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Hello and welcome to the Wellness Mama podcast. I’m Katie from wellnessmama.com, and this episode delves into the topic of it’s not your fault, why childhood trauma shapes us, and how we can break free of that. And I’m here with Alex Howard, and I very much loved this conversation and all the topics we got to go deep on. He’s the founder and chairman of the Optimum Health Clinic and one of the world’s leading integrative medicine clinics. He has a whole team there, and he is also the creator of Therapeutic Coaching Methodology, which since March of 2020, has been documenting his therapeutic work with real-life patients via his In Therapy with Alex Howard YouTube series. And he’s created some of the largest online conferences in health and mind and body markers, including the Trauma Super Conference. And these have been viewed by millions of people. He’s also published academic research on these topics, and we get to go deep on them today, really kind of exploring the topic of how childhood experiences, even ones that we wouldn’t consider what he calls overt or big T trauma, can have a really lasting impact on our nervous system. We talk about the core needs that we all have, especially as children and what happens when those aren’t met, or we end up with nervous system dysregulation. He talks about how trauma is like an ECHO, which stands for the experience itself, the context, the homeostatic shift, and the outcome. And he gives some practical ways to start delving into and unpacking and healing within our own bodies from things we’ve experienced in our life. It was a very wide-ranging conversation, and I hope to have him back on to talk about this more. But without any further wait, let’s join Alex Howard.
Katie: Alex, welcome. Thank you so much for being here.
Alex: Katie, thank you for having me. I’m looking forward to getting into this.
Katie: Me too. As people who have listened before may know, I have a personal connection and story and a reason I feel this work is so important and pivotal for truly everyone in some degree. And I would guess, knowing only a little of your story, that you might as well because I know, so I would love to hear sort of your backstory and how you got into the work that you do. Maybe give us some background on what you do, and then we’ll get to get into some specifics.
Alex: Yeah, sure. Well, I think, like a lot of people who’ve come to work in this space, this wasn’t my career ambition when I was 15 years old, sat in front of a career advisor saying, “What do you want to do with your life?” I wanted to be a rock star and it failed. So, I found myself on this path really because of my own, not that I would have used these words at the time, but my own childhood trauma. I suffered from a debilitating chronic illness for six to seven years from my mid-teens, early twenties, and that catalyzed an interest in health, psychology, self-development, and so on. And then in my early twenties found myself setting up and running really the clinic that I’d wanted to exist in those years that I’d been ill, and that clinic, the Optimum Health Clinic, became very successful very quickly. And I found myself in my mid-twenties really with a level of success in my outside life, which was ahead of my internal capacity really to be at ease with that. And it became clear at the time that I had really two major events in childhood that I hadn’t really understood the impacts of, one of which was growing up with a sister who had complex mental health issues that meant the household was very volatile at times, that there was violence. There was a lot of destruction. There was a lot of a kind of unpredictability and difficulty. And then having a father who left soon after I was born and growing up without a father figure. And how that presented in my mid-twenties was, I was having a bit debilitating anxiety and panic attacks. I couldn’t have a relationship really that lasted longer than a few months.
And on the outside, I sort of had all the things that I thought I wanted to achieve. But the reality was at the time that life was very difficult. And so, a little bit like I’d done on my physical health journey, I set off on a path to really understand what was happening or what wasn’t happening emotionally. Because the whole thing was sort of frozen and shut down. And at that time, and to answer your question in terms of what do I do, well, at that time, I was working as a therapist but particularly informed by more solution-oriented, brief therapeutic interventions. And the realization at that time was the importance of bringing in a trauma-informed perspective, really understanding how repressed and unprocessed and unhealed trauma from the past really shapes who we are in our lives today. And so, in the sort of nearly 20 years since that time, I’ve developed a methodology called therapeutic coaching, which integrates a coaching approach with a psychotherapeutic framework and many other pieces that we do. But really, the heart of it is a clinic and working with people one-on-one and in groups and in programs to really understand how what happened or didn’t happen in childhood is impacting and shaping life now.
Katie: Yeah, I think, like I said, this is such important work that applies to everybody. I know that there’s a distinction sometimes within the healing community on big T trauma versus little T trauma. And I know even though I technically have what would be very much considered big T trauma, for my own sake, thought I was totally fine and had healed it. And it wasn’t until I actually started unpacking that I realized how many things in my life were patterns related to that and sort of like locking down because of that. But I know many people who have more of the little T trauma also sometimes have guilt around facing that because they don’t feel like it’s big enough or a valid trauma. And as I did the work, I found things in my childhood, for instance, that were objectively relatively small or would seem insignificant even if someone had just seen the interactions, but that it had like deeply impacted me, and I had internalized things around. So, I would love to have for background also, maybe if you could give us sort of your working definition of trauma and perhaps the ways that people might not intuitively, at first glance, consider things trauma that could very well be affecting them.
