Meet the Speaker: Bonnie Badenoch
In the leadup to the 2019 International Speaker Tour, we asked Bonnie Badenoch the following five questions, hoping to gain some insight into the people, places, and experiences that helped shape her and her professional journey.
1. What was a pivotal experience (the “spark”) that started you off in your research and/or practice?
When I was in my 40s, I received wonderful help with ongoing emotional struggles that resulted from a childhood of severe abuse. Prior to that, I had rarely gone more than five years without a breakdown of some sort, beginning in childhood. I had been in therapy several times, and while these people were all kind and caring, they didn’t have the depth of understanding to help me heal the kind of wounds I experienced. Prior to this life-changing experience in my 40s, I certainly didn’t know what I needed and just viewed myself as irreparably damaged.
As this healing unfolded in the most unexpected and beautiful way, I began to feel strongly drawn to offering this kind of help to other survivors, so I left my job as a college professor and went back to school to become a marriage and family therapist. Shortly after graduation, a friend and I started a nonprofit dedicated to helping people other therapists didn’t want to see. It has been the most rewarding work.
2. Who from your childhood would have known that you would do the sort of work you are doing? And why?
I honestly don’t believe anyone in my childhood would have thought I would do this kind of work. The one exception might be some teachers who saw my strong interest in the sciences. They wouldn’t have thought I would be a therapist, but probably wouldn’t be surprised by my strong draw to neuroscience now. Other than that little thread, because of the ongoing abuse in our family and the message from my parents that I was damaged goods, what just about everyone saw was a child who was perpetually frightened, anxious, withdrawn, and a little strange. My system had undertaken a strong shift into my left hemisphere as a way to keep me functional, so any sense of heart or empathy was likely not very visible most of the time.
I do remember deeply feeling the pain of others, but don’t believe I reached out to comfort them because of my own fears. My wonderful fifth grade teacher, Miss Nelson, seemed to sense that something was very wrong in my world and I felt her presence like sheltering wings around me during that year. She expected academic excellence from us and was also such a kind and wise presence in other ways. She, in some important fashion, became the model for how I want to be in this world and is likely the reason I taught for so many years – and continue to do that now in my 70s. Even as I write this, I feel her sweet presence inside.
For me, the question here is more about those who entered my life and shaped who I am now than what was visibly innate back in childhood. I have the deepest appreciation for the tender, patient, strong ones who have held me in moments of deep and painful discovery and who now continue on as nourishing parts of my inner landscape.
3. What has been the most important insight that you have derived from your work that you hope others would find interesting?
Two related ideas come immediately to mind. Relationship is everything and nonjudgmental presence is the greatest gift we can offer each other. Through immersion in the relational neurosciences for the last 15 years, what has become most clear is that our entire nervous system has evolved to make connection the central source of health and meaning in our lives. Stephen Porges offers these two sayings: “Connection is a biological imperative” and “Safety IS the treatment.” These are words to live by.
As we explore the roots of safety, we find that our open, nonjudgmental receptivity of each other is the foundation of safety and is healing in and of itself.
At the same time, cultivating such presence is likely a lifetime project for all of us. The tendency to analyze, assess, judge, figure out, and fix is strong in us and very strong in our cultures. Over many years of practicing, practicing, practicing, I am both more aware of the strains of judgment in me and of the transformative value of continuing to open into radically inclusive receptivity and warm curiosity – in regard to both my own inner parts and all aspects of others. It is no small thing to commit ourselves to this practice, and yet it may be valuable, even indispensable for helping this planet and its inhabitants to survive. As we cultivate this, we may more and more be therapeutic presences in the world as well as our counseling rooms.
4. What is one new thought or approach that you are hoping to share with attendees at your speaking tour?
As we consider the effects of trauma on children, teens, and adults as well as the path toward healing, we will be exploring the growing scientific evidence that trauma has less to do with what happens to us than who is with us before, during, and after the experience. We are coming to understand that potential traumas become embedded traumas in the absence of sufficient inner and outer resources. We are in the fortunate position of often being the person who is there afterward. Only when someone with a deep understanding of the ways of trauma and healing was with me in my 40s did the interpersonal connection become rich enough to create the safety I needed to enter the subcortical vault that had contained the full experience of my early life.
In the last few years, the work of Stephen Porges (Polyvagal Theory) and Iain McGilchrist (The Master and His Emmisary) has most deeply informed my understanding of what is needed to maintain the kind of presence that opens a safe enough and wise enough space for people of all ages to do this kind of deep healing work. Together, in our two days, we will dive deeply into the neurobiology of trauma and healing while also practicing the kind of presence that invites people into the blessing of safety.