Surviving n Thriving

Vulnerability and Trauma

It has been difficult for me to get myself to write lately. I’ve felt like my walls are up. This experience has occurred in concert with working very hard in therapy to dig into my childhood trauma on a deeper level. I feel as though I can only muster so much vulnerability as an individual, and increasing it in one area has unfortunately decreased it in my writing. As I contemplated my experience for today’s #SurvivinggnThriving Tuesday, I pondered the discomfort I’ve had with the word vulnerability, and saw that it is because I associate it with threat. To be vulnerable means to open myself up to possible attack and harm.

What are we afraid will happen to us if we are vulnerable? By and large, I think one “attack” that we might fear is being invalidated. In terms of traumatic experiences, we might be discounted and told that we are remembering things incorrectly. If our memories are factual, we are exaggerating them. If things are really as bad as we say they were, we must have brought it on ourselves. If we were in fact innocent victims, we need to show signs of “healing” like forgiveness and love in order to have our experiences “count.”

While many factors influence the reasons that traumatic experiences—especially those of a sexual nature—tend to get discounted, one aspect that I think stands strong is the fact humans are exquisitely tuned in to each other as social animals. We may be expected to preserve the “tribe” at any and all personal costs. The pressure to conform to the idea that people get what they deserve and to believe that everyone is trying their best can outweigh our willingness to grapple with evil and with the nuance in the nature of human relationships. We may feel a need to trust in authorities such as political leaders, clergy and parents, even when some of the individuals in these places of authority betray their charge.

How can this focus on our place as highly social beings help us in being willing to risk vulnerability, especially when our trauma has come at the hands of other people? As hard as this truth is for me to accept, relationships are a major healing force, perhaps the major healing force from trauma. All of the evidence-based treatments of trauma include an aspect of witnessing, listening, processing, talking, displaying, feeling or in some way being with our past experience of trauma in the presence of a safe and caring individual. A refusal to be vulnerable is likely to serve as an impediment to healing in therapeutic relationships that are “good enough.”

Being vulnerable presents other risks. We may be rejected, judged, criticized, betrayed or humiliated. I’ve shared previously about strategies through which we might discern if another individual or group is worthy of risking vulnerability. There is no gain in allowing ourselves to be mistreated, even if we may sometimes think we can undo the original trauma by defeating it in an adult form. Nothing feels more like failure to me than realizing I’ve been “sucked in” to an adult relationship that mimics an aspect of my childhood trauma, having mistaken the familiar for the safe.

What, though, can we do if we know deep down that we are in a safe relational space, but our walls are still up? I’m still terrified of having unpleasant reactions to my blogs, but honestly thus far *knocks on wood* I’ve had really kind and supportive readers. In parallel, in many offline areas of my life where I’ve taken risks, I’ve expected to be attacked and instead found acceptance. I believe it takes a significantly greater number of experiences of trust to undo a hurt than it takes hurts to break trust. All I can do or any of us can do is to keep trying, knowing this reality. And I believe empathy is vital—for those who have managed to have a lot of safe and loving people in their lives, know that you are indeed privileged and consider offering support instead of incredulity to those of us who may shrink at the first sign of relational conflict.

How have you navigated the terrain of vulnerability? What behaviors do others do that allow you to lower your defenses? How do you find the motivation to open up again after a relational wound?

Embodied Heart

Releasing the Narrative

Everything was planned out. Flying high in an aerial yoga class. Sporting a new haircut, shopping and hitting the town. Sacred ritual and intuitive creativity time. My vacation was going to be epic! About 48 hours into it, “disaster” hit in the form of a positive flu test. Based on the myriad of bodily dysfunction which ensued for the next week and counting, I can safely say I’ve never come down with the actual flu before. All the good times I was going to have, the stories I was going to write into my life experiences, had to be tossed or at least postponed into choppy, disjointed future moments. Building from this experience of having to rewrite the script, for today’s #EmbodiedHeart post, I want to spend some time with the themes of how we narrate our lives, and, in doing so, will focus on telling the story as it is, rather than as it should have been or should be.