Alex: Yeah, it’s a great question. So, I, although I think the language of big T trauma and little T trauma has been helpful in terms of conceptualizing and making sense of trauma, I think it can be problematic, really, for the reason that you pointed out. And so, I typically refer to overt traumas and covert traumas. So overt traumas being those more obvious things like adverse childhood experiences where we may have had a parent that was physically or sexually abusive, or we may have grown up with a parent that was incarcerated or so on. The things that we can recognize are obviously gonna be traumatic experiences.
But as you mentioned, sometimes the things that shape us the most are much more covert and they’re much more subtle. And, you know, it may be as in a way simple as our parents believed that the way to, not because they didn’t love us but because they did love us, they believe that the way to raise us was to value intellect and achievements and accomplishment more than emotion, sensitivity, and openness, for example. So, we may have had an experience one day at school where let’s say, we put our hand up in class because we’re enthusiastic and we wanted to answer a question, we got it wrong, and everyone laughed. And we came home, and we were feeling really delicate. We were feeling vulnerable. And what we needed, the emotional need that we needed to have met, was a need of being loved, not for what we do and what we achieve, but for who we were and for where we were in that moment. But our parents saw that we were upset, and perhaps because they weren’t so comfortable with their own feelings, their way of responding was to try and make us laugh, focus on things we like doing, what would you like to have for tea tonight? And then, when they noticed that we started to stop feeling the emotions, they praised us for being so mature and so grown up, and you’re gonna go far in life because you’re tough and this and that.
So, because they loved us, but what they understood to do was to teach us that our feelings weren’t really appropriate and they weren’t really okay, and maybe there were many experiences like that. Now, no, we wouldn’t label that as being trauma. We’d label that, in a way, as just parenting, particularly of that time in history. But what we learn from that was that our feelings and our emotions are not okay. That to cry maybe is a sign of weakness, that to ask for help means we can’t do it by ourselves, and we get more love and we feel safer when we do it by ourselves. And so, we can have lots of these experiences that fundamentally design and shape our personality and our habits and our patterns and the ways that we relate to ourselves, the ways we relate to our emotions, the ways we relate to other people. And after a while, we know ourselves as those responses that that’s how we believe we are. And what we often don’t realize is they’re things that we learned. And if we’d learned different things, our life could have been very different or our life could be very different.
Katie: Well, and I think that’s a perfect springboard into that part of the conversation because I know for me, I realized, like you, I got into the physical health world because I had my own issues, and I was trying to find answers. And I know that’s a story for many of us who do the work that we do. And I learned over the years, and I say very often, at the end of the day, we are each our own primary healthcare provider. And while we can work with practitioners, the responsibility still lies with us. And that’s awesome because it means we have the power to affect change in our own lives. And in the last five years, I’ve realized that statement also applies when it comes to our emotions and to healing and that at the end of the day, we are each our own healer, and we can work with people to help that process. But that responsibility and that power lie within each of us. And so, I love the work you do for this reason because I feel like you help people sort of get to the heart of that and help them to feel that autonomy and that power to affect change in their own lives. And I also know that this process is also, in many ways, very individual and personalized, and the journey can look different for different people. But I know that there is a process to it. So, I would love to start exploring if people are aware of some of like you explained these covert and overt traumas. I would guess there are many often that we’re not even aware of. So, what does the process look like to begin to delve into that world?
Alex: Yeah, to break it down a little bit more, when I was writing my most recent book, I say another part of my life is we organize these quite big online conferences. And so, our trauma super conference has been attended by over half a million people in the last four or five years. So, I’ve interviewed literally hundreds of the world’s experts on trauma. And I’ve asked them all the same question, what is trauma? So, when I was writing the book, I felt some pressure to have a good answer to the question that I’d asked a lot of the people. And I really, in sitting with it, what I came to realize is that, yes, the events of trauma are important without the events that there isn’t trauma, but it isn’t only the events that happen. The context within which those events happen really determines what happens in us as a response. What I mean by context is that we all have three core emotional needs as children, which are like the needs for food, oxygen, water. They’re not emotional nice to have or emotional wants. They’re emotional needs that are critical to healthy emotional development. And if these needs are not met, those events that we talked about, whether they’re overt or covert or big T or little T trauma events, have a much bigger impact within us. And so, just briefly, these core emotional needs are the needs for boundaries. That’s the ability to say yes or no to ourselves, but also to other people. The need for safety. As a baby, safety comes from our nervous system being co-regulated with our primary caregivers. As we grow through life, we hopefully learn how to self-regulate our nervous system. So that’s the ability, if we get impacted or shaken or shocked by something that we can bring ourselves back to a point of safety and a point of balance. And then the need for love. And this is not love for what you do or what you achieve. This is love for who we are inherently as we are. And so, for example, when it comes to kids, one of the things that’s been a real learning for me as a father is when it comes to my daughters, me showing them love is not taking them through the thing that I want to do. Me showing them love is entering their inner world and finding a way to hang out with them in the inner world that feels intimate and precious to them.
