Inner Work

Approaching Our Fears

Cross-posted on my Sagewoman blog.

For today’s #InnerWork Wednesday, I will be uncovering some of the psychology behind “facing your fears” and discussing how we can incorporate Goddess Spirituality into this experience. The topic is timely for me as I will be getting MRI testing in the next few weeks and am concerned about how it will go for me. I saw the machine in person and have been feeling anxious imagining myself undergoing the process.

Children often shrink back from new stimuli. They question their safety in the presence of the unknown. As adults, we are tasked with gently guiding them in approaching things that may seem scary but which are actually benign. Unfortunately, many of us as children did not receive a hand on our shoulder, bolstering us to take small steps. Instead, we may have been chided, slapped, ridiculed, abandoned or worse when we expressed fear. Subsequently, we may struggle in adulthood to approach that which scares us. (I will pause to note here that susceptibility to anxiety is also heritable, so some of us have a biological makeup that predisposes us to fear-based reactions).

Moving towards things that are frightening but which we know are not inherently dangerous acts in opposition to the avoidance behavior that maintains anxiety. The more we avoid things, the more we teach our inner little self that we should in fact be scared and that we aren’t safe. Taking incremental steps forward, especially in the presence of a supportive and kind individual, can radically alter our relationship with fear.

In approaching feared scenarios, the typical rehearsal of imagining every potential catastrophic result can be replaced with small approximations of the situation. For instance, in preparing for my upcoming MRI, I’ve closed off an area in my house to create a small corridor and laid in it while listening to audio of MRI sounds. My confidence has grown as I’ve gotten near my threshold of panic and stayed there with it until it subsided. I’ve also had a few moment of hysterical laughing as my dog tried to “rescue” me from the tunnel!

Where these psychologically-grounded behaviors can break down for me personally is that, when confronted with certain stressors, I lose the adult me. I am all little self, terrified of the situation and convinced I cannot make it through it. When I’ve had social support to which I am able to connect in these instances, I do much better. Approach is sometimes possible with a steady hand on my shoulder, voicing belief in my capacity to befriend that which terrifies me.

What do we do, though, in instances where we are alone or when we are having difficulty accessing another’s compassion? In this place I am, let’s say, in the experimental phase as I have not forged a rock-solid connection between my Inner Being and my little self. My primary approach, if the situation is predicable or repeated, is to stay present with my inner child and to, if my capacity in the moment gets thwarted, return to Self as quickly as possible. Behaviors such as maintaining a steady breathing pattern, slowing down the situation and practicing positive self-talk can assist in this undertaking.

I want to stay connected to Goddess in every moment, even the scary ones. As I mentioned in a recent post, I am taking a forest therapy class. On my first walk, we were instructed to notice things in motion as we progressed slowly down the path. I was suddenly overcome with a sense of being able to take in the entire scene, including us humans walking, and saw that we were in fact moving along with other parts of the forest. I felt deeply connected to Goddess. I think here we have an opportunity for developing a sense of compassionate presence by imagining ourselves, as we go near that which frightens us, being held in the gaze of Deity who is infusing the situation with Her love, caring deeply about our worries and holding all possible outcomes in the palm of Her hand.

We can easily shame ourselves in instances in which we know we’ve been waylaid by anxiety and through which no comfort, support or “adult” seemed present. I believe all we can ask of ourselves is to continue to try again, knowing that at times we’ll fail to follow through as completely as we would have hoped we’d do, and that there may be fears of which we will be unable to get within arms-length. Anyone who scolds you with a “it’s no big deal” when you express hesitation is failing to empathize with you just as completely as you are wanting to avoid. Hearing “I can tell it’s very scary for you. How can I support you in approaching the situation?” from someone is, to me, a clear sign that the individual could be a good candidate for the unwavering presence that we all need as our little selves learn there are now people, including ourselves, who can be trusted to surround us in the all-encompassing grace of Goddess.

Which ways have you found to be the most beneficial in responding to situations that cause you anxiety? To what extent does the conceptualization I’ve shared of little self and adult fit your experience? How do you access your spirituality in anxiety-provoking experiences?

Embodied Heart, Inner Work

Inner Workings: Dissociative Identity Disorder and Childhood Trauma

In today’s #InnerWork/#EmbodiedHeart post, I want to detail the fragmentation that my childhood traumatic experiences caused in my inner world. I have previously explored some aspects of dissociation, but I would like to look in more depth as to how the abusive situations I’ve endured have affected my personality structure. I will then reflect on some of the inner spiritual work which I have personally found to be supportive.

