Dealing with trauma and abuse to live a bigger, more creative life

As Shakespeare noted, we are subject to numerous “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and the “heart-ache and thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”

But many people also suffer abuse and traumas that go beyond those “natural shocks.” 

Learning how to regulate emotional reactions to trauma and abuse is important for anyone, but essential for sensitive and creative people.

Lemony Snickets moviePsychologists who help people deal with the consequences distinguish two kinds of trauma.

The category of “big T trauma” is associated with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD from combat, rape, assault, sexual abuse, car accidents, natural disasters and other events.

“Little t trauma” is “ongoing emotional abuse or neglect, experiences of shame, humiliation, being left out, bullied or ridiculed and feeling not cared for. The experience of growing up gay in a homophobic culture would be an example of this sort of trauma.”

Those quotes  are by clinical psychologist Kathleen Young in her post What is Trauma?

All these kinds of experiences can produce emotional shocks with enduring psychological impacts.

The photo is from the movie “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” (2004).

It is, on one level, a story of emotionally, if not physically, abusive treatment of children at the hands of one of their guardians, Count Olaf (Jim Carrey).

I used another photo from that engaging movie in the article Why Does The World Suffer From An Epidemic Of Low Self-Esteem? by Morty Lefkoe.

That is one impact of abuse and trauma: compromised self-esteem and self concept, with consequences for career and relationship choices.

SARK (Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy) is a bestselling author and artist of fifteen books, an acclaimed speaker and teacher, and CEO and founder of Planet SARK, a business that promotes empowered living, plus her writings and artwork.

A survivor of incest, she talks candidly about the effects on her life: “That was a period of seven years and it pretty much, at that point, destroyed my life.

“Then, from the ages of 14 to 26, I had 250 different jobs because I was trying to figure out what I was supposed to do [with my life].”

From post: Healing and art: SARK and others on abuse and creativity.

“Nobody became an actor because he had a good childhood.”

– William H. Macy, (an Oscar nominee in 1997, for “Fargo”), from my article Actors and Addiction.

Becoming a creative professional such as an actor, or actively creative in other ways, is how many people deal with trauma. So is using or abusing drugs.

Fiction often addresses trauma and abuse, and how it affects lives.

In her article 3 Things To Learn From The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – A Gifted Trauma Survivor, therapist Lisa Erickson, MS, LMHC writes, “As the heroine, Lisbeth Salander embodies certain characteristics of giftedness, and these characteristics help her survive terrible, long-term physical, sexual and emotional abuse.”

Leading a bigger life

Over the past couple of years especially, I have been thinking about “little” traumas in my life, in the context of pursuing the kind of bigger, more energized, meaningful and impactful life that two new books and their authors point toward: “Inspired and Unstoppable” by Tama Kieves, and “The Charge” by Brendon Burchard. There are brief quotes from the books at the end of this article.

Cheryl AruttClinical psychologist Cheryl Arutt, Psy.D. has provided a couple of informative and stimulating articles for this site, and we did an audio interview on creative artist issues (see links at end).

On her site she notes about her therapy practice: “One area of focus is working with creative artists and entertainment industry professionals to increase confidence and access to creative expression, while identifying and modifying any self-destructive patterns inhibiting professional achievement.”

She adds, “I spent years studying the effects of traumatic events on people’s lives. I have worked extensively with victims of violent crime and sexual abuse, helping people cope with the aftermath of incidents that happened recently or long ago.”

In her TEDx presentation, Dr. Arutt [rhymes with ‘carrot’] says one of the most powerful ways to reprocess trauma is EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. She also admits she was very skeptical of the approach at first.

You can see the video: “Cheryl Arutt, PsyD – That Good Feeling of Control” in the post Creating is a way to channel our emotional intensity.

My experience with EMDR

Dr. Arutt’s writings, plus her warmth and intelligence in our interview and this TEDx presentation, inspired me to see her as a client to experience EMDR for myself.

Over the years, I have benefited from counseling with a number of psychotherapists, sometimes in groups but usually individually, to learn more about myself and better deal with issues such as generalized anxiety and social anxiety, cocaine addiction (about 25 years ago), and depression.

Dr. Arutt and I decided on specific experiences in my late pre-teen and early teen years for me to work on using EMDR.

My parents (now deceased) were fundamentalist Christians with often strict and narrow ideas of what was “proper” behavior.

My mother, who took charge of disciplining me (and my younger brother and sister), on several occasions became angry, even enraged over something I said, or the tone of voice I was using.

At least once, she whipped me with a belt, and a more than once “washed my mouth out with soap” as she put it: jamming a bar of soap in my mouth, while demanding something to the effect, “Don’t ever say that again.”

I am not writing about this to condemn her, or take away from all the years of loving care and support she and my dad provided – but that was abusive punishment, and as with many people – both children and adults – the abuse has had enduring impacts for me.

Dr. Arutt, as part of our work in our session, had me define what these experiences caused me to think and feel about myself, which included “I’m wrong”; “I’m not in control”; “I don’t have power over my safety” and some related ideas.

I have been aware of those reactions on my part for decades, and have learned to “put them behind me” to an extent. But I still have problems “speaking up” or feeling I am “wrong” for expressing myself.

One of the outcomes of the gentle EMDR process and Dr. Arutt’s counseling, was that I am finding I can now recall those hurtful experiences with much less emotional “loading” on them, and I am more embracing of constructive beliefs about myself, such as “I deserve to be myself.”

Not a trivial thing.

The kinds of experiences I am ‘talking’ about are certainly not uncommon, but can be especially intense for highly sensitive people.