And so, going back to the question around, how do we understand how trauma shapes and impacts us? If we didn’t get these core emotional needs of boundary, safety, and love well met in childhood, then these events happen, and then this has an impact within us. And the impact is ultimately an impact in our nervous system. And so, our nervous system has, like all of our bodily systems, has a point of what’s called homeostasis. Homeostasis means same, stable, consistent. So, anything from our blood sugar to our blood pressure to our hormones, all of these things have different cycles through the day, but they will have a baseline and they will have a natural shape to those cycles.
When we become overloaded by the events and those core emotional needs are not being met, there is a change in the homeostasis of our nervous system. And so, our nervous system becomes effectively dysregulated. Healthy nervous system response, you know, you and I are walking down the street, we don’t see the big electric lorry that’s coming towards us. We suddenly see it, we leap out the way, we get a hit of adrenaline and cortisol, and there’s a big stress, but then we know we’re safe, take a deep breath, and over the next kind of coming of hours, our system comes back to a point of homeostasis. When it feels like that threat never goes away, our homeostasis shifts. And so, we develop what I call a maladaptive stress response. The healthy stress response in our nervous system becomes maladaptive. Now, what’s really important about the understanding of this is the traumas may have happened in the past but the shift in our nervous system continues often in our lives now. Because our system speeds up because we’re trying to meet the core emotional need of safety for example. We feel unsafe, so everything runs faster to try and protect us. Or to be loved, we believe we have to be the best at everything we do, or we have to be a rescue and help everyone else. And so, we’re constantly dysregulated trying to do this.
So, the outcome of all of this is many of the mental health issues that we see in the world today. Addictions is an attempt to self-medicate a dysregulated nervous system. I constantly feel on edge. If I drink alcohol or I use drugs, I feel normal. Most people that use drugs are not using drugs to get high or to feel good. They’re using them to try and feel normal, to get to a point of regulation. Anxiety is a state of a constant dysregulated nervous system. Depression is a numbing of the nervous system to try not to feel. Low self-esteem issues is the result of these needs not being met.
So, what we’ve just mapped out, to come back to answer your question, I talk about trauma as being like an echo. It’s an echo because it’s like something happens, and it echoes through our lives. But ECHO is also an acronym of what we’ve just talked about. So, there’s the events, which is the E of ECHO. There’s the context, the core emotional needs, which is the C. There’s the homeostatic shift, which is the H. Then there’s the outcome in our life, which may be anxiety, addiction, depression, low self-esteem, and so on. So, to go back to your question of how do we unravel this and how do we make sense of this, just like, you know, it’s interesting part of your background and your journey being with physical health issues. And I’m sure part of your discovery there was that a lot of mainstream medical care is the treating of symptoms. The same thing is true, in my humble opinion, when it comes to a lot of mental health. The symptom of anxiety or depression or self-esteem or addiction to me is the outcome of this chain of events that have happened, and, in a way, the dysregulation of the nervous system is managed through the symptom. And so, if we just try and treat the symptom, we’re not really dealing with the issue.
So, if we try it back through the sequence, so much of good trauma healing work and so much of skillful parenting, because of course, one of the things we all sit with when we have our own kids is we wanna not pass on the things that were difficult for us. Sometimes the pendulum swings too far the other way, and we create an opposite issue. But so much of this work comes down to learning to meet those three core emotional needs for ourselves. Because, as children, we are dependent upon our caregivers to do it. And if they don’t do a great job, we’re left with what we’re left with. Much of the healing work is to go back and to learn how do I learn skillful boundaries. How do I learn to self-regulate my nervous system and build an inner state of safety? How do I build a state of unconditional love of myself? Not that I can just be complacent and do what the hell I want whenever I wanna do it, but a sense of I’m loved as I am, not that love is something I constantly have to get through what I do and achieve in the world.
Katie: That was such a great explanation. And there’s so many more points I want to delve deeper into. I feel like it seems logical to me, and I certainly saw this in my own life, is when we have those unresolved core needs that have not been met, and we were used to as a child trying to find that in our caregivers and then not receiving it, it seems like often those patterns can then show up in our adult relationships in pretty significant ways. I know as I started doing that work and unraveling, I feel like I fundamentally shifted as a person and, certainly, how I showed up in relationships shifted a lot. Is that something that seems common that often people will run into when they start doing this work?
