Have you ever had an experience when you can tell that the emotional reaction you are having is bigger than it needs to be in relation to what’s actually happening in the present moment?
You feel a sudden burst of strong emotion like anger or fear or bewilderment… Your body is having strong sensations like a racing heart or you feel like all the blood drains out of your limbs… you have a strong impulse to get away or lash out or go to sleep… And all that happened is your boss told you they wanted to talk to you… Or you just drove by your ex’s house… or maybe you are not really sure what happened but the feeling is strong and sudden.
Many people call this being ‘triggered”. But what exactly is going on when this happens?
What is going on in these moments, is that you are having an implicit memory.
Let me explain…
An implicit memory is a body memory. It’s not the kind of memory where you remember what happened in the past and you know you are remembering something from the past.
Implicit memory is when the feelings and emotions from an past experience arise and you are feeling it all NOW. It doesn’t feel like a memory, it’s is just what you feel right now in reaction to what is happening right now and the feeling is strong and all consuming…
And while the feeling probably has some relationship to what’s going on presently, it is primarily a body-based memory from some un-integrated trauma from the past.
We are encoding implicit memory all the time below the level of our awareness. Most of our experiences are being processed and integrated into our overall brain throughout each day. But when we have an experience that is traumatic, meaning it can’t be processed at the time because we are too scared or hurt or confused and we don’t have anyone to support us… then our brains do an amazing thing to protect us…
Since we can’t live day after day with such a strong feeling of fear or rage or confusion… our brains isolate the implicit feeling, including the body sensations and impulses, emotional state, and thoughts into a single neural net and tuck it away inside, separate it from the rest of our brain. This way we can continue to function okay and not be swamped by this overwhelming feeling all the time.
And our system holds this implicit memory inside waiting for an opportunity, when conditions are right, to integrate it, so we can be more whole again.
In the meantime, this isolated neural net affects our lives. Anything that reminds us of this experience, a certain look on someone’s face, a certain smell, a tone of voice, it could be any number of things… and this neural net opens and we are ‘triggered’.
The old feeling arises and we are totally in it, feeling exactly the same fear or anger or confusion we had way back when the original trauma happened. We are having the same body sensations and impulses to get away or lash out or shut down that we had then. The same kinds of racing thoughts or the way our mind goes blank, just like it did it did back then.
This implicit memory has been locked away like a time capsule and when it opens it’s suddenly all there again as if no time has passed at all.
This is really awful when it happens, and a lot of our internal energy has to go towards trying to keep this kind of implicit memory from opening up. We may have to stay away from certain kinds of experiences, people, and places because those kind of things may open it all up again and we can’t handle it…
When these memories arise, they can stop us in our tracks, or hurt our relationships, or lead us into having the same kind of negative experience again and again. It’s not enough to try to keep these implicit feelings from opening up. To heal, we need to integrate the original experience so it isn’t so isolated anymore inside. And this integration can happen even if we aren’t sure exactly what the original trauma was about… just by working with the implicit feeling itself.
I want to pause for a moment and acknowledge that just reading about this may have stirred up some implicit memories in you. If so, I want to offer a practice of gentleness.
I invite you to pause and turn your attention inward. Place one hand on your heart and one hand on your belly. And breathe. Together, let’s bring some gentleness to your body and to whatever you are experiencing right now. Let’s hold this feeling with care.
Also, here is a link to an audio version of the Pause and Feel practice. Please feel free to use it and share it with friends and family.
We all experience fear. Fear exists to help keep us safe. But often fear stops us... limits us... and we get stuck. Even immobilized.
When we feel fear, we have perceived (often on a level beneath our conscious awareness) some signal of danger or difficulty. Our nervous system shifts into sympathetic activation (flight/flight) and this radically changes our perceptions and the way our brain is operating.
If there is an emergency in the present moment, this works incredibly well. Our bodies surge with adrenaline, our muscles activate to take action, our senses focus in on the source of the danger and we can do things we can not normally do.
When the difficulty is more subtle or diffuse or goes on over a long period of time, we need a more whole brain approach.
Let’s say you are unhappy at your job and you want to find a different one… or maybe start your own business. Every time you have a negative interaction at work, or become aware of how stressed you are, your nervous system registers danger and likely goes into a fight/flight state. You want to take action but it isn’t immediately clear what action to take. You don’t want to just quit and not have an income. You’re too stressed from work to look for another job and your confidence is shaken. You may go on like this for a long time with no solution or movement. So you find yourself surging with anger and frustration and then shutting down because there’s no immediate solution. Your mind spins around and around with the same thoughts and feelings until you are so worn out that you just veg out and go numb for a while.
