"In a world that lives like a fist
trust is no more than waking
with your hands open."
by Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening
This quote from Mark Nepo's book challenges us to open up to the present moment, to be open to possibilities. "Waking with your hands open" makes sense in the context of an adult who grew up with secure attachment figures, enough resources to focus on being his or her best self, and enough ego strength to fend off the typical hardships that everyone encounters in life. However, finding a balance between opening up to the world and protecting yourself can feel scary to people with a history of trauma.
There are good reasons why we have instincts that tell us to fight, flee, or freeze. Honoring those instincts is a good place to start. They got you through the trauma. But after the trauma is over, your body might not realize it's over, despite what your logic tells you. This is called post-traumatic stress disorder.
The first steps to treating trauma, no matter what treatment model your therapist/counselor is using, is to help you find strategies to communicate to your body (your emotional core, your heart, your feeling parts, your viscera) that you are safe enough in the here and now. Granted, safety is a relative term, and none of us are 100% safe at all times. But if the threat is really over for you, and you are currently relatively safe in your life, maybe it's time to consider living as if that is true. Openness doesn't have to feel scary forever.
"To heal is to touch with love
that which we previously touched with fear. "
by Steven Levine
I have heard many different definitions of "healing" over the years, doing this work. But when I read this quote by Steven Levine, I thought it was one of the best.
The things that we do in order to survive can cause us to hate ourselves, want to cut off that part of ourselves. But what that part really needs is to be held with compassion and acceptance. We are complicated beings, with shifting and changing roles that, as a whole, create who we are.
Being kind to parts of us that are ashamed, revengeful, or needy doesn't mean that we don't address the problems that they cause, or let them off the hook. For example, If a jealous part of us sabotaged a colleague's work project, then we need to accept responsibility at our work place and do the appropriate repair work. However, in order to make that experience useful to ourselves and not repeat the mistake, we need to look inside and be curious about why the jealous part got the leading role in your work day. Why wasn't the responsible, kind, empathic part of you take charge?
Being accepting, loving, curious, and compassionate towards the ugly parts is just the first step in being able to face a problem, rather than avoid, numb, or attack those parts of ourselves.
I have always loved listening to people's stories about their lives. I used to sit at my grandma's kitchen table as a child and listen to her tell me about her own childhood. Sitting on the edge of my seat, I would savor every moment while she shared little details about the color of a favorite dress, or the names of her friends (Grace, Celeste, Merytl were popular in the 1930s. She would be chopping vegetables or setting the table, letting her mind wander around, while her hands stayed busy. My love of hearing about people's lives turned into a career. Listening is a powerful way to connect with someone, and I am lucky to be able to do what I do.
You may be familiar with Story Corps, an independent organization that travels around the U.S. recording real life stories, started in 2003. It's mission is "to preserve and share humanity's stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world." Periodically I look at their website, watch a few stories, usually the stories make me laugh or cry or both. This morning I came across a story about an older couple who shared how they worked together and supported one another. It's a story about persevering and being vulnerable and the power of relationships. We could learn a lot from Larry and Eileen.
I came across this Ted Talk, and thought it provided really sound advice about having a good life:
In case you don't have the 12 minutes and 46 seconds to watch the video right now, I can summarize it by saying the happiest and healthiest people have quality connections to family and friends, and actively nurture those relationships over time, as well as seek out new communities of people to connect with on a regular basis. The director of the study called it "leaning into relationships." Do you have relationships that you can lean in to in your life?
In mid-June Pixar put out with a new film, called Inside Out. It's about an 11-yr-old girl and her parents who move from Minnesota to California, and how the girl's conflicted emotions help her adjust and navigate the changes. Pixar did a wonderful job creating a visual of the way the brain works. Apparently they consulted with neurological scientists to be as accurate as possible. Although the creators left out one primary emotion (surprise), they nailed it with the other primary emotions. I loved the messages about the importance of feeling all of our feelings, not just the positive ones. If you get a chance to see it, I'd love to hear what you thought of it.