Choose Wisely: Life as an Artificial Appendage or an Object

As I’ve listened to and read about the experience of others who have endured childhood trauma, one theme that has resonated with me is that of there being “no safe place.” This was certainly my experience growing up. My father sexually abused me for several years during my childhood, and my mother, blatantly ignoring the abuse, sought to corrupt my sense of self until I was nothing more than a servile and loyal companion, there to meet her every need. In addition to completely denying both the abuse and her own behavior, she acted as though I should be grateful that she tolerated my presence and allowed me to exist. To her, I was just another body part, completely dependent on her, incapable of my own thoughts, feelings and behaviors. For my father, I was nothing more than a disposable item to be used as he saw fit and discarded when my value was drained. Neither saw me as a person in my own right; truthfully, neither really saw me at all. For whatever it is worth, my view of my parents has been consistent ever since I removed myself from their presence over a decade ago. Whether that is a failure of imagination on my part or a stark snapshot of the realities of my childhood is debatable, perhaps both views hold truth.

What I came to learn about myself within days of breaking contact with them, and what I have not fully elaborated on through this blog until now, is the level of internal disconnection which their behavior caused me. And, I supposed, which I “chose” to engage in, as much as a child of four or five can choose such things. The various behavior states their actions induced, such as the shame-filled being who thinks she is worse than them, or the depressed state who believes all hope is lost, coalesced into shards of selves, entities who are distinct in terms of memory, habit, emotions, cognitive processes and embodied physiology. In other words, I have dissociative identity disorder. I am nervous about sharing this diagnosis, as I have had people close to me react with fear, disbelief, anger and other assorted emotions when I fully elaborate my inner experience. Very few have responded in a way that has left me feeling supported or understood.

I am high-functioning in terms of my professional life and my ability to manage most aspects of my well-being. I have not been institutionalized or required psychotropic medication for my condition (also, there isn’t really medication that directly deals with it anyway). Where I hit a brick wall is in two areas: a. my ability to manage my emotions when faced with significant triggers and b. close interpersonal relationships.

I wrote recently about my issues with my house situation and my hyperacusis. I cannot abide loud noises; they prevent me from being able to fully access my higher-level thinking skills and send me straight into flight or fight, with parts at the helm over whom I can exert only minimal control. In some instances, I can literally feel “myself”—the part whom I view as representing the most “adult” version of who I am—slowly creeping back into my mental horizon the further I drive away from my house if my neighbors are being obnoxious.

In regards to relationships, I’ve come to accept that certain parts of me will have already decided I’m finished interacting with someone months before the rest of me catches wind of the plan. These parts have a trademark; they often share a hand-made gift with the other person. I get nervous whenever I become suddenly “crafty” as I know it is likely portends to a relationship change, even if I have nothing intentionally determined. Shortly before I began to dissolve my contact with my parents, I gave my siblings a personalized gift which I think initiated this behavioral pattern.

In order for an individual’s personality structure to fail to integrate during childhood, psychologists suggest a specific set of criteria must typically be met. First, dissociative identity disorder is specifically linked with trauma during early or perhaps middle childhood, because by the time we become adolescents, our personalities have usually achieved at least a proto-form and, although still highly malleable compared to later in adulthood, they have enough structure that they are unlikely to completely disintegrate into separate “selves.” Secondly, it is typically abuse within the family system that leads to structural dissociation because it is offensive acts coupled with the lack of someone who can assist us in dealing with the trauma that turns the stress level up to “toxic.” Lastly, some people are more able to dissociate than others; it typically requires some amount of creativity, imagination, intelligence and self-induced trancing skill. It is possible that the behavior is or needs to be modeled; I am certain looking back that my mother dissociated on a regular basis.

Dissociative identity disorder as a diagnosis is not without controversy. The irony of coming to awareness regarding having this diagnosis while in graduate school related to psychology, as well as experiencing professionals discount anyone who has it as a farce in front of me, without knowing I had it, is not lost on me. I can present myself as “normal” because I have dissociative identity disorder, not despite it. It is my belief that if someone’s internal system is resilient and skillful, it can choose to reveal itself when the coast is clear, rather than requiring a professional to disassemble it for the person. I will discuss the therapeutic approaches which I found to be the best fit for me in future writing, but, for now, I want to turn to a discussion of spirituality within a context of internal discord and separation.

Spiritual Concepts and Practices to Affirm Fragmented Selves

Individuals without significant dissociation can experience ego states or situations where they may identify what seems like a “part of self.” Some may be able to conceptualize, for instance, an inner child or an angry self. In this way, the beliefs and practices I describe below are potentially accessible to anyone and are not limited to people who have structural dissociation.

