Bill O’Hanlon, how to overcome traumas

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(Literal) Text Transcription of the video ” :

Olivier Roland: Bill, we already interviewed you on the YouTube Channel.

Bill O’Hanlon: Yes.

Olivier Roland: The subject was “How to work less and enjoy life more?” which is a very interesting subject. And the fact is, you’re a very resourceful man and you have a lot of interesting things to say about having a more interesting life. And we just had this conversation when you told me “Hey, I have this system to help people overcome trauma.” And you just told me something that was very interesting, I wanted to share it with my audience.

So first, just a quick presentation for the people that didn’t see the first video. So, who are you?

Bill O’Hanlon: Well, I was a psychotherapist for about forty years and I worked with people who had trauma and other troubles. I have a kind of a positive approach to psychotherapy, not “let’s look back at your childhood, and it’ll take years”.

What are your resources? What’s bothering you? Where do you want to go? And what’s the quickest way to get you there? That’s my background.

I was working too much as we talked about in the last video and I started to write books and create courses and get online. So, I can still help people but work less.

Olivier Roland: All right. Can you define what is a trauma?

traumas bill

Bill O’Hanlon: Yes. Trauma is something that’s overwhelming that happens to you. Often, it happens in a war. That’s where we first discovered it in World War One. People developed strange symptoms after the war and they thought “Oh, you’re just weak” or “you can’t handle a war.’ And in World War Two, it happened to more people even people who didn’t seem so weak. We started to call it “war neurosis.”

But after a while, in the sixties, it became trauma. So, trauma is anything that overwhelms you. But it could be from a car accident, it could be from a serious illness, it could be from a terrible break-up that you go through. You are just traumatized and you’re haunted afterwards by part of that experience. It could be a sound, a visual memory…

I had a client when I was a psychotherapist. She was raped and she would smell the parking lot floor that her head was held down onto when she was raped. After a while, it would just haunt her. So, it’s some terrible experience that’s unfinished in some way and keeps coming back to haunt you.

Olivier Roland: All right. So, you have a technique to help people overcome these. But, maybe, people are watching and are thinking “Oh, I didn’t get raped, I didn’t go to war”. Does this apply to them?

Bill O’Hanlon: Yes. Anything that’s happened in the past, that’s affected you, hurt you, upset you a lot, not a little. It’s not an everyday “oh, I stubbed my toe. Oh, it hurts.” It’s something that has affected you a lot, but also is unfinished. It keeps coming back and affecting you in your relationships: “I don’t trust men or women anymore”, “I can never spend money because I was poor when I was young or I lost all my money one time in a bankruptcy”.

It keeps affecting your life. So, anything could be traumatizing but most people go through trauma and they get through it and they move on. Some people don’t and it’s become much more recognized.

But here is the problem, in psychotherapy and in some sort of popular mental health, the reason I developed this idea is that I was watching a television show on the anniversary of 9/11, 5th anniversary of 9/11 in the United States. And CNN, the big news channel had some mental health experts, a psychologist, and they said “What will happen to these people that witnessed this, or were part of it, or were traumatized by this?” And he said: “They will never get over it”.

Olivier Roland: Wow. That’s pretty bad.

Bill O’Hanlon: But this just pissed me off. I thought it’s not true. Most people do get over it, some people don’t but they can get over it. And more than that, some people go through these terrible experiences and they get better afterwards, not just worse or they get haunted. They actually get better.

Olivier Roland: It is something that strengthens them.

Bill O’Hanlon: Yes. It can and some people still develop that what we call Post-Traumatic Stress. But I say you can turn that in a Post-Traumatic Success and there are three elements. But we are just going to talk about one of these because… You and I talked a little before the camera came on and you said “that one what I want to know more about”.

Bill O'Hanlon

But I’ll just go over them very quickly. Three Cs: if you develop more Compassion as a result of this terrible experience then you can develop Post-Traumatic Success. If you develop more Connection to yourself, to others and to your bigger meaning and purpose, you can develop Post-Traumatic Success instead of Post-Traumatic Stress.

But the third one, that was the one that seemed fascinating to you, that was: if you can turn what happened to you into your life mission, and I call this Contribution, how you can help other people or change the world in a more positive way because you went through this terrible experience.

I just give you two quick examples because I think these bring the concept to life.

