Embodied Heart, Surviving n Thriving

Unreality: The Distortion of Dissociation

When children are abused repeatedly, particularly when they are abused by trusted caregivers, their brains are left with an impossible dilemma. The individuals on whom they rely for protection and care are also the individuals who are hurting them. In order to resolve this discrepancy, they sometimes engage in dissociative behaviors. These behaviors enable them to stay connected to their caregivers while enduring the traumatic experience. Viewed in this light, dissociative behaviors are a life-saver as, through their use, children may achieve some sense of normalcy and can able to function in the outside world. Like any fortified structure, breaks and cracks will develop over time. Eventually, either in part or as a whole, the dissociative walls will come down and people, now adults, may be overwhelmed by the barrage of memories, sensations, emotions and thoughts that in fact assailed them as children but feel like fresh attacks. Having lived through this experience myself, I can attest to the sharp curve into “too much reality” after years of unreality. For today’s #SurvivingnThriving Tuesday, I want to explore what it means to be dissociative and how it can affect our spiritual lives.

Aspects of Dissociation

Dissociative behaviors include depersonalization and derealization. Depersonalization includes feelings of being detached from one’s body. Derealization involves detachment from external stimuli; everything around the person feels unreal. Both of these experiences are thought to be survival mechanisms that are triggered by extreme stressors and trauma. Instead of a provoking a “fight or flight” response, the body may engage in a freeze response if running to safety or fighting for one’s life do not seem like effective choices.

Additional autonomic systems are engaged, including the parasympathetic system. This system slows body responses such as heart rate and respiration. As I understand it, freezing behaviors, or “tonic immobility,” can also include an activation of our sympathetic nervous system but to a lesser extent than our parasympathetic system. This means the person experiencing such a response is basically frozen in fear. Endorphins may also be released, which cause bodily and emotional numbness.

All of these physical responses are adaptive tools our body has; for instance, if you were being killed by a large animal, most likely you’d want to be “out of it” and unaware of what was occurring. These defenses become problematic when we become conditioned, through traumatic experiences, to deploy them in moments that are not truly life-threatening. I have issues with dissociation beyond depersonalization and derealization, but I wanted to start my exploration of this topic by going into more depth with these two core elements.

Depersonalization

Depersonalization occurs when people feel as though they are not in their body, but are instead observing it from a third-person viewpoint. Some individuals will describe feeling as though they were floating above their bodies. I tend to find myself utterly lost in a pattern such as a piece of wallpaper, unaware that I’ve traced it again and again in my mind unless I lost all sense of my body. It can also include experiences of distance from one’s thoughts, as though another person is thinking them. Emotions may be expressed without the person’s internal sense of connection to them. I’ve felt there is nothing odder than having tears streaming down my face with a look of sadness while feeling completely calm and serene internally.

People experiencing depersonalization may feel as though their body is taking action without their conscious control. We all do this to an extent, for instance, your mind may wander while you are walking around your house; you find yourself going in to a room and can’t remember why you went in to it. During an experience of depersonalization, this mental state cuts across decision-making. When I’ve had times of depersonalization, I find myself in the middle of a sequence of action without awareness of a conscious decision to start or continue the sequence. I once had a car break down early in the morning. By the evening, I found myself at a car dealership buying a new one, without any memory of conscious choice on my part. This day included a period of time in which I was driving aimlessly, as though the solution to my stress would appear if I just drove further. Some individuals escalate to episodes of dissociative fugue, where they may be found days later having gotten “lost,” wandering and forgetting most if not all of the personal memory of who they are.

Derealization

Derealization takes many forms but, at its heart, involves a felt sense of one’s surroundings being dreamlike and strange. If you’ve ever spent far too long playing a video game or watching television, and it took you a minute to snap back to reality when you looked around yourself, you’ve had a small example of what derealization feels like. The form of objects and the space between them can become distorted; when this happens to me, I often feel like people’s faces are mere inches away from me even though they are sitting across the room. I’ve also experienced objects like tables seeming to grow or shrink in size; most of the time I would be aware that the object had not actually changed but that it was my perception of it that was altered.

