"Keep trying, things will get better, especially if you are young and you don't have as many choices about how to live your life, one day you will get out on your own, and find your people, find people that make you feel like you belong and make you feel happy, and like yourself. There absolutely is a light at the end of the tunnel, I promise."
Dr. Tanner Wallace, is a former Professor turned trauma recovery guide, on a mission to create a survivor-led trauma recovery revolution. She hosts a brilliant and informative podcast called Relational Healing where she reveals extraordinary insights from her own trauma recovery journey and uncovers pure-gold wisdom from world class experts so that you gain the clarity and confidence needed to make wise relationship decisions. She also manages a wonderful Instagram account where she provides mentorship & a community for childhood trauma recovery.
SWY: Could you start us off by telling us a little bit more about yourself?
TW: I'm a 45 year old childhood trauma survivor that really lived a pretty unconscious life for a while not really recognizing the ways in which my traumatizing childhood and adolescence had really set me up to really struggle with my mental health. I struggle with my parenting. And I think what's so profound about my story is that I'm someone who taught human development. I researched psychological safety. I experienced parenting early in my children's lives where I was perpetuating trauma and ended up in a very conflict ridden marriage and divorce and still could not put the puzzle pieces together. So, from the outside, she seems like she's functioning pretty well. And, I mean, not flawlessly, because I had some workplace interactions. And I'm sure some people who are very aware would be like, oh, she seems a little like, you know, something's a little off, but on paper, everything looks fine.
And it really wasn't until I got remarried for a second time where I was trying to blend a family across two sets of children that it just really became clear that something was not right, like that there was something inside of me or something in the way I viewed the world that I just couldn't really find peace with. And I at that point, really, honestly, was like, I am a researcher, I'm going to figure out what this is. And I stumbled across Pete Walker's book, which is called “Surviving to Thriving”, and it's written for adults with complex trauma. And for the first time in my life, I was reading it. And I said, this is me, this is connecting so many puzzle pieces together, and I called my sister and was like, oh, my gosh, you've got to read this book, sent it to her, and she read it. And, I think both of us would have said, our childhood was not good, that our parents had mental health issues, that there were things that were very difficult about our childhood. And I don't think either one of us would have felt comfortable prior to reading this book, to really claim that identity and really move through recovery.
Once I started, it just became this piece of how could I not know, and if I could not have known, like, wow, there are so many people that really need more information about this. And there's this beautiful piece for all the human development stuff that I do know, that really isn't trauma informed in the way it can be. Now I can apply it with a trauma lens. So that's kind of the summarized version of how and why I show up on Instagram and have a podcast and want to sit with you and amplify the work that Starts With Youth are doing and just try to get information out to as many people as possible as soon as possible in people's lives.
SWY: What motivated you to leave university and start your Instagram account and podcast?
TW: Yeah, I mean, I think for a couple years, I've been thinking about the ways I wanted to tell my own story, and this is before I really arrived at full consciousness of my own trauma, my own story, honestly. But I think there was a feeling that I had really achieved a lot of mastery with teaching, that I felt very proficient in it and that I liked doing it. And it felt like there was something more for me in terms of my teaching, and just sharing research more broadly. And that was kind of a little seed that got planted many years ago, but I just didn't understand what it would look like. And then, quite honestly, when COVID hit, and universities shut down. So my high paced research program, my very busy schedule, with in person meetings, this really came to a halt. And for a while it was a weird transitional period where things were, you know, people were like, well, are we just pausing? Are we getting back? Like, what?
So there was about six months where everyone was trying to figure out how we were doing this. And I just really took advantage of that. I signed up for a podcasting course, I learned how to literally, like set up the equipment, here's how you stream a podcast. And I just jumped behind a microphone and got going. And then I realized that I probably needed a platform to share more. And so I started an Instagram and just learned by trial and error, like how do you do this, and I literally could create Instagram graphics for 24 hours a day. So to take a big complicated idea and how do you put this in three slides, in a way that people are going to click on without deceiving people or like dumbing it down or saying things that aren't true? Like, I just have this store of posts that I will never post because there's some aspect of it. That's not entirely true. But they're really good posts. A lot of people would click on them, but I save that because I'm like, that's not totally true.
SWY: Okay, so could you please talk about your personal healing journey, and what lessons you learned that you have carried on and taught to others to help them?
