Inner Work

Going Deeper: Leveraging Empathy into Responsiveness

For today’s #InnerWork post, I want to delve into an exploration of the ways in which we can show up authentically for those with whom we are close in our lives. In order to care for another, we must already be engaged in inner healing in a way that puts aside excuses and denial and which calls forth vulnerability and raw emotion. One of the foulest enterprises on which a person can embark is to attempt to heal another as a way to scale their own inner walls; we have to be willing to fling open any door inside for which we invite another to ajar slightly.

I am going to limit myself here to an area of identity in which I’ve experienced invalidation on a regular basis, namely, that of being a trauma survivor. As such, my discussion is primarily aimed at those who are trauma survivors and who want to engage in inner work as well as those who desire to be support persons for a trauma survivor. I think there are potential parallels to other areas of oppression that people face, but the systematic nature of injustices such as racism, homophobia, ableism, and so on means that those experiences include additional factors beyond what I am addressing. Please see this page for an evolving list of resources in relation to systemic injustice and solidarity.

I also want to add a strong caveat that what I describe here is in no way a substitute for professional assistance such as therapy. It is not healthy or healing to try to act as a therapist to a friend, family member or romantic partner. One of the main differences between showing up for someone with compassion and being a therapist is that a therapist may try to elicit the memories and experiences behind the emotions the person is feeling and may try to lower internal defenses to draw out vulnerability. If a trauma survivor demands that you act as their therapist and will not seek help, I suggest finding a therapist of your own to help you navigate the relationship. There is a potential for significant damage for both of you otherwise.

If you are secure that you are acting as support person rather than a therapist, but you still get out of your depth, be honest! Let the person know this without sending them the message that they are the problem. It is healthy to set boundaries and to let someone know the specific ways in which you are able to be there for them. At the same time, if someone trusts you enough to show you their pain, holding space for them in a responsive way can move mountains for them internally (and, as I’ll describe below, we can be this for ourselves as well). This is why your own inner work needs to be non-negotiable; if you have significant unprocessed wounds that you’ve never addressed, you will likely harm more than heal if you try to be there for another who’s in pain.

Empathy: Witnessing with Compassion

In order to show up for others, we first have to give our undivided attention to the vulnerability in ourselves. I am increasingly of the mind that vulnerability should be invitation-only, both internally and externally. What I mean here is that any request for it in an area of suffering, beyond a gentle open-ended query, is likely misguided. Demanding that someone show us their pain, or that hurt areas inside of us crack open and reveal their secrets, is rarely effective or welcome. Once you are comfortable responding to your own areas of vulnerability with empathy and responsiveness, you will be more fully able to be there for others. You do not need to be 100% healed by any means, but if you style yourself as someone who always gives but neglects themselves, or as someone who is only critical of themselves, please spend some time working on self-care and self-compassion first.

If vulnerability shows up from another person, empathy is required. It astonishes me how quickly we can move away from this. “Oh, at least this didn’t happen to you too.” “Some people have it even worse.” “I wonder why they (insert traumatic behavior).” and so forth are spewed as a way to shut off that most uncomfortable of feelings—helplessness—and the mental confusion that it renders. I want to allow my heart to be broken by the lived experience of both myself and of others in terms of the anguish trauma brings. I of course place limits on how much I can serve as an effective witness, but I push through my inner desire to minimize as all it does is invalidate either myself or the other person. Acting as though suffering hasn’t happened doesn’t undo it, rather, it adds exponentially to it.

Empathy includes maintaining one’s focus on the individual who is sharing and letting them be in the messiness of their feelings. Immediately offering hugs and tissues and “supportive” words may send the not-so-subtle message that only a titrated amount of pain is allowed to show up, and that anything more is “too much.” I think our work here involves an emotional and a behavioral response.

On a “feelings” level, allow the emotions the person is showing to settle into an open spot in your heart, and reflect them back without becoming subsumed in them. Put yourself in their position (notice I didn’t say to tell them about the one time something only tangentially related happened to you) and let the feelings stir in you as you breathe through it. The most powerful moment of compassion I ever had was seeing my pain reflected in another person’s eyes—not them crying hysterically—but simply witnessing it in me.

Next, ask the person how they would like to be supported. That’s right, you don’t have to have all the answers! Some people struggle with knowing how they can be held in kindness—allow there to be a sense of expanse in terms of your willingness to learn with them. If they ask for it, feel free to share a few things that help you—some trauma survivors have never been met in this way and genuinely do not know what to do with it. This may be an area of discussion they decide to tackle with their therapist. If you’ve shown yourself to be a caring person who isn’t going to leave them at the first sign of issues, they may feel safe enough to begin to let you know what they need. Count this an honor, not a burden, as it is rare in our society for people to be direct and honest with each other. It is up to you to set your own boundaries and to be forthcoming if what someone needs exceeds your capacity (see the next section). You do not exist in a survivor’s life to heal or fix them; you exist to be in relationship with them. Do not delude yourself into thinking they would be lost or hopeless without you; we survivors tend to be highly adaptable and able to find a way through even the most difficult of situations.

