This is a transcript of an interview I hosted recently on my podcast with Tracey Farrell….
Lisa: Hello. Good morning.
Tracey Farrell: Good morning. How are you, Lisa?
Lisa: I’m really good. But, of course, it’s not your good morning, is it? It’s your good night, because I’m speaking to you in Australia, and you are Tracey Farrell, mental health social worker. What time is it over there?
Tracey Farrell: It is just past 6:00 in the evening. So, just on dinner time. Yeah.
Lisa: Oh, okay. That’s not too bad, then. I was a bit worried…That it might be near your bedtime, and you will have had a long day. So, where in Australia are you based?
Tracey Farrell: I’m in Echuca, in Victoria. I’m right on the Murray River, which is just a beautiful spot to live. I’m very lucky.
Lisa: Oh, lovely. I’ve been to Melbourne a couple of times to the Trauma conference, but that’s been it. I should really come over and have a good trek around. But, I’m just really so happy to speak you. And, the main reason I wanted to speak to you is because of your work on resilience, the video that you have created that I use in much of my training to help people think differently about resilience, and through a trauma-informed lens.
I just really thought people need to meet the person behind that fantastic video. So, I guess the first question is, what has your journey been to get you to the point where you created a video on resilience?
Tracey Farrell: Oh, brilliant question. I guess it’s been a long journey. So, I have, I guess, the dual status of being a practitioner, but also lived experience of trauma. My eldest son now is 21, and so 21 years ago, when I was pregnant, I made the decision that I was going to break the cycle for my family.
So that kind of led to the journey of then just going back and finishing year 12, which I hadn’t finished. I’d left school because things were going on, and I couldn’t afford books, and things like that. So, I’d left school early, and decided, once my son was born, that I’d like to go back. So, I did that, and then that led me to university, where I started in psychology, actually, and then did a social work elective and felt like I’ve found my home there.
So, it was that broader lens than just the brain. It was around our social interactions and the way that policies can impact us. And so, I guess that from there, I graduated and worked in some community settings, then went into private practise, hoping to be able to sort of, I guess, circumnavigate some of the difficulties that I was finding in a community setting: red tape, bureaucracy, all of those things.
And so, from that point, I was working one-on-one with children and their families, but felt like there was a bigger message that I really wanted to share.
And, I’m a massive consumer of online material, I suppose. And so, I was like, “I really want to create some animations, and I do some spoken word poetry, and things like that. So, it led to me doing a bit of that work.
And so, then, the resilience piece came from frustration. I was frustrated by the way that resilience was being framed, as someone with lived experience. I was listening to other people being told that they weren’t resilient enough, that they needed to develop resilient mindsets.
And, I was thinking it’s really unfair, in terms of all that they’ve been through, that they were being told that, when I actually found them to be the most resilient people that I knew. So, I thought, “I really need to do this”. And so, I started doing some workshops, and I had the story of Nelly and Rebecca, but putting the images to it really made a huge difference in it being able to have a bit of impact.
Lisa: I feel like I should’ve had a pen and paper there, because you just said so many things. But, the thing that kind of really caught me at the end there was, we know that people who go into this type of work are much more likely to also have experienced adversity or trauma.
And, that resilience message is not just directed at people using services, but it’s also directed at staff who have very high case loads, and they’re not being “resilient enough”.
And so, in a way, for a large percentage of that work population, that’s a bit of a double whammy, isn’t it?
Tracey Farrell: Mm (affirmative).
Lisa: And, there’s something very perpetuating about that idea that you clearly weren’t resilient enough in your own trauma, and now you’ve come to work here, and you’re still not bloody resilient enough.
Tracey Farrell: Absolutely. And, I think, then, we can fall into the trap of passing that message on. We’ll often project that internalised message onto our clients, which is incredibly unfair to them, as well.
So, yes, I’ve found that lots of organisations don’t have a resilient culture, because of the way that their policies are set up, yet they’re expecting their staff to be really resilient as well, working with really complex people with stories… That they’ve overcome so much, and that they are incredibly resilient, but it isn’t recognised as such.