If you do in fact have dissociative parts and/or a significant trauma history, I would strongly encourage you to discuss anything below that interests you with your support system/professional therapist before trying to implement it. Our systems have unique ways of reacting to new ideas and experiences which can sometimes be quelled or soothed through carefully examining a concept or practice before we try it on. I once completely lost the ability to feel or inhabit the lower half of my body in a yoga class meditation. There was something in the instructions about imagining a blue light and “leaving behind” that part of the corporal state; I fled the room before my neck and head were “taken!” I say that to urge extreme caution in “forcing” your system into anything it resists; open-door invitations tend to be much more powerful than shoves.

Inner Goddess

I have shared the edges of this topic previously, but here I want to dig into why it matters to me from a dissociative framework. I hold that each of us has an Inner Being, both individually and as a collective entity, who is a rock of stability amidst a bed of shifting sands. We can turn to this Inner Being whenever we are experiencing internal conflict and can take solace in Her ability to emanate wisdom. I use the word emanate because She is not another fragmented part, instead she is the Self of Internal Family Systems Therapy and the Divine Feminine in Goddess thealogy, thus, She does not necessarily speak in an isolated voice but instead infuses all parts of self, through loving attention, with a righted knowing of what the next step will be or what is required in terms of action. My system is still getting used to returning to Her instead of fighting amongst ourselves; some of my most transformative experiences have come through this centering. I use the feminine here because that is my inner working, but I would expect Her to take on whatever form best fits each individual’s needs.

It’s In the Cards

I have found tarot and oracle cards to be a technology through which I can better understand parts of myself and through which I can encourage parts who may be more isolated or stuck to try on a new way of thinking. I often ask a specific question and see what guidance the cards provide. I do not take the answers as black or white decrees. Instead, I listen internally to see what the various selves have to say about their meaning. Sometimes I am able to achieve consensus and sometimes I am still left with disagreements. I have slowly come to accept that internal answers of yes/no, uttered in the same breath, represent a polarization which my system believes is necessary to protect a self of whom I may or may not be aware. Some parts of who I am are highly aesthetically-oriented—even if our artistic skill as a being falls short—so the images that come with the cards have been powerful and can sometimes reach parts of selves in spots where mere words may fail.

Embodied Ritual

A specific challenge that I face as someone who dissociates is that some parts of who I am collectively really like “pretty things.” When I first got in touch with having dissociative identity disorder, and some parts started to move from feeling trapped in rigid roles to increasing places of self-expression, I spent a significant amount of money for which I’ve never been fully able to account. Even now, I will find items I purchased or obtained and which I have no or limited memory of acquiring. Luckily I have another part who loves to purge things, so I cycle through items instead of hording. As I’ve obtained increased internal awareness and cooperation, I’ve attempted to achieve balance with my spending and purging. Ritual which involves breathing exercises, yoga poses, mindfulness meditation and other actions which are free of cost has been particularly useful in achieving this goal. In addition, I refresh my altar and other items seasonally, four times a year, instead of on a whim. Consistently attending to both the rhythms of nature and the rhythms of my body has allowed me to have something against which I can pattern my behavior that is cyclical and undulating, instead of erratic and sharp in its contrasts.

To conclude, this post feels like the first of many related to these topics. I’ve certainly touched on some of my spiritual practices before, but I have not previously given them the full context in terms of how they relate to my inner structure and situation. I have a long way to go to achieve full internal awareness, transparency and cooperation, but I am and will continue to be grateful for the ability of my small self to devise a way of being through which I could endure and eventually escape my upbringing, and for the presence of Goddess in providing me with a renewed connection to spiritualty which affirms and supports my healing. I look forward to learning about any pieces of my story with which you connect and any spiritual concepts or practices that you have found to be beneficial in healing from childhood trauma.

Inner Work

Mindful Amid the Snowfall

Cross-posted at my SageWoman blog.

For today’s #InnerWork Wednesday, I’m borrowing from my previous practice of mindfully observing a leaf and applying this concept to winter, specifically, to snow. If you live in a climate where it does not snow, most of the practice could easily be adapted using crushed ice.

Sensory Exploration

Begin by using four or five of your senses to observe the snow.

Sight

What colors are reflected by the snow? How might the depth of the snow affects its hue? What patterns and shapes does it contain? As the snow falls, how does it change in shape, texture or form, and to what do you attribute the changes? Where is it ordered, and where do you see disorder? What happens where the snow meets other objects? How do the edges of where the snow has landed differ from deep areas?

Sound

What is the sound of snow falling? What noises do you hear as it affects various objects and structures? What sounds emanate as you walk or travel over it? Drop the snow to the ground. What sounds does it make? Pack some snow together. What noises are created?

