Embodied Heart, Inner Work

Bog and Peak: Welcoming Mystery

“Perhaps we should reconsider the importance of swamps. They are the meeting place of earth and water, a liminal space between the surface, the conscious world, and the depth of the unconscious. When we dare to venture into the forbidden forest, the soft ground where waters are dark, or the house of the witch, we engage with adventures and learn more about ourselves.” Eila Carrico, The Other Side of the River, pg. 47.

Trauma survivors face many mysteries—making sense the specifics of their experiences, as well as relating to self and others when core beliefs have been shattered and determining what being “healed” really entails. For today’s #InnerWork Wednesday, I’ll be examining our response to the unknown. I recently shared a poem that I wrote which blossomed into this post.

I thought the purpose of inner work was evaporation; to remove all traces of murkiness from the bogs of my heart and memory, exposing all that I am to the light. But life holds mystery; pure awareness would bore us instantly. No, I think now life is the film on water surface, the pebble-lined shore bed, the dip between road and grass. Rising and sinking, knowing and unknowing, holding and releasing, body and soul. Dwelling in the space between reality and fantasy, solid and mist, sensation and perception, allowing form to pass into the formless and back again.

I widen myself to include the bits of me I do not know. I pull myself in around the same pieces when they make themselves manifest, forming a protective hedge. This cycle of movement births a mothering of inner trust.

When Self meets Other, magic ensues. The edge, teeming with activity, evolves, grows, dies back and reforms. Boundaries exist in nature but are not created or fixed. We can have confidence in ourselves, as we mature, to feel them from the tips of our fingers as we approach Other, rather than to erect them as solid steel fortresses into which none dare enter or to run rampant through any we meet.

Edges require invitation, both across and down. To know ourselves in the places where we are hidden, we must near the drop and stay our feet until eyes surface and request our presence. Forcing parts of self out into the piercing light is just as traumatic as shoving them into the algae. In connecting with Other, voice ringing over range reigns. Asking and receiving permission to sit with another, as well as calling ourselves away as we leave, signals to loved ones that their Self will not be overrun or abandoned by our Other.

We will never know ourselves or another wholly. To awaken is not to perceive, rather, it is to sense not only what the body experiences, but to lift eyes to the mountaintop—the periphery of Other—and the turbid waters—the depths of Self—and to hold in consciousness the awareness of Secrets. To the fullest extent possible, learning to vigil these Unknowns, table set and heart open, instead of demanding their presence or rejecting their existence, enlivens the edge and entrains its spirals and eddies to soften. What bubbles up, what casts down ladder, is both stranger and old friend.

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?

 

Goddessing Self Care

Self-Care for Rejected Parts: How to Respond to Judgment

Have you ever been unfairly labeled by someone? Called out unexpected? Told you needed to change? As we explore these topics for today’s #GoddessingSelfCare post, I will be using a series of questions which can serve as a quick reference for evaluating situations in which you feel triggered by someone’s interaction with you. I will be returning to this topic in a future post as well to investigate how to engage in self-care for ourselves when we experience failure and setbacks.

Processing Judgment from Others

Judgment as I will be discussing it here refers to verbal and non-verbal communication from others expressing disagreement directed at self, criticism, disapproval or negative feedback. Judgment can be a direct conduit to shame, especially if we are not rock-solid in our inner relationship with Self.  In order to best approach the nuances of judgment in a way that caretakes the vulnerable pieces of who we are, I believe we do well to study the nature of the communication, as well as its intention and true target.

To What Extent Was the Judgment Invited?

It is vital to have at least one person in your life with whom you feel safe enough to have an honest and open relationship. This includes, to me, knowing that you can ask the person to give you feedback, even if it isn’t the easiest thing to hear, and trusting that they will tell you their opinion as directly as possible. We can be lured into a false sense of security by “yes” people in our lives—those who concern themselves solely with ingratiating themselves to us by flattering us no matter our actions. If we allow these types of relationships and behaviors to flourish, the hard truths still tend to make themselves known, but it can become much more difficult for us to accept them. I’d rather get a sense from a loving and caring friend that maybe something has more flaws than I’m seeing rather than to only discover the defects after a lot has been invested and after there is much I stand to lose. All this to say, I think it is good to invite constructive criticism into our lives, and to open to it as one data point, one person’s opinion, when it is shared.