Lisa: Yeah. And, thinking about those organisations, often… And, I’m loath to say this, because there’s some fantastic spaces, but there are also some really toxic spaces. And, I’m always drawn back to thinking about my own experience of working in social work teams, and in education, and yet not feeling comfortable, safe, or really like it was an option to be open about my own experience, which was highly relevant, I now know as an independent person, having been on a very long personal, and professional, and academic journey.
But, until we make those spaces safe for staff, then how are we making those spaces safe for people who are using the services?
Tracey Farrell: Mm (affirmative). I absolutely agree, and I think that organisations can really perpetuate trauma through their staff, and through their practise, through the programmes that they offer, and things like that. And, I’m really pleased to see that there has been a change in how willing organisations are to actually recognise that.
But, we’re up against it, in that everything that we talk about is individualised. So, we’re talking about “self-care” instead of “community care” or “organisational care”. And, I don’t know that we can keep thinking that way, and create the change that we’re after.
I think that we really need to start to really reduce the way that we talk about “self”. So, we always talk about self regulation, all of the self. Self-care… I’m trying to think of… There’s so many terms that we think about in that individual way, and it actually needs to be about relationships, firstly, and then from there it can go out.
In terms of social work terminology, we would talk about broadening it out to the macro and mezzo systems. So, I think that we do need to do that. We need to really start to think about why we’ve centred so many concepts within the individual, rather than seeing them as reciprocal concepts.
Lisa: Well, I’m wondering, because I don’t want to lose the individuals. So, when I think about resilience, I think about the individual, the community, society, and the individual’s capacity to access that pathway. And so, I’m keen that the individual stays present, because I think there is a space for that, and that’s certainly my own experience. But, it’s how it all interrelates.
And, I’m wondering, from what you’re saying, if actually maybe, because society has become so individualised, and has a tradition of being so, Western society, because you know I do quite a lot of work in Pakistan, which is a collectivist society. When I say “self”, they look at me like, “What is…” They’d whisper, like, “What does she mean? What’s she saying?” Which is really interesting.
I’m wondering if there’s a need to kind of dive over into relationships, almost to the other end of the spectrum, so that we can meet somewhere back in the middle again.
Tracey Farrell: I would totally agree with that. And, I think that we do have something to learn from our Indigenous cultures, and countries that aren’t so centred on the individual, because I think that there is so much wisdom there, and it does. It’s that collective focus, as opposed to the way that we have individualised it.
And, I agree with you. I think that I really love that image that you have of the three circles of the individual, community, and… I’m not sure what the other one is. I can’t remember.
Tracey Farrell: Thinking about society, wider community, and the way that they interrelate. And, I think that what I would like to see is that we actually operate from that way, that we can say that each of those places, in terms of the way that we resource people, the way that we talk about people, the way that we actually recognise when resilience is being demonstrated.
Because, often, it’s… comes back to… There’s one way of seeing resilience, which is “something bad happens to a person, and they come back to this calm regulated state”. But, we know that for people that have experienced trauma that, if we think about the window of tolerance concept, their baseline is so much higher. There’s so much more hypervigilance and arousal happening, that when they do bounce back, they’re bouncing back to that point.
So, it’s going to look different, then, for someone who doesn’t have that hyperarousal happening. So, we also need to take into consideration that when something happens to someone, it can look like it’s small, but it’s actually huge to them, because it’s often in relationships that resilience is tested. I think for people who have experienced trauma, particularly children at school, the little things that teachers see might be things like someone not wanting to play with a child.
Well, for a child with trauma, that taps into so many of their own thoughts about themselves. That, “I’m not lovable, and I’m not a good person. I’m not worthy of, of having friendships.” So, for them, it’s not little. It’s huge. And so, of course they’re going to tip out into a dysregulated or unhappy state or distressed state.
And, seeing that… of not been able to bounce back immediately as not being resilient, I think, doesn’t do justice to the fact that… Their experience of relationships. They want to be able to connect, and they want to be able to do those things so much more than what we can see.