TW: Yeah. I think the biggest message would be that relationships really matter towards healing. You know, this kind of goes back to something we talked about, where not only are you being traumatized by, most likely your parents or your family, as a childhood trauma survivor. But you're also really isolated from people that know how to have healthy, stable relationships. And so it's like a double down on something, right? Like, you're set up to not be able to process information well, to kind of feel constantly under threat, I mean, your brain literally develops under a context of terror or fear. And then you don't know how to seek comfort and safety and trust others. So it's actually two things that really set you up to struggle in adulthood. And so really having reparative relational experiences is really important. And it's the scariest, hardest thing to do.
You know, when you've experienced childhood trauma, and you're feeling very isolated, and you don't feel like you can trust other people, and you have reason to believe you can't trust other people. And it is not possible to really do the kind of healing of attachment wounds or really restore mental health and wellness without human connection. I mean, that's what we're hardwired to do as humans. Part of what leads to mental health challenges or illness is an inability to receive comfort and care and have people support you through social connection. I mean, there's a genetic component too but the genetic component is grounded in the environment, it just transmits intergenerationally. So relationships are hugely important. So I'm a huge advocate for how we create safe relational spaces for all humans, wherever they are in the world. And in their journey, I think that's the biggest thing.
"It is not possible to really do the kind of healing of attachment wounds or really restore mental health and wellness without human connection. I mean, that's what we're hardwired to do as humans."
And then I think that the second piece is that for me personally, and my life changed when I was introduced to internal family systems as a way of healing. The broad idea of it is that part of what happens in human brain development, especially when you are developing in the context of fear, or, you know, not feeling safe in your own body, or in your environments, that we develop these sub personalities that are survival modes for us. And if you think about them as parts of us, we make complete sense. So, we have parts of us that develop that are kind of trying to always manage things. So maybe I can just avoid feeling this way, maybe I can avoid this abuse, avoid this feeling of neglect and loneliness. If I control things, if I care-give, people please, like all these things we do just to avoid feeling hurt. But we also develop parts of us that are in response to the hurt. So when we can't protect ourselves when we can't feel okay, in our own body. There are these parts that try to change our physiological state, so that we actually feel better, we feel regulated. And if we can achieve that internally, our brain is incredible. And we develop strategies like self harm, you know, drinking, doing drugs, promiscuous sex, taking risk, social media, scrolling, I mean, amazing, adaptive things to physiologically change what's happening in our body so that we feel more regulated internally when we feel out of control, internally and externally. And both of those kinds of protective parts, the manager parts and kind of these firefighter parts are all there in response to parts of us that feel a great burden from wounding, like we weren't cared for in the way we needed to be, someone dismissed our emotional experience, someone saw we were hurting, and then ignored that hurt.
So those wounded parts of us that are there are part of our subpersonalities. And then these protective parts develop in response to them, and carry so much burden. So one way to heal, is to really start to build a relationship with these parts of us that are looking for a wise guide, a wise adult, a wise self, to offer support, healing, understanding, witnessing, and we can do that actually internally for ourselves. So in this case, as a child, you do not have someone to provide that for you externally. You can, in an amazingly beautiful, profound way, provide it for yourself, as you grow. And you know, the younger you are, the harder it is to do this. It's like a metacognitive skill, like to kind of step outside yourself and be able to offer yourself healing, it's a tall order for like young kids, or just cognitively. But adolescents 15-16, you can start doing this for yourself, and especially young adults, to absolutely do it for yourself. And it allows you to feel safe with yourself, it allows you to provide yourself that internal attachment. That is this grounding experience, no matter what is happening in the world around you. No matter how chaotic, how dysfunctional, how awful, unjust, horrific, you still have this incredibly solid resource inside of yourself, that you can cultivate and grow, that can, with time, develop the capacity to influence the external world. And it's really painful when you're not old enough, and don't have the resources to change your external environment and the ways that you want. And so this isn't a substitute for that. I mean, the ultimate freedom and liberation is to have the internal and the external. But while you're waiting for some of those choices, and resources, there is work you can do internally, that will prepare you to when you get to that place at 18, when you get to that place at 21, the world is going to open up for you because you've achieved some mental wellness that you can cultivate, with nobody else. Like you don't need a therapist, you don't need an expert, you don't need this or that, like it's already inside of you. And when I learned how to do that myself, and also guide other people to do that. My whole life changed.