Texture

Cradle a bit of snow in the palm of your hand. What does it feel like? What energies do you find emanating from it? Pack some snow together again. How does the texture change when it is held lightly versus being crushed? How does the sensation of temperature alter as you hold the snow? How does your body respond to holding it?

Smell

Sniff the snow and notice any hints of smell that emerge from it. To what extent is it affected by its surroundings, and to what extent is its scent, if it has any, its own? What scent does snowfall lend to the overall environment around you?

Taste

Depending upon where you live and the pattern of snowfall, experts have some recommendations regarding tasting snow. Crushed ice may be a good alternative here. If you choose to eat a small amount, note the taste, smell and texture as you first eat some versus when it dissolves in your mouth. How does the temperature of your mouth change the form?

Mindful Transformation

If the energy feels right, collect four samples of snow, perhaps from different places around you. You’ll be connecting each sample to a different element and experience.

Earth

If you have a potted plant or another indoor source of dirt, bring some snow inside and bury it in the soil. What is it like to flip the order—snow under earth? How is the energy affected by the introduction of this cold form of water? Alternatively, you can spend time observing snow melt into the soil on a warming day.

Air

Wait until there is a breeze, and release some snow into the air. What trajectory does it take? What are the characteristics of its flight? Where and how does it land?

Fire

Expose some snow to candlelight or sunlight. How does its characteristics change in the light? What happens as it is transformed into liquid water by the heat?

Water and Spirit

Snow is the water element in crystallized form. It differs from ice mainly in density—a snow-pile will be comprised of both air and water while a block of ice is mainly water. The shape of each snowflake is in part dictated by the temperature at which it forms. Snow can also contain bits of dust. In this way, it is truly an intertwining of each of the four elements.

Enshrine the remaining sample of snow in a jar on your personal altar or in another sacred space. Notice any thoughts and emotions that arise from doing so. Continue to use your senses as you incorporate it into your altar space and ritual practice. When the winter season ends, you may return it to the water element in the spring rains, or you may choose to keep it as a permanent part of your altar.

Inner Work, Pagan Practice

Yule: A Time of Dormancy

I’ve struggled to pull together a theme for Yule this year for my #PaganPractice post. It occurred to me that Yule is a time where there is an inner tension within some aspects of Paganism as well as within the time of year as a whole. Paganism which focuses on the Sun God/dess sees Yule as a time of light, heralding in rebirth. Goddess Spirituality during this time of year may include a focus on the myth of Persephone and Demeter, namely, winter being a time of mourning as Demeter brings death to the earth while mourning her daughter’s exile in the Underworld. Death and new life, utter contrasts on their face, are woven together.

As I sat with this divergence in meaning, I was drawn to remember the Earth-based aspect of my spirituality. At least in my location, this is a time of year for things to go dormant. Both plants and animals draw in their resources, having hopefully stored what they needed during the harvest time. There is little activity and indeed little indication of life, unless one is a careful observer.

Things appear to be resting and sleeping away the long nights. I do believe that this time of year beckons us inward, to shut out excessive distraction and activity, and to open the cupboards of our inner world and see what supplies remain. We may feel drawn thin in terms of spiritual provisions, needing to conserve our energy and our effort. It is not only acceptable, it is actually necessary to take some time to take stock of who and what we are in order to equip ourselves for times of plenty and activity.

I sense a pregnant pause during this time; we can not only count our inner inventory, we can also begin to shape our intentions for busier times. One symbol of Yule that I’ve found particularly meaningful this year is that of a candle being lit. As a representation of light and rebirth, it shares with us hope during the cold and the dark. It reminds us that this withdraw inward is only temporary and that something is coming. From a Goddess Spirituality perspective, I see the something as a someone, Goddess reborn in all her splendor as time renews. But for now, the long shadows of early nightfall make it hard to see beyond our feet, and, while we pause to rest, we’ve much to sit with and divide and cast off and hold onto and make new. Her light attends our latency.

Inner Work

Elemental Psychic Bathing

One of my many struggles as a trauma survivor that I experience is a difficulty in channeling my internal energy. Specifically, after a negative emotionally-charged event, I tend to hold on to and recreate the feeling again and again. It is as though I’ve walked through a sandstorm and keep finding grains tumbling off me in every direction, unable to shake myself clean.

When positive experiences happen, I have the opposite problem. I find myself unwilling to accept the natural ebb and flow of these feelings. I’ve tasted a delicious morsel and keep biting into random pieces of spiritual savories, refusing to wait until another special occasion for a nibble. For today’s #InnerWork Wednesday, I will be exploring a method for restoring internal energies to homeostasis.

