Katie Langley

Conversations on Trauma and Awakening: Katie Langley

Interviewed by Gabriella Evans
If I could impart any virtue or quality to everyone in my country right now it would be curiosity. Even just a touch. Could everyone be just a touch more curious and lean in just a little more? I think it is incumbent on me to say that I don’t think it is the responsibility of those who have been most maligned, subjugated and oppressed to offer grace to their oppressors. I think it is the responsibility of those of us with the most power and privilege to open and be curious, to listen.

Katie Langley, MA CCC-SLP is a writer and rabble rouser, bodyworker and world traveler, and medical Speech Language Pathologist of nearly 20 year’s experience. She is passionate about empowering people to take full responsibility for their ‘one wild and precious life’ through curiosity and delight, in order that they may know their own power and courage to dismantle oppression and change the world.

To find out more about her podcast and learning collective, visit Curiosity-Collective.org.

Who are you, in three words? 

Intense. Passionate. Tender. 

How would those who are closest to you describe you? 

They would probably also use the word intense. I feel things very strongly. They would probably also say intelligent. My brain moves very quickly. I have at times internalized that as an insecurity, but I have worked on that part of myself and have come to own it a little more at this point. The people who know me the best would probably also say that I am playful. 

What resources allow you to access the feelings of safety and grounded-ness in your body? 

I am very physically oriented and find that I need sensory experiences in order to come into the feeling of safety in my body – whether it is human touch, connecting with my animals, walking in the woods or laying in the grass. I can fly away in my head pretty easily without the physically grounding force of other living beings close by.

What animals do you have? 

I have a dog who just turned 11 and I adopted two cats during quarantine, which has been a funny learning curve for both me and my dog. It’s a bit of a circus. It is often madness throughout the day. It has been so good for my heart as they are a point of levity and joy in a year that has been so dark. When the cats are rolling around in the drapes or jumping on top of each other, it gets me out of my head. 

What else allows you to get out of your head and tap into the present moment?  

Yoga has helped to a certain extent, and bodywork. I don’t quite know how to put it into words, but what I have noticed this year is that I need to be almost cocooned. I will wrap myself in a robe and blankets… it is like a sensory squeeze. I don’t remember needing this before.

Is it a need to be held?

Yes! And it is a challenge. I am a single person and I live alone. This need has become such a visceral, acute need that is noticeable in my body. 

I often wonder if physical touch and holding are basic human needs – needs that many of us are missing during this pandemic. It sounds like you have found some ways to provide yourself these needs, and also to allow or to receive the benefits of these acts. Even for those in relationships or living with others, I think there is an allowing or receiving piece involved when it comes to this. 

That resonates. I write, and each year I like to choose a word. Last year I chose the word soft because I wasn’t feeling soft. I felt defended and guarded and like the world was out to get me. I had to be gentle with myself in order to be able to receive and experience softening. 

It can be such a fear-ridden and mysterious thing to lean into vulnerability in the places where our longing is most tender. It is not necessarily a natural instinct to lean into vulnerability. In fact, it’s usually incredibly hard and can set off our most intense defences. 

There was a man that I was engaging with over the course of the pandemic. I came to realize that he was narcissistic, and I saw how lonely it must be to exist that way for him. Throughout my efforts to get to know him, he became progressively more guarded and prickly as the vulnerability and authenticity demands increased between us.  It was startling how hurtful and mean-spirited he became, so I ultimately created some pretty rigid boundaries to protect myself from him, but I just felt so sorry for him; he reminded me of a lonely old junkyard dog and that’s no way to live, for anybody.

It sounds to me like a trauma response. 

I would agree, and I wasn’t prepared for that kind of a response. The hatefulness was strange and confusing as it seemed so disproportionate to the circumstance. It made me sad but it was also a good reminder as to why trauma work is so important and necessary for all of us.

I want to talk more about the work, but before we go forward with that exploration I am wondering how you define trauma. 

Traumatic experiences to me are things that go against how we are wired to exist as humans. I believe that to be loving, tender, vulnerable and compassionate are qualities inherent to us all. When an experience assaults that dignity, it is traumatic. At this point in my life I also see trauma as how the body internalizes traumatic events as much as – if not more – than the actual events themselves. I can name traumatic moments from my life, but I was so dissociated that the trauma was not fully felt at those times. I can see now that the tragedy of the trauma is more about how events that happened in the past ended up influencing decisions that I made or relationships that I had later on. The way we re-live trauma and how it can become a controlling, driving force is the real tragedy. 

