, powerlessness, terror, sexual arousal, ambivalence, a sense of betrayal, etc. Healing requires that you allow your heart, mind, and body to ponder and engage what it was like for you in your family of origin.
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One of the questions that I’ve wrestled with professionally, but far more personally, is “How exactly does healing happen? What is involved in the process of change and growth?”
Of course, this is too large a topic to tackle in a couple of podcast episodes, but I want to at least identify some of the core elements that are necessary for healing…
In other words, if you are going to experience healing—if you are going to grow and mature—what will be required of you?
And the first thing that is necessary for healing is you have to allow your heart, mind, and body to ponder and engage what it was like for you in your family of origin.
There is no way to experience healing apart from taking an honest look at those stories from your growing up years that hold intense feelings—and those feelings could be shame, powerlessness, sexual arousal, terror, ambivalence, a sense of betrayal, etc. IOW, stories that hold big feelings.
I mean, what are one or two of the stories of your life that when you think about what happened, things move around in your stomach or your chest tightens?
Your body will take you to the stories you need to engage.
If you are willing to enter a story of harm, tragedy, abuse… you will inevitably find yourself feeling very painful feelings.
Which, of course, is why we tend to avoid these stories for decades.
One prerequisite to healing and growth is engaging the emotions and bodily sensations that arise as you ponder and reflect on some of the most painful stories of your life.
Indeed, to feel these feelings will be like experiencing a sort of death.
And I don’t know how you engage the most painful stories of your life without a part of you dying.
So why in the world would anyone do this?
Because it is the pattern seen in the life of Jesus and it is the pattern into which Jesus calls each one of us.
The core of the Christian narrative is contained in three days: Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Jesus was crucified on a Friday—he was tortured and traumatized.
On Sunday, he was resurrected—despite the trauma and abuse of Friday, resurrection on Sunday holds deep joy and hope.
In order to get from Friday to Sunday, Jesus had to experience the hell of Saturday.
What was true for Jesus is true for us: there is no way to get from Friday to Sunday without going through the hell of Saturday, without dipping down into the valley of the shadow of death.
The Old Testament repeatedly uses three metaphors to describe the Saturday experience: it talks about the “wilderness,” the “desert,” and the “valley.”
Saturday is about the wilderness, it’s about the desert, it’s about being in the valley.
Imagine a piece of paper in your mind.
Now, imagine starting in the upper left corner of the paper and drawing a diagram of a valley.
You slope down to the bottom of the page over an inch and then slope back up to the upper right hand corner of the page.
At the end it looks kind of like a U.
This is known as the U Diagram and it is one of the many gifts that I have received from completing the Certificate Program at the Allender Center.
In fact, a lot of what I’m about to say I first learned at the Allender Center.
You can check it out at theallendercenter.org. I highly recommend the Certificate Program if you are interested in engaging your story at a deeper level.
The trajectory that you traced with this U is a helpful way of talking about the trajectory of healing—talking about how healing happens.
Today’s episode is devoted to the first half of the U and common ways we try to escape entering it. In the next episode, I’ll focus on what happens as a result of entering (and moving through) the U.
The U Diagram is very important. Here’s why.
For the traumatized person, the pattern of the Christian life is this: revisiting trauma (the crucifixion of Friday) leads to hell (the descent of Saturday) which ends in joy (the resurrection of Sunday).
Kindly entering our stories of trauma and heartache leads through hell and ultimately to joy.
What we want to do is to dance on a little dotted line straight across from Friday to Sunday…
We want to fly right across from Friday to Sunday so that we don’t have to dip down into the death of the wilderness, the valley, the desert.
Here’s the problem with that: there is no way to get to joy and rest without going through the valley of the shadow of death. You can get to denial and a superficial sense of “being better,” but not healing and genuine joy.
There is no dotted line. There is no way to skip over the depths.
You can’t dance your way gleefully from Friday to Sunday.
Now, by the same token, as long as you let yourself slide down the slope, as long as you are faithful to enter death, you will inevitably be surprised as you find joy and life.
Resurrection will begin to truly exist for you.
So, where is the Place We Find ourselves? We find ourselves through the process of entering death.
There is no way to find yourself—that is, to find out who you are and to be at rest with who you are… and joyful about who you are and the story that has played a role in the creation of who you are right now—apart from dipping down to the bottom of the U, dipping down into the desert season where death looms.
Now, what does it mean to dip down to the bottom of the U, to enter death?
It requires several things, but here’s the first:
Entering death requires that you engage particular scenes of heartache and abuse.
It can be difficult to move from the telling of a story that is general to telling a story with sensory detail on the ground level.
To tell a story on the ground level is to tell a particular narrative, to paint a picture—a scene—within one’s overarching story.