There are other forms of treatment for abuse and trauma, some intense approaches like immersion therapy, but a number of psychologists use EMDR and find it to be effective.

The mechanics of EMDR

As I recall, I first heard about EMDR from the Shrink Rap Radio podcast “Holistic Psychotherapy with Sarah Chana Radcliffe” in which psychotherapist Radcliffe comments that EMDR “feels very much like an energy psychology.”

She explains, “EMDR uses bilateral stimulation. EMDR first meant ‘eye movement’ because the first thing that Francine Shapiro was doing was asking people to move their eyes ‘left-right-left-right.’

“And then she found that people sometimes got tired eyes, and therapists got very tired hands from guiding the movements. The therapist would hold up the hand, and move her hand left to right and left to right, and the person would move their eyes left to right…everybody got tired.”

She continues, “So they developed these little machines, like tactile stimulators that you put in your hand, where they buzz your right hand, buzz your left hand. Or auditory stimulation, where it beeps in your right ear, then beeps in your left ear. So what Francine realized, or what the EMDR practitioners all realized, is that it didn’t have to be eye movements. It could be any left-right stimulation of the brain.”

[Dr. Arutt uses a device that is a combination of small hand buzzers and a box with a row of lights that travel in a back and forth pattern.]

Psychologist Francine Shapiro, PhD originated and developed EMDR after a “chance observation that moving her eyes from side to side appeared to reduce the disturbance of negative thoughts and memories.” [Wikipedia]

In her book “Getting Past Your Past,” Shapiro says 70,000 clinicians worldwide use EMDR, and “Millions of people have been helped by the therapy over the past 20 years…As research has shown, major changes can take place within even one EMDR reprocessing session.”

She explains, “EMDR therapy targets the unprocessed memories that contain the negative emotions, sensations and beliefs. By activating the brain’s information processing system, the old memories can then be ‘digested.'”

Dr. Arutt briefly noted some intriguing research on the neurological basis of Rapid Eye Movements that accompany dreaming, and may be a built-in natural strategy for brain restoration.

Frozen from trauma

Director Elgin James writes about being invited to Sundance Institute for their screenwriter and director labs. His movie “Little Birds” premiered at the film festival.

He had learned violence as a way to cope with being attacked by his father as a boy, and explains: “The world only stopped kicking me when I started kicking back harder, my father only stopped hitting me when I raised my fist in response.

“But, having experienced violence in his youth himself, [Robert Redford talked to me and] broke down that negativity and rage.

“But it was love and compassion, learned specifically from my mother, that had gotten me to the labs. And those were the traits that would make me a better artist.”

He writes of his childhood: “I’d grown up terrified of the world. Nights spent curled in a ball trying to disappear in the crack between my bed and the wall while my mother screamed for my father to stop.

“The worst thing about a 7-year-old being punched by a grown man is that you become emotionally frozen at that age. Whatever suffering you go on to inflict as an adult feels justified because of what you endured.”

From his poignant article Elgin James leaves a gang and finds a family (Los Angeles Times Sept 8, 2012.)

Michael Eigen, PhD, a psychologist and psychoanalyst, writes in Sensitivity: Introduction about the deep impact of these experiences: “One tries to absorb deforming traumas and go on. But a nuclear sense of disaster anxiety persists in the background, sometimes erupting as part of hysterical, obsessive or phobic dreads that persecute daily life.”

This article is an excerpt from Chapter One of his book The Sensitive Self.

Another title of his caught my attention: Toxic Nourishment, in which he writes: “Emotional toxins and nourishment often are so mixed as to be indistinguishable. Even if they can be distinguished, it may be impossible for an individual to get one without the other. In order to get emotional nourishment, one may have to take in emotional toxins.”

Emotional self-regulation to be more creative

Christian Bale starring as BatmanIn her article Affect Regulation and the Creative Artist, Cheryl Arutt writes:

“Many creative people carry the belief that their pain is the locus of their creativity, and worry that they will lose their creativity if they work through their inner conflicts or let go of suffering…

“Learning how to regulate internal states, how and when to use self-soothing techniques, and how to know when we are actually safe — these are key to emotional well-being for anyone, but for artists, they are especially useful.

“The ability to self-regulate provides an all-access pass for traveling the internal world, allowing the artist to mine for the gems that can be found there  . . . without losing touch with the light of day.”

More resources:

Cheryl Arutt, Psy.D. site: //

Podcast: Psychologist Cheryl Arutt on Creative Artist Issues

Articles by Cheryl Arutt

Post: Psychotherapist Sarah Chana Radcliffe on technologies for growth.


Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy, by Francine Shapiro, PhD.

Inspired and Unstoppable: Wildly Succeeding in Your Life’s Work! by Tama Kieves.
“Taking what you love into the world has little to do with conventional techniques, established reality, or the formulas of the marketplace. Following your true desire or calling is an initiation of soul. It’s a rite of passage. It’s a whole new game board with exciting new rules. Bring your diamonds.

The Charge: Activating the 10 Human Drives that Make You Feel Alive, by Brendon Burchard.
‘This book is an unapologetic assault on boredom, distraction, mediocrity, withdrawal, and living a “normal” life. It will directly call into question why you are allowing yourself to live at the energetic level where you currently reside, and it will aggressively challenge you to live a more vibrant, strategic, and engaged life.’

Creative People and Trauma

See many more resources, plus more quotes by and about people who have experienced these kinds of experiences, in the article:  Creative People and Trauma.


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Originally posted 2012-09-09 17:48:51.


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