“Strong Like Water” with Aundi Kolber

We’re so pleased to be joined by therapist and author Aundi Kolber, known for her acclaimed works Try Softer and, most recently, Strong Like Water.

As a licensed professional counselor specializing in trauma- and body-centered therapies, Aundi’s expertise is deeply informed by her personal journey of healing from complex childhood trauma. 

Aundi candidly shares her personal journey of healing, from confronting the profound extent of her past trauma and discovering healing methods that nurture a sense of safety, self-care, and self-compassion.

She shares: “Part of my own journey, and I think my writing, I hope, I pray, that the trajectory of my writing is about that to live into these values actually has required me to get softer so I could get stronger.”

About Our Guest:

Aundi Kolber is a licensed professional counselor (MA, LPC) and author of the critically acclaimed Try Softer as well as her best-selling book, Strong Like Water. She has received additional training in her specialization of trauma- and body-centered therapies and is passionate about the integration of faith and psychology. Aundi regularly speaks at local and national events, and she has appeared on Good Morning America as well as podcasts such as The Lazy Genius with Kendra Adachi, Typology, and The Next Right Thing with Emily P. Freeman. As a survivor of trauma, Aundi brings hard-won knowledge about the work of change, the power of redemption, and the beauty of experiencing God with us in our pain. You can follow Aundi on Instagram at @aundikolber.

Episode Transcript:

This episode contains brief explicit language that may be offensive to some listeners; discretion is advised.

Dan: This is such a great day. I’m so grateful. We’re going to introduce our guest, Aundi Kolber. Now Aundi is, from my standpoint, a brilliant, compelling, beautiful writer. And the first book was so disruptive, and that was a book called Try Softer, which obviously is the playground of being able to reverse this ridiculous phrase of try harder, but to follow it up with a book called Strong like Water: Finding Freedom, Safety, and Compassion to Move Through Hard Things. So what I would, and again, ask you, Aundi to respond to this, but you’re a bit of what I would call a stunning and graceful iconoclast. You name bullshit within the believing community, and you do so in a way that bears no cynicism nor sarcasm, nor just, disrespect. But you’re also, at least for my reading of you, a woman who’s like, no, no, no, this is not going to be So Aundi, so grateful for you to join us today and just love to know, is that the notion of being iconoclastic? Is that a fair reading of you?

Aundi: Wow, that feels like a big term to live into, but I think I feel honored by that. I think it is the journey of my own maturity to live into my values. I think one of the things I talk about in my books is that I’m a survivor of complex trauma from my childhood. And part of, I think what that has meant for me is sometimes having a deep knowing, but not having the internal resources always to live into it. And so part of my own journey, and I think my writing, I hope, I pray, that the trajectory of my writing is about that to live into these values actually has required me to get softer so I could get stronger. That has been my journey. And so I think yes, I do appreciate and resonate with that term though with a little bit of maybe to use a biblical idea, like fear and trembling, because I don’t think that’s something, that’s not something that I’m like, you know what I’m going to be, I mean, maybe on some days. But yeah, so all that to say, I think it has been a journey to live into the values that I think I hold really true.

Dan: Thank you. A bit of a contradiction is not true. It’s… antinomy, closer, but maybe just the play of paradox that you have found a way to enter and begin to disrupt, and yet the disruption is not for the sake of creating more disintegration, but actually much more peace. So a peaceable iconoclast is such a very different presence, but I just found myself many times reading a paragraph or longer a page or more and just literally having to go, oh, take a walk. Take a walk. Because things were stirring. And I think that’s where as you invite us to your own and others engagement with trauma, your sophistication and understanding the interpersonal neurobiology of trauma, understanding of the interplay of the effects of trauma, we can go through all that, but I think I’d rather ask, how did you get here?