First one is, I heard this story on the television about an American family that was visiting Italy for the first time. They had two children, maybe 9 years old and 7 years old. And they hired a car, they were driving down the highway.

But what they didn’t know is that this highway in Italy was notorious for having bandits. And the bandits would pull out a gun, make the car pull over to the side, they would threaten them. And then, they would rob them and on they would go. They weren’t usually violent but they had guns to intimidate people so they could rob them.

But this family didn’t know anything about this highway and they became very frightened. They told their children when the people with the gun showed up and try to force them off the highway. They told their children to lay down in the back seat and hide. And they didn’t want to stop because they were too frightened and so, they wanted to drive on.

And the bandits couldn’t force them off the road. So finally, they shot into the back of the car, they had a machine gun and shot into the back of the car. And they wounded the children and then, the bandits stopped and robbed them and saw that they had hurt some children and they took off really fast. So, the parents quickly drove to the hospital and by the time the doctors operated on the children, they died.

Olivier Roland: My God.

Bill O’Hanlon: So, it’s a terrible experience but the parents were just in a shock but they thought “Our children shouldn’t have died in vain”.

In the United States, it’s somewhat common to donate your organs – your eyes or your liver or your heart – to help someone else live if you die and they can retrieve the organ. So, they signed a consent form and they told the doctors “Well, our children should help someone else even though they died tragically”. They donate their organs.

While at that time, I guess, very few people in Italy ever donated organs.

This story became known in the Italian media, it was on the newspapers and on the radio and on television. These Americans look what we did to them when they came to visit our country and look what they did back. They donated their children’s organs and they saved five Italian children’s lives, or eyes or sight. And it became a big story.

As a result to this, I think it’s something like one hundred thousand Italians went in and signed up to be organ donors if they died. It was ten years later and the Italian government invited the American family back. They gave them an Italian medal for service to the people of Italy.

The family, the parents said like “Nothing can bring our children back but this gives us meaning. We want to travel around the world and we want to tell everyone “donate organs because you can save other people’s lives. And maybe, this is why our children lived even though they died tragically. Maybe they were here as angels to try and save many lives”. And they said “You know, you never get over your children dying but this has helped us create meaning and a mission out of this terrible tragedy”.

So, that’s the key I think to turning tragedy around. I’ll just give you one more story though.

I had a colleague who is also a psychotherapist. And in psychotherapy, you can specialize in a lot of things. I would specialize in depression or anxiety or couple’s problems.

couple probleme therapy

And my friend and colleague, her parents got divorced when she was a teenager and it was one of those terrible bitter divorces. The mother got angry when her daughter was going to visit her father and she was just being loyal. It was very bitter and she felt torn apart by her parents’ divorce.

When she became an adult, she became a therapist and she began to specialize in preventing unnecessary divorce. She wrote a book about it, called “Divorce busting” like “Ghostbusting” but “Divorce busting”. It became a bestselling book and now, she has trained thousands of therapists to use a very nice technique to prevent unnecessary divorces.

Her tragedy, her trauma turned into her life mission. Not only is there a way to survive trauma, not only is there a way to get better from it and even if you are haunted by it, but there is a way to turn it around from Post-Traumatic Stress to Post-Traumatic Success. And one of the keys is to make that sensitivity that you get from a terrible experience into your life’s purpose and your life’s mission.

Olivier Roland: It is amazing because there are experiences that can completely destroy someone. But instead, they chose to use that as an inspiration to change their life and have it work for the better.

Bill O’Hanlon: That’s right.

Olivier Roland: It’s very interesting.

Bill O’Hanlon: If you can change something from a tragedy to a mission, to a contribution, it can often transform the energy which was just going around inside you or keeping you from the world into something that moves you out into the world and gives you purpose and direction. That’s the key to transforming trauma.

Olivier Roland: I have another example that comes to my mind. Gandhi was thrown from a train in South Africa because he was colored. Yeah, I mean that was very traumatic for him.

Bill O’Hanlon: Yes.

Olivier Roland: And he decided to…

Bill O’Hanlon: He changed the world. First, in South Africa then he went to India. He liberated his whole country from Britain because he was thrown off that train. Instead, he could have said: “Oh, I hate the British and I want to kill them and bomb them or whatever”. No, he chose a different path and he transformed the world. Then, he inspired Nelson Mandela and he inspired Martin Luther King.

None violent change.

Olivier Roland: Do you think it is related to the work of Viktor Frankl?

