Facilitating in a supportive way for trauma and self-care

Last week I led a Self-Care-Through-Singing workshop for the staff and volunteers at Women and Girls Network, who are celebrating their 30th birthday this year. That’s three decades of ‘counselling, advocacy and advice for women and girls who have experienced gendered violence, including sexual and domestic violence’. I looked around at the group of women, young and older, of all different skin tones and fashion styles, all contributing in some way to supporting and empowering other women. I felt happy to be there helping them celebrate. We stretched together, breathed together, laughed together and sang with beautiful heart-lifting voices. As I gave gentle reminders to bring non-judgemental attention to the body, breath and voice, it was a special reminder for me of just how much learning about trauma and self-care has shaped my practice as community empowerment specialist.

I began reading about the impact of trauma and ways to support self-care and healing a few years ago. Black Feminist writers (especially Alice Walker and bell hooks) and Buddhist teachings have particularly helped to develop my understanding in broader political and spiritual contexts. Training from Women and Girls Network helped me feel more confident about applying the theory in practical ways in my singing workshops and other workshops I facilitate. The workshops I offer are not offered as substitute for counselling and other services offered by organisations like Women and Girls Network. I hope to support these services by building positive group connection to promote self-care / community care, creativity and a sense of fun and achievement in a community setting.

Being trained in community development values and methods, I always aim to create a safe and inclusive space, supporting everyone present in any kind of workshop to be able to be there whole-heartedly. Being in a big group workshop (singing or more ‘worky’ workshops) can be a healing and liberating experience. It can also be a really uncomfortable experience for some people. If you’ve experienced trauma, you may feel a heightened sense of danger in a group. For me, building safety has always meant paying particular attention to what helps those who feel in the margin of any group to feel safe. The learning about trauma underlined this and I continue to invest time at the beginning of workshops inviting people to introduce themselves in small groups and share with others in ways which invite step-by-step connection and relaxation with each other. When the margin of a group feels safe to really be itself, it’s fairly certain that growth and development in the whole group and in the group’s work will follow.

In singing for wellbeing and empowerment workshops, I give more time to gentle movement and stretching exercises, coordinated with the breath. I find ways to appeal to sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste in each session, helping singers come back safely to the present moment, again and again. I offer tools which participants can use to help self-calming and grounding after the workshops too. Working with the breath and body in this way can be very powerful – it’s important to go slowly, to help participants maintain self-authority and build skills over time.

Trauma can have a huge impact on our perception of our voices; how can I express myself? How do I judge my voice? Will others listen? Do I feel safe during and after expressing my feelings and needs? Creating a gentle, non-judgemental space for people to share and to sing together can help participants to build a more positive relationship with their voice over time. ‘I never believed I could sing’ is a phrase I hear time and again.

Sometimes I offer breathing exercises and singing during other workshops – a team Away Day or residential for a charity of campaign group. As lots of people who have experienced trauma (including the traumatic impacts of experiencing daily structural oppression including racism, sexism, homophobia and disable-ism) turn to activism and healing work, this can be supportive for people working on social justice issues. I talk a lot about – and try to model – self-care, and build gentleness and spaciousness into each workshop agenda I plan.

I look back at my learning journey about trauma and recognise two things – how my own learning about what is supporting self-care and voice-building for me has been instrumental to my approach as a group facilitator. And how much more there is to learn ahead. I would love to hear your reflections on facilitating in a way that is supportive for trauma and self-care too.

It seems the recent #MeToo conversation has brought the widespread nature of trauma (especially from gender-based violence) more into popular consciousness. If you’d like to find out more about how I weave supportive trauma approaches into my work as a facilitator, community builder and community singing leader, or enquire about a Self-Care-Through-Singing workshop for your organisation, feel free to get in touch.  

A big Happy 30th Birthday to Women and Girls Network. Thank you for the important, creative, powerful and heart-led work you do and thank you for sharing your learning onwards to make an even bigger difference. If you want to find out more about their services, or someone you know in London might need to, please see here

 

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A beautiful thing spotted in the WGN office
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Asking women with WGN means to them
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An example of a self-care and wellbeing table I might set up for a singing workshop

 

 

 

 

#MeToo

Today I watched over 40 of my friends and fellow activists, singers and community organisers posting ‘Me too’ on Facebook. They are mostly women from of varying age and heritage (plus one man and a couple of folks of who do not identify as either gender).