"No matter how chaotic, how dysfunctional, how awful, unjust, horrific, you still have this incredibly solid resource inside of yourself, that you can cultivate and grow, that can, with time, develop the capacity to influence the external world."
SWY: When I was doing research for this interview, I noticed you had a podcast episode titled "How a podcast episode changed my life," and that really interested me. So what episode was this? And how did it change your life?
TW: Yeah, it was the episode where I interviewed someone who was trained in the internal family systems and they introduced me to parts-work. And that wasn’t the first, I'd taken in content on Instagram from therapists that we're using this parts-work perspective. But I think until I really heard someone explain it, I was like, okay, and it still didn't even really make sense to me actually, during the interview. And then one night, I was having a kind of internal crisis. I think I had a fight with my partner and I was flooded with panic and like, oh my gosh, I can't do you know, kind of the trauma distortions that arise and so I felt very, very unsafe in my own body. And I was up at 2am. And I'm sitting on my couch and like, I don't know, I mean, people that are listening that know, that have mental health challenges or are still learning how to be in their own body know the feeling of like, I don't know what to do, like, I don't feel safe. I don't, I don't know who to call. I don't, I just don't know what to do with myself right now. And I thought to myself, well ,wait like that member.
Name's Justin Martin. He was on the podcast. Like, he said, this is what you do. You just quiet down, you kind of drop in where you're like, who's here? Like, what parts are points of view about what's happening right now? And I was like, well, I might as well try it, like what do I have to lose, it's like 2am. I don't know what to do with myself. And I tried it. All these different voices emerge with all these different opinions about what was happening. And I just started to work with those voices, I started to understand when they show up and what they're trying to do and how they've guided me in different directions in different ways. And, yeah, that's the podcast episode.
SWY: So another thing that stood out to me was, your lab has a unique five circuits of healing power method. Can you please describe it a little bit?
TW: So it's this idea that, when people are facing a long term process, right, you're like, Okay, I've got to do this big thing, right? It's hard. Like, I know, I want to get there. But I'm here. I just know, as an educator, that part of what you do for people is give them steps or stages, or a scope and sequence of what you need to move through in order to get to the outcome you desire. So I felt in Trauma Recovery, there were a lot of people just talking about this approach, or that approach or this strategy or that strategy. But I'm a developmentalist by training, right? I think about lifespan, I think about people developing over time, longitudinal development, and it just became very natural to me to see what do people need to move through developmentally, to restore the sense of wellbeing and wholeness. So it made sense to me to think of circuits, you have to do certain things, accomplish certain things, move through certain activities, they're challenging, it's like a new training circuit in some ways. And so just laid it all out. And really, the first one is this idea that if we are a childhood trauma survivor, naturally, we develop these survival codes. Here's what I do when I feel threatened. Here's what I do when I feel overwhelmed. Here's what I do. When I feel fear, or shame flooding my body, you were conditioned and set up to kind of have these natural default patterns of processing information. Even when we're in the present day, and we're not back in our childhood or back in some scene, but our brain doesn't know it, it gets the sensory feedback, and we're like, ooh, fire those patterns, right. And we're back in time, even though we're in a present moment with a totally different person.
"When I feel fear, or shame flooding my body, you were conditioned and set up to kind of have these natural default patterns of processing information. Even when we're in the present day, and we're not back in our childhood or back in some scene, but our brain doesn't know it, it gets the sensory feedback, and we're like, ooh, fire those patterns, right."
So the first circuit is really deactivating those survival codes, and rewiring some of our default patterns. The second circuit is descending into darkness. So there's parts of us that have been victimized, there's parts of us that really need the truth to be told about our experience. And to heal those parts. They need safe spaces where they can release that. So I work with a lot of adult survivors who are victims of sexual abuse, rape, sexual assault, that never talked about it to anybody never told anybody never, like addressed it. And you know, those parts that carry that burden and those memories, they need to have it witnessed. And so for a lot of people in my world, they're like, well, I don't want to be a victim, I want to heal, like, okay, I get that. I love that. I'm right there with you. I don't want that either. And there's parts of you that need to be allowed to be needed, to have that space, to be a victim, they never had the comfort of someone saying, I cannot believe that happened to you. We're going to make this right for you. Now. So that's a lot of recreation of events, there's like psychodrama, so you can recreate a trial of a perpetrator, we can recreate that for the parts of them that are kind of frozen in time and want to recreate, like a confrontation with a parent, not really have the parent there, but you know, roleplay someone being a parent, so that part gets a chance to really confront a parent. Beautiful recreations of things that are releasing a lot of the stored up feeling that you never got justice for something or someone never heard your truth.