Aundi: Yeah. Well, I wanted to say, one, I feel such a deep sense of almost paradoxically peace when I hear you name that it feels disruptive, this concept. And I feel that piece simultaneously because it’s not to disrupt for disruption’s sake, right? It’s like a phrase, and I borrow this language from Deb Dana because I think I’ve heard her say it first, but is this idea in service of wholeness that for many folks who’ve had to live from a place of a trauma response or many trauma responses that’s been in service of survival. And oftentimes I think part of healing is that shift as we can begin to… when who we are when our sort of north star can change to say, this doesn’t have to be simply just to survive anymore, though that is valid, but it can be for something even bigger, that deeper integration, that wholeness. And so that’s one thing I just wanted to name. That’s something I was thinking about as you were talking, but yeah, this question, how did I get here? Wow, it’s, it’s been a heck of a journey. It’s been a heck of a journey. I think there’s a lot of layers. I think in big strokes, what I would say is I survived my childhood by basically learning to look really good in quotes on the outside, to do the right thing to achieve, to make people happy, to often tie myself into knots to give more than I had to give. And so on the outside, not a lot of people were concerned about me. I was the kid who it was like, Aundi’s going to be fine. Aundi’s going to figure this out. I was a basketball player, I did really well. I went on to play college basketball, was always in leadership positions, got excellent grades, was never in trouble. I mean, was doing all these things so outwardly it makes sense that people wouldn’t be worried. The thing that was so hard is that I was so constantly living from a place where I felt like I was about to break. And it was like I developed strategies to, in those places sort of succeed in the way that was needed. But when I was alone, I mean, I think I was probably very dissociated, lots of anxiety, lots of disconnection. And so I share that because it’s a confusing presentation. It’s not the thing that people typically say, oh, here’s something we need to, this person needs more support. And so it wasn’t until I really graduated from college, from undergrad and some things began to, I had always been, basketball played a really big role for me in sort of lots of things, but there was a lot of achievement that happened there. And so multiple things happened at once where life sort of disintegrated and my family became more and more, it was chaotic and traumatic the whole time, but it became more and more destabilized as I got a little bit older. And it was like things hit a fever pitch. And so it really wasn’t until I began to get into graduate school, do some of my own work that I even began to, it’s not that I would’ve said my family was healthy, I wouldn’t have, but I didn’t think I had any claim to lay on the word trauma. I thought I had no right to talk about that. I was so convinced that I was strong and that I was strong, that I didn’t deserve the care that maybe someone who had been through something that I would’ve seen as more significant. So all that to say, gosh, I was 24, 23, before I even had a glimpse of that. And that did set me though, thank God on a trajectory. And I think as my body could handle the information, I began to put the pieces together. I think if I would’ve understood the depth of it right away, I don’t think I could have handled it. I am now 40 years old. It has taken me a long time to really see the fullness of the harm, the fullness. And part of that is because some of the harm continued into my adulthood with a parent who was deeply abusive even after having to set really firm boundaries. So all that to say, I think part of it for me was getting into some spaces where my body began to feel safe enough to see the truth, and that began that journey.

Dan: And just because we really don’t know one another, just to say that’s a very overlapping story to yours, Rachael.

Rachael: Yeah, I was thinking, I mean, I’ve thought this as I’ve encountered your work and just been so grateful you and I could sit in a coffee shop and have long conversations and probably not actually have to say very many words to be able to go, just very similar. Obviously it’s your story, your particularities, but just very similar trajectory of going to grad school at 24. I’m 41. I appreciate how you let your, in a way that I think you do it with such honor and integrity. Let your body actually be a living sacrifice in the costly labor you do for yourself, but on behalf of others. And so yeah, your tears, there’s just a holy pause to them. And just even knowing my own journey, the hours, the labor, the resourcing, the shifting, the transformation that feels so much worse before it feels better. And then I think especially what I appreciate about how you write and how you do this interweaving is your acknowledgement of the body. Because in some ways there can be such tremendous healing of the psyche and even the spirit, and it feels like the body is such a key part of that. But it also, to me at least feels like at times the last frontier of where the dysfunction there still has to be such a tender, tending to what it is to have survived complex trauma for all the systems, not just the neurological ones, but all the systems they’re connected to. And so I just say mercy to you and also thank you. Thank you for letting your body and heart and mind be a living sacrifice unto goodness. And I hope in a way that restores life to you and I know brings a lot of restoration to others because that high functioning survivor, and I think especially in this season where we see so much being exposed and unveiled with things like Shiny Happy People and other Until the Truth which is coming out sometime this year. And we’re seeing, especially women, who are coming out of high religious context, that story of the good person who’s high achieving, high functioning, but internally is suffering so severely, but can externally to some extent keep it together. And for me, it was my senior year of college where it was like it just all came colliding out in that way that I couldn’t keep it internal anymore. And at that time, I still did not have a language for trauma or psychology even really coming out of the Southern Baptist context I was in. And it was like going to grad school to be helpful to help people because I’m a healer and being like, oh my God, oh my God, there’s so much here and so deeply grateful for the trajectory and know that, and I appreciate the way you write with such a humanity and a vulnerability that, it will be a lifelong journey of healing. And a part of me goes, oh, thank God. And a part of me goes, oh, I’m tired some days I’m tired.

