- Do you have any unprocessed traumas in your own life?
- How far are you able to go in exploring human suffering and tragedy?
- Do you feel overwhelmed? Are you conscious of any topics that may overwhelm you?
- How attached do you feel to this directee?
- Are you able to be appropriately present, what Margaret Guenther called “lovingly distanced”? Neither jumping in to “save” them nor becoming detached observer?
- What is making you wonder if this directee has a trauma story they aren’t telling you (if that is the case)? A helpful guideline when questions arise in our minds about our directees’ experiences is, nothing is true until it comes out of the directee’s mouth. You may be right in your assumption, but be wary of guiding someone down a path they haven't consciously agreed to explore.
Sometimes what may initially present as resistance, stagnation, or a “dark night of the soul,” is in fact the bubbles of a previous trauma coming up to the surface of awareness.
Resistance is normal in all of us. Most people are not truly excited about the work of lasting change, at least not at first. Resistance in a directee to a discipline or to opening to the movements of the Divine may present as boredom, mild depression, or discouragement. There may be ambivalence toward a topic, a repeated missing or “blindness” to certain aspects of life or Scripture. There may be significant doubts about the efficacy of prayer, or even literally falling asleep during prayer! However, none of these expressions are unexpected, nor of particular cause for concern.
Trauma, on the other hand, has deep and lasting affective impact. A directee may be very clear about their own experience of trauma, as it may have been recent. Or they recognize and acknowledge as part of their story an incident or ongoing situation from their past that was traumatic. For some though, an incident in childhood or other time in their past that they think of as being “ancient history” or from a “former life” may still be shaping their experience of God and themselves.
Whether or not a directee is conscious of the lingering effects of trauma in their life, many of the expressions of traumatized spirituality are the same. Being familiar with them will help the director discern how much post-traumatic stress their directee is under, and with whom to network for professional support if further care is needed.
How can we tell the difference between someone who is having difficulty facing their core questions and someone who’s spirituality has been deeply affected by trauma in their lives?
- An involuntary or uncontrollable retelling of their trauma story
- A sense of identity derived solely from the trauma experience, that part of their story defines who they are now
- Ambivalent feelings about a sense of progress
- A sense of irrevocable loss and an inability to sense joy
- A drive to find relief through positive or negative behaviors, for example some people self-medicate with alcohol, others with service
- Poor self-esteem that is characterized by shame and/or guilt
- A sense of isolation, that “no one understands” or that no one can relate to their experience
- A rejection of former theological models, including long-standing relationships with particular faith traditions or denominations (this is especially true for those who identify as protestant Christians)
- A “double-dose” of grief, a literal experience of feeling “God-forsaken,” that is, being alone and unseen in their pain
We must always strive to meet our directees where they are and be witnesses to what is happening in their lives in the present. With an understanding of the difference between trauma responses and the resistances or struggles that come with normal spiritual development, directors can be attuned to the specific needs of their directees who are bearing the unique burden of trauma and adjust their companioning style or suggestions to be better helpers on the journey.
Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction by Margaret Guenther
The Practice of Spiritual Direction by William A. Barry and William J. Connolly