This is just an example. This kind of thing can happen for all kinds of reasons and in all kinds of different circumstances. It’s a basic pattern in your nervous system.
There’s danger of some sort and there isn’t some simple, single action to fix it. Your nervous system goes into a fight/flight state. Your mind goes around and around seeking a solution that doesn’t create more danger, often revisiting the same one or two possibilities over and over. You imagine they won’t work or you're too scared to act on them and your mind visits them over and over and over. After a while, your nervous system goes into shut down mode (dorsal vagal)... you go numb and try to just get by.
This pattern can go on for a long, long time. How can we get out of it?
Often we try to force our way out of it, shove the fear aside and take action anyway. Sometimes this works well. But if the action needed is complicated and needs to be sustained over time (like searching for and applying to and interviewing for multiple jobs), this strategy is hard to maintain and can leave us exhausted and shut down and right back in the same pattern of forcing action (fight/flight) and collapsing in a shut down (dorsal vagal).
I want to offer an practice that is designed to help you discover a different pattern in your nervous system than the cycle of fight/flight then collapse that so many of us experience when fear arises.
The idea is to see if you can access the most regulated part of our nervous system (called ventral vagal) and so access more options besides the one or two you’ve gone over again and again. When we have more access to ventral vagal, we have more access to our whole brain. One of the ways to access this part of our nervous system is to tap into the experience of spaciousness.
Check in with your body and your internal experience. If you are feeling a big emotion, or have thoughts that are spinning around and around, see if you can feel the sensations that are happening in your body. Is there an area of your body that feels tight? Do you feel like you are bracing yourself? You may notice many different feelings happening at once. It’s less important to name them and most important to feel them.
We’re not trying to stop the feeling or change it. We’re not trying to figure out how to act on it and fix our problem. We’re simply noticing and feeling it and letting it be here.
When you feel in touch with the big feeling and have some sense of how it is living in your body, see if you can make room for this feeling to fully be here. Allow the feeling to be as big as it is.
Sometimes the suggestion to allow the feeling to be as big as it is brings up fear. If so, see if you can make room for that fear to be here too. Any new feeling that arises, let's make room for that too.
Imagine there is space around what you are feeling. Imagine that space is getting bigger and bigger… as big as it needs to be to let this feeling be here and still have a sense of spaciousness around it.
One traditional image is of taking the raging bull of your mind and emotions and placing it in a huge open field. It can buck and snort and run around wildly and there’s no problem. There’s plenty of room.
Another traditional imagine is of a vast open sky. Whatever you are feeling, there is also the vast sky above and all around you.
Perhaps another image arises for you. If so, work with your own image. Or it may not be an image at all, but more of a felt sense of lots of space for your big feeling to be here. However you experience it, you are doing it right.
Stay with this, feeling what you feel within a vast space as long as feels right to you.
When you are ready, let it go and gradually come back into the room. Open your senses and hear what you hear, feel what you feel, see what you see. Notice anything that feels different in your body, your emotions, your thoughts.
Repeat this practice as often as you like when you feel fear or any other big emotion.
If we can have the experience of feeling some spaciousness while we are caught in fear, even if it's just a tiny bit of spaciousness, this helps us access the most regulated part of our nervous system, ventral vagal.
When we have access to this part of ourselves, we have access to much more of our brain... we can think more spaciously, we notice things we don't notice when we're in fight/flight, we are more able to see the whole picture and new thoughts have room to emerge instead of the same ones over and over.
If this practice resonates for you, try it... maybe more than once (It's not easy to do at first).
Sometimes it’s hard to do this alone. The feeling may be too overwhelming. If this happens for you, it's totally normal. Some feelings are so big and so old that we need to have the support of another person holding space for us.
If you have questions or want to share something about your experience, I'd love to hear from you.
Also, here is a link to an audio version of this practice. Please feel free to use it and share it with friends and family.
Last week I wrote about how we have to feel to heal. Our implicit memories, those strong feelings often experienced as being 'triggered', have to be open and felt to be integrated.
This is why leaning in to these difficult emotions is so important for healing.
But having them open up and feeling them is not enough all by itself for healing to happen.
If we are feeling them and everything seems to be just how it was when the original pain occurred, that isn't healing. It's re-traumatizing.
Something needs to be different. Something needs to feel different. And that difference is the key to integration and true healing.
It could be as simple and profound as feeling like another person really understands your experience.
Or that someone actually stays with you and cares for you when you feel those feelings.
Something different that wasn't part of the original trauma needs to be experienced.