Dan: The two of you have that element of having been really good human beings. Aundi the way you put it is it’s almost like what suffering you knew was not comparable to others who had more of an overt, capital T, abusive context. And so the three of us on our conversation, I would be more the prodigal and sometimes prodigals create their own trauma and also suffer something of the more egregious forms of violence. But the older brother or sister often doesn’t look, they look good, they obey, they’re righteous, they do well, they’re highly competent, et cetera. So what have you, and I would say both of you, what have you had to engage in order for the reality of your own complex trauma to actually come to the surface? Well, obviously one word was you began to disintegrate, but I know a lot of people who disintegrate who don’t come to the ownership that you have named. So just to invite you, as you hear the notion of being an older brother, sister and having to face trauma, where does that take you?

Aundi: Yeah, yeah. Well, I think that’s a great question. It brings up a lot of different thoughts for me around my journey. And I think part of it even in the last five years, I would say, because a lot of the trauma that I think I experienced was psychological. One of my parents was I believe, a malignant narcissist. And in that context, I actually did experience some big T trauma. But I think my view was so distorted about what I had experienced that I didn’t think I had permission to even…. So I just say that to say even I think even from writing, so I wrote Try Softly really in 2017 to 2019, even in that time as I have unpacked because there has been parts of my childhood that I just didn’t remember. There’s a lot of parts of my childhood that I don’t have a lot of memories of, which is why I am, as a side note, part of why the body is so important to me because the body always holds the story even when we don’t have the full narrative. And so that’s been so sacred to me to know that my body still knows my body was still witnessing. And so part of it, for me, it’s definitely been, I sometimes talk about with complex trauma, the healing needs to match the complexity of the harm. And so for me, I’ve needed many different things. That’s why I sometimes joke my books are herding cats because I’m like, well, we’re going to need self-compassion and interpersonal neurobiology and mindfulness. And I mean there’s just… because to me, I’m like, there are so many great resources, and in order to have the ability to match what’s happened, we are going to need more than just one thing. We are going to need many things to sort of weave it back together. And so I have done, I think body work, body centered work has been absolutely vital for me understanding things like polyvagal theory and really practicing it, not just knowing it, but experiencing in my body, this is what settledness feels like and here’s what it’s like to build my capacity to be with goodness. And then I think another concept that’s been so vital is really doing parts work, whether that’s through IFS perspective or just also whether that’s been in EMDR, really connecting to the different parts of me who’ve experienced the harm because the older brother concept, that has been important. But that is one protector. That is one protector. And I’m grateful to that protector. That protector has softened a lot. That protector has learned to say I had to be that at times in my life. Paradoxically, I’m the fourth of five children, but I do very much have, we talk about in my family, I have oldest child tendencies by being very over responsible, tending to, I’m like, you need a leader, I’ll step up. I’ll be a leader. So I think there’s been all these different elements of things like re-parenting, developing self-compassion, right? Like a voice, an internal voice that can be a place where I can rest, where I talk about it, participating with the Spirit of God in my own healing. Yes, God can heal us, and I am invited. We are invited to participate in our own healing. And that’s so important to me, right? Because I think that oftentimes in some faith contexts, it feels like that is not okay or it’s shamed to want to participate or want to actively co-create and work in that space. And I think really unlearning some of those things and knowing that God’s heart for me, and I think for all of us is to move towards wholeness. And that’s one of the ways that we do that. And so I think of it a lot like a dance and different seasons I’m like, okay, here I’m doing more parts work, but here maybe I am really working with my body, really listening to just truly one of my favorite things that I’ve learned and sort of somatic work is being able to really connect with parts of my body through the language of if that tension in your chest could talk, what would it say? What does it want to let you know today? And just really lovingly coming alongside those parts of myself. And so it’s definitely been, I think there has been as much complexity to the healing as there has been to the complexity of the trauma.

