Gabrielle Bernstein discusses authentic happiness, the path to peace, and IFS therapy.
Sharing deep pain and the path through it in a relatable way is a rare gift. Author and spiritual teacher Gabrielle Bernstein has done this in Happy Days: The Guided Path from Trauma to Profound Freedom and Inner Peace. This exceptionally personal and powerful book focuses on how Gabby healed from childhood sexual abuse. It was a trauma relegated to her unconscious until memories began to surface six years ago, when she was 36.
“My hope is that my vulnerability will give you the chance to look more closely at yours,” she writes in the book’s introduction. “I hope to give you permission to face feelings you’ve buried deep, and give you guidance on how to heal from them. My prayer is that this book sets you free.”
Gabby calls trauma recovery “unlearning fear and remembering love.” She intentionally speaks to her readers as if she’s right by their side, giving clear, detailed directions and plenty of encouragement. She writes, “While I may feel like a distant author whom you may never meet, please don’t underestimate the energy exchange happening here. Each word in this book is infused with my intention to help you know that you’re not alone.”
After listening to Gabby’s narration of Happy Days and trying many of the practices she outlines in the book, I had the pleasure of interviewing her over Zoom and asking my most pressing questions.
Myra Goodman: Your worldview is clearly a very spiritual one. Can you explain why you believe that living a spiritual life isn’t about trying to rise above pain and suffering, but rather about embracing it?
Gabrielle Bernstein: My worldview has definitely always had a spiritual lens. That lens, which has grown year after year, has brought me a sense of safety and faith that has helped me get through a lot of difficult times. It’s also led me on a path of great personal transformation.
There’s a big difference between spiritual bypassing and having spirituality be part of your healing path. Spiritual bypassing is trying to use your spiritual practice to get over the suffering. Allowing your spiritual path to support your journey is a totally different story.
My spiritual path got me clean and sober. My spiritual path kept me safe when I didn’t know why I was traumatized. It’s my spiritual path that led me to all of the therapies that healed me.
Early on, you ask readers to create a vision statement about how they want to feel independent of outside circumstances, even if they can’t see how they’ll get there. Personally, I’ve been surprised by how simply holding a vision of wanting to feel relaxed has been illuminating countless patterns that keep me tense and stressed. Why are vision statements so effective?
Holding a vision of how you want to feel opens you up to infinite possibilities for great change and growth, setting you up to receive the spiritual guidance you need to get there. When I decided I wanted to wake up every morning without anxiety, I began to wonder about its original source. I stopped running. I looked deeper.
As I began working through my childhood wounds, I discovered that we can’t heal the subconscious with therapeutic or spiritual practices alone. We need to include somatic practices, because so much of our trauma is stored in our body. For me, it’s in my jaw and my hips, and it caused major gastrointestinal issues for many years.
It’s not just about calming ourselves down. It’s also about undoing the neurological and physiological patterns of trauma so our nervous systems can be restored to equilibrium. And that can happen. That’s why I wrote about somatic experiencing. I wanted to introduce practices that allow the body to be the vessel through which the transformation can occur.
I also shared the work of Dr. John Sarno, who believed that one of the ways our brains distract us from facing our impermissible repressed emotions is through physical pain—that pain can be a form of distraction, an unconscious coping mechanism. In Happy Days, I explain how my newfound faith in the mind-body connection has helped me see my body as a learning device to get closer to inner freedom.
You share that one of the most transformational elements of your personal growth and trauma recovery has been a form of therapy called Internal Family Systems (IFS). Part of this works involves recognizing the self with a capital ‘S’—the undamaged, resourced, enlightened part of us. How does the IFS concept of Self match up with your view of Self as a longtime spiritual teacher?
Self is our internal parent, the love within us, the spirit within us, the voice of our higher self, our inner guidance system—whatever you want to call it. It’s all the same thing. IFS just strengthened my access to it.
Releasing blocks to the presence of Self energy is what spiritual practice is really about. In Happy Days, I explain that from a spiritual perspective, the painful experiences we had as kids are fractures in our energetic connection to the love within us. Each fracture, whether minor or major, separated us further and further from that source of love. IFS is about establishing a direct connection to Self, which makes it as a very spiritual practice.
IFS lists eight “C” qualities people experience when they are connected to Self: calmness, clarity, confidence, curiosity, compassion, connectedness, creativity, and courage. It also teaches that an important part of releasing our blocks to Self is realizing that there are no bad parts to us, just parts trying to protect us from feelings of being inadequate and unlovable.
I believe that when Self is the leader, we can heal anything. But for the world to have healing, we have to be able to see everyone through that lens of compassion, and we can’t see others through that lens until we can see ourselves through that lens.
You talk about trauma with a “big ‘T’” and a “small ‘t.’” What are your thoughts about intergenerational trauma? My parents are both Holocaust survivors, so it’s an issue I think about often.
I think that whatever trauma we’ve experienced in our life often has an intergenerational history because we typically establish attachment bonds with our parents that are based on the attachment bonds they had with their parents, which goes back to the generation before them, and on and on. So it’s a historical bond that’s passed along until somebody decides to adjust it.
My grandmother on my father’s side was also a survivor. In my case, when I look back, I can see the historical trauma of the Holocaust in the way my father and my aunt were brought up. I can also understand it in my own experience. Even though I didn’t know my grandmother beyond age two, it’s still in my nervous system and my epigenetics.
But historical trauma can be undone by an individual in the family, and then it won’t be passed on. That’s been my choice in this lifetime.
We all have suffering, and it’s going to manifest for each of us in different ways. We just have to decide how we’re going to show up for it. My favorite part of Happy Days is that it helps the reader know they’re not alone. I want everyone to feel like I’m holding them by the hand as I show them the way out. It’s a big journey to go on.
Do you have any regrets about how honest and vulnerable you were in the book, all the internal struggles you exposed that could impact your public persona?
I would only have regrets if I wasn’t that vulnerable.
Recovering from Trauma? Listen to what your body’s trying to tell you.