It can be an entirely different affair to receive unsolicited advice or criticism. When this occurs, I believe we do well to consider the questions below such as the person’s intention. We can also take our own boundaries into account. Did we in any way indicate that critical advice-giving, especially if it is repeated or intense, is unwelcome? If not, perhaps all that is needed to let the person know how we feel. One of the most useful questions I’ve ever been asked and have asked of others is “How can I best be here for you in this?” By doing so, I am prohibiting myself from seeing advice-giving or “tough love” as necessary or welcome when a person is relating a struggle unless I am explicitly told such. It is also important to consider the extent to which we feel safe in the relationship. Can we tell the person that what they said didn’t sit well with us and have that be received, or will it trigger a defense reaction? If the other person gives harsh advice often, fails to heed boundaries or requests to stop, and is unreceptive to feedback, I am very likely to curtail the extent to which I express vulnerability with that person and/or to have a go-to response such as “oh, I may look into that” if they continue their behavior in a setting in which I cannot fully disengage.

What Is the Intention Is Behind the Judgment?

Is the person being spiteful/jealous, or, are they trying, in their own way, to give constructive criticism? I believe we owe it to the parts of ourselves who are vulnerable and fragile to stand unyielding against judgment that is coming from an unhealthy place. Even if it is in relation to an area on which we know we need to work, we do not need to be led there by our noses by someone who wishes us ill. It can of course be very difficult to discern someone’s intention, as many times the person offering feedback from a less-than-supportive mindset will go out of their way to act as though what they are saying is in fact a kindess. Here, I think our gut is our best reference point; I think most of us have relatively accurate radar for sniffing out communication which, at its heart, strives to undermine us in order to elevate the one giving it.

A shade of intention to me is also the framework in which the information is couched. Is the person sharing it as “hey, this is what I think” or is it “hey, this is how it is, full stop?” I make very little room in my head for people who think they know the Truth about anything, and especially about intimate aspects of who I am as a person. In addition, when we assess a thought, feeling or behavior that another individual is having as right/wrong and fail to link our belief to a social norm, we are basically playing God/dess in our evaluation of ourselves and others. I often stop when someone makes this type of all-knowing remark and reply in a way that redirects their focus back to themselves and to the fact that they are the one who is holding a norm or belief. With the obvious exception of the legal system, we get to decide if any particular passage from another’s Book of Things Everyone Should and Shouldn’t Do is interesting, relevant or important to us as an individual. If I determine I’m being judged by a moral system to which I do not ascribe and with which I disagree, I state such as plainly as I can—“I know this matters to you because you believe in X, but I don’t follow this religion/philosophy/generally restrictive way of living, so I don’t see it the same way. Here’s how I conceptualize it..” I do this more for my own benefit than the other person—it is actually a way of drawing a line in the sand and refusing to internalize someone else’s system of belief. The other person will likely walk away thinking I am unworthy or doomed, but I am left with my dignity intact.

To Whom or What Does the Judgment Really Refer?

When we feel judged by someone, it is up to us to first determine if we want to look at the issue in question based on factors such as the person’s intention. If we decide it is worth pursuing, I believe it is also incumbent on us to sit with the judgment and find the nugget of truth it contains. To a large extent, someone’s critique of us reveals more about them than it does about us, as it shows us what preferences they have and the assumptions they make about others. They may be projecting their needs and desires that hide in their shadow onto us. If, after processing the information, we find there is a behavior in which we’ve engaged that is worth addressing, we also have freedom in terms of the extent to which we allow the person who shared the judgment into our journey of “fixing” the issue. The more I’ve stewed on this, the more I’ve realized I hit on a truth I wish I’d known a long time ago—even if someone sees something in us we’d dislike or struggle to own, we don’t owe them our story or our process. We may learn from our experience with them without their knowledge.