Alex: Unfortunately, yes. In a way, you know, it’s like we didn’t get these core emotional needs met, and we haven’t yet learned how to do it for ourselves. So, what’s the obvious thing we do? We end up in relationship with someone that can fill the holes for us. And so, if, for example, the core emotional need is one of not feeling safe, then we look to be in relationship with someone that we think is gonna give us that need for safety. And that could present in a bunch of ways. We may be with someone that actually what we’re attracted to is someone that is more alive and sort of more sort of spunky, but we end up in relationship with people that don’t meet that need, but they’re very predictable and they’re very safe. And so, it gives us that safety. So, we have this push-pull where we’re drawn towards one thing, but actually, we’re also pulled into something else. Or we may be with someone, perhaps our history was that we had a very dominating caregiver that kept riding over our boundaries. And so, what we’re attracted to now is someone that we think is gonna protect us.
But in a way, because we haven’t got that inner know in ourself, we look to fill that with someone else, but then we end up in an unhealthy dynamic where that person is over-domineering and controlling and so on. And so, it’s not that, in a way, healthy, really good relationships work because there is a balancing and there’s a team. And although we may think we wanna be in a relationship with someone exactly the same as us, typically, the relationships that work well work well because there is difference, and there’s attraction that’s often created by that difference. But if we’re looking to the other person to meet those needs that we can’t meet for ourselves, that becomes the definition of a codependent relationship. And that has a whole set of problems that goes with it. So, it’s not that we can’t, and we shouldn’t, meet each other’s needs in relationship, but we don’t wanna be fundamentally dependent upon that other person to meet those needs for us.
Katie: That makes sense. And yeah, I can see that this would be, especially if someone’s in a relationship already, a process to be very intentional and probably communicative as you go through the trauma work. Cause I could see that being a difficult shift for both people if you weren’t expecting those big shifts to start happening. I’m really glad you also brought up the nervous system aspects because I realized for me in hindsight, this was a thing. Like I said, I, I knew that the trauma had happened. I thought I had processed it. What I had actually done was sort of build a lot of walls and adaptive responses to feel safe instead. And when I finally actually started unraveling it, I realized, wow, I think I had been in a totally sympathetic nervous system state for over a decade because I didn’t feel safe in my own body. And that was certainly a process to learn. And for me, at least, a lot of the physical health things started to resolve when I was able to deal with the inner emotional stuff and start actually letting my body enter parasympathetic again. And I was so grateful for all the things I had done to build that physical foundation, but it really highlighted for me how important this piece is, even for physical health. So, I’d love to talk about some of the ways that we can help our nervous system learn to feel safe again when we start to recognize that perhaps it doesn’t.
Alex: Yeah, well, also just to briefly talk on the physical health piece. So, the first three decades of my clinical career was working with people with complex chronic health conditions, particularly fatigue-related conditions. And one of the things that was, this was sort of over 20 years ago now, and so there wasn’t the level of awareness that there now is around the mind-body connection, around trauma, and so on. And so, people would come into the clinic back in the glory days of in-person clinics so people would actually sit in front of you as real people, which I love. And I would start to explain the relationship between, not necessarily using quite these words, because I think the language has evolved over the years as well, but effectively the relationship between trauma and the nervous system and a maladaptive stress response. And people would sit across from me, and they would be so dysregulated in their nervous system that I was, as a kind of empath, I was having to work to regulate my own nervous system, being relational with this person because their system was so activated. And they would look at me with great sincerity and say, “But this isn’t true for me. I’m not anxious, I’m not in a dysregulated state.” And yet they would be so dysregulated, they couldn’t sit still in the room.
And what I came to realize over the years, is one of the things which is, in a way, brilliant about the human organism is our capacity to adapt. And we can adapt to almost anything, right? Like you hear the stories of, you know, someone that ends up being incarcerated and, you know, for the purpose of the metaphor, let’s assume this person is innocent. And someone ends up in prison. And those that first night and those first few days is so overwhelmingly horrendous and traumatic and so on. But at some point, they have to learn to adapt to the environment that person’s in. And you hear the story to someone that’s been in prison for a long time, and they come out, and it’s as hard to adapt back to the real world to move out of that environment. And so, when our system becomes dysregulated, and for many of us, this happens back in childhood before we had a full self-reflective consciousness to even have dialogue and reflection about these things, that we normalized. And so, I remember when I started my training as a therapist, and one of the things in recording kind of guided meditations and visualizations and so on, we were encouraged to record our voice and listen back to it. And I remember really hard to talk slowly and think I’ve cracked it and listen back. And it was like a fire hose. And I was just because we normalize to the sound of our own voice. We just don’t realize how fast we’re speaking, how fast we’re eating, how fast we’re moving. Or if we’re in a freeze response, it may appear to everyone that, you know, we’re very calm and present, but actually, there’s so much tension inside in terms of the holding onto that. And so, in a way, we can’t even fully rely upon ourselves, at least at the start, to self-reflect, to understand how dysregulated we may be. Because it’s like you can’t see the problem through the lens of the problem. Or when you see the problem through the lens of the problem, it’s very hard to see the problem. There’s a lot of problems in there, do you get what I’m saying?