Rachael: I just am like, yes, yes, what she said, that’s what I feel. I’m so grateful for the ways in which you weave language together in such a clear way in the midst of so much complexity, because I am the oldest child. And in the season that I disintegrated, it was such a clear breakdown. I mean, I really got to the point where I was like, I’m insane. I am insane. I was having OCD, I was having severe panic/anxiety, which had been true my whole life, but it was like I couldn’t rein it in or just work harder to get through it. And so for me, I think I just, it’s almost like Dan, if I’m thinking about that biblical story of the prodigal and the older brother, it was almost like I actually had to be like, I’m just going to be the prodigal. I’m just going in deep because I don’t know what else to, I genuinely am so far beyond myself, which was so terrifying because so much of the kind of decisions I had made is you need to be able to provide for yourself everything you need. And if you can’t, man, who knows what’s going to happen. So to be so far past my edges, it was like I had to ask for help, and I had no idea what help I needed initially. And that has been such a stunning, beautiful, complex journey to just, I mean, not that I actively was like, I’m going to take my inheritance and run. It was more like, if God wants me to feel this way, I don’t want to have anything to do with God. If I can’t pursue medical health through a therapist or mental health or medicine, then fine, that’s fine. I will take my inheritance and get out of here because I can’t live like this anymore. But I think to also find space for those really complex parts of me that have experienced a lot of healing, and I’m still discovering parts I didn’t even know as the journey goes on. And, and I think for me, story work as another piece of that, I mean, body work has saved my life. My gut is so different today than it was 10 years ago through a lot of tending and a really good doctor who’s an advocate and takes the whole body and whole person seriously. And I think story work actually helped me locate in some ways how the different parts came to be. And in some ways, what developmental place are they most connected to? And that has been all kinds of different work because in some ways different parts of us that came to be as a way to survive need different things and to tend to that your language of re-parenting, to tend to that with patience and with nuance and actually getting to know those things. I mean, there’s so much more somatic work I long to be doing, and that’s one year postpartum. So it’s also new kinds of somatic work needed. But yeah, I’m just so grateful for how you’re talking about complexity. And Dan would say for you, even though maybe you would say you started as the prodigal and definitely bear more in some ways, the scapegoat, if we’re talking about the good child versus the scapegoat, I know you too can relate to the complex nature of healing and being a participant in it. Yeah.

Dan: I do. But I’ve never been good in the way that the two of you have. And I mean legitimately suffered profoundly in that kind of compulsion, that the complexity of your worlds and to name that kind of flagrant and cruel narcissism, that generally speaking is brilliant at being able to dissipate the violence of their harm into… your fault–you are to blame. And so when you internalize, you are at fault and you need to be better so that the compulsion to be better really is a trauma response to what your body is suffering in that cruelty. It’s a different kind of trauma process because someone like me needs to come home, but the two of you needed to leave.