It is also worth considering whether what we perceive as a judgment is in fact a boundary violation. By this, I am referencing whether the behavior in question is our own to address, or whether we have in fact overstepped our welcome. If what feels stifling from another is their “no,” we need to stop ourselves and discern whether we proceeded without an invitation or in another way broke trust. I am very sensitive to people’s boundaries, so it doesn’t tend to go well for me if someone hints that I’ve crossed them, but I’m learning to sit with my discomfort and press through it to learn how to more fully navigate close relationships. It is easy to experience a boundary being established as a rejection of the entirety of who we are, but I view it (in my best moments) as the person honoring both their own needs and my needs by letting me know how close is comfortable for them.

Self-Care for Sensitive Wounds

When we are in a situation where we’ve felt criticized, I believe we have a responsibility to ourselves to explore the self and relationship dynamics involved. Solely focusing on making ourselves feel better may leave many pages unwritten in our life story. At the same time, we do not need to analyze the situation ad nauseum or deny our little selves feelings of comfort, understanding and protection. In the immediate aftermath of a difficult interaction, the following behaviors may be helpful:

  • Express your thoughts and feelings before you focus on the behavioral aspect (confession: I skip this way too much!). This may take the form of artwork, poetry, dance—any kind of creative action that is less focused on fixing and more focused on being. It could also include a conversation with a trusted friend. What would it feel like to talk about the way the feelings you are having are sitting in your body, instead of how unfair it was when she said…?
  • Seek and be present with nature. Engaging in mindfulness in a natural setting, without an expectation of immediate change, may help to release the tension you are feeling.
  • Care for your physical being. This includes exercise, healthy eating, good hygiene and adequate sleep, all of which can be especially challenging if you are dealing with other physical ailments or mental health concerns. To whatever extent it is within our power to control, I think showing care to our physical bodies is a form of self-respect, which may be particularly important if we feel disrespected in another arena of life.

Very few people revel in hearing about what they are not doing well at and how they should do better. As a result, we are wise to be discreet and selective in our constructive criticism that we offer each other. Deep, trusting relationships allow for a healthy exchange of concerns as well as boundary-setting in a manner that does not reek of blaming and shaming. With time, practice and dedication, this type of relationship can be achieved, and we can learn to allow unsolicited, harsh, ill-intentioned projections to fall at our feet, un-sniffed and un-absorbed.

Embodied Heart, Surviving & Thriving

The Wasteland and the Dandelion

I’ve felt inspired to write several posts this spring with hints of weeds in them. My reality has begun to match my imagination as dandelions have overtaken my front lawn. I felt only the slightest embarrassment about the unruliness until one of my neighbors commented on it in a negative way. It was at the end of a long and stressful week, so, in my anger, I immediately got a weed-wacker and started hacking at them (my mower is hand-powered so it doesn’t do much). I felt exhilarated by the fact that my “solution” to the issue was only making the problem worse by neatly disseminating the seeds in every direction.

As I sat with the situation and how I handled it, I felt a budding sense of recognition of my old friend shame. When someone judges me, I tend to move through a place of humiliation so quickly that I don’t realize what I’m feeling, and I then either berate myself or behave defensively. Someone else’s reaction to us is secondary to the meaning we give it internally—we only feel shame when we purchase what they are proffering. For today’s #SurvivingnThriving Tuesday, I want to spend some time uncovering the roots of our shame as trauma survivors and relating the specific experience I had in this instance in tending it.

That Which Secrets Hold

Shamefulness births lies and deceit. In the case of childhood trauma, this may take the form of hiding our suffering from ourselves. When we are unable to connect to a part of our experience, we release it into an inner wasteland where it metastasizes and spreads. The more we disown who we are or what we’ve experienced, the more inner control it takes to restrain the outgrowth of our horrors. Through aches and illnesses, our bodies often begin to articulate that which we cannot acknowledge.

Childhood abuse of the physical or sexual nature involves bodily violation whereas mental and emotional abuse violates us psychologically. These defilements, particularly when they occur without an affirming and protective adult to intervene, produce shame. It is in a child’s nature to eat shame as deserved; after all, if the abuse is committed by a loved one, the alternative is to reject the very body and being of those to whom the child is closest.

In some cases of abuse, abusers may be making manifest their unprocessed and shamed traumatic past. I believe this can heighten the chances that the individual who is acting in an abusive manner will, in the moment, deliberately induce shame in the child as way to further distance themselves from their past. Only my body knows what this really means–it is too painful and difficult for me to put into words what it feels like to become a conduit of another’s self-hatred. If we have no other reason than this to work on our own shame, I think we have reason enough.