This is called a dis-confirming experience.
Here's how it works and why it's so important...
When these implicit memories open up, the way you felt then is how you are feeling now - exactly the same.
And that younger (and sometimes very young) part of you has certain expectations of what things will be like and how they will feel. And it's much deeper than a thought or belief. It is an embodied expectation - it happens on the level of your body.
We may expect to be abandoned or shamed or dismissed or ignored or punished...
And if this embodied expectation has the embodied experience of something different - someone stays with us, someone listens and understands, someone acknowledges our experience and makes room for it....
When this happens, something really new enters into this old, isolated experience. And it begins to connect with other parts of our brain - to integrate.
Sometimes it integrates a little. Sometimes a lot.
Usually we need to have a dis-confirming experience more than once - we need to have it often enough to begin to feel it is reliable.
Now it would seem that having a dis-confirming experience would feel good. And sometimes it does.
But often when it happens, we feel wary, confused, disoriented... and we may not be able to fully take it in right away. It can feel quite bewildering or even scary.
Even so, every time this happens, we integrate and heal a little bit more.
Last week I wrote about how we develop internal protectors to keep old, implicit feelings from arising and overwhelming us.
And we need this. Until we find ourselves ready to heal and integrate that trauma.When we have enough inner strength and outer support in our present life, something different begins to happen. And it can be very confusing.
When conditions are supportive and the time is right, our bodies and minds will bring these old feelings up, even if there isn't all that much happening in our present world to 'trigger' it.
Because these implicit memories that have been isolated inside need to open to be healed. And we know they are open because we feel the feelings now.
And they don't feel like the past.
We feel it now - vivid and raw.
And usually it feels like we have fallen back into an old place of fear or depression or anxiety that we have worked so hard to stay out of... it feels like going backwards in our healing... like backsliding.
But it isn't. It is necessary for our healing and integration.
We can't integrate these isolated neural nets unless they open up. So just talking about it or analyzing it or coming up with better ways to cope is not enough to actually heal us.
We need to feel to heal.
These strong implicit feelings arise for two reasons.
Sometimes they arise because something in the present moment is similar enough to the original trauma that they get woken up. A smell (like a hospital for me) can be enough... A certain phrase or tone of voice... Anything that feels implicitly similar can open it up. Often people call this being 'triggered'. And we try to avoid it.
But every time these feelings arise, it is a precious opportunity to integrate. Remember that integration can not happen unless it opens up.
Without enough support, an experience like this can be re-traumatizing - so we try to avoid this for a very good reason.
But if enough support and safety is present - this is how we can heal. It's the only time we can heal.
And so sometimes these old implicit feelings arise because we have enough support and safety present. Because our systems recognize this as the opportunity we've been waiting for and working toward and conditions are just right for healing.
And it confusing because we feel we are backsliding, moving backwards, losing control...
If you find yourself feeling this way - lean into your support people. Lean into anyone - including animals and nature - that gives you a feeling of support or accompaniment.
We have to feel to heal. You are not doing it wrong.
Most of us have some form of reactivity we wish we didn’t have.
We get frustrated and yell at our kids. Or we can’t stop eating things that aren’t good for us. Or we push others away right when we need the most support…
And no matter how hard we try to stop doing these things, if we are stressed enough, the same old reactivity returns.
It can feel like we failed. Or that we have no discipline. But there is something deeper going on here…
Last week I wrote about how trauma of any variety creates isolated neural nets in our minds. This protects us from being overwhelmed by the strong feelings that could not be integrated yet. And these isolated traumas wait for the conditions to be right for healing/ integration to happen.
When this happens, we are a bit less whole.
When we can’t integrate these difficult experiences, we need protection. So an amazing thing happens. We develop inner protectors.
These protectors come in countless forms:
Lashing out, shutting down, over-eating, under-eating, people pleasing, staying super busy, sarcasm, spacing out…. and so many more….
Our protectors serve us in two ways:
They protect us from the outside - from similar dangers arising in the world. So we might recognize them and protect ourselves. This is very important. And it can also be confusing because sometimes our implicit world perceives things inaccurately in it’s fear. It actually can be very hard to tell what is what…
They also protect us from the inside. They keep us away from strong, unintegrated feelings that could overwhelm us and make it so we couldn’t keep functioning in our lives.
Sometimes we are no longer in the kind of danger we used to be in, but our protectors are still keeping us from the full force of those implicit feelings. And we need this.
This is why gentleness in our healing process is so important.
Often when our protectors arise, especially the ones we don’t like, we want to get rid of them. We tell them we don’t need them anymore. We may even try to trick them.