A website called Mental Elf posted an interesting article about the rates of PTSD in children who had experienced trauma. The articles reviews a meta-analysis about this topic. (A meta-analysis is when researchers look at all of the studies already done on a particular subject, and then analyze, compare, and summarize all of the studies' findings.) There's been debate over this percentage, depending on the child and the type of trauma. This particular meta-analysis came up with the number 16%, or 1 in 6 children, which they discussed as probably being low. They only looked at kids who met the full criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and didn't account for partial symptoms, or other diagnoses. My interest in this topic stems from clients' questions about why they are struggling with PTSD symptoms, and others who went through similar experiences, are not. Adults, and kids much more directly, ask what is wrong with them. This article shines some light on the fact that we are all wired a little differently, and are sensitive in different ways, to different experiences. The important part to remember is that there isn't anything inherently wrong with you. The same brain architecture or brain hard wiring that make us susceptible to experiencing something traumatic more intensely, can also be a strength and help us heal. That last part is just my professional experience, not based in research.
In about a month I'll be in a new office. Same building, same address, same funky brick floor. Just downstairs on the first floor in a larger room. I love my cozy little office (pictured above), and many of you have commented how the space "just feels good." But I'm feeling like I need to spread out a bit, make more room for art therapy projects and play therapy materials. I'd like to start a therapy group as well. And that stuff just couldn't happen in 110 square feet. So I will look forward to welcoming current and new clients to a new room, which will probably happen around the same time that Spring returns. New starts all around!
Ever feel like you're working against yourself?
I came across this quote the other day (see below), and thought that it highlighted how important it is to pay attention to those internal struggles we all feel. Paying attention to all of the parts of ourselves, all of the different conflicting feelings and thoughts, means that we can negotiate with everyone in our mind. And then the less-heplful parts of ourselves that work against us, can have a voice and be validated. That less-than-helpful part of the self probably had a good reason for being created in the first place. Paying attention to everyone inside of ourselves allows us to pro-actively address those feelings with our strongest, most wise, parts. And the first step is to be aware of them.
"There are many different ideas of “you” in your mind, each with its own agenda. Each of these “you’s” is a member of the committee of the mind. This is why the mind is less like a single mind and more like an unruly throng of people: lots of different voices, with lots of different opinions about what you should do. Some members of the committee are open and honest about the assumptions underlying their central desires. Others are more obscure and devious. This is because each committee member is like a politician, with its own supporters and strategies for satisfying their desires. One of the purposes of meditation is to bring these dealings out into the open, so that you can bring more order to the committee — so that your desires for happiness work less at cross purposes, and more in harmony as you realize that they don’t always have to be in conflict."
by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Is this how you get through the holidays? If not, but you'd like it to be, what's standing in your way? What expectations do you have for the holidays? Where did those expectations come from? What will it mean to meet, or not meet, those expectations? What can you change, remove, or add to make the season more meaningful and calm? Try being curious about these thoughts, without shame and judgement towards yourself or others.
Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche talked about shopping as a "search for security." Sometimes it feels really good to find the "perfect" gift for someone, which can give us the feeling that giving that thing to the person we love will secure the relationship. It might give us a sense of security about relationships if we give or receive things from others. Of course there's nothing wrong with feeling really good about finding a personal gift that holds a lot of meaning. But do you have the time and energy to do that for everyone on your list? After a while, how could we not begin to feel a sense of obligation? And how much stuff do we all need, really?
This holiday season has been especially low-stress for me because my friends and adults in my family have all decided this year that we aren't going to exchange gifts. (The kids will still get some fun stuff.) I felt a little disappointment at first that I wouldn't get to pick out things for the people who I love, but that was quickly replaced by a sigh of relief. I'm excited to just spend the time together.
This season, no matter what holiday you celebrate, consider asking the ones you love what makes the celebration special. See if you can reflect on what holds meaning in your traditions, and make that grow.