I once dated someone who quickly showed signs of becoming abusive. I somehow ended up in a situation where, while staying at the person’s house, they left for a few hours for an errand and planned to decide during this time whether or not they wanted to end the relationship. I could easily have slipped into my car and escaped the situation, but instead I found myself in nearly a literal fog; everything around me seemed opaque and glossy, as though it would fade into mist if I reached out to touch it. My thoughts fell out of my head as soon as I had them (another example of depersonalization); my short-term memory was impaired. Everything around me seemed muted and at a distance. The person returned and told me they were ending the relationship.

As I drove back home, each mile seemed to make the sun brighter and the lines on the road clearer. My thinking stopped looping and I realized what had happened and how much danger I would be in if I stayed with this person. I received frantic messages a few hours later begging me to get back together, but thankfully the physical distance had diminished my dissociation to the point where there was no doubt in me about the relationship needing to be over. This is how dissociation can work; when a person is in a sufficient state of physical or emotional risk, or when a person is inadvertently triggered intensely enough to provoke an inaccurate assessment of risk, fight or flight can transform into freeze or, as I see it, float, where everything is soupy and sort-of, and time, body and surroundings seem to be malleable props of actual lived experience.

Before I engage in a discussion of dissociation and spirituality, I do want to note a persistent theme I have encountered in both my scholarly work as well as my personal therapy for dissociative issues, which is that of will. I try to reconcile myself to the idea that I am responsible for my actions, even when I am dissociative and feel detached from what I am doing. Where I vehemently disagree with some of the work I’ve seen is that dissociation is a consciously-controlled, enacted behavior. When it has hit me at full-force, I felt completely unable to do anything about it. This isn’t to say I shouldn’t have done anything, just that, in the moment, I don’t know if I could have. That’s the point, it has to work seamlessly and quickly in order to be effective. Sitting around thinking “hum, should I mentally escape into myself now or not” isn’t an operative defense. In fact, times such as painful medical procedures where I’ve consciously attempted to dissociate, I’ve been unable to fully do so because the key element of being trapped with relational danger was not present. I’ve felt shamed on many occasions by people who seem to view dissociative behaviors as interchangeable with acts of pretending or choosing to ignore, which they are not. I am extremely curious to hear from anyone who also struggles with it as to your interpretation of how it works and the extent to which you think you “choose” it or it simply “happens” to you.

Dissociation and Spirituality

In some ways, being capable of dissociative behaviors mimics certain spiritual states of ecstasy and trance. I had a short stint in the Pentecostal world of speaking in tongues and crazed dancing in the spirit. I marveled at the amount of time it took others to work themselves into a spiritual lather, whereas I could immediately slip into an altered state at a whim. I didn’t need the repetitive music, exhortations from the spiritual prophets, or the embrace of the Holy Spirit to go there, so to speak. Oddly, the immediacy of my experience showed me how shallow it was, and the “on-off” quality of my transformation led me to reject this lifestyle within a few months. I wonder at how many of the individuals of various faiths who go into trance states are dissociative.

Where dissociation can clash with spirituality is in the deep inner work it takes to grapple with spiritual challenges and difficult ethical questions. I find it tempting and sometimes succumb to the desire to un-realize and un-personalize myself from the muck of the surrounding world with all its troubles. Dissociation can provide a bubble, within which no negativity can penetrate and no betrayal, shame or ugliness can enter. This is of course an illusion; some part of ourselves is in fact absorbing everything that is happening, but to the part of ourselves with whom we identify, it isn’t our truth or our experience.

Practices of breath-work, grounding and centering have become vital to my spiritual practice, enabling me to face harsh realities and dialectics without trying to circumvent them. In addition, my spiritual walk is immensely tangible, with literal altars and enacted rituals. The balance of head and heart is more focused on heart, not because I lack intellectual depth but because I am all too skilled at using my head to disengage rather than engage.

If you are a trauma survivor, what does dissociation look like for you? If you have struggled with dissociative behaviors, how have they impacted your spiritual journey? What types of experiences have you found it useful to incorporate into your spirituality to assist you in staying grounded and centered?