And so, the first thing is to really be able to change what’s happening in our nervous system. The first thing is we really have to recognize what’s going on. And there’s often layers to that. So, we may initially understand it theoretically. And so, someone may be watching or listening to this interview, and they go, okay, that makes sense. I can see that that’s possible. And then maybe someone does a yoga class or a meditation practice or a breath work session or whatever it may be. And then afterward, they notice they feel so calm. And then they wrote, well, hang on, I thought I was calm before. And then you sort of have that reference point of the shift of what’s happened. Other times what we really just have is the symptoms. And we have a whole bunch of symptoms that are not easy to explain in other ways. Symptoms like heightened sensitivities in our immune system or in our nervous system. Maybe we’re just very, very easily triggered by things. Symptoms of medically unexplained illnesses where there may be a bunch of other factors that are going on, but part of it we can recognize is nervous system dysregulation. But we’ve got to have some recognition of what’s happening. And then, of course, we’ve got to get into tools and strategies that can help us start to work to reset that.
Katie: And the other piece that you mentioned that I think is so important and can seem difficult to make tangible or like to accomplish for people is that learning to have unconditional love for yourself, especially if you didn’t feel like you received that core piece as a child. And so, I’d love to hear how you work with people on that because I’ve seen in my own life, and it’s still very much a journey, but just how drastically that can shift so much from your inner speak toward yourself to the way that you interact with the world and so much more. So how do you walk people through learning that process?
Alex: Yeah, so it’s a really good question. I don’t know why; you have a memory that comes into mind. You asked the question; the memory came to mind. Must have been, I must have been 18, 19 years old. And I just read Louise Hay’s book, You Can Heal Your Life. And one of the things that was in the book was writing affirmations. So, I remember I sat there writing in my terrible handwriting, I love myself, I love myself, I love myself. And at the end of it going, I have no idea what that was about because I don’t find anything that’s different. And what I’ve come to realize, although I think there is a place for affirmations, what I’ve come to realize over the years, that loving of oneself, and also, the other piece I would say, you know, particularly as an English person, the last thing you’d ever want to be as an English person is arrogant or self-inflated or kind of grandiose about yourself. In fact, our whole culture is sort of in the fabric of it is that one should always sort of, you know, have a lot of humility and humble and don’t sort of, sort of inflate yourself. And so, I, when I came to realize that I had an issue around, a big issue, around self-worth and self-esteem, particularly having been mercilessly bullied at school and so on, it was a real mystery to me of what does all of this mean and what and what you actually do about it. And what I came to discover in my own personal journey, and I think it’s been a big part of my work with other people as well, is, in a way, self-love comes down to how we are in relationship with ourselves. And in particular, how are we in relationship with our feelings and with our emotions?
So, let’s say, you know, let’s say we come off the session and, you know, one of us has an exchange with a friend on WhatsApp that’s kind of bruising. And let’s say they say something that’s kind of kind of unkind and maybe it kind of grates on the sensitivity for us. And in that moment, maybe we feel sad, we feel hurt. What do we do in response to that? So, for a lot of us, the pattern would be stop being so stupid, stop being weak, stop complaining, and just shut it down. In a way, that’s the opposite of self-love because we have a feeling, we have a response, and we shame ourselves and reject ourselves for having that feeling and response. The acts of self-love would be to give space to that feeling, to be really curious, like, well, why do I feel that way? What’s happening? And you know, it’s really okay, that’s how I feel. And not that we should live in that place and wallow in that feeling, but to really legitimize and give space to what we’re experiencing. You know, we get to the end of the day, maybe we’ve had a particularly grueling day, and our body is tired.
