More About Me
For much of my life two questions have inspired my curiosity. First, what makes human beings who we are? Second, how does the world we inhabit shape us, and what would it be like to live in a different world?
During the last couple of decades, I have thought deeply about these questions in relation to emotional trauma and its healing, also to what it means to be well if we carry trauma.
My curiosity was kindled by the challenges I faced during my childhood. As a child and young person, I could not make sense of what was happening to me. With the understanding I have today, I can see that I tried to cope with these challenges in a variety of ways, the most important of which was horse-riding.
I loved my horse deeply and was passionate about galloping across country, jumping over obstacles, and competing in horse trials. At the time, I was fully aware that, when I was riding, I entered a world which gave me respite from the difficulties of home – I treasured that difference. However, I was not aware then, as I am now, that riding also gave me access to the world of my feelings and bodily sensations. This world was unavailable in other areas my life wherein only words and thinking were deemed to be important.
Nevertheless, words and thinking did get me to the University of Oxford where I studied Human Sciences – an interdisciplinary degree that considers humans as social, cultural, and biological beings. Human Sciences nurtured my curiosity and I loved my studies. I was fortunate to have Richard Dawkins as my tutor for the animal behaviour and evolution module and became fascinated by how evolutionary forces contribute to making humans who we are. Eager to learn more, I went to Ann Arbor, Michigan to study for an interdisciplinary MA in anthropology and psychology. Thereafter, wanting to do my own original research, I returned to Oxford to embark on an anthropology PhD.
The years in Tanzania
I carried out PhD fieldwork with a people called the Datoga. The Datoga live in a remote wilderness area of Tanzania and herd cattle, goats, and sheep in traditional ways. Their homes are constructed by plastering a mixture of animal dung and mud over a frame of intertwined branches and their ritual clothes are made from the hides of deceased livestock. Each day the Datoga walk several miles to hand-dug wells and collect their household water in hollowed gourds. Working with the Datoga offered me extraordinary insights into lives which are profoundly different to my own, yet which also have significant underlying similarities.
I spent almost seven years in Tanzania and my experience there gave me a personal understanding of what it means to live in close contact with the natural world – as humans have done for so much of our evolutionary history.
My interest in the evolutionary heritage of human beings continues to this day and informs my view of emotional trauma, healing, and well being.
Evolving my own path
By the time I had completed my PhD, I knew that life as an academic was not for me. I wanted to investigate subjects that interested me, but also to communicate what I was learning in non-academic ways to a wider audience. Working briefly in television and documentaries, I discovered how much I enjoyed both the process of making ideas accessible and the challenge of interweaving different strands of knowledge into a coherent whole. However, I was frustrated by not being able to explore subjects in as much depth as I wanted, and so began researching, writing, and speaking in more independent ways.
Exploring my inner world
Around the same time, my curiosity turned towards the subject of inner worlds – or, to be more accurate, towards my own inner world. As an anthropologist and filmmaker, my work had focused on what it means to live a human life; now I wanted to focus on understanding my own life. The things I had done up until then had been immensely fulfilling, however, I had endured long periods of chronic unhappiness and did not want to continue that way. Indeed, I had started to feel that if my remaining years were going to be similar to those already lived, I did not want to go on. Thankfully, there was a part of me that was committed to life. This part held firmly to the hope that I could find my way towards a different outcome.
I embarked on a healing process and began working with a therapist. Through that work, I developed an awareness of how trauma had shaped me, and started to address that trauma. I also participated in a series of BodySoul Rhythms® workshops, facilitated by Marion Woodman, Mary Hamilton, and Ann Skinner. In these workshops we used myths, masks, movement, voice, art and dreams to discover aspects of what we held in our unconscious minds and bodies. Alongside this personal work, I studied trauma by reading widely, and attending an array of lectures and conferences. I then proceeded to interweave what I was learning from looking within myself with what I was learning from looking outwards to the work and experience of others.
From the time I began my inner journey, I considered how best I might share what I was learning in ways that might be helpful to other people. My first project was the book, ‘Understanding and Healing Emotional Trauma: Conversations with Pioneering Clinicians and Researchers’ (Sieff 2015). This comprises a series of interviews with pioneers whose thinking in the fields of depth psychology, interpersonal neurobiology and evolution has deepened the understanding of emotional trauma. The work of each interviewee had made a profound impact on me and my aim was to introduce their ideas to other people.
Since then I have written articles, made films for YouTube, been a guest on podcasts, given presentations and hosted webinars. I am also currently working on new books.
When I shifted my curiosity on to my inner world and started my therapeutic journey, I imagined that if only I could discover what made me who I was, then I would be able to fix the problems with myself. Twenty years later, I know that this is not what happens! I am not ‘fixed’ – at least not in the way I envisioned back then. My trauma no longer drives me and I no longer suffer with chronic unhappiness; however, the imprint of trauma remains within me and it can still present me with significant challenges. I continue to work with these challenges – the process is ongoing. What has changed, though, is how I relate to my trauma and to myself. As a result of this shift, I now live with an inner world that is infinitely richer, kinder, and more meaningful and creative than anything I could ever have imagined.