Embodied Heart

The Mind of Trauma: Everything’s Preventable?

“This is painful, therefore, there was more I could have done to make sure it didn’t happen.” My constant mantra whenever something—unexpectedly or expectedly—goes wrong in my life, especially if it’s a repeated stressor. I’ve been processing my trauma history directly as of late, and have come away with the knowledge of a core belief around which I have centered much of my interaction with the world. For today’s #EmbodiedHeart post, I will be delving into the ways in which this belief has colored my life as well as acknowledging the falsity it contains and tracing the evolution of my self-talk in relation to it.

By Chance but Not by Choice

For much of my adult life, I’ve conceptualized fate as the lazy person’s excuse for poor choices. This judgment has been aimed both at myself and at others. I’ve held tightly to the idea that it is possible to avoid negative experiences through a three-step process, which I repeat dozens of times a day in relation to current stressors: 1) Contingency plan—If this happens, then this could happen. If that occurs, then what? Continue the decision-tree until all possible events and outcomes are contained; 2) Check on the progress of events frequently to determine how far along the contingency plan has progressed and which possible outcomes can be discarded; 3) As soon as one of the outcomes on the decision-tree is activated, move to the next step. Do not consider alternatives, do not wait for confirmation, do not breathe. Act immediately, as if your life depended on it.

Processing events through this lens contributes greatly to my struggles with anxiety and degrades my physical health by pumping stress hormones through my body. Waves of visceral intensity hit me as the internal cursor blinks, waiting for a line of code in order to move the plan to the next step. Imagine overlapping screens of these scenarios running simultaneously, all with alarm bells going off intermittently and a giant clock (counting down to what?) beeping. That’s how I handle interfacing with daily life.

The entire apparatus I’ve constructed seems aimed at one goal—to keep bad things from happening. What if, though, the seeds of all that terrifies us were planted in the garden of our lives before we were born? What if there are fixed experiences through which we must walk on our individual timelines no matter how much we try to avoid or disavow them? What if I was always going to suffer some amount of abuse and trauma in my childhood, whether I told someone outside of my family of origin immediately, or (as it actually happened), not until I was a fully-grown adult? I have no proof that the answers to any of these questions is “Yes, that’s how it works.” I do realize, though, that conceptualizing at least some of my most difficult experiences through the prism of fate rather than as the result of my own failure to plan is a less shaming and constricting way of approaching life.

Belief So Centrally Flawed

With unlimited resources of time, physical strength, emotional maturity, money, social support and foreknowledge, perhaps almost all negative events in our lives could be prevented. We do not, of course, live in such an environment. As a child being sexually abused in my own house, I did not have any of the beneficial supports listed above on my side. With the limitations I faced, I could not have prevented what happened to me. I had no choice but to endure what occurred until I got myself to a place of safety and freedom where I was able psychologically and emotionally to start to unpack the horror I had faced. It isn’t so much that I struggle with it being my fault as in thinking I caused or elicited it, instead, it seems like it should have only happened once if it was going to happen, because I should have then been able to problem-solve my way out of it happening again. I was genuinely helpless and trapped. All the problem-solving in the world doesn’t work if you are six years old, without a single adult who is “on your side,” trained to see outsiders as corrupt and evil, and extremely socially anxious. My fate was unavoidable at that time.

Where Choice Abounds but Fail-Safes Falters

Thankfully, childhood trauma survivors rarely remain helpless once we are adults. I felt a surge of fire go straight through me when I listened to Kyle Stephens, one of the first survivors to speak out against Larry Nassar, state the following at his trial, “Perhaps you have figured it out by now, but little girls don’t stay little forever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world.” The ferocity of this statement for me is a woman standing in her own power with whom no one dare trifle. By and large, as adults, we get to make our own decisions. We can grow our resources to a place where certain kinds of terror are unable to stalk us. I choose, for instance, not to be in communication with my abusers. In doing so, I’ve removed their ability to dictate how I speak my truth. Layers and layers of shame and self-restriction have fallen from me as I’ve grown in my awareness of just how much freedom adulthood can hold.

There is though, unanswered in me, the question of fate. What if, even as a person who owns my mistakes and takes responsibility for my actions, things are going to happen to me that are beyond my control to prevent? Or even experiences that are my destiny to transit? For me personally, the rebuttal to “everything’s preventable” being a statement in need of many caveats is not “God is in control.” Rather, I’ve settled for now on “life is absurd.” Life is absurd when a person does everything possible to be healthy and ends up with a life-threatening disease. Life is absurd when callous and conniving graduates of privilege abscond with profits torn from the soiled palms of those who toil for their bread. Life is absurd and the world is not just.

My conceptualization of Goddess does not extend to believing She is in charge of everything, that it will all “work out in the end.” Does an entity exist that has my best interest in mind and the ability to bring good to fruition? The child in me, the one that thought it was her job to keep bad things from happening, desperately wants to surrender control of her fate to this belief. The adult in me, however, believes that even if there is no grand contingency plan, no clock in the sky winding down, there may be moments of trouble from which none of my scheming will have saved me, and through which I can endure and even thrive. Life is absurd and I break myself open to its whims, releasing myself from the need to stack the bizarre shapes in which it comes into a semblance of order. I desire to smile at the hand of Fate, whatever She brings me.

 

Sacred Spiritual Growth

What’s the Lesson In This For Me?