Embodied Heart, Surviving n Thriving

The Walking Wounded: Struggles in Recovery from CSA

Today’s #EmbodiedHeart post feels particularly vulnerable as I take a hard look at my potential for recovery and functioning as a childhood sexual abuse survivor and as a person with multiple chronic physical and mental health conditions. The insight I’ve gained from this personal reflection has allowed some of the internal distress and discomfort that’s become particularly acute for me the past six months to make more more sense to me. My insight has not yet led to a particularly workable solution, so I am hoping to learn about how my readers have handled similar situations. I will say that ideas like “look on the bright side” or “remember others have it worse,” although not entirely without merit, are typically experienced as invalidating rather than as useful in most situations like mine.

I’ve unfortunately set myself up in a situation where I need to maintain a high level of performance across a variety of domains in order to stay on top of my finances and to preserve my living situation. My job is high stress and demanding. I have sufficient funds coming in but face an uphill battle to get my student loans paid off. I have to stay in my job at least a few more years in order to have the possibility of my loans being forgiven realized. As a homeowner, I am solely responsible for the upkeep and repair of my house. Without my family in my life, maintaining close ties to friends and acquaintances takes on a heightened sense of importance. My health is assisted by the fact that I stay active and eat a decent diet, but both of these behaviors require constant effort and monitoring. In short, I feel overwhelmed by trying to keep up with the demands of my life, while simultaneously becoming increasingly aware of the toll it is taking on my mind and body. I know that the situation in which I am in is largely my own doing, but that sense of “choice” doesn’t mean much when I can’t see a quick way out to a lower stress environment.

Despite the external and internal pressures under which I find myself operating, I’ve kept on keeping on for years. Recently, though, I’ve heard a loud “no more” from inside. Parts of me feel as though they are holding on to dozens of tangled strings, attempting to contain my mental health symptoms and body sensations. They are threatening to let loose of all of them at once, which I can only imagine would mean a severe deterioration in my functioning. I had a few years of significant impairment in my 20’s. At that time, my internal system believed I was in a safe enough environment to let go and then found out it wasn’t. Now, though, the issue is less motivated by hope and more by exhaustion and frustration.

I had a breakdown in therapy last year in which I shared with my therapist that I perceive myself as having full-blown PTSD and other disorders, but the pressure I feel to maintain my functioning is so strong that I can’t even allow myself to experience the acting out of the symptoms. Instead, I think I dissociate further and tuck away any loose articles that might tumble out of the overcoat of “I’m good, I’ve got this” in which I blanket myself. Something always gives, though, when we dissociate, and the hollowness and joyless outlook with which I am currently struggling is one such outcome.

There are steps such as a slightly reduced workload and more vacation time on which I’ve embarked to attempt to rectify the situation. My fear is that I won’t be able to fully placate the parts of myself who are completely fed up by my inattention to my inner needs and who almost seem to desire for me to “lose it” so that everyone else will witness the folly of my attempt to appear to have it together. I keep reminding myself that, as a general rule, decompensating to the point of needing intervention is very likely to be retraumatizing and brutal, not the posh vacation with room service which pieces of my mind seem to believe it to be.

My internal imagery for my experience one of running a race far beyond what my body and mind can take, with my single-minded focus on the finish line obscuring from me the fact that my shoes are torn beyond repair and my skin is crusted with salty dehydration. Now that I see the state in which I am, I know I need to recalibrate my intention and take some rest periods, but I also realize I have to keep moving forward, albeit at a slower pace. There is no reasonable option in which letting myself sink into the sandy landscape surrounding the track will do anything for me other than cause me to wither to a helpless shell of myself in the blazing sun. There is no one coming to save me, just as no one came to save me a child in an abusive home. Now, though, I believe I can look to my fellow travelers for at least encouragement as I plod along.

What have you done in situations where you felt you were in over your head? What resources have you leveraged to reduce your burden? How have you found the energy to keep going?

Surviving n Thriving

“Just Stay Positive” and Other Fallacies

If only keeping an optimistic mindset was the answer to all of life’s ills. Few things are more invalidating then telling people about a difficulty or struggle, only to have their first response be “well, you just need to look on the bright side.” For today’s #SurvivingnThriving Tuesday, I will be focusing on thinking patterns that frequently occur for individuals who have dealt with trauma. I desire to hold space for this discussion within a context that provides validation and support. My intention here to is examine language and concepts that may be useful in better understanding ourselves, and to discuss ideas at the intersection of spirituality and our inner thoughts. This is not an exhaustive study; I’m focusing specifically on aspects of thoughts to which I can relate in order to provide both a topical discussion and a personal reflection.

