Embodied Heart, Surviving & Thriving

Write It, Speak It, Sing It: Why Languaging Our Suffering Matters

One morning on my way to work, my eyes locked on an electronic billboard. Displayed on it was a tearful woman’s face, a reference to #MeToo, and words to the effect of “We believe you.” I felt my breath catch in my throat and was nearly in tears. It was one of the most visible displays I’ve ever happened upon that signified that anyone in the external world actually recognize the existence of sexual trauma and the value of vocalizing it. In passing by the sign again, I saw that it was for a local women’s domestic violence center. The intersection of catching a moment to remember the pain I carry everywhere I go and of realizing the message was evident to everyone driving by impressed upon me again the power of our collective stories as trauma survivors. For today’s #SurvivingnThriving and #EmbodiedHeart post, we’ll explore the difficulties as well as the positive outcomes associated with giving voice to our nightmares and grief.

Unspoken Trauma Harms

The harm done by traumatic events, at least for children, is not based solely on their intensity or frequency. A crucial factor in distinguishing trauma which lingers and scars the mind are those events that are experienced without the compassion of a loved one to help restore the child’s sense of safety and belonging. This experience of violation and danger followed by abandonment creates a hormone stew in the brain known as toxic stress. Toxic stress is linked not only with negative mental health outcomes; it is also linked with an increased likelihood of developing physical disease and even early death. Experiencing horrors, coupled with a lack of a loving witness, crushes body and soul.

Social isolation is a natural outcome of experiencing traumatic events which lack a spoken account. If we are unable to state what has happened to us, our perspective is lost in any retelling of the experience that might happen. In the case of childhood abuse, perpetrators are often more than happy to alter the fundamental facts of the event in order to protect themselves. So, not only are we silenced, we may be made out to be the “crazy one” or the one with “issues.” We may then carry these internalized rejections into new social encounters, always on edge that others will turn against us.

By Body If Not By Word

Traumatic events that are not articulated or held in a supportive environment do not go away. Instead, we may find that we live out that which we cannot voice. Of the many forms this unconscious repetition may take, behaviors rooted in relationship are often the primary expression. For instance, we may enter into and maintain connections with abusive individuals or mistreat our own bodies. In either case, when we are unable to speak our truth, our bodies become the tapestry on which the story of our horror is displayed.

Some of my deepest shame wells up when I can see my little self wanting to be seen by another but also feeling terrified that the other person will treat me as I was treated in the past. In a few key situations where I’ve been “seen” as an adult, the other person has actually acted in a way that re-traumatized me. Past and present blurred into a haze in these moments and I walked away vowing the story must be completely hidden from sight. Mustering the cognitive skills as well as the courage to put impulse to language when my body wants instead to dissociate it is extremely challenging for me.

The relationships reenactments I’ve experienced can sometimes be subtle. For instance, I may find myself repeatedly opening up to someone I know will act in a judgmental or dismissive way towards me. It can take quite a while before I realize I’m stuck in a “trauma trap” and that I need to adjust my expectations and/or behaviors in order to better honor my own needs.

In Story, Healing

Trauma therapies frequently involve narrating what has occurred. Some newer forms of trauma therapy such as EMDR do not include a requirement of the person going into great detail about the story, but they do include both internal and external witnessing. Complementary therapies such as art or movement may enable survivors to make manifest the dark threads through skilled weaving and loosening. I will soon be participating in a trauma-focused yoga class and am eager to see what manifests.

Each character in my story of my childhood trauma has become an internalized entity. The past external event is fixed; the motions and menace existed as is. I feel as though the characters in my head are playing non-stop improv theater, hoping that this time through something will shift and the narrative will no longer hold. That maybe it all didn’t really happen and wasn’t really so bad. On the other hand, some parts of me stand as frozen effigies to the specific trauma that formed them. The past feels full of ghosts and actors.

Although I’ve been in an ebb lately, through #EmbodiedHeart as well as my individual therapeutic work, I’ve made progress in giving voice to who I was and what happened to me. Something in me has decided that speaking publicly in some form may stripe another layer from the façade of “nothing to see here” that I’ve been able to maintain in much of my life. Ultimately, though, what heals is being witnessed in a supportive environment, and, on a personal level, bearing witness to who we were and what happened to us.

Where are you at in your healing journey as a trauma survivor? To what extent does being witnessed promote healing for you? What has helped you to integrate your past experiences?

 

Surviving & 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.