This doesn’t work very well. Usually they just come back stronger.
Of course they do! They are trying to protect you. And if they are still here - on some level you still need them.
What I’ve found in my work and also in my own process is this:
If we can honor our protectors…really get to know them and truly appreciate what they have been doing for us all these years…amazing things begin to happen…
Sometimes protectors relax and take a much needed rest - still ready if we need them. Often our protectors keep doing their jobs but gain a discernment and sophistication they didn’t have before.
And we are no longer fighting with ourselves.
I have found this shift - from fighting protectors to knowing and appreciating them - to be one of the most powerful shifts in the healing process.
So the next time you find yourself caught in reactivity, see if you can pause. See if you can bring some curiosity to yourself. How is this protecting you, right now?
And remember gentleness.
Most of us have certain feelings that arise again and again.
The same old fear. The same old frozen feeling. The same old anger. The same old feeling invisible. The same old confusion and bewilderment.
So we try to get over our fear... or control our temper... or find our voice... or make a huge effort to get ourselves together in some way.
Each time one of these familiar feelings arrives - it is real and intense and strong. We can't will it away...
There's a reason why this happens - and it happens to all of us in one way or the other.
It has to do with what happens in our minds and nervous systems when something that scares us or hurts us happens - and we don't have the support we need to integrate the experience.
When we have this kind of traumatic experience, particular feelings arise... confusion, fear, rage... feeling trapped, invisible, alone...the natural and particular feelings that come up in response to a scary or hurtful experience.
We humans are very resilient. If we have a caring person to be with us, we can integrate a lot.
But if we don't have that caring person... especially when we are very young...the feelings can overwhelm us and make it hard for us to function.
So our minds do something quite brilliant. The embodied, implicit memories of these traumas and overwhelming feelings get isolated and separated from the rest of our nervous systems. This means we can go on and not have these feelings overwhelming us all the time. This is called an isolated neural net. It's a brilliant way to get us through...
But these isolated neural nets can be opened up...often when something happens that seems somehow similar to the original trauma...and when this happens, the original feelings take us over and we once again feel the fear, anger, confusion, trapped or invisible or whatever feeling was there - with the full intensity of the original trauma. And the feeling is here NOW. It doesn''t feel like a memory. And in that moment it is all there is... we've lost access to the rest of our mind - literally.
Some people call this being triggered. I prefer to recognize that this is a trauma being touched and awoken. It's a difficult and confusing and sometimes embarrassing experience. But it is also a precious opportunity to heal and integrate (more on this in the coming weeks).
Next week, I'll be writing about how our minds respond over time to these isolated neural nets and develop ways of coping with it and protecting them. I find this information super helpful in understanding why we do the things we do...
I hear this question a lot:
"I've been working on myself for so long... why am I feeling the same old ways and doing the same old things?"
Many of us have been in a personal healing process for long enough to have discovered that we only have the power to work with our own ‘stuff’. We can’t change others, so we begin to focus on improving ourselves.
We look inward and reflect on our experiences and on feedback we’ve gotten from others. We explore different lenses to look at ourselves, our personality type, our attachment type, our love language, etc… At first this is so helpful and eye opening. We begin to understand ourselves in a new way. We get accustomed to looking at ourselves instead of blaming others.
Often, once we’ve figured out how we fit in these categories, we are encouraged to change our behavior, or to ask others to change their behavior to better suit our needs. This can be supportive and helpful for a while. But we usually hit a point where it doesn’t feel like we are really getting there.
For example, you may learn you fit into the category of ambivalent attachment and you have a tendency to cling to people and fear they will leave you. So you try not to cling. And it creates a tremendous amount of tension in your being. And a lot of times you can’t do it and you cling anyway and then feel like a failure…
Or maybe you tend to lose your temper with your kids or your spouse… and you’ve tried to stop doing that and it just keeps happening… and you feel like a terrible person…
Or maybe you get stuck in a place where you just can’t seem to keep any momentum, you get lost in distraction and you can’t get things done. You write lists and push yourself but seem to end up in the same stuck place…even after all the work you’ve done with this pattern…
If you’ve had this kind of experience where you’ve tried to change your behavior and failed, again and again, I’m here to tell you that you are not a failure.
Changing your behavior is not how healing happens.
Changing our behavior may helps us cope a little better or even a lot better, but it rarely leads to true healing. And it takes a tremendous amount of energy to keep up.
In the coming weeks, I’m going to be writing about how real, lasting healing does happen. The kind that naturally changes our behavior without an effort of will.