The ‘copy and paste’ status being shared is along the lines of:

If all the women/people who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too.” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.

Over the day, my feelings shifted. I felt a numb, slightly defensive ‘I’m not surprised’ to start. And under the numbness was a truth: despite being caught unawares by the online disclosures, I’m not surprised at the prevalence of sexual abuse being highlighted.

I felt deep respect for those posting. I also felt deep respect for those women+ (*) not voicing their experience in this way – those survivors who choose to not write these words online, those who have experienced sexual abuse in prisons and immigration detention centres all over the world, those who don’t use social media, children and those of older and past generations. The image of reaching out to each other to hold hands and form a giant circle came to mind.

I felt rage. Public disclosure can bring about feelings of intense vulnerability as well as empowerment. And reading so many posts online can re-trigger painful feelings. Not only had these incredible women+ gone through these experiences, now they were doing the emotional labour (as usual) to raise awareness about the issue under the gaze of Facebook and Twitter.

The silence of the perpetrators has been so loud, I screamed at my laptop. ‘YOU KNOW WHAT? If all the MEN / people who have sexually harassed or assaulted others wrote “Me too.” as a status…. THEN we might REALLY get a sense of the magnitude of the problem’. Plus all those who have witnessed abuse without taking action. Plus men whose complicit silence upholds masculine norms of treating women as objects to meet their needs and desires.

Then I felt fear. I know it was fear cos I found it hard to take a deep breath. It felt like there was a constriction in my solar plexus area and in my throat. I walked around my local park and the fear melted into a shared grief and sisterhood with them, through my tears and an aching in my heart.

The stories behind these posts will range from being whistled at in the street to rape and other kinds of assault. Some of these are stories of trauma, the impact of which should not be underestimated. Trauma can show up in a perpetual feeling of being unsafe. The oversensitive firing of stress hormones can contribute to chronic health problems (including heart disease and cancers), relationship difficulties and a lurking sense of something not being ‘right’. Behind the brevity of the six characters it takes to type ‘Me too’, I grieved the pages that could be filled describing the impact of these experiences.

Yet what’s most striking to me is that every single one of the women+ I’ve seen post this (and actually every survivor I know who hasn’t posted too) is a powerful, creative and commanding change-maker. You are leaders creating waves in your families, communities, organisations and sectors. You are able to connect with your vulnerability and also sit tall, wearing cloaks of fire and majesty. You often have a startling level of empathy and ability to support and inspire others. I see how you work, I see how you play. I see how you create and how you laugh. I see you cry, sing and dance. I see you, full stop. I see your wounds and pain as you post and I also see the gifts you bring to this world and that brings me joy.

I see how women+ such as Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde, Soni Sori shared their stories of pain and strength and inspired millions and again that image of a huge circle of women+ holding hands across the world comes to mind.

So this ‘Me too’ is from a place of all these feelings – rage, fear, grief, gratitude and joy. I acknowledge the hurt and rage, for me and all my sisters+. I also acknowledge how just like for many of you, that hurt is connected to my strengths. Learning about trauma has helped me to facilitate group spaces which are safe and supportive. It led me to community singing, which helps me and others breathe better and connect with our bodies and voices in a positive way.

I write with a wish of space for those posting (and choosing not to) to do what nourishes and supports you. You don’t need to always be there for others – being there for yourself and doing things that give you joy and pleasure is is the most generous gift you can give the universe. Ask for help if you need it. Let’s hold each other with gentleness and love until holding ourselves with gentleness and love becomes irresistible.

I write in the hope that men recommit to a daily effort to chip away at patriarchal and toxic masculine culture. To listen with more presence and kindness. To challenge and dismantle oppressive (and dismissive) words, actions, trends in your families, neighbourhoods, workplaces, our society’s institutions… and especially in your own thoughts. Talk with older and younger men about this and create healthy models of masculinity to aspire to. Maybe this looks like proactively organising a conversation soon with other men about it, given the buzz currently around these posts. I also wish you gentleness and community with each other as you do this.

Autumn leaves changing – © Shilpa Shah

 

*I created the term ‘women+’ here, to represent a longer list of people who experience sexual abuse: women (including Trans women), children, people who do not identify within the binary gender framework and sometimes men.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Treasure inside

Autumn’s here and there is treasure on the ground here in London.

