Unlocking the Tower

By Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW

Emotional response patterns are the automatic, unconscious ways that we respond to uncomfortable feelings, usually hurt or loss.  In my work with trauma survivors I have noticed an interesting phenomenon:  the first hurdle or guard which blocks conscious feelings of hurt and loss is often anger. 

Like the lion who roars from the splinter in his paw, the anger is trying to release the pain, but unfortunately the roaring only gets rid of the help.  People stuck in anger come across to others as frightening and cruel, but inside they are usually hurting and bewildered.   Their anger is a solid-looking steel plate of armor to hide a stricken heart. 

Get beyond the anger and you’ll find the second guard, exhaustion:  this pain will go on forever, the exhaustion says.  It’s too much work to change and you’ll never succeed anyhow.  Why not give up now?  People stuck in exhaustion often have medical diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and/or Fibromyalgia.  Like the sirens who seduced Odysseus on his journey home, the exhaustion wants you to just lay down and stay a while… a very long while. 

Some people spend their whole lives swinging between anger and exhaustion because they might dip their toes into the therapy pool, but they won’t stick with it long enough to change. 

Get beyond the anger and the exhaustion and then you are finally reaching gold.  Heavy, valuable, and just as malleable as the 24 carat variety, direct feeling of loss and pain is the source of empathy and compassion for ourselves and others. 

Unfortunately a lot of these painful feelings originated at a young age and so our defense mechanisms, like Rapunzel’s well-meaning but overly protective mother, sticks them in a tower for their own safety, and stations those two workaholic guards Anger and Exhaustion at the door.  But then Rapunzel grows up, and the very tower which started out a refuge becomes a prison.   

If you are confronting your own anger or exhaustion and you feel like giving up, make an appointment with a qualified therapist in your area.  (Note:  Growing extremely long hair and dangling it out the window for a bonny prince to climb is unlikely to work.) 

I believe this journey from reactivity/avoidance to acceptance and awareness is the best trip you’ll ever take.

I am teaching a course for attorneys on trauma in July.  Visit my website www.therapistseattle.net for more information

Loving the Parts That Hurt



Imagine you are a newborn with a nurturing, loving mother.  You cry, and in response your mother picks you up, holds you close, whispers in your ear.   You smile and in response your mother smiles even wider, makes a gleeful noise, buries her face in your hair and kisses your sweet little baby scalp. 

You are learning from all these joyful experiences:  that you are safe, your feelings are important, your needs will be met and you are loved. 

You grow up believing that life, in spite of its chaos and challenges, is basically a fun and friendly experience. 

It all starts in the original relationship between you and your primary caretaker, where you learn that you matter.

Relationships are both the cradle of healing and the seat of damage.  Humans are dependent on the care of adults longer than any other animal on earth.  A human baby cannot so much as lift their head at birth.  By contrast, horses can get up and run within hours of birth.  Because of this prolonged state of fragility and dependence, young people need adults to show them love and caring, or quite literally they will die. 

But not everybody gets that loving mother.  Not everyone is celebrated and welcomed and cared for by the family they are born into. 

What happens to children who are neglected, abused or (as more commonly is the case) cared for with grudging efficiency?  They are learning too, but what they are learning causes major emotional problems and can take years to un-learn.  They are learning that they do not matter, that the world is an unsafe place, that their needs are too big or too bothersome.  They are learning to shut their feelings away, deny them, stop crying, stop wanting because they don’t matter.

A few years back I read a harrowing account written by an American nurse who did service work in an orphanage near Chernobyl.  In the aftermath of the nuclear meltdown there were many orphans due to parental death from cancer.  In the orphanage the nurse described walking into a large nursery where there was…silence.  The babies sat or lay in their cribs in stony silence, long accustomed to the fact that their cries didn’t matter.  The staff did their best, but with limited funds and volunteers could provide only the basic physical care: diapers, formula, and crib space.  The babies that lived (many died in infancy) later had attachment disorders, brain damage, and behavioral problems. 

Lack of human connection is deadly. 

The reason why good quality therapy, as opposed to just reading self-help books written by therapists, is effective is because therapy happens in the context of a relationship.  Therapy is two people sitting across from another, talking about what matters, what hurts, and what helps.  In the therapy room, a person gets to have their pain honored and that transforms the pain.  Pain that is honored is healed. 

The other day my son was playing outside and fell and scraped his knee.  He ran to me, tears in his eyes, pointing at his scraped knee.

“Owe,” he said, “I hurt myself.”   I picked him up, kissed his cheek and got a Band-Aid.  The scrape was slight and within minutes he was playing happily as if it never happened.  How much harder would it have been for my dear boy to bounce back if I had sneered,

                “You’re not really hurt.  Don’t be a baby.”    Yet I hear so many people telling themselves this kind of thing about their own pain.

I believe in gently, softly, loving the whole self, especially the parts that hurt.