Cognitive Distortions

1. Depressive Rumination

Rumination is but one of many facets of depressed thinking. For me, it is a return, again and again, to a situation that I just can’t leave mentally. I perseverate on it. I mull it over, reminding myself repeatedly of what the other person did that was hurtful, or the specific ways in which I failed. Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness pervade. This wasn’t just a one-off; this is how it always goes for me and how it will always be, no matter what I do.

My certainty at the failure of myself and of others may not be the driver of this type of thinking. Rather, I go back to the place and time mentally as though watching a movie, believing in some irrational space that I can find the key warning, the ominous glance or sigh, the misunderstood intention, either so that in doing so I can rewrite history, or so that I can prevent this type of situation from ever occurring again. Ultimately, I refuse to accept that I failed, that the other person failed me and/or that failure may occur in the future. Perhaps the situation was truly unpredictable and unavoidable. It may be easier for my depressed mind to live in a state of half-truths, not quite aware of the real and not quite aware of the fantasy.

2. Anxious Obsessions

As a self-styled worry-wart, my mind is filled with anxious thoughts on a non-stop radio bandwidth only I can hear. I’ve lived a million possible futures and all of them end badly. If our thoughts really do become projections in an alternate universe, I’d like to take a moment to apologize to the troubled selves I’ve created. I can’t adjust the noise or tune it out; what I can manage on good days is brief moments of static during which another frequency can also play.

The best is when something unexpected happens. I go into “matrix mode.” Every potential outcome and its consequences are immediately weighed and balanced until a solution is found. On those special occasions where the most likely courses of actions are deemed too risky, the machine of my mind keeps running and running, hoping something more enticing will “compute.” Goddess forbid anyone attempt to give me a suggestion about how to solve my problem; literally within minutes of a stressor happening I have already measured out and rejected whatever the other person eventually ends up telling me to do. The whole enterprise is exhausting and isolating, but, short of substance abuse, I’ve found little to tame it.

Anxious thoughts have a natural antidote—compulsive behaviors. Worried about a relationship? Ask the other person if everything is okay. When the person says it is, my anxiety decreases. Nervous about paying for bills? I’ll check my bank account one more time to remind myself I have sufficient funds. These behaviors unfortunately do nothing more than maintain the anxiety, but I find them very difficult to avoid.

3. Hostile Intent

Anger and anxiety are cousins; we fight what we cannot flee and flee what we perceive ourselves unable to fight. In terms of thinking, psychologists have conceptualized “hostile attribution bias” as an explanation for aggressive behavior. In ambiguous situations, the angry mind may interpret potentially benign behaviors as threats. Even something as subtle as a facial expression can be a dig, an affront to our respect.

I’ve trained myself again and again to question the automatic assumptions my mind forms, and to directly discuss the issue in a non-attacking way with the other person. I try to describe the behavior I observed literally, and then lay out possible innocent and hostile interpretations for why the other person may have taken the action. Basically, I state “I saw you doing X, and I’m not sure if you meant Y or Z. Please help me understand.” In dealing with people I do not know well, I am almost always wrong in my assumption of hostility.

A red flag needs to be waived here though to caution regarding those individuals who are manipulative or abusive. They will seize on your openness to multiple interpretations as a way to disarm and gaslight you. If I’ve called someone on something and the person repeats a similar behavior or steps it up a notch, I disengage any attempt at “understanding” and focus on safety and maintaining boundaries in the situation.

4. Invalidation

Thoughts of invalidation can be initiated by another person or they can originate in our own mind. They are only able to affect us to the extent to which we accept them as truth. These types of thoughts delegitimize our experience behaviorally or emotionally. “That didn’t really happen that way.” “I don’t feel this.” “I’m fine.” “The other person didn’t do this, say this, or mean this.” Thoughts of this nature often function to temporarily decrease our uncomfortable or awkward feelings. If we use denial and discounting on a regular basis, our reality begins to warp. In our distancing of ourselves from our feelings or experiences, we can inadvertently undermine our sense of self and our connection to others.