I feel confident, likely too confident, that I know the story I would like to tell of my life. The one that would wrap up the loose ends and redeem the broken parts of myself. I feel shame and a desire to hide though, when I start to consider the content of the real story. Not solely because of failures on my part, but also because the deep wounds of my childhood are still ragged and visible to anyone with an eye for such things. I am not healed and all is not forgiven. Justice has not been served.

What harm it does a person, when betrayal throws off any veneer of civility and cracks any illusion of someone being in charge. Especially when the soul-shattering betrayal comes first, not after a long string of snapshots filled with love and protection to build up one’s defenses. I knew from a very young age that no one was going to shield me from pain, and that terrible things happen in the dark.

The themes of my life—meagerness of love, betrayal, self-preservation and reinvention—seem to lend themselves to a never-ending cast of characters. I dig into a relationship, hopeful that it will meet my deeper needs. The inadequacy of it to do so eventually starts to make itself known in the majority of cases. In time, I choose myself over the relationship, and we are on to the next casting session. I will always choose myself in the end, because I have seen time and again the destruction that results from favoring the relationship over one’s wellbeing.

The parts of the chapters I want to highlight and foot-note and dog-ear are the ones where I don’t have to choose; the person with whom I’m in relationship and I are well-suited enough for both of our needs to be met to a substantial degree. For some reason, I continue to expect every new entry, each new buildup of an individual with whom I think there could be a connection, to be worthy of reading and re-reading. But life doesn’t work like that. Sometimes we spend years writing and crossing out the same few lines, thinking that if we just say it right or pause at the correct moment, it will flow perfectly, when in fact that particular association was never going to be worthy of more than a passing mention.

It seems easy in hindsight to want to edit, to go though and delete or redirect entire storylines, but the only way the story can ebb and flow and has any chance of building to a moral or crescendo or at least a worthy conclusion is to recount it as honestly and promptly as we can. In my case, I have fallen far short on this account. I denied the abuse I suffered for a few decades, burying it in the recesses of my mind while attempting to keep my family as a part of my lived experience. I always knew the story wasn’t a pleasant one, but the degree to which there were skeletons in the closet proved quite significant. And, at least at this point, I am the only one interested in cataloging the bones.

Many of my interactions hold this thread. Whether it is (on my part) intellectual arrogance or intuition or both, I tend to believe I can see right through most people I meet to perceive the cracks in the façade they present. The unpressed seam or askewed collar of their narrative glares at me, begging to be noticed. I then wish in earnest for them to tell the story as it actually is, not as their defenses would have it rehearsed, and feel like my efforts are wasted when they repetitively turn the same three pages they’ve convinced themselves are worth reading.

Denial of the nature I faced in my family and through which I had to pierce, once deflated, has proven intolerable. These are the people I want in my storyline—people who see themselves and their situation for what it is, and whose acceptance of it spurs them, as it does me, to both tell the truest story possible of their past and to write into being the most hopeful and evolved version of themselves. To what extent does the metaphor of a narrative connect with how you conceptualize your life experiences? Whose narrative are you proud to recite? What signs let you know someone belongs as a central character in your story? How do you respond with compassion to your own or other’s denial?

Naturally Mindful

Miracle Moments

Cross-posted at my SageWoman blog.

During some intentional inner work time, I pulled the Mother Mary card from the Guidance Guidance Oracle card deck. I felt an aversion to the phrase it contained—“expect a miracle.” My childhood religious training has infused the word miracle with implications of salvation from sin and requirements of faith. My scientific training has added additional complications by creating great skepticism in me as to whether anything can exist that could not ultimately be dissected and analyzed. However, as I reflect upon for today’s #NaturallyMindful Monday, in sitting with that word for a while in meditation and carrying it in the back of my mind throughout the day, I’ve found myself growing in my ability to relate to it from a place of awareness and gratitude.