Responsiveness: Compassion in Action

One of the least helpful therapists I ever subscribed to the viewpoint that empathy wasn’t sufficient for healing. She was right on one level—someone caring about our pain is not the only ingredient needed for healing from trauma—but she took this instruction too literally and straight up skipped past it entirely. If those of us who have suffered immeasurably at the hands of humans never receive the message that someone cares about our suffering, it is very challenging to move forward. At the same time, knowing that our pain matters can still leave us feeling stuck in the past if there is no sense of anything changing as a result. This is where responsiveness comes in. Responsiveness requires a depth of maturity and security in one’s self that challenges nearly everyone. What it looks like at times is sacrifice. Sacrifice engenders bitterness if it is not offered with an open heart. It is much, much better to “let down” a trauma survivor by sharing honestly in regards to your own boundaries than it is to pretend at a responsive façade.

Let’s walk through an example. Suppose the trauma survivor became triggered in a moment of physical affection. Perhaps you pulled them in for a kiss and this brought up feelings of being trapped for them. They let you know what they were feeling and, instead of getting defensive (this is where a large percent of people tap out right away), you were able to be with them as they expressed their feelings. Let’s say you even asked them what they needed to feel safe with you, and they shared that they would like to be asked before you kiss them, even though you are in an established romantic relationship. You are now at the moment of potentially offering responsiveness (as well as negotiating your own boundaries and needs). What you don’t get to do, if you care at all about the person (and if you’d like to claim to be a decent human being) is to say, “sure of course, I’ll ask” and then “forget” to do so on a regular basis, or to try to manipulate the person—“if you loved me, you’d trust me and would let me kiss you whenever I wanted to.” Let’s say, for the sake of argument, being able to be spontaneous in kissing is your most important thing ever and you cannot possibly be happy without it. In this case, you may need to renegotiate yourself out of the romantic relationship as it stands. You get to say “no, I need this instead” but you don’t get to (if you want to be a decent human who cares about the survivor) force them to gratify your needs. Or, you could make a sacrifice. You could (maybe temporarily as you decide together) allow your need for spontaneity to go unmet in order to respect the survivor’s boundaries. Survivors’ needs often look “controlling,” but they are only controlling if the person doesn’t let you walk away easily and deploys force/manipulation to keep you in a relationship that doesn’t meet your needs. Asking someone to limit their behavior because it triggers the other person isn’t controlling; engaging in a responsive reaction, in which you support the survivor’s healing, means that what’s brought you together is stronger than the inconvenience or disappointment of the “no/not now.”

So, how might we define responsiveness as it relates to being an “ally” of a trauma survivor? To me, it means taking seriously what a survivor tells you they need and doing your best to provide it without turning their need into an immediate demand of your own on an unrelated topic (in other words, not using it as a bargaining chip to get what you want). It means talking through needs if they conflict until you find a solution that honors everyone’s boundaries. It means replacing “controlling/telling me what to do” with “I’m making a choice to honor their needs in this area; it is a sacrifice I’m happy to make because I know it is what they need to feel safe.” If all that comes up in you is a mindset of “they need to get over it” or “I’m being manipulated by their problems” then get yourself to a therapist to sort it out. It has been devastating to me personally to have it take just about everything I have to share, in a moment of vulnerability with another person, the “real” shit that goes on in me and to have them get angry at me because, for a few short seconds, I wasn’t giving them what they wanted or I was treading too closely to their own unresolved feelings of inadequacy. If you are in a relationship with a survivor, expect to feel helpless, and welcome it as a sign of authenticity rather than using it as shame-fuel for your own problems.

Responsiveness may not be a boundary-setting experience, it may also be an invitation to go deeper in revealing your own vulnerability. Perhaps the survivor feels that what would be supportive to them would be to know if you’ve ever experienced the same thing as they have emotionally, or to know more about what came up in you as they shared about themselves. If you haven’t done your own inner work, this may feel like a challenge or even a threat. The more you are able to engage in self-care and healing, the more fully you will be able to respond with support to these experiences. Resist an urge to turn the entire conversation into a monologue about how things go for you; do make it known if you value the opportunity. Some survivors modulate their internal experience by hyper-focusing on the needs of everyone around them; this may take professional assistance to navigate if you find yourself in this situation on an ongoing basis.