I believe an insistence on “higher vibrations” and “positive thoughts only” frequently serve as sources of internal invalidation. It is neither reasonable nor healthy to deny anything that isn’t sugar-coated and syrupy. Terrible things happen every day to people who do not deserve them; I think we all need to wrestle with this reality if we want to live authentic and deep spiritual lives. It is completely acceptable to have periods of time where we are unable to do so because of our own situation, but to judge and discount those who point out this truth as “negative” exemplifies the spiritual bypass route of denial in my opinion.

Goddessing Our Thoughts

Psychological assistance is often needed to deal with past trauma. Many therapies directly target thought distortions and work to help individuals reinterpret and reclaim their experiences. The first step is almost always noticing our thoughts; recognizing when we are denying our feelings or misinterpreting others gives us an opportunity to see things from another vantage-point. I will leave it to you to determine the mental health care you may need related to these issues; I want to focus instead on spiritual aspects of our thinking. In other words, my suggestions are not prescriptive ways to “fix” thinking problems, instead, they are ways to gently support yourself while you do the hard work of trauma recovery.

1. Remind Yourself of the Bigger Picture

A wider perspective often serves to help us gain a foothold when we feel overwhelmed by anxious, depressed or angry thoughts. Perhaps there is someone you trust to give an honest appraisal of your situation. Engaging in actions like journaling may open your mind to another way to view your experience. If possible, taking a break to clear your mind may help you to re-center and re-engage with a new mindset.

It can also be useful to practice specific calming statements. The ones I use are not always particularly positive, but they are effective for me. I frequently remind myself of how short and unpredictable life can be, as a way to let go of minor irritations into which I could otherwise become entwined. When people get under my skin, I tell myself that they are going to have to spend the rest of their lives with their sorry selves, and I am lucky to only have to play a bit role in interacting with them. My anxiety and anger flare significantly when I am under time pressure, so I actively return to the idea that I have enough time and that a catastrophe is not going to result based on being a little short on time.

2. Connect Your Struggles to Those of the Divine

I have only begun to take full advantage of this way of supporting myself. A multitude of myths, legends and stories exist of Goddesses and other Divine figures, each of whom faced Her own trials and tribulations. By familiarizing myself with these tales, as well as experiencing the Presence of the Divine directly, we can diminish our sense of otherness and the isolation that negative thoughts may bring. I think we often find Source in others as well.

3. Include Positivity Alongside the Difficult

Psychological research shows us that those who are resilient do not necessarily think only positive thoughts. Instead, when faced with difficulties, they are able to find light moments. The easiest way I have found to ensure this happens is to make a regular practice of gratitude. I passionately detest any notion that we should feel better simply because someone somewhere else has it worse than us. Suffering in one form does not negate suffering in another form; it’s just more suffering. What I mean by gratitude is that there are always moments, even on my worst days, of beauty, gentleness, unexpected good fortune and hope. Allowing these experiences to exist alongside my misery, instead of as a counterweight to it, lets me breathe and take in both the good and the bad at the same time.

4. Use Ritual and Routine as Behavioral Aids

Waiting for the right mood to strike before taking action can be excellent fodder for procrastination and can act as an impediment to progress. Sometimes the action has to proceed the internal motivation. I’ve noticed that my routines and my spiritual practices tend to set the stage for me to feel connected and centered, especially if I stick to them with regularity no matter what my internal thoughts want me to do. A depressed mindset can easily twist a failure to follow through into one more reason we should feel guilty and unworthy. I simply notice when I’ve gotten off my routine and do my best to steer myself back on track.

5. Practice Awareness of Body, Mind and Heart

Our thoughts do not occur in isolation. They interplay with our emotions and our physical states. Simply gaining an internal awareness of the interconnected relationship between these internal experiences may assist us in better understanding who we are and how we function. We get to decide what we want to do with this knowledge. Practices like mindfulness can assist in this inner work.

Because I view our physical existence as a core component of spirituality, I see the insight we can gain about ourselves as having spiritual implications. We are each a unique expression of the Divine. As such, we reflect a specific core of energy. The more we are able to see the colors, shapes and shifts of who we are, the more our place in the cosmic web can become solidified and strengthened, and the more we can use this place of power to affect positive change in the world.