It’s encased in a tough, rounded and spikey jackets. Here it stays… growing, protected. Until the moment comes to open.  There is a magic to holding a freshly emerged conker. There is a slight give if you press one between your thumb and finger. If you drop them, they bounce. They are soft for a day or two before they dry (and become hard little grenades for children’s games). There is a soft velvety sheen on the white part. They are unbelievably shiny.

Conker inside spikey jacket. Conkers are the seed of the horse chestnut tree, thought to be introduced to the UK in the 1600s – © Shilpa Shah

 

Conkers remind me of us.

Usually coated in layers of protection. Judgements. Fears. Shallow breathing and shoulders which can creep protectively forward. A stream of thoughts about things I ought to know. The weight of traumatic memories and planning ahead. Keeping up with technology and devices. A sense of constriction.

But occasionally we do open. We can’t make it happen, it just sort-of does. A shiny soft golden core showing itself. Our hearts start speaking. We feel curious. A tinge of vulnerability. An aura of strength and potential.

To me, it seems that every day, countless messengers are sent to help us practice pausing and opening for a moment. The sound of birdsong when stepping out of the door. Light filtering through leaves when looking up into a tree. A child laughing in the playground when passing the local school. An old song on the radio. The comforting warmth on the hands before the first sip of a cup of tea. A long hug.

Conkers that shine © Shilpa Shah

 

In all of my work I do my best to help create supportive conditions for clients to loosen the spikey jackets, together, and invite openness. Even if just for a moment at a time.

Breathing exercises help some people. As does creativity – singing or playing on big paper with pastels, crayons or collage-making tends to help people to connect the head with the body, heart and spirit. And encouraging people to gently surface and name the often-unspeakable power dynamics between them. It’s an atmosphere which blends the ‘a-ha!’ of answering a puzzle, with the ‘aah’ of a gentle sigh.

In moments like these, space is created to let transformation in. It’s a softer space where listening, honesty and learning happen with more ease. Where we feel wobbly, yet can see with eyes that are fresh and clear. Where we can melt into the painful things with kindness and sprinkle gratitude upon what’s good.

 

“When we drop fear, we can draw nearer to people, we can draw nearer to the earth, we can draw nearer to all the heavenly creatures that surround us.” – bell hooks.

 

 

Fear and love after the London Bridge attacks.

I was cycling home last night over Waterloo bridge, around 9.30pm. I felt happy and free. I thought of going to a bar at London Bridge who make the best hot chocolate in the world (in my opinion). A minute later, I realised I felt exhausted after a long day and decided to go home.

 

I read the news about the London Bridge attacks when I got in. My breathing shallowed, my stomach clenched, tears surfaced. I immediately messaged friends and family who might have been in the area. My cousin had been there, but left five minutes before it happened. I thought of people hurt or killed and found it hard to get off my phone and to sleep.

 

When we notice a threat, the feeling parts of our brain fire up and our body is filled with stress hormones. We typically respond with Fight, Flight or Freeze. The thinking and behaviour patterns our bodies have learnt from past experiences of danger immediately kick in. If you’ve experienced trauma in the past, this response might feel quite overwhelming. We do what we can to feel safe – we barricade ourselves physically and emotionally, holding close what is familiar and pushing away everything else.

 

I’ve been reflecting today on what helps us in times like this, as individuals and as members of a wider diverse community and society. Here are a few thoughts – I’d love to hear yours in response.

 

Support yourself first

 

 

Acknowledge how you feel – if you don’t have words for it, try picking three or four words from here. Notice what’s happening in your body. Are your shoulders, neck clenched, is your breathing quick or slow? Whatever you notice, be gentle – whatever you’re feeling is OK.

 

Breathe. Lengthening the out-breath can slow the firing of stress hormones and support the nervous system to come back into balance. Inhale for 3, exhale for 6. Or use a rather mesmerising gif like this or this (try using these when supporting children with anxiety too). Put on a favourite song and sing or hum – it will help your breathing regulate itself. Meditate or pray, if that’s your thing.

 

Move. Walk, run, stretch, do some yoga. Anxiety floods our muscles with lactic acid, moving helps it to dissipate – particularly shaking out the legs and hips. Drink plenty of water.

 

Get off Facebook – We want to stay in touch. However, scrolling through a long newsfeed of commentary, images and videos can re-trigger your fight/flight/freeze response over and over again. It’s simultaneously addictive and harmful. I’m not suggesting de-activating your account – but try to use it mindfully.