I’ve written so much here yet I think I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic. What I would find most helpful would be to hear the questions you would like answered if you are a support person of a trauma survivor. Please respect their story enough to not share personal details; let me know if there are general sticking points for which you think it would be helpful to read about in a post. If you are a survivor, what did I write that captures your experience? What is missing or different for you? How are you best supported in your areas of vulnerability?

Photograph of JL Umipig.
Affirming Mind-Body-Spirit Writer Project

Recommended Author: Jana Lynne Umipig

For today’s Diverse Mind-Body Spirit Voice recommendation, I’ll be sharing about an artist and creative writer who leads interactive workshops related to decolonization and spirituality, facilitates healing through Inner Dance, and acts as a culture bearer for Pinay womxn.

Mind-Body-Spirit Connections

JL’s work integrates healing and social activism by providing creative sacred space for both inner work and communal gathering, with a special focus on Pinay womxn of the diaspora. She has created the Kapwa Tarot Deck, a 79 card series that incorporates Pilipino wisdom and sacred imagery.

Source: http://www.janalynnecreativeproductions.com/

About the Author

“Jana Lynne (JL) Umipig is a multidisciplinary artist, educator, healer and activist who seeks to elevate narratives of remembering self as a reflection of her own life’s journey toward decolonizing, re-indigenizing and humanizing self.

She has traveled to communities throughout the world sharing her cultivated knowledge of processes that activate and support self and community healing and empowerment.  Particularly, JL has commited herself to bringing the presence of her ancestors from the Philippine diaspora into every space, with cultural teachings and practices being implemented in all of her work. Her invitation to all those that exchange and engage with her is to Re-member, connecting to all the people and places ancestral, present day communal and familial and  descendant that makes us and grows us into who we are.

She is a core member of The Center for Babaylan Studies, an Inner Dance facilitator, and founder of Butikaryo mga Babae, which creates sacred space for Pinay Womxn Healers seeking to learn and remember healing practice and knowledge connected to our ancestral traditions.”

Source: Provided by author

In Her Voice

“Let Your Actions Be Prayer

Let Your Creations Be Prayer

Let Your Life Be Prayer

And May All Your Prayer Be Powerful”

Source: http://www.janalynnecreativeproductions.com/sacred-space

 

“I pray you are patient with all the parts of your self

as they work for your liberation

May their union be a reminder that

In order to create a radically different world

We must survive this one”

Source: https://www.instagram.com/p/BlbwEt0hGjr/?hl=en&taken-by=jlcreator

Learn More

Website: http://www.janalynnecreativeproductions.com/

Instagram: @jlcreator

Facebook: Jana Lynne Umipig

 

 

 

Photograph of Marcelle Haddix
Affirming Mind-Body-Spirit Writer Project

Recommended Author: “ZenG Yoga” with Marcelle Haddix

For today’s Diverse Mind-Body Spirit Voice recommendation, I’ll be sharing about a womxn whose work, in addition to her own writing, includes teaching and scholarship as a full-time academic, leading yoga retreats, and promoting literacy which centers Black girls and womxn.

Mind-Body-Spirit Connections

Dr. Marcelle Haddix not only leads wellness initiatives in communities of color, she’s true to what she champions through her commitment to veganism, yoga and meditation. She authored a chapter in Yoga, the Body, and Embodied Social Change titled “In a Field of the Color Purple: Inviting Yoga Spaces for Black Women’s Bodies” which includes a reflection on her experience as a Black womxn as she completes yoga teacher training and creates ZenG. Her community workshops combine both yogic practices as well as music, poetry and expressive writing to promote self-care and liberation. She also uses writing as as a way to celebrate Black voices both within a school context and in the community.

Sources: https://www.amazon.com/Yoga-Body-Embodied-Social-Change/dp/1498528023

https://zengyoga.com/about/

About the Author

“For Dr. Marcelle Haddix, yoga, wellness, and healthy living are deeply personal and political. Known as The ZenG, she is a 200-hour certified registered yoga instructor who specializes in yoga for underrepresented groups and for community-based organizations. She also practices veganism and healthy, soulful living. Her goal is to bring yoga to more communities of color and to challenge the misrepresentation of people of color and yoga, healthy living, and healthy eating.

Why ZenG?  Her sistafriends nicknamed her ZenG because of her blissfully zen yet “I don’t take no mess” attitude.  She is unapologetic about living well and creating spaces for people of color to honor and care for their bodies and each other.  Her community engaged approach to yoga and wellness culminates in yoga and writing retreats for women and couples of color, yoga and mindfulness workshops in urban school contexts, and regular yoga classes and sistercircles in her community.