One way to respond is to go, “Stop being weak, crack on with it. What’s wrong with you, everyone else is having a tough time.” That’s the opposite of self-love. Self-love is to actually be interested in caring, and well, what do I need? How can I better take care of my body? And so, to me, self-love at its heart is how are we in relationship with our body, with our emotions, with our feelings, and also how are we in relationship with other people? So, if other people act in ways which are unkind or ungenerous, do we have boundaries? Do we say no? Do we say, actually, it’s not okay to talk to me that way? Please, please stop. Because self-love is also how do we teach other people how to treat us. And so, if our history is that we didn’t receive, it’s not whether our, because most people’s parents loved them and most people’s parents would throw themselves in front of a bus to protect their child. That’s an instinct within parents.
So, it’s not about whether parents loved us; it’s whether they were skillful in meeting the emotional need of love. And that’s an entirely different thing. But for many of us, parents were, particularly our parents’ generation, who had a whole different set of frameworks and rules about what good parenting was. But if our parents weren’t skillful in meeting that need, the chances are that we’ve normalized to other people being in a similar way to us. And so, part of the act of self-love, and it goes back to the point that you were making earlier around when we go on a trauma healing journey, it can kind of get bumpy in relationships. That if we’ve got our relationship set up in a certain way and we’ve got used to people being a bit ungenerous and unkind, maybe we’ve got a real helper pattern. And so, a lot of people in our lives, we’re kind of the rescuer, and we’re the helper. And then we realize this has kind of become toxic for our own life.
And so, we start saying no to people, and we start putting boundaries in place. That can get pretty bumpy. Not because, again, people don’t, not because we don’t really love us. They just have got used to being in relationship with us in a certain way, and we’re the one that wants to renegotiate that relationship. It’s not different if you have a business relationship and one of your suppliers or one of your customers comes back and really, she hates us like sometimes we don’t like it. And so, if we haven’t had that need of love and self-love met effectively, we’ve probably normalized a bunch of stuff in our life that’s not healthy, we’re probably not in healthy relationship with ourselves, and it’s going to get a bit bumpy as we work to change that. The ultimate gift of working to change that is our life really can change. And also, I’d like to make the point as well, given the context of this interview as well, when it comes to kids, one of the things that my wife and I have come to realize and have spoken a lot about recently is that kids don’t do what you tell them to do. We all know that. Kids model what we do with them and not just what we do with them, what my wife and I do with each other and what we do with the kids. So, if we want to teach kids self-love, my mum told me she loved me every night before she put me to bed, but she didn’t meet my core emotional need of love. My mum loved me, but she didn’t meet my core emotional need of love. And so, the words are much less important than the actions and the skill of how we really show up.
Katie: Yeah. Oh, so much good stuff in there. And I love that you brought up boundaries as well. This was also a shift I noticed of being not skilled in boundaries for most of my life because of different things that had happened. And then I felt like there was sort of a pendulum swing where I started learning boundaries, and I maybe didn’t learn all the kindness that can go with them as well.
Alex: It can get a bit bumpy, can’t it?
Katie: It can. And I feel like now I have a core belief that boundaries and kindness not only can exist together, but they must, to be effective. And I’ve still learned that process. But it’s one I think of often, I would guess you do as well, as a parent now. And I love how you clearly explain those core needs. I’d love to talk a little about how we as parents can show up and try to learn to be skillful in meeting those core needs in a way that our children actually feel and understand and feel that their needs are being met. Because like you said, I agree, most parents very much love their children and would do anything for their kids. And also, a lot of us just haven’t been given these tools ourselves. So, we’re learning as we go as we’re raising our kids. So, what are some strategies or some ways that you’ve learned to do this in your family and that we, as parents, can help our kids to hopefully have a solid foundation in these core areas?
Alex: Yeah. Yeah, I’m going to preempt this by saying I make no claims to be a good parent that gets judged in about 20 years’ time when my kids get to therapy, but the things that I observe have been helpful. I really love what you said about the fact that you can give a boundary and it needs to have kindness. These two things are not separated. So, sometimes, I think for a lot of people, it’s an either-or; you either say yes and it’s all kind and happy, or you say no and you have to be mean and miserable. My experience is there’s something incredibly powerful about… no. From a place of, I’m fully here, I’m showing up as a parent, I love you, and the answer’s no. And the kids really need; one of the things that makes kids feel incredibly unsafe is to not know where the boundaries are and to keep pushing the edges, and the edge keeps on moving. Now kids think that’s what they want. They think their dream is to be able to eat ice cream for breakfast, go to bed at three o’clock in the morning, you know, do whatever they wanna do. But actually, the reality is kids feel very unsafe when they don’t know where those edges are. And so, when it comes to that core emotional need of boundaries as a parent, and obviously it needs to be age-appropriate and as kids get older, the amount of dialogue that comes in, it certainly evolves, but it’s the, I love you enough to say no. And I love you enough that I’m going to hold this boundary.