 

Be in community

 

 

Our emotional responses can lead to opposing instincts within ourselves–  do we barricade ourselves with PLUs (People Like Us) or we reach out and affirm our strength together as a wider community? As well as practical actions, the following can help build a sense of solidarity.

 

Talk with your family, friends, neighbours. Ask people how they are feeling rather than what they think about it – and listen to their response. Being listened to with patience and without judgement can feel very supportive in itself.

 

Reach out to others – those who are similar and those who are different, if it feels OK to. Say hello or smile to people on the bus (in London this is weird behaviour, but often it’s appreciated). Check in on your neighbours. Recognise that the UK and London Muslim community will bear the brunt of any fearful backlash after this incident. A gentle inquiry into how any Muslim friends and neighbours are or a message of support might be appreciated. Bear in mind many will be fasting currently for Ramadan until 9.15pm or so.

 

Commit to community over the long term. London often feels quite transient with many people passing through. Mainstream culture is to pack diaries and juggle over what feels most exciting/important to do every day. Yet there can be a magic in meeting the same group over a period of time. At the regular Tuesday night women’s singing group I run in London, creating a welcoming space for women of different backgrounds and needs is the number one priority. It’s paying off in terms of how much we learn from each other and how we are developing trust. You might have a local community association or an activity group doing music, sports, campaigning, a book club etc. Notice who is part of it and challenge any groups you are part of to be more inclusive and welcoming to all.

 

Notice the wider picture

 


 

We all want to be safe and to keep our loved ones safe. As we are hit with waves of fear or grief, we can develop a deeper empathy with our sisters and brothers facing state-delivered terror in places such as Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Calais… And closer to home, UK residents (including the disproportionate numbers of Black people) murdered in our UK immigration detention centres, our prisons and police cells.

 

‘Terror’ groups and our dominant right-wing politics (propped up by violent institutions) are both sides of the same coin. They are both extremist, un-feeling and anti-democratic. They both draw strength from others’ fear and use it to control populations.

 

What is fear comprised of – judgement, loneliness, being closed, feeling under siege? The opposite is love – being open, connected, generous, fair. Knowing you don’t have all the answers and trusting that we can work them out together. A recognition that none of us are free until all of us are free.

 

We all have forces of love and fear within each of us. Can you be curious about how these forces weave their paths within yourself today in relation to wider society? Notice about how you feel about different politicians and political priorities, as we see societal forces of fear and love playing out in the current UK election campaign. Notice where you feel scared and closed off and where you feel open and generous.

 

Be kind and non-judgemental with yourself as you notice – it’s human nature to have a spectrum of various emotions. When we recognise and accept ourselves as we fully are with gentleness and care, we create space for love and courage to grow.

How I work with you as a Facilitator

Some more general detail about how I work.

As a Facilitator for a workshop, away-day or residential:

The first thing I ask you is to share your story and hopes for the meeting – how did this group get to this moment? What change do you want to see as a result of this meeting? As well as task-based objectives, how do you want the meeting to help people connect to themselves and each other better?

I will encourage participatory agenda planning to involve people across your organisations and design a way to do that with you.

I see each person as a whole – with physical, emotional and spiritual needs and capabilities as well as intellectual. I will discuss with you how we can honour each of those aspects through the agenda design.

Workshops and meetings can be intense for many. I will champion a culture of gentleness and self-care at the beginning of the meeting and throughout it.

I pay particular attention to meeting accessibility requirements. I observe how power dynamics in the group are influenced by things like gender, race, disability, language and class. I work to quickly to create safety, particularly supporting those on the margins to thrive. Which of course benefits the whole group. I do not shy from ruffling the feathers of those who are used to taking up more space.

I encourage participants to share their stories, which help to strengthen the collective story and identity of the group.

I draw on my training in community-participatory methods and ‘Direct Education’ when designing a workshop that meets your objectives and harnesses varying energy levels and learning styles. So I am likely to suggest Theatre of the Oppressed games, collective collage-making or relaxing a post-lunch breathing space as well as more conventional methods you may have experienced such as Open Space Technology.

I support you to reflect and evaluate the impact of the meeting in an participatory and meaningful way. This will support organisational learning and planning future steps.

 

To discuss working with me for your away-day, residential or workshop, please contact me