In addition to her work as a yoga and wellness instructor, she is a dean’s associate professor and chair of the literacy department at Syracuse University and a nationally-recognized literacy scholar committed to centering Black literacies in educational practices and spaces. She directs two literacy programs for adolescent youth: the Writing Our Lives project, a program geared toward supporting the writing practices of urban middle and high school students within and beyond school contexts, and the Dark Girls afterschool program for Black middle and high school girls aimed at celebrating Black girl literacies. For The ZenG, living well zen gangsta style is not only personal, it is deeply political.  It is a revolution.”

Source: https://zengyoga.com/about/

In Her Voice

“Self-care is not an end point or something to check off on a list. It is a constant beginning.”

Source: https://twitter.com/MarcelleHaddix/status/1001620377796308992

“Loving and caring for others does not make you weak. In fact, it makes you strong. And, it’s even better when you do so unconditionally, without judgment, and without expectation.”

Source: https://zengyoga.com/2014/03/30/no-day-but-today/

Learn More

Twitter: https://twitter.com/MarcelleHaddix

Website: https://zengyoga.com

 

 

Self-portrait of Kayla Rosen.
Affirming Mind-Body-Spirit Writer Project

Recommended Author: Zines by Kayla Rosen

For today’s Diverse Mind-Body Spirit Voice recommendation, I’ll be sharing about a non-binary author whose work covers a variety of diversity topics, including disability and queerness.

Mind-Body-Spirit Connections

Kayla creates zines and poetry that deconstruct our understanding of sexuality, gender and ableism using both language and visual art to convey meaning. They’ve produced zines specific to their experience as a nonbinary artist who is transitioning medically; this work includes a focus on the connection between their body’s appearance and their relationships. They also write about themes related to mental health, trauma and healing.

Source: https://kaylarosenzines.com/

About the Author

“I’m Kayla (they/them), a 20-something disabled white agender bi artist from Seattle. I make zines, perform poetry, and lead workshops about disability, queerness, allyship within and beyond the LGBTQIA+ community, and art.”

Source: https://kaylarosenzines.com/2016/10/22/about/

In Their Voice

“Being a meaningful ally to LGBTQ+ community members takes commitment, effort, and ongoing education.” Source: https://kaylarosenzines.com/2016/10/22/workshops/

“In my experience, affirmations are most powerful when they also acknowledge how unpleasant reality can be. I want affirmations that can meet me in the pit of hopelessness and despair to lift me up a little, not ones that ask me to wish or believe my way out.” Source: https://kaylarosenzines.com/2016/10/22/my-zines/

Learn More

Esty: http://kaylarosenzines.etsy.com/

Instagram: http://instagram.com/kaylarosenzines

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/kaylarosenzines/posts

Twitter: https://twitter.com/kaylarosenzines

Tumblr: https://kaylarosenzines.tumblr.com/#_=_

Website: https://kaylarosenzines.com/

 

 

Affirming Mind-Body-Spirit Writer Project, Sacred Spiritual Growth

Spiritual Disillusionment

For a time, I naively though I’d settled the question of finding my spiritual home in Goddess Spirituality. However, as I’ve really started setting the place up, opening locked doors and peering behind cabinets, I’ve stumbled upon a messy and foul-smelling cellar which I will start to examine for today’s #SacredSpiritualGrowth Saturday. The incense and sage of newness and excitement is now permeated with the stench of unprocessed bias in my house. And the longer I sit in disappointment, the more I see the tunnels of racism, classism and other worms of decay in myself.

I view what I’m undergoing as a developmental progression. I had a “honeymoon” period of learning new concepts and meeting new people, during which everything seemed polished and crisp. Over time, as with any human endeavor, the cracks and dampness started to show. In my particular case, the largest fissure, running straight through the center, is the belief that people should not be allowed to self-identify as womxn and should be excluded if they do not fit certain characteristics. There are also issues such as a lack of appreciation for intersectionality, and, in some corners, a heavy emphasis on either following the Goddesses of Northern Europe or on mixing and matching elements of various cultures without deep attention to their contextual meaning. In the wider Mind-Body-Spirit world, a large portion of the classes, courses and resources, aimed mostly at womxn, are allocated only to those with hundreds or thousands of dollars of disposable income. All is not “love and light” indeed.

My personal reflections on my experience thus far include:

Consider Renovation Rather Than Relocation

As I described above, finding the cellar crammed with ugliness caused me to want to escape. I care too much and feel too connected to Goddess to do that, though. I know this is my spiritual home. I’ve determined it’s time to contribute, on an individual and collective level, to sorting the mess and remaking the areas that aren’t life-giving.