Discharging Negative Emotions

Before I get in to specifics, I want to couch my guidance here carefully. The process I will be describing is intended for situations where something went wrong externally during your day and has already been resolved. So, if it is an issue within a relationship, you’ve discussed your concerns with the other person or made a clear plan to do so. Or, if it is a situation where something has physically broken and needs to be repaired, you’ve identified the problem and set in motion a fix. I do not see this technique working well if you are procrastinating in taking practical action in the real world; it isn’t a substitute for confronting what is causing you anxiety, anger and/or sadness.

My personal struggle with negative emotions, especially anxiety and anger, is that they persist well past their needed moment. For instance, I recently had a roof leak. I hired a roofer to fix the leak. He made repairs the same day and everything seemed in order. Instead of having even the tiniest faith that things would be okay, I obsessively checked the leak area every 30 minutes or more for hours, and began to go to other areas of my house that have minor problems, checking them as well. My initial burst of anxiety at seeing a stream of water where it should not have been simply would not downshift even when the coast cleared. I needed a way to let go of the energy I’d accumulated, which is why I turned to a psychic bath.

Taking an elemental bath gives you an opportunity to get creative and to use your imagination. I find it difficult to imagine complex visualizations, but the emphasis on physical experiences helps me during this ritual. You can use any of the four elements (earth, air, fire or water). It is likely that the element will change depending upon your emotion. You can also incorporate a physical sensation or practice into this ritual. For instance, you might light candles or a fireplace for fire or run a bath for water.

When I’m facing overwhelming anxiety following a stressful situation, and the purpose of the anxiety has run its course, the element that connects most effectively for me is air. I imagine myself in a desert or a high plain, in the midst of gale-force winds. They swirl and nearly knock me over with their sheer intensity. Any residue of anxious energy that clouds my psyche is stripped away, reabsorbed into the ether. The anxiety may have different colors, depending on the exact situation, such as green or black. I imagine these colors being dissolved into clear as they are carried away, each atom scattered from the next until they become part of the whole. I am left calm, sedate, and windblown. I may need a drink of water or a bath in order to balance the intensity of engaging with the air element.

No matter the element on which I center myself, I find it necessary to imagine it at peak intensity. I think this because my internal energy needs an external force of equal magnitude in order to be shaken loose. I do want to emphasis that I do not see any part of myself letting go or leaving, rather, I see the emotions which the various parts of myself carry as being adjusted. I do not have an internal barometer or thermostat; my feelings seem to be either all the way up or non-existent. Or both at once. This exercise enables me to readjust mentally without having to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms. If you experience greater graduation in your feelings than I do, your visualizations may also be less intense. Perhaps a soft breeze is all it takes mentally to remove excess anxiety.

Harmonizing Positive Emotions

At the end of an event or experience I am enjoying, I often feel as though I’m slamming into a wall. My emotional high-point has crested, and I am not willing to accept the lull that follows. In order to better titrate my experiences, I’ve found that elemental bathing which centers on water is the most useful.

Imagery and physical practice involving water can be used as a way to “blend” emotions and transition between emotional states. The metaphor of ocean waves approaching and retreating from a beach allows me to reconnect with the idea that my internal energy ebbs and flows; it is not stable and cannot always be at high tide. As I sit with this mental picture, I find my internal state swinging like a pendulum and then gradually slowing and centering.

I can also recognize the extent to which liquid water comprises my physical state. We are made almost entirely of water, and still we need to ingest it to sustain life. Here the active practice of mindfully drinking tea or water infused with herbs can refresh my body as well as calm my internal cravings to keep a positive mood afloat.

Literal bathing or soaking allows me to steady my energies. As I repose, I visualize the intense energy of excitement, happiness, connection and joy swirling and dashing through me. Gradually it begins to soften and loosen in the water. It dissolves outward, spreading to my surroundings with a burst of light and fragrance. These emotions can be draining if we try to hold on to them for too long; I believe they are meant to be shared and to inspire creative activity. As someone who struggles with depression punctuated by brief episodes of hypomania, my desire to always be in an “up” state can sometimes compromise my inner sense that this state is unsustainable. Frequent practice with the equilibrium offered by the water element has been beneficial.

Whenever I read about any technique related to emotions or cognitions, I find myself in a state of hypervigilance, scanning for any potential judgment or criticism. With that in mind, I want to note that I do not see this practice as even remotely all-inclusive or relevant to everyone. You may be able to modulate your emotions with little effort needed, or you may not wish to alter your experience of internal energy in any way. I am simply offering one possible practice that has connected for me. I look forward to learning more about the rituals and methods you use in relation to your emotions and energy states.