Unexpected good fortune is one hook with which I’ve caught ahold of the experience of miracle. I had a situation a few weeks ago in which I had a highly charged moment that I thought would be repeated ad nauseum for the next several months. Without any effort on my part, the situation instead resolved itself with a day. I can get caught up easily in the useful fantasy that the only way positive events will occur in my life is if I work very hard to make them happen. The experiences of delight and relief that pepper my pathways when I finally stop striving to create them are blessings indeed.

Instances of serendipity also help me grab onto the concept of a miracle. I’ve been stressing about my dog who is a few years old and may need surgery at some point for his knee condition. Even though he should have a good long time with me yet, I get myself worked up about what it will be like when he ages and passes on. As I pondered this, a random stranger came up to me at a pet store and told me she had a friend whose two Yorkies lived into their mid-20’s! Twenty or more years as a possible outcome was not something I had even considered (and know is highly unusual). But for a second, it felt like Goddess herself was appearing and letting me know that trusting in the moment and allowing life to unfold without a firm sense of where or how each fork in the road will occur is not only a happier choice but also possibly a more realistic one. I wonder how many “angels” I brush past in my rush to control rather than to be present with my fate.

Nature presents herself as a living miracle to me. It has been a “real” winter where I live with lots of snow. The temperature has been creeping upward for a few days recently, even thought the nights are still cold. It only took hours of warmth for me to notice some kind of greenery (probably weeds!) starting to poke through the mulch, as well as some insects to begin to buzz around. What seemed just days ago to be lifeless, decayed and rotted is already unfurling and crawling with movement and hope, as if Goddess in her Nature form is being transfigured from death to life.

What do you think of the word “miracle?” To what extent or in what ways are you able to appreciate it, and where might you feel challenged by it? What blessing and “angels” have appeared in your life?

Goddessing Self Care

Reconciling Compassion and Healthy Boundaries

For today’s #GoddessingSelfCare Sunday, I will be examining what it means to be compassionate within the context of healthy boundaries. Compassion includes feelings of empathy and acting in ways that are caring and kind to others. It does not apply solely to other people, in fact, I believe it has to start with compassion toward ourselves. In this way, self-care and compassion are intimately related.

Compassionate behaviors are habits I am forming, not ones that comes naturally to me. I’ve shared about some of my personal journey in my #Embodied Heart posts. The traumatic experiences I’ve faced, among others, have made it difficult for me to respond with empathy to others, even though I can intellectually see things from different perspectives. I am especially afraid of acting like a martyr or being taken advantage of by others to whom I might offer gentleness. Given my struggles, I felt a desire to determine what it means to be compassionate and to remain boundaried at the same time.

Compassion Antidotes and Their Function

Before I fully explore what it means to be compassionate, I first need to look at what I’ve held in its place inside. In my studies of social psychology, I’ve come across several concepts that can serve to blunt or mute our responses of compassion. These include at minimum hatred, prejudice, self-righteousness, dehumanization, self-importance, greed and detachment. My particular drugs of choice are hatred and self-righteousness.

I have been able to hate with the same intensity with which others love. A part of me is actually proud of the sustained force with which I can hold grudges and feel anger towards certain people. When I sit compassionately with this part of myself, what is revealed to me is that my hostility serves as a yardstick, shoving away any attempt to treat me with disrespect or to humiliate me. Somewhere in me, I believe that if I am filled with sufficient hate, no one can hurt me or take advantage of me. The truth, thought, is that my Inner Being, which is infused with love, is much stronger than any outside individual’s attacks could ever be. No one can possess my soul or the core of who I am, no matter how they treat me. Now I just need to convince the hateful part of me of this truth.

