I have put together here a few resources that I hope people will find useful. Feel free to print the articles and documents below as many times as you like, and share them with others. I would appreciate it if you give me credit if you cite me or use my original work in your own writing, websites or publications. (Except for the ‘Bill of Rights’ and ‘Autobiography in Five Chapters’, which were written by others, everything on this page is my own work.)
All the writing and research work I do outside my clinical work and my training, are done on my own time, and are unpaid work. If you have been helped by anything on this website, please consider paying the small fee below for the resources you downloaded. This will go a long way towards helping me cover the costs of my research and writing. This is an honour system and I trust that you would do the right thing. Thank-you!
I have designed a bookmark with a reminder of the practice you need to do for vertical neural integration — that is integration between the prefronal cortex (PFC), which gives us our executive functions, and the limbic system that talks to us through our feelings.
This is meant mostly for clients, but anyone can use it. If you have a difficult history and suspect you might be suffering from trauma, it’s a good idea to see a therapist to help you with this process.
As you achieve sufficient vertical integration, you might begin to experience strong emotions and memories. This means your brain feels safe enough to begin to release as yet un-integrated and unprocessed ‘raw’ experiences (emotional and physical) from your right brain to your left. Our right brain is where experiences from our childhood that we have not named, processed or integrated are stored until they are ready to be processed. Our brain protects us in this way when difficult things happen to us in our childhood and there is no one there to help us in a skilled and loving way. The process of making sense of raw memories and feelings is called horizontal integration.
This process can’t and shouldn’t be forced or hurried. It happens by itself when the brain is ready after achieving enough vertical integration. Vertical integration provides a safe ‘infrastructure’ to integrate difficult material safely. Pushing it or forcing this by forcing ourselves or others to talk about things before we feel ready can lead to re-traumatisation. It’s dangerous and I don’t advise it. Working safely means focusing first on your vertical integration and in good time your horizontal integration will start by itself. Even if you are feeling strong enough, it might still be a good idea to talk to a skilled therapist to support you when the difficult stuff begins to surface.
This article can be helpful to anyone working in an emotionally demanding area such as counsellors, nurses, teachers, doctors, youth workers, social workers, and social and political activists. It suggests strategies to help prevent burnout and secondary traumatisation.
This is an updated and revised version from 9th May 2017.
This handout shows the dynamics of human emotions. It emphasises the importance of experienceing all our emotions fully, instead of blocking them, which is what most of us have learned to do. It reminds us that there are no good or bad emotions, and that all emotions are equally important.
Throughout human history, emotions have been given bad publicity. They have been seen as unreliable, as a sign of weakness or as a nuisance. However, in reality, emotions are a vital source of information about ourselves and the world around us. To reject any of our emotions means we miss out on important information that we need in order to make decisions and understand ourselves better.
Murray Bowen’s theory of self-differentiation has been known in family therapy circles for many years. In its time it has revolutionised the way we think of people’s development and maturity and how we think about what therapy does. The scale is not a prescription but rather it tries to show what people are like when they are at different levels of maturity. There is no expectation that everyone will go through the journey but it is accepted and we now have neuroscience to back this up, that the higher you are on the scale, the happier and more fulfilled you are. Any good quality process of therapy that helps your brain integrate, that helps you grow and develop and act more and more out of your most mature nature, will by definition take you up the scale. This document is my own (Avigail’s) adaptation of Murray Bowen’s scale of differentiation as it appears in the 1988 textbook: Family Evaluation by Michael Kerr and Murray Bowen. Norton: pp97-107.
This is a lovely and comforting poem that reminds us that when we want to change something about ourselves, it doesn’t happen over night. There are stages we go through before we change in a reliable way.
This is an insightful poem also because it fits perfectly with the brain science behind everything we are and everything we do. It takes the brain time to create new neural pathways and new neural networks. The knowledge we have now confirms that change also doesn’t just happen by itself. It happens with intent and deliberate work. The kind of work I am talking about is partly what I am working on in therapy with my clients: attempting to become aware of emotions at key points, taking care of those emotions correctly (as we would or should do with children), practicing being in our ‘captain’ (prefrontal cortex) and forgiving ourselves when we do not progress as fast as parts of us think we ought to. A greater level of awareness (as in verses/chapters 4 and 5) is a sign that we operate more from the prefrontal cortex. This is because this is the part of the brain that is capable of and responsible for our capacity for self-awareness.
We can all get impatient with ourselves when we see ourselves repeat old patterns, but as long as the limbic brain is in charge and the prefrontal cortex (aka ‘captain’) is not yet as dominant, or as well integrated to the limbic brain as it needs to be, we will inevitably repeat things.
I am an idealist, and I also accept that we are imperfect beings. So I have learned to forgive myself unconditionally. When I mess up and it concerns other people, I apologise, own up and make amends to the best of my ability with the intention of not repeating behaviour that isn’t kind, caring, or that reflects the way I would like to be in the world. In other words, I see myself as a work in progress and I think we all are.
A version of this was given to me by a client many years ago. She was badly mistreated both as a child and as an adult. Having been abused and used by people who were supposed to look after her, she was given the message that she was nothing and had no rights at all to her individuality, her boundaries, her needs, thoughts and feelings, preferences. As is always the case with abuse, it was made very clear to her that she had no right to protest when she was mistreated and that if she did, things would only get worse. No rights at all. It was a big step for her when she found this Bill of Rights and began to apply it to herself.
This isn’t a recipe for being selfish. This is a way of balancing out our rightful place in the world with other people’s. We cannot be in healthy, satisfying and safe relationships with others when these relationship aren’t equal. Inequality can come either from us seeing ourselves as less than others, or from seeing others as less worthy than us.
Looking after ourselves properly also means we will be more useful to others in a more sustainable way. People can’t be of service, even when they choose to be, if they are a mess. It won’t last and they will collapse eventually, if they try to use resources they don’t have and if they neglect themselves and their own needs.
I once read a comment by Erich Fromm who said that humanism means that no human being should be used for the needs of another. Sometimes we choose to put ourselves at other people’s service. There are many people who do that and it is a wonderful gift to give to someone who is in need of what we have to offer. In fact I think a life of service is what all of us should aspire for.
But choosing is one thing. It is quite another to be forced to give yourself so that another person can use you to meet their needs. This applies to child abuse (physical, sexual, psychological or in any other way) where a child is used to meet the needs of adults, rape, corporate abuse, slave relationships and really any situation where people abuse power to force other people to do what they would otherwise not choose to do. If we wish to have a better world it starts with each one of us recognising our worth and defending it, at the same time as we recognise and defend the worth of others.
And if you ask why you or anyone has any worth at all? It’s simply because we are. We were born and are here, therefore we have worth. No more reason than that. We know how destructive it is to live as if we do not have any worth or to think that others don’t. Knowing our own and others’ worth and defending it, will lead to a much better, safer more equitable and just world.
[I think we also need to consider the way we use non-human animals (we are human animals). They too have feelings, likes and dislikes and an innate need just like us to be everything they can be and live the life they wish and are capable of living. When we put animals in cages, murder, eat them or use them for work or entertainment we prevent them from living the life they were meant to live. I stopped eating meat completely in early 2013. Prior to that, for many years, I only consumed meat from organically grown free range animals. But now, not even that.]