And one of the things that my wife and I try to be incredibly careful with as parents is do not make threats that you’re not going to follow through on. Because one of the things that we’ve observed and having worked with thousands of people over the years, I’ve heard many, many, many times as well in people’s own narratives, is when parents threaten things and don’t follow through, as kids, it kind of becomes crazy-making. And we have a joke in my household, which was kind of, in a way, a deliberate attempt to make this point that a few years ago, my eldest, he was probably nine or 10 at the time, was just in a really irritating, you know, when kids just constantly baiting, baiting our sisters, baiting us. And I said, if you don’t stop, I’m gonna pour this glass of water on your head, like kind of joking and playfully. And she didn’t stop, and so I poured the glass of water on her head. Now, obviously, it then became a water fight, I let her get me back; it wasn’t a kind of abusive, like kind of, it was a kind of, but the point was, and it’s become a joke for the last few years, it’s like, my kids call me Guggy, if Guggy says he’s gonna do something, Guggy’s going to do something. And there’s a kind of safety, and there’s a sense of holding that comes from that.
When it comes to safety, and I think this is a really interesting one, going back to babies, get safety from co-regulation with the caregiver. It can be mom, dad, grandparents, foster parent. But what babies need is a nervous system that they can merge to, and that nervous system is regulated, and that regulation teaches their nervous system how to regulate. And then part of how attachment works is if they’re securely attached, if they go off into the world, and what that means for a small child is they go and play with another child, or they go and play in the next room while parents are in the kitchen, if something happens that distresses them, you know, maybe a dog starts barking, and they get really dysregulated, and they come back that the calmness in the caregiver’s nervous system tells their nervous system they are safe and the nervous system calms. It’s not the words, the words can help. You’re safe, I love you, it’s okay, that can help. But what really does it is the regulation in that nervous system.
As kids get older, we forget this. So as kids get older, it’s kind of an instinctive thing with babies to sort of hold them and soothe them. But as kids get older, they come back, and they’re dysregulated, particularly as they become teenagers. And what do we do in response? We dysregulate in response to them. And so, we actually give them the opposite of what they need. Now, going back to your point, which I think is incredibly important, this doesn’t mean that the regulation is they have what they want. Sometimes the boundaries are absolutely clear, no, that’s not going to happen. But the more regulated that we are in ourselves, the more that we then give them what they really need, which is that regulation, which is that soft place to fall. That sense that whatever’s happened, whatever’s knocked and bumped them, they can come back and mom, dad, grandma, uncle, whoever it is that’s playing that role, can teach their nervous system, I’m okay.
When it comes to that core emotional need of love, one of my really big realizations is the way that my three daughters need love is different. And love is personal. And the act of love is discovering what’s most alive in that child’s inner world and, at their invitation, finding a way to meet them in that place. And so, you know, my middle daughter, for example, has been totally Harry Potter obsessed over recent years. And so, throwing spells at each other across the kitchen is one of the best ways to connect to her in a moment. Is completely obsessed by horses. I know nothing about horses, I’m not that interested in horses, but going and watching her ride a horse is the thing which makes her feel the most adored and most loved. It’s completely different to my youngest daughter, who loves arts and crafts, which by the way, I’m absolutely abysmal at. But having a go and being there in a pottery cafe with her, making an idiot of myself, is the thing which, to her, is that sense of personal love and being interested in the world.
And to go back to the point that we made earlier, it’s not loving a child for what they do and for what they achieve. Although, of course, it’s fine to have goals and reward on achievement of goals. But it’s ultimately about they are loved as they are in that moment. And so, I think to me what’s really important about all of this is… It’s not the words, it’s not I love you, it’s not you’re safe, it’s not don’t worry about it. It’s actually how we show up and make contact with them. And this is where, I don’t know any other way around it than doing our own healing work as parents, because you can’t fake contact and showing up to a child. And if you can’t show up to yourself, it’s very difficult to show up to them. And this is where, you know, when I have a situation on talking to parents and saying, yeah, yeah, you know, they really need to go into therapy. I’m like, have you done your own therapy? Well, no, no, no, I’m fine. I don’t need it. They need it. And then my line is always just track back. You said you’d do anything for them. Does that include therapy? Because when it really comes down to it, and I don’t think everyone should be in therapy all the time at all, but we are, as parents, we are raising, doing a good job as a parent; it’s not just they physically survive childhood. It’s not just their physical body survives. They had enough food and shelter and water and oxygen and whatever. It’s that we provided, we did the best we could, and we’re all imperfect, and we all screw this up all the time, but we do our best effort to develop their psycho-emotional development. Not raising snowflakes that are so overindulged and so narcissistic that they think the whole world revolves around them. That’s where often the boundary piece is really missing. But they learn that they can say yes, and they can say no. They can do it themselves. They can stop an old habit, start a new one. They can do the same to other people. They feel basically safe in their nervous system. And they know that they’re lovable. And it’s the hardest job we do. But it’s also, I think, the most important job that we do.
