Deep in the Swamp


Understanding the Swamp: Instructions for Swamp Guides

Over recent months I have been coaching and counseling several people with varying degrees of traumatic history and significant current challenges related to the trauma. As I reflect on that work and the people, I feel compelled to explain their situation in a way that leads to greater understanding.

I’ve taken to calling it the “swamp,” a difficult and quite painful space in which trauma expresses itself in the present. For those who are not familiar with the experience, it is filled with murkiness and discomfort. The cause is rarely clear, and attempts to explore it are invariably unproductive. A woman recently said of it, “I feel lost, empty and alone.” I might add another word that seems to often apply: impenetrable.

Is it any wonder that those in the swamp become depressed, debilitated and discouraged? Even if they break through denial or delusion that obscures the trauma, there is little to encourage them.

A common response from others who do not understand is vague encouragement to just deal with it. But even if you try to move forward in a swamp, it continues to suck at your feet, drags you down, slows progress, and offers unrelenting resistance.

Worse still are well-intended attempts to elevate the mood of the sufferer in the swamp. “Look on the bright side.” “You have so much going for you.” “We love you.” These only make the person slogging through the swamp feel as if they are falling short.

Of course, there is always the argument that some of those stranded in the swamp are self-pitying, or self-indulgent. This is often the pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps story, generally offered by those who do not understand that bootstraps embedded in the mire are of little assistance.

The swamp sounds quite hopeless, doesn’t it? Indeed, that is how the swamp-sufferer experiences it. There is no apparent relief, only a continuing and unpleasant trek through unrelenting psychological and emotional terrain.

What then are we to do?

Staying with the analogy, I would propose the only solution available to those of us who would seek to assist is to become a swamp guide. We don't try to talk them out of the swamp, or change their perspective. We don’t blame or condemn them. We walk into the swamp, and put our hand in theirs. Then we point to the high ground, even if it is not in sight, recounting to them the possibilities for progress that we can see. With painstaking steps and countless assurances, we can lead them forward.

That’s what is to be a swamp guide. And it may be the only solution.

Seeing True

Any one who struggles cannot be in any space other than the one they find themselves in. Given time, place, circumstances, beliefs and any number of factors that are fixed both inside and outside us, everyone is presently in the only space they can possibly find, even if it is a swamp.

The only question is whether we are willing and able to join them there.

Seeing True in Action

Here are questions to ask about your availability to be a swamp guide.

  • Do I feel judgmental or critical of the difficult circumstances another person is in?
  • Does the need to blame them arise?
  • Am I feeling impatient toward them and their situation?
  • Do I actually want to understand? To assist?

And here is a question to challenge your own development. Are you willing to relinquish those perspectives in order to be useful to someone else?