Lisa: Yeah. And, that language alone… And it’s funny, actually. I tweeted this morning, “Bounce back to what?” An uninhabited land? A land needs to be constructed, because if we do understand, which I think we do now, because obviously my three thing model has come out of all the reading that I’ve done. So, there’s no such thing as original thought, is there?
Tracey Farrell: Absolutely not.
Lisa: So, if we do take on that notion that we’re building it and constructing it in our relationships, then of course it makes sense that children who have less relational resource, or relational poverty, we might say, and the quality of what is available is low, then that ability to then build that base through which to bounce back to is going to be hampered, disrupted, not as present. So, what are you bouncing back into?
Tracey Farrell: Back to. That’s right. And you are. You’re bouncing back to that baseline that you have, which is different for people who have experienced trauma. We are sitting higher up in that window, and so we’re bouncing back. We are being resilient. We’re bouncing back to where our baseline is. But, that’s a very different baseline, I think.
And, I think that you bring up a really good point around… That I’m imagining that bouncing back to this space of, “What is my sense of self like?” Because, I think that resilience is so intertwined with your sense of self.
So, if you’ve got a stable sense of self, like Rebecca does in my video, something bad happens to Rebecca, and she’s able to say, “That was really hard, but I think I’ll be okay,” because she’s got that stable sense of self.
Whereas Nelly, who is the little boat in my video who doesn’t have such a stable sense of self, she can’t even share what she’s been through, because for her, she’s so used to that, and she’s so focused on survival that she doesn’t even recognise that there’s anything to bounce back from. She’s just ready to go again. “I don’t want to do it, but I’m going to have to, because this is the why that I am in this world.”
So, I think that we need to really incorporate ideas of how do we build a stable sense of self for people so that, if we are talking about teaching resilience, and helping to build resilience through resourcing, that we’re actually doing it in a way that’s going to create lifelong skills, as opposed to temporary measures that, “Okay, this bad thing happened,” and we might do some processing around that, but, like you say, it’s not going to actually return them to any real stable sense.
Lisa: Yeah. And, the language, I think, is really interesting around resilience. So, one of the things that I’m seeing in the UK, that’s really growing, is this idea of “character”, which, again, is this very individualised notion of a set of attributes or qualities that you have or you don’t have, that have been decided by somebody else as what character looks like. And, I just think that has to be unpicked and thought about.
And then, of course in the States, we have the language around “grit”, which, also, to me, that just feels so harsh, and punishing, and teeth gritting, and just everything about it just makes me feel really uncomfortable.
I’m curious, as well… When I came to Australia, I really started to… So, I was on the plane, coming over. It was the first trauma conference. I don’t know if you’ve been to any of the Australian childhood organisations, trauma conferences, but there’s about, I don’t know, thousands and thousands of people. It’s really big.
Tracey Farrell: Yes.
Lisa: And, the first time I came over… So, I’ve been over twice now, for two conferences, and I undoubtedly will come back next year. But, I came for the conference, and I was on the plane, just thinking, “What on earth am I doing travelling 24 hours in the sky, going all the way to Australia for a trauma conference?”
And, I’d wanted to go more than anything in the world. I had to spend so much energy pulling in finance from the universe, and apparently I’d overpaid on something 10 years earlier, and a cheque arrived. Which paid for the flight, and the hotel, and everything. So, I knew I was meant to go.
And, I was on the plane, just thinking, “I’m not really sure why I’m doing this.” And I went through all the films, and I found the film Rabbit-Proof Fence. And, I watched that, and I thought, “Ah, that’s why I’m going over here.”
There was a whole heap of stuff that I just hadn’t really understood about Australia, and the amount of trauma carried by the country. I understand that from the perspective of how Australia was kind of created. I understand it in the context of… looked after children who were shipped over, and what happened to them, but I hadn’t really processed the… Not just the trauma, I think, of the indigenous populations in Australia. Not on a deep level. I hadn’t really…
Because it’s not… And, where you are, it is very much a part of your culture, your growing up, your society. But, more importantly, the processes of healing from trauma just made so much more sense to me, in terms of my own recovery. So, my own recovery was very much about writing, about holistic therapies.
There was nothing medical in my recovery journey. It was very much based on storytelling, and story writing, and painting, and really going into those spaces of expression in a safe way with other people.