And on March 23 I’m giving a public talk about it called How We Heal.
In a couple of months, on March 23rd, I'll be giving a talk about Interpersonal Neurobiology called How we Heal.
One of the most confusing things about this process is that we have to feel to heal.
When we have experiences that we need to heal from - those feelings and experiences get hidden away inside so we can keep going with our lives.
We learn very precise ways to cope with this - we develop all kinds of ways to keep these feelings from being touched and awakened and overwhelming us.
Our whole lives there can be the feeling that this place inside is a place we don't go. We do everything we can not to feel that way.
So when our lives become more supported and we have the resources we need to heal, a huge shift begins to happen.
These feelings start to arise MORE often. The least little thing seems to open up these raw feelings and we wonder 'what is wrong me?'. It feels like moving backwards...
The thing is - in order for these experiences to heal - they have to open up. They can't re-weave themselves when they are closed and hidden away.
And we know these neural nets are open when we feel these strong emotions and sensations.
But it's not enough for them just to open up and be felt.
If we open up and have the same kind of experience of aloneness or being shamed or misunderstood or ignored that we always had... this isn't healing. It's re-traumatizing.
What is healing is when these tender places inside open up and are met, unexpectedly, with care and companionship and interest and understanding.
This kind of experience, especially when is happens again and again and begins to feel reliable, truly re-weaves the connections in our nervous systems.
And amazing things can happen.
I'll be sharing more about this during the talk on March 23rd. And more about how this process feels in real life. I hope you can join me.
Have you ever had the experience of someone's eyes lighting up when they see you?
You didn't do anything - weren't being particularly wonderful or entertaining - you just showed up and they were delighted?
When you have a real connection with someone - genuine attunement - delight is the natural result.
And here's something I think is important about this:
Delight is a basic need. As human beings, we need to feel delighted in.
Without it, something within us shuts down. We lose a sense of meaning. Life feels dull and we feel alone. It's that important.
And like all things atunement related... delight breeds delight! It's contagious.
Cultivating your capacity for delight is possible and well... delightful!
Here's an example of a practice for cultivating delight in relationships:
This is one I practiced for many years with my children but it can be done in any kind of relationship.
When my kids we little, there was always so much to attend to... diapers, meals, picking up toys endlessly, laundry endlessly...
So I took time each day to pause. To stop doing anything - and just sit quietly and watch them... take them in.
I would try to do this so they didn't notice me and would just continue playing or whatever they were doing. I didn't want them to entertain me... it's like I wanted to catch them just being themselves.
And there would inevitably be some little unexplainable moment - they would do some little thing or interact with each other in a particular way... and my heart would swell...with delight!
These moments of delight kept me nourished during this time when my children needed so much from me. These moments of delight cut through the sleep deprivation and my anxiety about whether or not everyone was going to be ok.
So we come back to the practice of attunement... pause and...
First Presence - come back to yourself.
Then Contact - really take the other in.
Then Reflection - let yourself be affected by the other...
Then Respond - see what comes to you in the moment...
Then see if Delight arises...
Delight can't be forced or coerced. It can't be manufactured. If we give it room with this kind of practice - it comes on it's own!
I was thinking about responsiveness and how real, attuned responsiveness happens in the moment...
It isn't planned and it isn't a technique...
And I remembered something that happened years ago when my son had a fever.
My son has always had lucid dreams. As a child, he didn't have nightmares because if the dream got scary - he would change it. Unless he had a fever.
When he had a fever, he couldn't control his dreams anymore and had really bad nightmares and hallucinations.
One day he was home sick with a fever and was resting on the couch. I was in the kitchen doing some dishes, when suddenly he called to me in a panicked voice...
He was genuinely terrified. He was pointing off towards the wall where he clearly saw something terrible and frightening.
"Make them go away!" he screamed.
Now, part of me wanted to say "Now honey, there's nothing there. You're sick with a fever. You're safe. etc etc...."
Then I looked at his face and saw his fear. My whole body responded.
I turned to the wall and with a fierce intensity I waved my arms at the invisible monsters and yelled...
My son immediately relaxed, closed his eyes, said "thank you" to me very sweetly... and went back to sleep...
I felt like a super hero!
And also, part of me wondered if that was ok - it didn't seem like a very grown-up response... but it eased his fear... and that seemed enough.
I couldn't have planned my response. It was based on my sense of what he needed in that moment. Real responsiveness is often unexpected and unexplainable.
And I'm noticing that right now, as I remember that moment, what I feel most is aliveness.
And also, delight... which I will write more about next week - how it arises naturally through the dance of attunement.