Self-righteousness is especially complicated for me because I was raised in a religion that eschewed even “false humility.” We had to be humble, really humble, and even acting humble wasn’t enough. The odd thing was, there was a lot of arrogance and I-know-best guised in “God told me…” My scientific education has only served to increase my propensity to self-righteousness, because I can quickly pull on my body of knowledge to correct any errors in logic that I perceive when another person is talking with me. A good part of my internal dialogue during conversations with others, especially when they are sharing a struggle, is “shut up, shut up, shut up” not because I doubt myself but because I can tell I am speaking from “I know best” instead of “what do you need right now.” After a few decades of low self-esteem, my high self-confidence is all too happy to make herself known. What self-righteous behavior protects against, at least for me, are feelings of helplessness and uncertainty. I feel a ton of uncertainty about how to fix the things I don’t like in my own life, but I often believe that I have ten solutions at the ready for anyone else who needs help. I have a lot of work to do to form a solid trust that other people know what is best for their own lives and that building them up with a compassion that celebrates their Inner Being is the truest solution of all.

Acts of Compassion That Respect Our Inner Beings

With the ways in which I normally disengage myself from compassion in mind, I turn now to ideas about how to elicit compassionate behaviors. I opened this piece discussing boundaries, but I’m also inspired to conceptually consider Inner Beings as a point of departure. I feel very confident that I am my own best healer, and I am beginning to see that this is true of other people. In this light, choosing actions becomes simpler.

In cases where someone is acting in a way that provokes feelings of hatred in me, I can respond with love. I believe that we each have a responsibility to turn to our own Inner Being first, so I first would need to engage in self-care and seek the wisdom of my Inner Goddess (this behavior would take on different forms, depending on someone’s religion and culture). This would often mean that I would not respond immediately to a provocation but would take my time to soothe myself and remind myself of my worth first. From this empowered and embodied place, I can set boundaries and speak my truth, doing so in a way that broadcasts genuine care for the other person as well as myself, instead of malevolence. If the other person is not treating me in a way that I feel is respectful of my Inner Being, I can speak to them in a way that acknowledges their “best self” in the hopes that they will then access this part of themselves. If this fails, I can stand firm in my expectations that I be treated respectfully and can show them this same respect. As I write this, I realize that I do actually already engage in this behavior in professional settings in terms of how I hold boundaries, but I frequently forget to turn to my own Inner Being and acknowledge myself first. In my personal life, I’ve put minimal effort into doing any of these behaviors. It is much, much easier for me to hate than to love. Recognizing the energy that it takes for me to be compassionate seems like a positive self-care step I can take right now.

In cases where my self-righteous, fix-it-now, and intolerance of incompetence are heightened, I can sit with the part of myself that resists any feelings of helplessness and uncertainty. I can remind myself that other people have access to their own Inner Being who is standing by, ready to help them at any moment. Perhaps, in relating to others who are feeling overwhelmed or indecisive, encouraging them to check in with that part of themselves is wise. In addition, if I do give advice, I need to do so from the place of my Inner Goddess, not from a place motivated by impatience, anxiety, arrogance or frustration. When someone makes a mistake, I need to show them the same kindness I would want to be shown in the situation.

As I write these thoughts, I find myself wondering why other people, in fact, a good number of people with whom I’ve become acquainted, are so much more able to show compassion than I am. As I listen to my Inner Being, I see immediately that I was not shown genuine compassion growing up, likely because my parents did not receive it earlier in their lives either. Within my religious context, compassion came with a huge price tag of self-desecration. In order to be cared for by a higher being, one had to believe that they were scum and unworthy of being loved. I cannot stomach this viewpoint and I think it is a perversion of true compassion. Compassion honors and cherishes; it does not demean and demand a discarding of all parts of self.

Empathy and compassion are likely, at least in part, learned behaviors. If there was no one who taught us how to act in these ways growing up, I suppose we must teach ourselves. With the viewpoint of an Inner Being in each of us, it has become clearer to me as to how to navigate boundaries and needs when engaging in acts of compassion. I believe I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on it. What is your relationship to compassion as well as to compassion “antidotes?” How do you determine how to act in situations that cause you to feel anger or helplessness? What for you represents your “Inner Being” and how do you access this part of yourself and/or Divinity during times of struggle?