That circuit, to circuit three, relates to what I said about relations and sets, which is, once you've kind of rewired, you've allowed these parts of you that carry these burdens to have their moments, right in this recreated way. How do you start to build healthy relationships? How do you come out of hiding that circuit three to come out of hiding? How do you start to show up more authentically with other people, and really be more careful about who you're vulnerable with and who you're not? How do you start trusting people, but then also paying attention to who's safe and who's not. I think some of what happens when you don't grow up in a family that honors emotions, and is not psychologically safe is you override your natural instinct to protect because it didn't matter in your childhood, it didn't matter what you felt. So you just learned to override that, when you learn how to not override that, you still need practice in the real world. Taking in those signals, and then feeling confident to respond taking in those signals, is it a real signal, bad signal, like, just recalibrating your radar basically for healthy safe people.
"I think some of what happens when you don't grow up in a family that honors emotions, and is not psychologically safe is you override your natural instinct to protect because it didn't matter in your childhood, it didn't matter what you felt."
And then circuit four, now knowing all of that, practicing all of those things, and safe healing containers, how do you really test your trust of less structured environments? How do you engage with co-workers, with your partner if you're married, or in a boyfriend, girlfriend situation, or your parents, your siblings, these big important relationships, that you probably haven't felt brave enough for yet. To really be like, who are these people? And is it safe for me to have a relationship with them, testing your trust in them. Then receiving that information and making hard choices in some cases, or having beautifully restorative experiences, like some of my most favorite moments in the Relational Healing Lab. Or when people go to their parents, and say “Hey, this is my truth, I would like to talk to you about this” and parents being like “I am so glad you are talking about this, I want to heal with you.” Now this is not always the case, but it's possible. And then circuit five is you get to rebuild a life, like the rising of the phoenix. What do you want out of life? For me that was changing careers.
"And then circuit five is you get to rebuild a life, like the rising of the phoenix. What do you want out of life? For me that was changing careers."
SWY: You provide a lot of mentorship on your Instagram account. What are three of the most useful tips for healing that you recommend?
TW: This is a hard one, to distill it down into three things. I would say that the first tip I always give to people is that if you are self-medicating, try to stop doing that. Doing things that alter the way you see the world makes healing harder, by the way this is not from a moral perspective, but just from a healing perspective. This is my first tip, and I know it is hard, but it is just gonna take so much longer if you don’t. My second tip is that, whatever you have control over, that you try to minimize triggers. Life is going to be triggering because that is how you have been set up and that's how your brain develops. And some of these things are unnecessarily triggering. For example, if you know some Instagram accounts or certain friends, or certain faces, that you choose to go to. They are not enforced, you have options. You just have to eliminate those. You might have a part of you that will say, “You should be stronger than this, you should be able to do this.” And maybe, but for now we are not. This is a better approach. This does not mean forever, but just during the healing phase. The third tip I would give is to find safe communities. I think community is so important, and there are so many great online communities now, Facebook groups, and other groups. Instagram is hard because it is not really a community. You aren't in a contained space where people have to request to join and that you can just share things freely. But just somewhere, where even if it is 11 am, or 6 pm or 2 am, you can just literally get on and post and you know people will receive that. This is especially important in an international community. I love international groups. Because no matter what time you post there is always someone up, for them it is the middle of the day.
Another thing is that an online community is distant. You can just be free and not have to worry about seeing someone the next day at school or something like that. So, I am just a huge huge fan of online communities that are online and safely monitored. I also just wanna say for anyone listening to this, who is struggling, in a dark place, I want them to hear directly from me. Keep trying, things will get better, especially if you are young and you don't have as many choices about how to live your life, one day you will get out on your own, and find your people, find people that make you feel like you belong and make you feel happy, and like yourself. There absolutely is a light at the end of the tunnel, I promise.