The Explanation Not the Excuse

By Cristine Toel - 06/08/2022


In our PCS Intensive process, I’ve yet to work with someone suffering from an addiction who has not experienced some essence of trauma, whether that be overt, obvious traumatic experiences, or the other, the covert, one-thousand-paper-cut-style traumas. And so to unlock the door to full-course healing we, as therapists, have to help them identify and process these events, in order to understand why they adopted this maladaptive, addictive coping style in the first place. We also have to help them grieve these traumas and develop empathy for themselves and the person or child they were when these difficult events occurred. We help them understand that they can really only give empathy and intimacy to others to the degree they can give it to themselves. So often, we will ask the Adult today to imagine being there for the Child then, and fulfilling what that Child needed and did not get. There is nothing more gratifying than seeing that Adult finally grieve what was denied them, and grow as the Adult showing up as the “parent” today for that Child, in the here-and-now. Clients will often say they feel as if they have lifted a heavy weight they have carried most of life.

Then what often happens is the Client shares their trauma processing with their significant other, partner or spouse. And when the Client informs this loved one of the trauma and neglect that is most certainly behind the addictive behavior the loved one has been subjected to, often for years, and, understandably, their significant other is less than happy. It is as if we, the therapists, are hand-holding this Client and giving them a pass for their hurtful behaviors (whether that involves sexual betrayals, alcohol of drug-related incidents, gambling precious finances, etc.). They want to tell the Client to take their trauma egg and “you’ve got to be kidding me”, Build-a-Bears, and shove them…somewhere! The Client might explain that the Build-a-Bear is to remind them to show up as the “parent” today for that Child that was harmed back-then, and, again understandably, the loved one has heard enough. They respond, “It sounds like they’re helping you find your grand EXCUSE for all the harm you’ve caused!”

Makes sense. And so, clarity is necessary, as the one who has endured someone’s hurtful, addictive behavior deserves empathy and beyond. So, one thousand percent, trauma is NOT an excuse; it’s an explanation.

A Client needs to understand what happened in order to realize that back then, they most certainly had zero power and control over their life circumstances. Now they can face the explanation and grieve and process it. From there, they are encouraged to understand that today, as an Adult, they fully have power and choice, and therefore, are fully responsible for ALL of the decisions they make. They are also responsible for any harm they cause. Their childhood trauma, though at times awful and heartbreaking, is NOT an EXCUSE.

At times I have seen Clients attempt to use their traumatic childhood experiences as a “trauma shield,” in order to dodge what they perceive as shame-inducing blame and finger-pointing. It is a maladaptive way of avoiding the hurt and pain of the one they have harmed, and they cling to it like a life-line. It is at this juncture that I and their team of therapists try and help them understand that unconditional love and acceptance is the pathway to true internal freedom, and to get there and be free of shame, one has to embrace all that is wonderful about them, and all that is challenging about them as well.

When a Client can speak openly about what makes them hard to live with, shame ceases to have an leverage over that individual, and only then are they truly on the path to strength and recovery. No longer allowing the explanation to control them or their choices, and no longer needing an excuse to manage their shame and avoid responsibility.

As an EMDR and experiential therapist, the most satisfying part of my work is seeing someone genuinely experience self-love and watching them gain insight as they process traumatic events in their lives. It is beyond satisfying to hear them name their challenges and talk about how those behaviors no longer serve them. Many people shed tears and believe they look “terrible” after EMDR; however, I will ask them to look in the mirror and what they see is the opposite – they see a person free of the weight that has held them back; a person who has never looked better!

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