And so, when I started to go to people at Judy Atkinson’s workshops, and started to learn about trauma healing and recovery from an Indigenous healing perspective, I saw a lot of that stuff, in that process. And, I just wonder, for people listening in the UK, if you could expand upon that, and what your work has looked like, and what you’ve seen, and where that fits into this conversation.
Tracey Farrell: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Oh, great question. I think it’s really important to recognise that our Indigenous community are doing some amazing work in this space. And, as such, I don’t want to overlay, as a non-Indigenous person, too much of my view. But, I would say, definitely, Judy Atkinson is an amazing, amazing teacher.
In Echuca, where I live, we do have a high Indigenous population, and I’ve been really lucky enough to work with quite a number of Aboriginal families. And so, a lot of my work has been around sand play therapy, which links in with that storytelling.
And, I think that that has been really quite accepted by our Aboriginal community, because it fits with their healing. They are so community-oriented and family-oriented that that allows that sense of it not being that westernised just one-on-one talk therapy. It’s much more hands-on for children. And, I’m currently doing some work with our local Aboriginal childcare, to support the children in their transition to school around their social and emotional wellbeing.
And, what I love is that Aboriginal people are incredibly resilient, in terms of facing huge trauma that’s intergenerational, and layered, and there’s racism on top of all of the other complex issues that we know that people who are experiencing trauma face. Yet, they have incredible sense of humour, and they have this drive to be building their own healing experiences, which I am really pleased to be a really tiny part of in my work, but also always wanting to be really respectful that I’m not going to come in and tell someone how to do their healing, when that wisdom is in there.
And, I love that idea of, if an intergenerational trauma can be passed down through all of those generations, then so, too, can those healing practises. And, I really, really love that that idea is now starting to be understood more widely, as well.
Lisa: Yeah. That’s why, and I’m not sure who said it, but yeah, “intergenerational trauma means that there can be intergenerational healing”, which is such a beautiful idea, thought, concept, and something to take into our work.
A little similar, I suppose, thinking about birth separation. I posted something up about that the other day. You know that we have a tradition, really, of very, very poor behaviour towards birth mothers, who can often just be left. Once their baby has been removed, that is often pretty much the end, in many ways, of any service provision that that person might have.
And then we wonder why we have this high percentage of repeat births, but the idea being that if we heal the mother, we heal the child, because the child carries, in their whole DNA, their whole make up, their whole being, that story of separation. And, it’s almost as though we don’t want to acknowledge that. We don’t want to get into that.
Tracey Farrell: That’s painful.
Lisa: Yeah. Yeah.
Tracey Farrell: Incredibly painful, and I think that was my mom’s experience. She gave me up for adoption, and she was left with nothing. And then, a month later, decided that she actually wanted to get me back. And so, she was able to do that.
But, we both carried those wounds throughout our lives. So, as someone who was given up for adoption but gotten back, there’s been this sense in my life of this fear of abandonment, but also almost an impostor kind of thing, around, “Oh, yeah, but she got me back, so I shouldn’t feel like that.”
So, I’ve had this dual relationship with this idea around abandonment. And, I know that for my mom, it was extremely confronting to go through a pregnancy that she didn’t think that she would have anything to do with me, but then getting me back, and what did that mean, and not being able to meet my needs in those first few months after me returning, because she had to learn who I was.
And, obviously, I would’ve had developed some ways of coping with my loss, and my grief, and being in a family that was temporary. It was only a foster home. I didn’t go straight into an adoption. And so, she had to get to know me, and I know that she found those first few months incredibly difficult, and did it by herself, which, to me, just seems so foreign, this idea that that would happen. That people wouldn’t be supported with resources, and that they were expected that that was just, “Okay, well you had her back, and it’s all happy days from this point on.”
Lisa: Well, I certainly know why we’re speaking, because that’s pretty much my beginning in life. That’s exactly the same thing: birth separated, into fostering, and then going back to my mother and my gran, actually. But, the damage had been done, and that relationship is never going to be much better than what we have, which is a kind of quite superficial experience, because so much damage came after because of carrying that wound.