Throughout human history, many people have tried to make sense of why negative events occur in our lives. One idea that is sometimes proffered and with which I take issue is that we should “learn a lesson” from these kind of experiences and that they will invariably serve as a source of strength for us. On this #SacredSpiritualGrowth Saturday, I’ll elaborate on our ability and cause to seek insight through difficult trials. I do think there is some truth to the concept that we can learn and growth through, rather than despite, minor unpleasant life events.

To me, experiences that rise to the level of trauma are not necessarily or inherently good for us nor do they always make us stronger. I would give back much of what happened to me in my childhood in a heartbeat; I don’t think I’m a better person because of it. If you’d made sense of your own trauma in a different way, I completely support you in this as I think there are multiple valid perspectives we can hold towards suffering.

Traumatic Experiences

Traumatic experiences are those events that threaten our life or our sense of safety in a major way. They may leave us feeling betrayed, broken, lost and without hope. They shake the core of how we see the world and our sense of right and wrong. Life may seem unfair and unjust as a result, and we may feel alienated from “other people” who we perceive to wear rose-colored glasses in their assessment of how life tends to go.

These kinds of experiences can lead to a sense of spiritual growth; in fact, there is an entire body of research on “post-traumatic growth.” One moderating factor in enhancing development after trauma is social support. In other words, my take is that people are most able to grow after a tragedy when they feel supported by others during and after the trauma. For example, if a natural disaster strikes and causes issues with housing and employment, people may gain strength in their faith if lots of people are there to assist them and to lend aid during recovery.

Where trauma is especially likely to cut a ragged wound is when we go through it alone, and when we experience others as turning against, not towards us, as we try to recover from it. The individual who is rejected from every possible place of refuge, and whose life begins a downward spiral after a natural disaster is less likely to emerge from it, at least for a long time, with a sense of a deeper spiritual connection. On some level, I think the Divine becomes conflated with other people for most of us, so that to the extent that we feel distant from people, we are likely to experience a breach between ourselves and the Divine.

Everyday Obstacles

I think there are minor inconveniences and everyday types of problems that come our way through fate that we can use as a catalyst for spiritual growth. There is no clear dividing line between traumatic experiences and everyday obstacles. What one person finds minor may be a major trigger for another individual. I am not concerned with deciding for others the types of life experiences that fall into this category of “growth fodder.”  Discern for yourself the bumps along the way that you can use to make meaning and to draw out the character traits you seek to display.

I believe life unfolding in a way that runs counter to our plans invites us to contemplate certain questions. These include:

  • What do I really need in my life, and what just takes up space? What builds me spiritually?
  • What are my priorities for finding meaning in my life when my goals are thwarted? Do they align with my actions?
  • To what extent do I turn to Divinity and/or to my spiritual home when I am overwhelmed?
  • To what extent do I allow others to connect with me and offer spiritual balm to the raw and vulnerable places in me which negative situations provoke?
  • What are the spiritual rituals and practices that are particularly nourishing to me during difficult moments? To what extent do I follow through on them when they are really needed?

Signs of Spiritual Growth

How do we know if the lessons we are learning from everyday obstacles are spurring spiritual growth? I’ve listed a few signs below. They are not prescriptive or definitive! I found myself feeling like I was coming up short on every single one of them. I urge you to give yourself permission to view even a very small step in the direction they suggest as a sign you are reaching another layer of the spiritual dimension.

  • The first reaction to a negative minor setback is less and less to simply react. We are able to more fully engage the “deep thinking” part of our brain and/or to respond with a wider range of emotions than we used to be able to access. This emotional maturity is intertwined with spiritual growth in my view as it is a necessary first step before we evolve to a place of having our natural response be spiritually-centered.
  • We can more fully stay on track with our spiritual focus even when things aren’t going our way. We continue our daily rituals and meditation. We engage in deep conversations with others.
  • We are more able to own our own role in situations that occur to us. For example, if I act in a hostile, abrupt manner towards others, and then do not get the help I need from them, they are not simply incompetent. I’ve increased their inability to help me by treating them rudely. This place of personal responsibility can then empower us to make more viable choices as to how we handle moments of challenge.
  • We increase our ability to display the values and beliefs to which we ascribe in terms of how we face obstacles. For instance, if we believe being in nature provides an opportunity to connect with the Divine, we seek outdoor spaces as a respite during difficult situations.
  • We expand our focus to include giving attention to the things for which we are grateful and to the hopes to which we hold fast, even when other areas of our life are experiences in suffering.

In examining these concepts, I’ve written only in reference to the impact of external events on us. We are also buffeted by the winds of our internal thoughts and feelings. I suspect there may be a similar division in regards to inner experiences. As someone who struggles with the symptoms of multiple mental disorders, I find these akin to traumatic experiences in that the best I can currently do with them spiritually is to accept them. Some individuals encapsulate their mental health conditions as a part of their identity and see themselves as incomplete without them. As for me, I do not think they have improved who I am and I’m not pleased to have them in my life.

At the same time, the inner shifts in mood and thought that we all experience, such as a fleeting bad mood or a temporary anxious thought, can perhaps lead us to deepen our spiritual walk as we dig in to what it means to be human. We can sit with the negative moment and examine what it has to offer us. I would not want to be perfectly happy and stress-free all the time, because I think life would lose nuance and color in a mono-state.

As I mentioned several times, I have but one perspective on the idea of life teaching us lessons, and I hope to start a conversation about what your view on this is. I am very interested in seeing how the division I’ve made squares with your experience of your spiritual journey, and the extent to which the signs of spiritual growth I’ve shared fit how things have gone for you. Perhaps together we can hone in on some tried-and-true ideas for those moments when things don’t go our way.

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.