For a long time in my therapeutic life, I worked diligently on eliminating barriers to being in contact with my innermost self. Primal Therapy was very good at that. After doing a lot of that work, I found - to a large degree - nothing. I had played Lewis and Clark in my own depths and when I got there, there wasn't a lot there. I'd expected to find my "true self" - full of love, compassion, intimacy and all the other joys of life. But I didn't. I'd removed a lot of barriers and gone deep inside, and "I" wasn't there.
I went back to doing more of what I'd been doing, more of what had helped me, more of the same. It took me to the same places, again. And I still didn't find what I was searching for.
My whole orientation, from experience and books and colleagues and the conventional wisdom of the day, told me that if I reached my deepest core, I'd be "cured." And it did transform me, allowing wonderful changes for the better and opening to some amazing aspects of myself that I'd been cut off from. I relished all those changes and there was still an essential essence of myself that was absent. I still didn't have that "North Star" inner reference point I longed for.
Having given it my best shot, I decided I was too wounded to heal, was lacking the requisite courage or commitment, or maybe just had bad karma. I went through a lot of grief but eventually accepted this was as good as it was going to get. Then I learned about emotional shock.
I found out that sometimes the damage is done, not by having walls up, but by not having walls up. The work I'd done to that point had effectively addressed my emotional traumas, but all my emotional shocks (which are more severe wounds than emotional traumas) still needed to be healed. I started working on myself in a new way. I indulged my fear and allowed myself to stay defended until I felt safe. I honored my reluctance and only acted when I felt a genuine urge to. I recognized my vulnerability and crafted ways to have more protection. I found that, in spite of needing so much, I was terrible at receiving what I needed. (Tragically, sometimes, what I needed was right there - but most of the time I didn't recognize it and, when I did, I didn't know how to take it in.)
Some of the things I hoped to find inside I realized were never there - like the ability to trust, receive, and empathize. By understanding the dynamics of how I'd been wounded and, most importantly, what it took to heal, I could repair the deficiencies I'd lived with for so long. Just as learning a language is a natural process for an infant but much more laborious once grown, learning these new skills was a lot of work - but it was doable. I found people who would let me practice trusting in increments small enough that I could stay present and not betray my tenderness and reluctance. Like standing on my Dad's feet to learn to dance, I learned empathy by being empathized with, and I gradually reclaimed the elements that gave me back my North Star.
This recognition of the drastic differences between shock and trauma was so profound that I moved across the country to get treatment for my shock - and to learn all I could so I could incorporate this new approach into my work. I studied with William Emerson for seven years, and now I teach what I know.
Before physicians knew about germs, they'd go from dissecting cadavers to doing surgery, and wonder why their patients died. Once germs were discovered, it didn't become an isolated specialty; that knowledge pervaded not only every aspect of medicine, but also public health, food sanitation, personal hygiene and more. I believe an understanding of shock and trauma, and the recognition of the different treatments they each need, will become basic, underlying knowledge not only for psychology and psychotherapy, but also the fields that deal with emotional shock but usually don't recognize it as such, including special education, chiropractic, obstetrics and more.
Emotional shock is so pervasive that it's invisible. It is so ingrained in our society (especially medical and educational practices) that it's unquestioned. It's similar to trauma in so many ways that it's undetected. Its treatment breaks so many "rules" that a new therapeutic paradigm is arising. The similarities are many, but differences are vital. The failure to recognize the differences between emotional trauma and emotional shock is the primary reason for treatment failure, or failure-to-progress.
I'm excited to come back to the IPA convention to share more about this important subject and I look forward to seeing you at Appel Farm this summer.
Terry Larimore is a therapist in private practice in Larkspur,
California. Terry offers trainings and workshops across the country
from Houston to Toronto, San Francisco to New York. See
This article appeared in the Summer 2002 IPA Newsletter.