Aundi: Thank you for saying that. Yeah,

Dan: That doesn’t look the same at all. Even if you’re coming truly home, you got to come home by leaving. And that’s a very, I think a much more complex process to engage than somebody who’s just created chaos and harm in the process of having been harmed. So that’s what I’m trying to get at that the two of you have had, and I think others like you who have been good and I mean good, not just fake-good. Good. That in some sense it makes me both furious and heartbroken that that complexity is added to the complexity of the kind of world, Aundi, that you rose in the middle of.Aundi: Well, thank you so much for saying that. I think it brings up emotion to hear that, because I think it’s so often misunderstood, the burden. I mean, here’s what I’ll say. Anyone who’s experienced trauma is carrying a burden. Anyone who’s experienced that chaos and those things, that is a burden. I often talk about trauma has a cost always, always. And I think what you’re naming, which I feel so honored by that in my body, I feel honored of a sense of that sometimes the way back out, the unwinding of the trauma, that’s where it gets more complex. And I think there are certain types of trauma where the unwinding is a little more clear. And I think with the type of, and I don’t want to speak too much for you, Rachael, but it sounds like when the unwinding involves, so, having to be so wise and discerning with, is this person even sorry, or is this person going to continue harming, or is this dynamic actually if I stay there, will it make me sick? When we have to take those types of things into account, the burden is so high. And I know for me, this is the other thing I was thinking about as we’re talking about this, this dynamic of the older brother and the younger that has left the prodigal, ironically, in my story, I feel like the way out, the way to healing was actually through the prodigal. I needed to leave. And part of that was to say, no more, no more, I can’t, I will not allow you. I not participate in my own harm. I cannot allow that. And I think this is a very misunderstood dynamic because the grief, the absolute grief involved with having to make a choice like that to grieve someone who is alive, because to stay into contact with them would cause you so much harm. So that’s an interesting paradox that there’s this idea that it’s actually by becoming and actually embodying the “no”, I’m taking some liberties here, but there’s a sense of embodying a no that happens with the prodigal by saying, I can’t stay here anymore. It’s not safe. And that has been, when I think about my trajectory of healing, and even where we started, our conversation today is talking about this idea of, I think how you described me like a disruptor, these different things. And if you would’ve said that to me 18 years ago, that would’ve freaked me out. That would’ve scared me in a very deep panicked way because the feeling in my body would’ve been, well, when is the shoe going to drop then? And when is the punishment coming, and when is the cost going to have to be paid for that in a very specific way? And so part of the journey and why all the tools have been needed is to be with the parts of myself who were there and present during the worst punishments, the worst harm. And to say, now I’m with you. I am an adult woman. We are resourced. Things are different now. Things are different now.

Dan: Yeah. Well, there’s so much here, and again, we don’t have the pleasure of infinite time yet. As I think about the reading of your work, what I would say is, again, I love that image of you’re moving in multiple directions with a certain simultaneity, and yet there’s this deep, deep, deep lovely bringing things back home. So it’s not a fair question and hardly any are, but how do you do that? And especially how do you honor and have you always honored your tears?

Aundi: Yeah, how do I do that? I think to me, really the first thing first has always been having to be able to find some places where I could receive some safety, receive some care. I think that has helped me build an internal safe base. And in the times when that internal base feels shaky, it’s almost like going back to the places where I can be cared for, where I can be seen, where it’s not about what I achieve or any of the things, the hustle, any of those things, but the essence of who I am is honored that safety, that very, that to me is where I always go back to those things that they feel so basic, but it’s always the basic things that really build us, because if we try to go to step five when we’re on step one, we won’t be able to move forward.

Dan: Such humility. Yes.

Aundi: So I go to step one a lot. I really do. Again, this is why I love body work because to me, the body is just, we can get a little bit more clear. I feel like it’s like there’s all these other things and that’s valid and important, and as I am able, I can get there. I can build up to those things. But yeah, I mean getting outside. Basic things. Like I do… so I’m sure you guys are familiar with grounding, but I do so much grounding and orienting and bringing myself to the present, allowing myself to really partake in things that make me feel comforted, help me to feel good.

Dan: So your tears lovely, lovely, compelling. Has there always been a friendship with your tears?

Aundi: I think that I used to probably feel some shame with that. I’ve always been a deep feeler. I’m highly sensitive, but I used to be a lot better at suppressing my emotion. I mean, I used to be pretty good at it, I think. And the more integrated I am, the more when I talk about my story, the tears are there. And I still feel, I mean, not every time, and I feel pretty online neurobiologically when I talk, but it’s like it. It’s like saying, “I see you,” to myself. It’s like a way of saying to all my parts, yes, I’m speaking on behalf of our story, and this is worthy honor. And so the tears for me, I have grown a lot in my own self-compassion because I think it’s really normal for people who have felt shamed for their emotion when they feel emotion to feel shame. And so I think that especially in the last, I would say seven to eight years, my own ability to just witness that in myself and just to acknowledge yes, that brings up some emotion for me. And that’s okay.