Sacred Spiritual Growth

What It Means to Wish

I recently came across an Instagram post with the following quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” I uttered “YES!” and felt vindicated in terms of my focus on planning and doing as opposed to dreaming. I value hard work and dedication to a near-religious fervor and easily feel scorn towards people I perceive as hoping their lives will improve without making any effort towards what they want.

Soon, though, my inner work during ritual revealed a weakness in my thinking. Goals with plans are indeed more likely to be accomplished, but is the entire point of life to dust off a display case of successes? Is showing ourselves steady and reliable the only virtue on which we should focus? For today’s #SacredSpiritualGrowth Saturday, I will be exploring what it means to allow ourselves to mentalize beyond what seems in our grasp, and how this broadening of our thinking, coupled with dedication, can propel us into previously unimagined places on our spiritual journey.

Hope, Trauma and Inner Visioning

Dreaming big often evokes emotions I’d rather not accept or admit to having, including desire, yearning and a sense of vulnerability. If I don’t really want anything that I cannot accomplish in a straightforward manner, and I do not long for things that I historically have been unable to achieve, I will no longer feel disappointment. Or, so goes in my inner reasoning. The reality is that my life can end up feeling flat, empty and unfulfilled nonetheless.

Traumatic experiences, especially those that occur during young childhood as mine did, can cause a devastating loss of hope. I’ve often felt that, in regards to myself and people like me, we have solved a terrible riddle, the answer to which only we are privy—“why do bad things happen to good people?” “Because there is no real justice in this life or any other.” I see myself with the innocent childhood belief in basic trust and connection to the outside world irreparably damaged a few short years into my life. I don’t believe in karma; I don’t believe in family loyalty; I don’t believe we get what we deserve. From this framework, within which I still exist, it has been extremely challenging for me to do more than survive and get by. Thriving has felt like something that others get to do if they are lucky—a level of existence from which I’m exiled.

The profound shift that occurred after my inner work in which I pulled a “dreamseed” card from my Soulful Woman Guidance Card deck was that I realized I can create a vision of myself that does not solely rely on my current reality as its basis. There is nothing stopping me from doing so aside from my own fear of failure and disappointment, and the harsh internalized criticisms of my youth.

Creating the Dream

Where my internal processing led me was to write out a vision of myself. I instantly contemplated an elaborate vision-board but the personal growth I’ve experienced through writing led me instead to a word-based mentalization. I incorporated a focus on the following areas:

  • Who I Am Becoming, including my:
    • Physical Being
    • Thoughts
    • Emotions
    • Behaviors
  • How I Will Spend My Time
  • What Qualities My Relationships Will Espouse
  • What Characteristics My Environment Will Hold

I held nothing back in terms of exactly what I want my life to be, in other words, I did not use my present experiences and place in life as the basis for my vision. I wrote mostly in generalizations as I believe life and fate will fill in the detail for me. I then put in bold typeface all the sentences that feel “aspirational,” meaning I have work to do in order for them to be realized in my life. I already have a list of goals on which I am working, so I am now incorporating aspects of my vision into practical steps I can take to manifest my intentions. I continue to return to the concept of self-compassion as a core principle that must underlie my undertaking. It is possible I will feel just as far from some areas as I am today when I re-evaluate my progress as the end of the year, but I believe simply having an articulated statement of “this is who I want to be” will inspire additional growth and insight.

I feel embarrassed by the judgment I’ve held in the past towards others and towards parts of myself who might want things that do not seem possible. I see now that I’ve been allowing some of my potential as a person to lie untapped because I was fearful of failure and of the bitter pain of disappointment. Dreams and visions are not just for the mystics; they can inspire each of us to become the most evolved versions of ourselves to which we have access in this life.

What is your experience of creating dreams and desires for yourself? What is the relationship between planning, goal-setting and inner vision in your life? What holds you back from dreaming big, and what allows you to open yourself to possibility?