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.
Have you ever had the experience of being in a conversation with someone and something happens... you feel hurt or confused... then, without you saying anything at all... the other person notices that something happened for you and asks you about it?
Today I'm writing about another aspect of attunement - Responsiveness
There's many ways in which responsiveness happens. And when there is presence and contact and reflection already, it happens naturally. But this is the part of attunement that looks the most like doing something so I want to talk about this.
Responsiveness is particular.
It is different than anticipating needs.
Responsiveness and anticipating needs can work together but they are not the same thing.
Responsiveness happens in the moment when you are genuinely taking in another person - seeing their face, hearing their voice. Your response is to them - how they actually are in that moment... not your idea of them.
Anticipating needs is more of an idea of them... based either on your past experience of them or on how you yourself might feel in their shoes. This can lead to a disconnect if you aren't really seeing them in the moment.
Here's an example:
You know your child (spouse, roomate) has had a big day. You anticipate she'll want to curl up with a book and relax once she gets home. You've got a blanket ready, made a fire...
And when she gets home, she's angry and full of energy and wants to go for a vigorous walk...
If you can take her in as she is, and respond to her in the moment - that's attunement.
But wait! Can you do this and not lose touch with yourself and your own needs? Maybe you really wanted to curl up with a book by the fire and now there is all this anger and energy in the room...
How can you attune with each other and respond to each other as you are in that moment?
First Presence - come back to yourself.
Then Contact - really take each other in.
Then Reflection - let yourself be affected by each other...
Then Respond - see what comes to you in the moment...
This is good practice. And challenging! If you get stuck or caught anywhere, come back to the beginning... come back to yourself...come back to presence.
Next week I'll write about Delight! And how important this is in our experience of attunement.
I am here because you see me. How you see me shapes how I am.
Today I'm writing about another aspect of attunement - Reflection
When we are babies, we do not feel separate from our mothers. Our mother reflects our experiences and emotions back to us and this is how we learn about ourselves.
And this continues as we grow and other people respond to us and reflect back what they experience of us, verbally and non verbally.
When these reflections come from an attuned place and are accurate - are true reflections of how we feel and how we are- this is wonderful. We begin to know ourselves more deeply and we feel more known.
But this isn't how it always goes...
When someone isn't perceiving us - isn't present and connected to us - isn't really taking us in.... they still offer a reflection. Only it is a distorted reflection.
This is very disturbing. When your experience of how things feel doesn't match the reflection you receive from another, it can be bewildering. Especially for a young child.
Here's the good news. We are naturally gifted as human beings at offering reflections that are accurate. It's not something we have to effort at.
If we are present with someone, and we really take them in... it happens naturally. And when you experience this kind of reflection yourself, you know it - because you feel met and seen.
You can play with this...
Take a moment to be present with yourself, turn inward for a moment.
Then let your attention move to someone you are with - listen - take them in. Allow how they are and how they feel to affect you.
Then come back to yourself and notice what you notice.
We naturally resonate with each other. We can feel it happen if we pause to notice.
Allowing this to happen is a gift we can offer to one another. And it can be very healing for us too.
Next week... we'll explore Responsiveness...which naturally follows Reflection...