It seems to me the more that we stuff down trauma or dissociate from it, the more it has the potential to control us. We can end up behaving in harmful ways to contain the trauma, protect the trauma and do everything we can to not acknowledge it. This can give us license to behave in all kinds of ways that I don’t think we would normally behave in otherwise. This is something that I often remind myself of when I am feeling disgust and rage over a particular politician for example. For me there is a strong tendency to want to fight. There is another, quieter part of me though that can see that what they must have been taught and internalized as a kid contributes to why they are behaving the way they are now as an adult. 

Tell me more about that quieter part of yourself. 

I wonder if it has to do with maturity or wisdom. There is a large part of me that feels very physically reactive towards racists and homophobes. I think they really bring out my protective, older sister self. My first instinct is not to be gracious, so it is something I am always working on. I think this quieter part has to do with love too. I can access love for just about anybody, which sometimes actually feels like a character flaw given the current socio-political situation down here [in the States]. When I encounter those who are, through their own wounded-ness and unhealed trauma, doing so much damage to people most marginalized and oppressed, people I love so much, it definitely become harder to access my ability to extend grace. When I can tap back into love though, it really helps.

Do you believe this capacity for love/wisdom/grace is inherent to us all?

I feel like the right answer is yes, but in all honesty I don’t know. I don’t know if I have real hope that all humans will be able to access transformative grace, love, or mercy. For my own health and my own relational skills though, I recognize that I can’t function from a place of hopelessness. Do I feel hope for certain individuals who seem most egregiously harmful – no. I believe hope to be more of a choice and action than a feeling, and I choose hope because I have to for my own healing and wholeheartedness. 

How has trauma, as you’ve defined it, contributed to your personal stuck-ness or suffering? 

To be born into the body of a woman in a time and place that hates women is a culturally-infused form of trauma that has deeply impacted me. Culture mandates that women are inherently worthless, that our bodies and feelings and opinions, our menstruation and sexuality and desire are deeply shameful and something we’re expected to apologize for, always: It is our birthright.  Because I was a girl, I wasn’t a leader I was bossy. I was taught good girls weren’t angry, didn’t speak their minds, and that I would automatically repel people by being too intelligent, outspoken, or unapologetic, by taking up too much space. I didn’t meet the social norms around beauty so internalized myself as being pretty unlovable for the first thirty years of my life. 

It works really well for capitalism and patriarchy and white supremacy for me to have believed those things about myself rather than having believed in my intelligence, my creative potential, that my emotional depth and intuition are actually my superpowers.  It’s deadly and insidious, how deeply conditioned we are to internalize self-loathing as natural and normal as women.  When I consider the generational toll, it breaks my heart.  It took far into adulthood for me to realize I was functioning as designed within multiple destructive systems, and to begin to unlearn my own internalize misogyny. I want to acknowledge that this is not unique to women, but in my case as a cisgendered woman, it definitely contributed to so much suffering and very little self-love, self-care or self-parenting for a long time. These realities break my heart. I have a niece and I often think, “I will go to my grave fighting for you to exist as a fully embodied, self-loving little girl who will become a woman with the the courage and self-confidence to create entirely new worlds that honour and celebrate the dignity of you and everyone else.” At just a baseline, my wish is that girls don’t internalize the expectation that it is normal to hate themselves and their bodies, but instead that their superpower, and gift to the planet is actually loving themselves fully and unapologetically.

How has this suffering contributed to your evolution or awakening? 

Unfolding is the word that is coming to me. I think it is a slow crawl. I am pretty anti- “woke culture.” I don’t believe in it as I think it implies that we are done, and I don’t believe we are ever done unlearning, relearning, creating something better, especially those of us with the most privilege- taking responsibility for, and leveraging that is our life’s work, and never done. 

My awareness of the personal and collective suffering I described has hugely fuelled and empowered the life choices I have made. A few years back I quit my job and got rid of everything I owned to travel around the world for a year. I wanted to understand what it was to exist as a woman in other places. I started in Europe. I spent a fair amount of time in Kenya and South Africa. I spent time in India, Nepal and Myanmar and then in Australia and New Zealand. 

As they say, wherever you go there you are. I discovered a lot more about myself on this journey than I had bargained for. I came to understand at a molecular level what it means to be white. My whiteness and my Americanness became exponentially more real to me during my travels. At the outset, I did not fully realize how much more power and privilege my skin colour, hair colour and eye colour gave me. The experience was extraordinarily humbling. I wouldn't presume to be able to explain the reality of what it is to be a woman in these other places, but certainly the things that I saw made me hugely more aware of my privilege, power and responsibility, particularly as an American woman. I recognize now what living where I do affords me, especially relative to other places, but boy oh boy- we have such a long way to go. 