Katie: I agree. And like I said, it’s been a journey for me learning that as well. But I think especially for a lot of the moms listening, very often moms sort of, I thought for years set the emotional tone of the home and now understanding how you just explained, it’s through also our nervous system regulation. And so, in some ways, I know moms can struggle with feeling like self-care can take away time for their kids or therapy can take away time from their kids. But I really do believe more and more strongly that our own emotional regulation and nervous system regulation is one of the best gifts we can ever give to our children. Because like you just explained, that helps their nervous system regulate. And also, when they see us doing the work to do that and go into therapy, it gives them permission to do that as well. And hopefully for us to all have conversations around these things; like you said, the words aren’t the most important part, but in those conversations and that connection, it starts to help them build that framework. And I know as parents, we hope that our children have maybe an easier journey on some of these things like you and I have figured out in adult life that perhaps we can give them an easier start on this. And I know there’s, we could cover literally dozens of hours and still never get fully through this topic because there’s so much to talk about here. But I know you also have some amazing resources. I want to make sure we reserve a little time to talk about those. And I’ll, of course, link to them in the show notes as well. But for people who are realizing these things that you’re talking about so beautifully in themselves or wanting to do that work for the sake of themselves and their relationships and their children, where are some good starting points for that?
Alex: Yeah, thank you, Katie. I just want to say one thing before I answer that question, which is that, so I was having a conversation with a very dear friend of mine a couple of days ago, he’s in his mid 70s now. And he was reading my most recent book, and the heart of the conversation was that I was, he was feeling mortified at all the things he screwed up as a father, because he didn’t know these things. And I said, look, you can’t, firstly, you can’t judge what happened 40, 50 years ago with the things we know now. It’s like taking someone’s Twitter feed from 15 years ago and judging it with today’s understanding. In a way, one of the signs of progress in society is we just know a lot of things we didn’t know. Those of us that are open to growing should look back on things in the past and go, God, I wish I’d known this then. I just wanted to, before I answer your question, make the point that this is not about shaming and blaming ourselves. It’s not even about shaming and blaming our parents. My mom was a single mom who worked three jobs to put food on the table. I don’t get to sit here and judge my mom not being emotionally present and meeting my core emotional needs because she did an amazing job with the reality that she had to deal with. I just want to stop the inner critics hijacking what we’re talking about and turning it into a thing.
To answer your question, the best place to go to find out more about me and my work is my website, alexhoward.com. That’s a signpost towards a bunch of things. A couple of things just to very briefly speak to. At alexhoward.com, you’ll find a free five-day video series called Decode Your Trauma, which really goes into what we’ve been talking about in quite a bit more detail. It breaks out the ECHO model, a section a day. The other thing that I am super proud of is I have a YouTube series where we film people’s therapeutic journeys with me. And so, for people that either have limitations to access therapy due to cost or time or circumstance, it’s a great way to come on that journey with other people and get some of the wisdom and some of the experience from therapeutic work in an easily accessible way. And then finally, there’s also my most recent book, which you mentioned, It’s Not Your Fault, Why Childhood Trauma Shapes You and How to Break Free, which is people say, which I’m very appreciative of, a very accessible book on trauma, which takes a lot of this complexity and puts it in a sort of road map and practical exercises that you can do to not just bring more awareness, but also start that process of healing.
Katie: I love that. And like I said, I’ll make sure those are all linked in the show notes as well. I’m so glad you spoke to the inner critic as well because I think that is a thing that often comes up. It did for me as well. And I also learned through that there’s so much beauty and potential for even I feel more connection when we can recognize that we wish we could have done something better, change that pattern going forward, and even get vulnerable enough to share with our kids. I think there’s so much power in an apology because certainly none of us do this perfectly. And when we can show up and meet their needs and apologize for the times when we didn’t, I think that level of vulnerability actually can lead to even more and beautiful connection with them. So, I’m so glad that you called that out as well. And, like I said, there’s so much more to cover. Perhaps we can do more rounds in the future. I would love to keep delving into this topic. But Alex, you are a joy, and I’m so grateful for your time today. Thank you so much for being here and for sharing.
Alex: Katie, thanks so much for having me. I really enjoyed the conversation, and I’d love to come back in the future.
Katie: And thanks as always to all of you for listening and sharing your most valuable resources, your time, your energy, and your attention with us both today. We’re so grateful that you did, and I hope that you will join me again on the next episode of The Wellness Mama Podcast.
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