I think that’s it. I’ve spent so much money, time and effort in therapy and on my own trying to fix myself, trying to change myself, and the question is always to what end. Why does it matter what I think? Who cares how much I’m incorporating the positive or practicing my rituals? In my view, I see now that ultimately I am not putting in this effort solely to reduce my own suffering, but rather because the extent to which I gain awareness my own sacredness, my own connection to Source, the rawness and realness of who I am, the greater good I can achieve. I believe the same is true for each of us.

Surviving n Thriving

Reflections on Power and Authority

Cross-posted at Goddessing Heart, my Sagewoman blog.

Relationships are the theme of today’s #SurvivingnThriving Tuesday; specifically, relationships that include a difference in power. The focus of this post is in regards to how we relate to those in authority; I intend to write further on how we can best create a Goddess-honoring environment in the positions of power we may hold.

It is very common for individuals with PTSD and related conditions to have difficulty relating to authority figures, especially if the trauma they experienced occurred at the hands of someone in a position of power. Each subsequent individual higher up on a hierarchy who enters our lives has the potential to serve as a trigger simply because of the role they inhabit and/or as a result of the specific behaviors in which they engage. I’ve found conceptualizing them as an authority figure based on their role rather than as an inherent difference in quality or ability has lessened the amount to which they serve as a trigger for me.

Powerful People

Deciding whom we should view as authority figures, if anyone, requires wisdom. I think there are two kinds of authority: authority which we see as embodied in an individual based on a person’s qualities, and authority prescribed by the nature of the roles we and the other person occupy. The first must be earned, the second may be dictated to us without our consent. I’ll call the first attainment-based authority and the second role-based authority.

I am enamored with Starhawk’s distinction between “power-over-others” and “power-from-within” in The Spiral Dance. She argues that when our power is personally derived, rather than bestowed to us by others, it builds others up without draining anything from them. In contrast, power-over-others concerns itself with conquest and domination. I think it is vital that we learn to identify which of these types of power authority figures are exhibiting, and that we only grant people respect as attainment-based figures if they show power-from-within.

Attainment-based authority occurs when, after careful observation and extended interaction, we come to see people as role models, teachers, leaders or spiritual coaches. We look to them for wisdom and may consult them when we are facing difficult decisions. I think it will take an entire post to describe the signs of a potential candidate for this type of relationship, but here I’ll just note there will likely be many more applicants for this role in your life than are worthy of selection. Anyone who demands this type of respect from you or attempts to manipulate you into a hierarchical relationship should likely be immediately disqualified. Someone who is truly deserving would not engage in such behavior.

Even if you come to see a few people as attainment-based role models, it is vital to remember that they are human beings with many flaws, and should not be put on a pedestal. You should be able to disagree with them and still stay in relationship with them without your spiritual walk being questioned. The concept of power-from-within suggest that our view of people as attainment-based authority figures should not become the fuel for their power and vitality, but rather serve a mere affirmation of the place of personal power from which they are already operating.

Role-based authority plays a part in our everyday lives. Unless we want to endure negative consequences, we are, to some extent, at the mercy of our bosses, community leaders, law enforcement, government officials, educators, and medical professionals. I see these relationships as entirely transactional; certain deferential behaviors may be required because of the nature of the hierarchy, but there is no personal loyalty or inner adherence to the same principles as a role-based authority figure needed. I may choose to obey in order to get what I want, as a sign of respect for the position they hold or to get along, but I don’t have to buy into their demands as the best way and I don’t have to defend the authority figure’s behaviors to others. If what I am asked to do violates my moral principles, I can either remove myself from the hierarchical relationship, or push against the social norms that are impacting the situation. The nurse who stood up for a patient’s rights recently, and got arrested for her troubles, serves as an inspirational example here.

I think things get very complicated when people place themselves in a position of attainment-based authority, when in fact all they can realistically claim is role-based authority. Those who purport to be spiritual teachers, for example, should have to prove their merit before we place ourselves in a hierarchical relationship with them spiritually, if we do at all. I have made many mistakes in my life because I assumed someone’s role-based authority automatically meant I needed to treat the person as worthy of attainment-based respect.

Personally, I think we are currently limited by our biology to require at least a bit of both attainment-based and role-based authority in our society. There are those who wish to move beyond these systems, creating a utopia with no one or everyone in a leadership role, without any hierarchy. I don’t have the idealism needed for such an optimistic view, but certainly the expectation many have that their status in society should instantly convert them into attainment-based figures in our lives needs some adjustment.

