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.