And, this is what’s so interesting about working in the trauma space. There’s so many messy, uncomfortable spaces that we have to go in, if we’re really going meet somebody where they are. And, that’s hard. I mean, lots of times, I feel myself walking backwards with something, and I just think, “I don’t want to sit in that really messy space today.” “But, that’s what you need to do.” “Right. Okay.”
Tracey Farrell: Absolutely. Yes. And, that’s difficult, isn’t it?
Lisa: Well, just having the wherewithal to acknowledge it, I think, is actually the gift. I guess it’s when people are not willing, or haven’t got the capacity or ability, rather than “not willing”, to acknowledge it, and then turn around and walk away.
Lisa: At least, I guess, if we can be honest about the fact that sometimes we don’t want to go into those spaces.
Tracey Farrell: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And, I think we don’t want to for a whole host of reasons. I think that there’s been some really interesting writing around empathy, and the way that we do empathy, and that it’s an incredibly important trait.
But, for people with lived experience of trauma, we often do empathy differently to others. So, where others might do it as a top-down type of empathy, we do it from a felt sense, which can be incredibly confronting, because we’re activating systems within ourselves that we have to manage, while also attending to the relationship. So, we’re working incredibly hard as we’re sitting with someone in that space.
And, I think it’s… makes perfect sense that we go home and we’re exhausted, because we’re working at such an incredible depth with people, but also attending to our own stuff, so that it’s not interfering with what’s going on with the people that we’re being with.
So, I think that it’s… The more I read about the way that lived experience can impact professional relationships, the more I am so honoured to be able to do that work because I know that anyone who’s doing it with that dual kind of status is working really hard, and working really consciously, and they’re doing it from a space of incredible compassion, that is why we can meet people.
But, I guess it comes back to that idea, again, of self-care. How do we know our boundaries? We need to have incredibly firm boundaries, but also, we can’t just rely on ourselves to do our own self-care, because we’re already expanding so much energy managing all of that.
So, I think that’s where it’s really important that the organisations that we work in, the communities that we work in, are able to buffer, through resourcing and being able to understand what it’s like to… What does it mean to care for others? And, how do we, how do we get into a space of rest, rather than avoidance?
Because, I think that one of the things around resilience is this idea that if you’re not resilient, you’ll avoid certain situations. And, I think, where’s the line between avoiding something, as you were just kind of talking there, “Do I want to go there?” or knowing that, “This is a time for rest. I actually need to be able to be okay in this space.”
And, I think in my video with Nelly, after her big journey through the sea, she’d come into dock, and she just needed to rest. She needed a place of being wrapped around with love, and compassion, and understanding for what she’d been through, even though she hadn’t been able to voice that.
And, instead, she was surrounded by chatter and lots of things going on, which ended up leading to her having a bit of a moment. So, yeah, I think it’s really important to recognise that rest is.
Lisa: Yeah. And, how we take that rest. At the end of the day, how do we take that rest? Do we turn around and walk away, or do we model, “Actually, I’m really struggling today. I’m so tired, and I’m not going to give you my best self.”
And then, “Have you got someone who can be with you until I can be with you when I’ve rested?” How do we model the fact that we have a shared humanness? We all have a shared space of, “There is a point where it’s enough.”
But, I love what you’re saying about empathy, because that conversation, that is an internal conversation in me. The conversation about, “What’s going on for me? I can feel that something’s going on for me, that is about me, and not this other person. I’m feeling a space within myself that’s now being impacted by this conversation, while at the same time I need to be present, I need to be…”
And, I have those internal conversations sometimes, and I wonder how many of us do? I wonder how many of us do have that, because I know how deeply I feel something, because sometimes, and you may have experienced this, sometimes I’m listening to somebody, and I start crying their tears. They can’t cry.
Tracey Farrell: Oh, absolutely.
Lisa: I don’t know if that’s strange, but I can feel tears coming, but I don’t have the sensation on an emotional level that tells me that they’re my tears. So, there’s something that’s just been handed over to me to express, in a way… That in itself is really, really, very tiring, isn’t it, when you’re…
Tracey Farrell: Oh, yes. And, I think that one of the things… What you’ve just said is really important, and I think that there’s this whole idea that we shouldn’t be distressed, or we shouldn’t cry, and all of those things.