If you’ve read my blog for any time, you’ve known me to be very concrete in my way of being. So, I am simultaneously digging more into minimalism and slow living in order to make my physical existence a reflection of my inner world (or is it the other way around)? Goddess Spirituality can be made more inclusive, affirming and those of us who practice it can go a lot further in our stance of solidarity; the same is true of the greater feminist and mind-body-spirit worlds. I am but one of many who are doing the work.

Go Deeper

I have been aware for some time of my specific spiritual calling, which is to help myself and others fully embrace all aspects of ourselves in a way that moves beyond shaming and blaming. One of the most helpful framings of bigotry in all its faces that I’ve encountered is to see it as Shadow. I absolutely experience this in myself; I’ve given surface recognition to my areas of bias but encounter a wall of shame when I try to go further. There is an internal voice inviting me toward this impasse, to sit with it and, together, from what is hidden and what I know, to dismantle it brick by brick. I’ve written previously of my inability to see my own hidden potential and mystery; I think it is likely across the way from these unexplored badlands. The light-bulb moment of recognition that my calling aligns directly with my disillusionment roots me in my purpose.

Take It In

As a trauma survivor, my bias is toward perceiving the world as a threat and to believing the only solution to be a dead sprint. In this shadow work in which I’m now engaging, though, I am learning very quickly that healing and change must be from my innermost cells first. I need to read and listen, to seek mentors and teachers, and to ponder and reflect much more than I cajole and demand change from others. Every time I believe I’ve slowed my walk sufficiently, I look around me and see how much ground I’ve covered without integration. Breathing in stillness and awareness is the concept on which I’m meditating.

Expect No Point of Arrival

I can never assume that I’ve dug in sufficiently to my areas of privilege or checked off enough boxes on my “standing in solidarity” card. Rather, as society’s norms change, I will do well to keep advancing along with them. I’ve been especially irate in witnessing, in an online forum, woman after woman proclaiming that her advanced age meant everyone else had to shut up and listen to her bigoted viewpoint in relation to transwomen. I can absolutely discount my elders far too easily and often and I can refuse to acquiesce to anyone, no matter their age, who refuses to see and respond to the harm they are causing. My anger belies my fear of calcifying into rigidity and inflexibility as I grow older.

In the service of self-examination and adjustment, I do think it is perfectly appropriate to pause and disengage from time to time for reflection. I may need to reassess the connection between my spirituality and my inclusivity. I may find that my own areas of struggle leave me drained to the point where I need to recharge before further engagement. My shadow-selves might need to process their shame and transform it into rededicated action.

If I am honest with myself, I will likely find that my motives need refinement. I need to assess whether my actions are performative, giving lip service to the “right things” for attention or recognition. In recognizing my own biases, I must be wary of then using this awareness to feed my demons of self-loathing and self-hatred. I may find that I long times to have my feeble attempts “count” and to then retreat into silent complicity. When I really dig into it, it is the personal stories of the effects of discrimination that inspire and compel me to go deeper; if my desire as a trauma survivor is to have my experience witnessed, in having been invited to see the inner world of another, I will not turn away. This motivation will hopefully, in time, become more fully grounded in an unshakeable and uncompromising dedication to have all people equally valued as human and worthy.

Anticipate Discomfort

I think it is wise to ask myself the question, “What do I want to get out of my spiritual practice?” If I’m honest, a lot of what I want is for it to help me feel less anxious and depressed. There is nothing wrong with this, but, for me, part of the process of spiritual maturation has been to remember, as I mentioned above, that on which my calling centers. In order for wholeness to be realized, I will go through some unpleasantness. It is necessary to reach the ends of myself and my typical responses, which, in the case of much of the oppression in the world, has been to be a silent but concerned bystander.

I’m trekking a few feet now into the tall grass, without a path, where there might be ticks and snakes and other trolls of threat. I’m tired of toeing the line and expecting someone else to clear the path for me. It takes courage to question my spiritual mentors and holy books; it takes even more courage to stay at it and stay with it after I realize there isn’t a meadow of wildflowers just past the brush. Although I may find myself on rough and uneven footing, I can know that I will emerge matured in my faith. More importantly, in joining with others in rooting out the invasive weeds of bigotry and hatred, the growth of our shared humanity can flourish. Mature spirituality does not shy away from injustice and suffering, instead, it welcomes the inner work and outer action needed to ensure the dignity of every person.

In what ways have you encountered spiritual disillusionment? What strategies and suggestions do you have for responding to it? Of what form are the individual and collective shadows you are meeting made?