Bill O’Hanlon: Yes. He was one of my heroes and I know he influenced you.

He was talking about “Search for Meaning” and he also had an experience where he was traumatized.

Olivier Roland: I mean big time.

Bill O’Hanlon: Big time.

Olivier Roland: I don’t think you can be more.

Bill O’Hanlon: His mother was killed, his wife was killed, and his father died in a concentration camp. And he came out and he made meaning from that. He said “If you have a why, you can survive any what or how”.

Olivier Roland: Yeah, because Viktor Frankl was an Austrian Jew. He ended up in Auschwitz and it was pretty hard. He wrote his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” where he explained how he managed to survive and have hope.

Bill O’Hanlon: He dreamed of a life after the concentration camp where he would bring his ideas about meaning and purpose as central to being a healthy and vibrant human being. He used his experiences in the concentration camps to give evidence.

Even in this extreme trauma circumstance, you can come out and not only survive but you can have a life with meaning. Yeah, that’s important.

Olivier Roland: I think, the thing we should take from this interview is first: even if we are not traumatized big time, we all have some sort of small trauma it’s always possible…

If some people can take so much positivity from a big trauma, we can do it from the small one.

Bill O’Hanlon: I think that’s right. I’m going to use my very limited French.

Olivier Roland: All right.

Bill O’Hanlon: In the United States, there was a very famous mythologist called Joseph Campbell and many people know because he created the “Hero’s Journey,” this idea.

He was been interviewed one time and the interviewer said: “What would you tell your students about how to find their direction in life?” And he said: “I’d say follow your bliss.” Years later, everyone says “Oh, I’m following my bliss” and sometimes they would just going around and having fun.

They were really finding their bliss, their soul’s deep meaning. So, he said, in English, this is kind of a pun: “Maybe I should have said follow your ‘blisters”.

So, sometimes I say instead of “follow your bliss,” which is your joy and your deep happy meaning, is ‘follow your “blessure”’ which is to follow your wound.

Olivier Roland: Blessure, yeah.

Bill O’Hanlon: Thank you. Better pronunciation.

Olivier Roland: So follow your wound.

Bill O’Hanlon: Instead follow your wound; even if it’s a small wound, it sensitizes you. If you cut your finger all of a sudden, you really notice that part of your finger and it’s that small sensitivity you say: “Oh…”

If you were ever poor, you’re very sensitive to people being poor. And, if you lived in a house where your mother was beaten and you then become “Oh no, men should always treat women with respect” or “I’m against violence”.

That wound sensitizes you to some area of the world. And you want to help other people in that area because you are more sensitive in that area, because of your wound, blessure.

Olivier Roland: Wow. Very impressive.

Bill O’Hanlon: Follow your blessure.

Olivier Roland: Another thing we should take from this is, if we have this approach, we should be perhaps not fearless but more confident in life because we know it is an approach of the stoics too.

You should think of what is worst that has happened to you but you know that it’s just a matter of how you interpret it.

Bill O’Hanlon: That’s right. Your relationship to your perspective on it. Yeah, I think that’s right.

Olivier Roland: Give you more confidence in life.

Bill O’Hanlon: I think because instead of trying to avoid all troubles, because you can’t in life. Life is going to have troubles, life is going to have wounds. There are times where you are going to be hurt or disrespected. That’s part of life.

Can you take that and turn it in a good direction. So, this has become part of my mission to educate people about this because I hate this idea “Oh, you are wounded and traumatized. So now, you are victim and you can’t do anything in life. Sorry”.

No, this is your moment. When you can, you have a moment of choice to shift that perspective and think “What can I do with it?” It already happened; there are nothing to change the past except your relationship to a new perspective on it.

And I know that’s you are about because every time I see one of your videos, it’s all about possibility and how can you take something in your life and do something with it.

Whatever the circumstance, wherever you’re starting, you’re starting in a small place, or a hurt place, or with little money. That’s okay. You can change that around or you can say “Oh, I’m a victim, I have no resources, no money”. You’re stuck when you do that.

Olivier Roland: Exactly. Wow, thank you Bill for this awesome insight. I’m sure it inspired a lot of people. So, thank you.

Bill O’Hanlon: We’ll have to meet like this next year.

Olivier Roland: Yeah, next year. Every year, we’ll be doing a new video.

Bill O’Hanlon: Okay, good.


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