And, I think that for people who haven’t been able to give voice to their experience, or they’ve had to turn off empathy responses in order to not become so overwhelmed that they can’t do life, us being able to sit and hold that for them, and express that, can be really freeing.
And, I think that in the video, that is exactly what Nelly needed. She needed someone to hold that space for her to be able to say, “I’m not okay.” And, it’s actually reflecting back to someone, and they get to see themselves through someone else’s eyes, which I think is incredibly important, because if you haven’t that negative sense of self, where you can’t see anything special, or unique, or beautiful, about yourself, someone showing compassion through tears or any other expression of emotion is incredibly valuable.
And, I think that kids have have shown me that. There’s been times where me saying something like, “What you’re telling me is incredibly sad, and I’m so sorry that happened.” And, at the start, they’ll be like, “No, it’s okay. It’s fine.” And then, eventually, they get to this point where they look at me, and they say, “Thank you. I wish it didn’t happen, too.”
And you just think, “Wow, that might be the first time they’ve actually allowed themselves to be in this space where they can acknowledge that what’s happened has been difficult.” And, I think you need to get to that point to be able to heal. If you can’t acknowledge the hurt, how do you heal? I think that’s really tricky. And, I guess that flies in the face of some of the work, or some of the, I guess, popular ideas around resilience is that… or, particularly positive kind of thinking stuff around…
Lisa: I was just going to say that. I was going to go, “Yes. I don’t live in the past. It’s gone. It’s nothing to do with me. I’m going forward,” or, “Think positive!” I was just thinking those same things, while you were talking.
Tracey Farrell: Yes. Yeah. Yes. And, often, that’s what kids will come in with. They’ll expect that that’s what I want them to say.
And, sometimes I have to access some of the wounds through weird things like actual physical minor hurt. So, I’m thinking of some boys that I’ve worked with that have enjoyed skateboarding, and scooting, and things like that.
And, often, they’ll have a bruise, and I’ll say something like, “Oh, that bruise on your knee, that looks really painful.” “Oh, no, it’s fine.” And, through the work, through different play modalities, such as Theraplay and stuff, you can attend to those little wounds, or those little hurts.
And, you know that something’s shifting when they can come in, and they’ll say to me, they’ll say, “Tracey, look what I did. I fell off my scooter, and oh, man, it hurt.” And, they can actually acknowledge some of the physical wounds, which is the first, I think, pathway into… If we can acknowledge what’s happening in our body, we can start to acknowledge some of what else is happening just in the mind. I think it’s also combined, that we can’t really separate it out, but yeah.
Lisa: Exactly. But, it’s that ability to express vulnerability, which is which is the meeting point for empathy. But, I mean, Tracey, I reckon we could talk all day. I just so love talking to you, and I feel like we’ve actually been quite vulnerable with each other, and I hope that anyone who watches this really feels that kind of space of vulnerability that we’ve shared, and been very open about things.
So, that’s been wonderful. So, before we close, I guess, well, my request to you is make more videos. They’re just so fantastic as resources.
Tracey Farrell: Oh, thank you. Beautiful. And, I will. I’ve always got things rolling around in there. And, I think what’s always important is that… I like to layer things. So, I think that there’s always the first message, and then there’s messages within the message, as well. So, it’s always about trying to get that story right. Yeah.
Lisa: Yeah, absolutely. And, where can people find you?
Tracey Farrell: Okay, so, I have a website, so, it’s hiddentreasuretherapy.com.au. I’m on Twitter. My handle is @TraumaTroveTrac, and on Facebook, I’m Hidden Treasure with Tracey Farrell.
Lisa: Fantastic. Tracey, it’s been great. You have a lovely rest of your day.
Tracey Farrell: Will do.
Lisa: And, I’ll catch up with you probably on Twitter, I suspect.
Tracey : Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a real pleasure, Lisa.
Tracey Farrell: See ya. Bye.