I remember trying to buy period products in Nepal. They were very very difficult to find, as menstruation is very culturally shameful.  In Nepal, they still have shacks in some places where women must stay while they’re menstruating, as both they and their blood are considered filthy and unclean, with the power to pollute anything they touch.  I finally found what I needed and I remember the shopkeeper trying to quadruple bag them in order to hide them. It embarrasses me now that I did this because it was so culturally insensitive, but I was furious and said, “No bag. No bag!” I took my products without a bag and walked down the street in Kathmandu, defiant. 

At this point I can recognize my privilege, as well as my responsibility to help other women see how we have internalized all of this dangerously disempowering nonsense about ourselves and how systems have kept us from living as our most authentic and embodies selves. 

Your niece is lucky to have you as an auntie. 

She is a tween and is becoming a touch embarrassed by my passion around this. But I am definitely determined to support her in not internalizing being in a girl body as a malicious, hateful, shameful thing. I am determined that she know her own worth.

Tell me more about the unfolding of this calling for you. How does it look today and how would you like to continue to engage your unique gifts?

Like I said, it is slow and iterative. It is not linear. It is gentle and confusing. It is all of those things, which I think is really important. I have sometimes had women say to me, “You seem so confident.” I am always sure to let them know that – no – what you are seeing is a work in progress. I still get flustered and blush when a boy wants my number at 40 years old. I let women know that whatever confidence they are seeing is, at least in part, a defensive response to the suffering. I really want women to know this. I think that is maybe why unfolding feels like a good word to me. The process is like the gentle opening and closing of a flower. It follows the rhythms of nature, if I let it, and it has no beginning or end. 

In this season, I have only just begun to integrate my previous forty years of living into what I am hoping will become a – business doesn’t feel like the right word – but a community. I am calling it the Curiosity Collective. I feel as though curiosity is so necessary right now, both for what we need to unlearn and deconstruct in our own selves, and also how we are going to engage with the individual people in our lives as well as more collectively. My vision is to continue to work with women, whether through the bodywork I do or in small, communal groups. I want to provide spaces in which women are allowed to be curious and to show up fully as themselves. I want there to be grace and I want there to be softness, and I want us to redefine, stand together in our power.

In order for me to integrate of my own experiences, I have to do work that feels cohesive and convergent. I also feel compelled to bring people together and provide spaces for others to experience this same type of integration. If I can cultivate a curious community and amplify the voices and experiences that have been most historically silenced, that is what I want to do. Not in a suffering-porn kind of way, because I think that happens a lot already and I do not want to create or perpetuate any more harm.  But because there is so much beauty and joy and delight in the truth. It can feel heavy and overwhelming – because it is – and there is also so much joy to be found in engaging with people as themselves, and I think we are missing that. It’s not like you have to be a gender studies scholar to know what it means to be non-binary for example, but how about you lean in and listen to someone who is non-binary? Our world doesn’t have to be this bludgeoning, violent, cancelling, hateful place. It really doesn’t. 

The word curiosity really feels like a fit with what you are describing. 

Yes! Curiosity is exactly what I am aiming to allow for more of. I think one of my fundamental truths is curiosity. That is one of the words I should have used at the beginning of the interview to describe myself! Curious is part of who I am at my absolute core. I would say I am curious more than intense. Passionate. Tender. Curious. Those are my three words.

If I could impart any virtue or quality to everyone in my county right now it would be curiosity. Even just a touch. Could everyone be just a touch more curious and lean in just a little more? I think it is incumbent on me to say that I don’t think it is the responsibility of those who have been most maligned, subjugated and oppressed to offer grace to their oppressors. I think it is the responsibility of those of us with the most power and privilege to open and be curious, to listen.

It has taken me forty years to realize that I have always been curious and I have now begun to embody this quality in a healthy and empowering way. Curiosity is what I stand for. It is who I am. I delight in the mystery and in the fact that our world is so complex, and that we get to be here, right here, right now. We get to wonder and wander, and we get to experience awe and delight. Therein lies the hope for me.

I would like to ask you to think of an earlier version of yourself – a version of you who was stuck in hopelessness. What words would you like to offer her from where you sit today? 

Your deepest wounds will be your greatest offerings. Your most protracted suffering and your greatest longings will become the gifts you share with others in the process of your own healing. This isn’t all for nothing.