Power, abuse and therapy (2020)

You can listen to this musing here, or read it below.

BBC recently released their short documentary about me and my therapeutic rope bondage, and that led to a bunch of question around the subject of power, abuse and therapy. Being the victim of abuse is having ones power taken away. If the abuse is repetitive, the victim usually normalizes the behaviour, hence taking it for granted to have their power taken away. The result is generally that the person feels powerless and is unable to maintain healthy boundaries to people around them. It is like something has been taken away from them—a part of their spirit. But they are often unable to put the finger on it, as the traumatized state is the new normal. So why can rope bondage help, and what do I think is the keys to success?

My thoughts about trauma come from Judit Herman, and her book Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence – from domestic abuse to political terror. She describes a three-step model to work with trauma. First, get away from the danger, because no one can ever heal if they keep getting re-traumatize. Secondly, re-tune your nervous systems trauma response, and finally, reintegrate in “society”. I see my work focusing on the second half of the model. Rope bondage in particular works with power. To be tied to up is practically to give up ones power. In therapy (and BDSM) it is consensually given away. In abuse, it is non-consensually taken away – this is the crucial difference.

To function in society, we need to be able to give our power away and trust in other people. It is a central part of surrender. Someone that is traumatized can no longer offer their power consensually because they don’t control it. Actually, it is more complicated, as the trauma response is highly individual. Some will always fight to have power, while others will give away without knowing, and some will oscillate between the two. You can read more about it in my text about Judit’s book. But metaphorically, an abuse victim often loses control over their power.

So in my therapeutic bondage, the first step is to hand the power back to my client, by showing them that I listen to their words, but much more importantly, their body. When their breath, muscle activity, or heart rhythm shows hesitation or stress, I wait and listen. By keeping my nervous system calm and giving them time, they can co-regulate their nervous system with mine. Co-regulation is an instinctual behavior of pack animals. If someone in the group detects danger, they can alert the others. If the threat is real, then everyone reacts. If it’s a false alert, then the group can help the alerted individual to calm down. This is why petting a relaxed animal is so peaceful.

To be traumatized is to have a nervous system that gets triggered a lot, and most of the time by false alerts. The trigger can be anything from a distinct smell to a visual cue. Creating them at the time of abuse is usually helpful to deal with the danger. But when the abusive situation is gone, and if the trigger remains, it can cause a lot of problems by falsely alerting the nervous system. Teaching a client to co-regulate with me initially, and eventually with others, and finally to self-regulate, gives them the power back. It is a gradual process to relearn co- and self-regulation. Every little step is a victory on the way because it helps the client to function in more situations. An excellent term to describe the goal is the window of tolerance. A bigger the window can fit many different experiences inside. For someone with a tiny window, life becomes very limited.

But why rope bondage? Well, because it is so closely related to power, and it works through the body. It is the body that is tied and the nervous system that reacts. Words are unnecessary, in this very concrete practice. When held in ropes, the body releases oxytocin and endorphins that lower stress and anxiety. The session is both symbolic and ritualistic in a way that alters the state of consciousness. Once a client can give away their power temporarily to me in a session and can co-regulate with me, then I can take them on a journey of the many experiences that rope bondage can offer. Here we can practice surrender, trust, boundary setting, non-verbal communication, and much more. Check out my many writings on the human bondage project if you are curious. There is also another aspect of power that is important to me. That is to enable my client to track their progress and decide for themselves if it is working on not. I don’t want them to depend on me to know how they are doing, because then I’m taking their power away. I can support by reflecting how I experience the state of their nervous system, and I can help to set smart goals for themselves. But ultimately they are the owner of their power.

So to summarize, I aim to help people regaining their power, so they can temporarily give it away, and final safely surrender. And at the same time, I empower them build awareness of their actions.