Personal Power Interactions

Nothing irritates me more than someone speaking to me in a way that shows me they assume that my personal characteristics and the nature of our power difference give them authority to dictate to me how to live my life. I’ve observed that I tend to go to my one high point, which is my educational achievement, as a retort. I try to fight power with power; this doesn’t necessarily feel like the right move, but is also sometimes the only way I can get an authority figure to take me seriously.

I know I am triggered by power dynamics because of the nature of the abuse I suffered as a child, as well as the larger religious upbringing to which I was exposed. Women were not supposed to speak with authority to men. Younger people were not supposed to instruct older people. Higher education was completely devalued and viewed as akin to “worldliness” and sin. Blatant hypocrisy was to be swept under the rug in service of the greater God-granted good. Authority figures did not speak from their own limited viewpoints; they were literally channeling the voice of God demanding deference and obedience.

Most of the people raised in this system found a way to exist within it. My sense of myself is that I could not have done so no matter how hard I tried. Something in me was born in rebellion and fought tooth and nail to get me to freedom. I don’t know how to justify my exit without a judgement of myself as being more enlightened or intelligent. It’s as if as soon as I try to examine the formational powers in my life, my thinking warps back into their viewpoint on the world as well. Black and white, right and wrong, yes and no suddenly are the only types of words that make any sense. Yet, I manage to exist in my current life with at least a slightly decreased focus on who’s in charge and how badly they are performing in their role.

In examining my own relationship with authority, I see that I have very little wisdom to offer to others who struggle in a similar way. There is a tremendous amount of growth potential I haven’t unlocked in terms of how I relate to those in positions of power. My basic rules at this point for myself are to only ascribe to others the level and type of respect due by the nature of their position, and to challenge authority when I see it corrupting past a certain point. I have not integrated my issues with authority into my spirituality in a deep or paradigm-shifting way at this point. I do see the ways in which I manage my own personal power as evidence that some growth has occurred in me, but clearly the upward-focused dynamic is still in flux.

How do you manage triggers you might have in relation to authority figures? Do you differentiate, mostly likely with your own distinctions, between attainment-based and role-based authority relationships? How does your spirituality inform your response to authority figures? I welcome you into dialogue regarding these queries; I have much to digest and reclaim in terms of power dynamics and I look forward to learning from your experiences.

Surviving n Thriving

Awaiting an Invitation: Personal Boundaries in Relationships

My daily life provided inspiration for today’s #SurvivingnThriving Tuesday. As in I strongly desired to move to an impenetrable castle in the sky surrounded by an alligator-filled moat today when my neighbor decided it was a perfect time to host a live band in his backyard on the one day of rest I have. I decided to channel my frustration into examining why we have boundaries, how they may be experienced by trauma survivors, and how we can establish and manage them in real life. I’m also investigating local bagpipe musicians for hire (j/k)!

The Purpose of Boundaries

Boundaries in relationships convey safety. I see them as twofold: offering an invitation and granting permission to a request. We all have aspects of our physical, emotional, spiritual, sexual and mental being that we cherish, that not everyone gets to access, that we elevate to the VIP section of our being. If people want in, they either need to wait for us to invite them in, or they need to ask permission. It is entirely within our rights to say no at any time for any reason. It should go without saying that this is also how we should treat others. I get weird looks occasionally when I ask permission for things most people would just take; I do it not out of a submissive personality but instead because it is how I want to be treated.

Boundaries and Trauma

One of the core features of an event that crosses from an everyday occurrence to a trauma experience is that it often involves a threshold of personal safety being desecrated or obliterated. This could be on a physical, sexual, verbal or emotional level. The individual emerges from the experience with some aspect of their very being shaken and betrayed. Concepts like complex PTSD and moral injury lend themselves to this type of experience.

What makes a boundary violation traumatic may be rooted in the power difference that frequently occurs in traumatic events. When a parent, teacher, coach, religious leader or other authority figure takes advantage of the imbalance of power to violate boundaries in such way as to induce shame, we are left feeling helpless and hopeless, not to mention estranged from ourselves. I’ve come to believe that some measure of us, perhaps called our soul, remains unvarnished no matter what our body, mind and heart have had to endure. This view has given me comfort in that the sense of something pure and whole lying at my core gives me the strength to reassert myself in the world.