Dan: I had a conversation earlier today with a lovely friend, and as he was speaking, tears came and I could see just this desire, movement, physically to brush, the idea of letting tears linger. Not that they should fall off your chin, but nonetheless could they. And we came back just in conversation to this passage of Psalm 56 and starting with verse 8, you keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in a bottle, and they are recorded each one in a book. And that notion of recording is not just tears on September 23rd, blah, blah, blah. It’s, they are named. It’s one of the few places where you have the reality that he names the stars. And this is a very strong implication as well. He names each and every tear. So every tear, I mean, I don’t want to be ridiculous, but that tear is George and that tear is Stephanie and et cetera. And in its recording, there is a sense in which the tear collector holds our suffering. And Rachael, you’ve talked about this many times with regard to Romans 8, that the Spirit prays for us in language we can’t comprehend. But that whole notion then of your sorrow, Aundi, is it’s really big and somehow it’s been held certainly by the living God, but you have somehow come to hold your own suffering in a way that feels like it’s likely so much more honoring, so much more carefully bottled, like a compelling perfume, but also that your tears have names. Does all that strike you as…

Aundi: Yeah, I think it’s beautiful. And to me, I think it really touches into, I mean, certainly part of my story is at times faith being weaponized against me as a trauma survivor for all the ways that I couldn’t pray or just muscle or white knuckle my way out of complex trauma. And so that’s certainly been, it has not always been this clear resource I’ve had to fight, I would say, for my faith. But I’ve also would say that God has fought for me. And I think it’s a beautiful picture of God’s heart for us. And I think this idea, Psalm 23 has been a really precious Psalm to me. And just the language of God tending to us that the way the nearness, the particularities of God caring for us, even though we have to go through the valley of the shadow. And so I think it’s really powerful to know. I do feel that, that God has always helped me, that the true thing is that that has always been God’s heart. I have not always been able to see that. I not always experience that, but I believe that to be true. And I think a lot of the heart, especially, I mean both of my books, but especially Try Softer, that one of the premises is that in the same way that God is deeply compassionate to us, we are invited to steward that profound compassion to ourselves. It’s like that’s the river that does not run dry. And it’s like, if I can get some of that compassion, if I can steer that in my direction and help sort of deliver that, like a cool drink of water to the parts of myself who are so parched, who are so dry, who are so exhausted, and to say, here, you get to drink too. And to me, that’s healing. That’s what it looks like to participate in healing.

Dan: I really wish we had much more time because what I also want to eventually ask, maybe we would humble enough to receive the gift of your presence again, but the question of water is so strong, but it’s also obviously life-giving, but it’s also freaking terrifying.

Aundi: It is. It’s the paradox. And they love the fullness of the metaphor that there’s all these things and that the thing, the goodness of God is that we can both survive. We can adapt and survive, right? Water adapts to survive, whether that be ice to vapor to liquid, but also that there is something deeply life-giving. We can’t even exist without it. And I am forever drawn to water and the metaphors of water and the ways that Jesus is the living water, and how deeply this speaks to something in us that is so essential to our humanity. And I think as I continue in my own journey, I continue to, I don’t know, just get a little bit of delight from seeing how these things that have been true for all time, who hasn’t known that water is essential, but I get delight out of seeing how that continues to be true.

Rachael: It reminds me of Bruce Lee’s “Be Water”. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the book that his daughter actually wrote of this, but just, I mean, obviously a little bit of a different philosophical stance, but just that sense of be water. my friend,

Aundi: I love Lao Tzu, probably similar philosophical. He has a quote that says, “What is soft is strong.” And that for me was the bridge a little bit between Try Softer and Strong Like Water and how those things beautifully, paradoxically actually fit together.

Dan: Well, there is again, another way to come back to this description. There is such a life giving, open presence in someone who knows paradox, and in one sense, not just wields it, but submits to the playful paradox of what you have written. So I do hope that our listeners have a sense of what a remarkable and lovely, and yet with great cost and with great tears of what it has taken for you to come back to yourself, to leave, but to come back. But as well in that what it invites for us all is something, again, of the promise of that deep, deep, deep, deep conviction. There is a place for healing. And I feel like you have done that so exceedingly well that I want our audience to partake of that water. So thank you. Thank you for joining us.

Rachael: Yeah, thank you so much.

Aundi: Thank you. Thank you both for what you’ve shared. It’s really an honor to hold this space with you.