For example, suppose a woman says to you, “I was sexually abused by my step-father. It happened for six years, usually in my bedroom in the morning before he went to work.”
Has she told you a story? Yes and no, but mostly no.
She has told it at 30,000 feet. She has told it in a way that keeps her relatively (but not totally) safe from the bottom of the U.
The reason we tend to tell stories at 30,000 feet is because it is uncomfortable to enter into the details of a scene. Sometimes telling the story at 30,000 feet is all we have the courage for in the moment.
When we begin to tell a story at the ground level—with details—we begin to feel the emotions and bodily sensations we felt in the original scene.
So, point number 1, you have to enter particular scenes because you need to feel the emotions and bodily sensations you originally felt (or didn’t feel because it wasn’t safe to).
Point number 2, we must linger there.
It is not enough to stick your toe in the water and pull it right back out again: we must linger in death for a while.
How long? Usually a few moments longer than we are comfortable with.
To start with, that might be 30-60 seconds; but as we experience the taste of joy and hope that results, we are able to linger longer.
To linger in death means to let the big emotions associated with particular scenes in the story rise to the surface. [They’re there even when we don’t know they are; and it is sapping you of energy and freedom.]
It means to spend time in the moment when you were betrayed by someone who should have protected you and cared for you…
It means to linger with, to sit with, the part of the story when you felt absolute powerlessness, to notice the sensations that powerlessness evokes in your body, the emotions that are triggered as a result.
The part of the story where you realized that if you resisted the abuse he wouldn’t talk to you for three days and since he was the only goodness in your world, that was unbearable.
To linger in death is to sit in the particular moments of shame (pause), of betrayal (pause), of powerlessness, and of ambivalence that have marked your life.
It is to sit in them and FEEL, to feel deeply uncomfortable emotions—emotions like hopelessness, despair, sorrow, and rage.
To linger in death is not merely cognitively reflecting on a traumatic scene, but rather entering the scene limbically—that is, with one’s emotions and bodily sensations.
What’s fascinating about the U-diagram is that “the descent” is what literally happens in the brain when you feel intense emotions like fear, shame, and rage.
The areas of your brain that are activated shift from the rational, cognitive place (which is located at the top of your brain) to the emotional place (the limbic brain, which is lower)—you move from cortical to limbic.
How do you know if you are entering a specific story on the ground rather than keeping a safe distance from the details of the story?
Well, a good story has setting, character, and plot. In the previous example, all we know about the setting is that the abuse occurred in her bedroom.
She has not told you the color of the bedspread or the carpet or the wallpaper.
She has not told you that they would often do a crossword puzzle together (because her step-father knew she loved crossword puzzles) before he abused her.
These are the images she sees in her mind when she says the simple sentence, “I was sexually abused by my step-father.”
All we know about her abuser is that he was her step-father.
But we know nothing of the kind of man that he was. Stories need character development.
We don’t know that her step-father was rather kind to her most of the time, that he protected her from her older brother, and that he often asked her about her art class which she loved.
All we know about the plot is that abuse happened.
We don’t know when, we don’t know what. She has not told you that the cue that it was about to happen was that when he came in to tuck her in for bed that night, he would have her favorite crossword puzzle book.
I mean, even as I say these words, aren’t you feeling things in your body that you were not feeling a few minutes ago?
Here’s the point: to tell a story in a way that allows you to re-enter it is to tell the details.
Let me share a fictional story to illustrate the point.
Suppose a woman tells me that she was sexually abused by her uncle. She has yet to tell me any narrative.
We talk for a bit about the difference between a general telling of a story and a ground-level telling of a story.
After a long pause she says, “there was a red colored window sill, and there were horses outside my window. I would always look at the horses as he came up the stairs.”
Now she’s in her story. Can’t you feel the difference in your body even as I recount it?
As soon as she saw the horses outside the window, her body was in the narrative.
She was no longer occupying a safe cognitive distance from the emotions that torment her in her day to day life.
The real wars that rage in your heart can only be accurately named in the context of particular stories.
Here’s what I mean:
“I remember seeing the crossword puzzle book folded in his hand as he came into my room some nights. My body would tense up whenever I saw that book. And on the nights when he wasn’t holding the book I was devastated.”
Now you’ve got a sense of her war.
She longed for the goodness of the affection that she got from her step-father, who was the only person in her world who even cared that she loved doing crosswords. And she longed to be chosen by him… again that night.
And she hated it… because it meant the violation of her body and her heart.
That ambivalence was ripping her apart—literally, what we know about trauma is that that level of ambivalence dis-integrates neural networks in the brain.
It creates fragmentation rather than connectedness.
But there’s no way to enter and deal with the effects of that ambivalence if it is not presently being felt.
And the way to feel it in the here and now is through the telling of the story on the ground level.