Establishing Boundaries

We do well to speak our needs aloud before they become pressing. Giving those whom you encounter a fleshed-out synopsis of who you are in a casual way allows those who are emotionally competent to pick up your preferences and “no-go” zones. For example, I tend to try to find a way to mention my values, likes/dislikes and habits to people as I get to know them. I’d much rather they decide our level of compatibility or how well-suited we are to work closely together from the start. This approach will likely be much more successful if you are comfortable with who you are. If your outward stance on things is based on adjusting to what those around you think, it’s very easy to find yourself frequently offended. Others will walk all over your true values because they aren’t visible or known to them.

Not everyone has the capacity to discern what you are communicating through how you present yourself. Some individuals may have conditions that affect their ability to perceive social cues. Others know full well what you want but don’t care. In these cases, I think we need to be direct, unapologetic and unambiguous regarding where our conditions of relationship are located. For instance, there have been people I’ve had to tell more than once that I wasn’t interested in a certain type of relationship, with increasing bluntness until they finally got the message.

Handling Boundary Violations

When I first learned about the concept of boundaries, I naively thought that all it took to set them was to know what I wanted and share it with others; the potential conflict was the ending point in my mind, rather than the start. My life experience has taught me that many people respond negatively when a boundary is laid out. It can be very hard to hear a ”no” from someone else.

I think the reason we may respond to someone setting a marker with us in a defensive manner is that we are often conditioned to have to know what others want without them telling us. This means that someone needing to tell us that they don’t like or want something means we have failed in our minds, and this leads directly to feelings of shame. People tend to struggle to manage feelings of shame appropriately. It is significantly easier to call others “oversensitive” “emotional” or “demanding” if they express their true desires to us, rather than accept the limitations they are placing on our behavior towards them.

I absolutely hate it when my actions lead another person to feel shame, but I know in most of the specific cases where it’s occurred that the alternative was for me to act in a disingenuous way that would have caused me feelings of bitterness and resentment, and would have damaged the relationship more severely in the long run. If you find yourself often offended at others’ behaviors, it may be a sign that you are allowing yourself to proceed into situations that might have been preventing if you had established your limits with the other person earlier.

To circle back to what this means for trauma survivors, it is possible that we can do everything possible to cordon off aspects of ourselves as sacred, as our own, and desire to let others into those areas only when trust has been established, only to find that all the self-knowledge and empowerment in the world can’t withstand every threat. Sometimes we are too small or young or vulnerable or simply human to protect ourselves. It makes my blood boil to think of people taking advantage of others in this way. I’ve talked about my perspective on justice previously; all I will say here is that I think no one can take possession nor damage the core of who we are, and I think there are many more people in the world who would help us heal than hurt us.

Negotiating Boundaries in Relationships

I’m not sure if there is something inherently individualistic about the self-definition that comes with healthy and flexible boundaries. Many proponents of Goddess Spirituality emphasize the communal aspects of life and the interdependence which allows for reliance on others and work towards common goals. Even within this framework, I think there is a potential for each of us to have emotions, thoughts and behaviors that are our own, while also celebrating the interweaving of our lives.

Personal boundaries may be an artificial creation from a metaphysical perspective. If we see ourselves as one speck in the web of life, carefully carving out the diameter of our “speckness” may seem an exercise in pettiness and futility. At the same time, as I mentioned above, I cannot overemphasize the degradation and annihilation of self I’ve experienced being in relationship with those who lack the ability to acknowledge and respect boundaries. Being subsumed into another’s psyche is not healthy nor life-giving.

With these dialectics in mind, I think the key concepts here are fluidity and evolution. Visualize your boundaries as made of water rather than stone. Enough water moving in the same direction can be an incredibly strong force, knocking buildings off their foundations. Water can also be a gentle kiss on a misty morning. When our boundaries are fluid, we can respond to the specific situation in which we find ourselves, while also adhering to our general preferences and expectations to relationships. Maybe the particular issue facing us will work best with a soft stream redirecting the energy, and maybe it needs a waterfall torrent of strength to establish our presence. Liquid in nature is constantly evolving in response to the energy and forces surrounding, and so can we.