But It Blossoms Into Tears

So, if we are trauma survivors, it is likely shame has gained a foothold. Should we, as my neighbors clearly expected of me, head off for pesticides and torches and get it gone? If only it were that easy. Shame is a cancer that splits each time you cut into it, resilient and resistant. We can’t weed-wack our way out of it.

I believe the function of internalized feelings of shame is often to hold back grief. Rejecting a part of ourselves as sullied and vile because of what happened to us allows us to break the timepiece and stay in the moment of terror, rather than to move forward to face our little self and grow. Who are we with the inclusion of all of our scars and sorrows? Every time we pause to allow another’s judgment to creep in to how we picture ourselves, we disallow ourselves comfort for whatever we are appearing “less than” in comparison. I pride myself on respecting other’s boundaries and needs, so my neighbor’s observation on the state of my patchwork-grass exposed a lack of attention that didn’t fit with how I wanted to be seen.

Going further into the wasteland of shame, I find the aloneness with which I cope each day appears as a scrubby tree whose branches crackle in reminder that if I had a partner or a child or family, my lawn would be nicer because there would be someone to remind me about it and to help me maintain it. A Cheshire-grin jackrabbit hops by, noting that I also “should” be productive and work hard and never stop moving. This is a trauma-time loop where I believed I could prevent the next incident of abuse by staying ahead of it; knowing when it would occur could stop it, so I thought. Finally I arrive at my destination, a small pit of murky water. Here I find my grief. I feel outside of time as I pause in this place. What arises is an awareness that I felt “safe” because I perceived myself to be following the rules of being a good neighbor. By doing so, I thought I would be able to maintain positive relationships with the neighbors I like. The humiliation of shame-induction rises up and the water goes black. The sense in me is that there is no safe place, no way to undo it, no path through which I can go where I won’t be hurt. I am trapped, helpless and alone. My best effort wasn’t good enough and when the cost is body and psychic violation of the nature I experienced as child, failure really matters. Shame, reaching out into oozy mud, covers me. Shame is a tar pit and grief is the only water that dissolves it.

I see her finally, the little self who doesn’t know how to maintain a lawn because she was never taught how to do so. The little self who thought being quiet and staying inside her plat of land would be enough to win favor. The little self who just wanted to have her own home where she wouldn’t be hurt, and who marveled at the dandelions because they made her happy. One tiny moment—a ten second interaction—cast me into the wilderness of my shame and it took me hours to find my little self and transform tar to water. Tears finally come. Judgement is irrelevant when I know I met myself today in this exploration and it was worth it. Sure, I’ll buy a stick to dig out some of the blossoms, but I’ll leave plenty there to mark the pathway out of my shame and back to myself.

Goddess Thealogy

The World Altar

For today’s #Thealogy Thursday, I want to share a spiritual knowing that revealed itself to me. I do not in any way claim that it is Truth, but rather, share it as an outpouring of the blessing it gave me. I’ve written recently of my difficulties with finding family, so this envisioning held special meaning to me. I find my belonging and my being encapsulated in it.

In my vision, I saw four altars: to Self, a romantic partner, my family of origin and my children. Everyone would have these stones of sacrifice, although the recipients of our dedication may vary. In relationship, each altar becomes a table of living reverance, on which we gift of ourselves. When the object of our devotion is no longer in our lives, the altar transforms to a grave – table to headstone. The meaning of the relationship and the lessons learned from it inscribed themselves on it. My altar to my family of origin is a grave as that relationship is irrevocably severed. For romantic partner and child, I hold the liminal space between conception and decay, uncertain as to whether to mourn their absence or whether to pour of myself to enliven the dedication. On my altar to Self, I make sacrifice; I invest in myself and venerate my body. At times, I’ve clung to its rocky facade as the only relic I had.

As this knowing unfolded, I saw myself turning ’round in this sacred place. The landscape was dotted with circular altars. One stood out from the rest. The altar to Goddess, to Earth, to the World and Universe, to all of Being. So large that every human and every creature could fit around its circumference. Sacrifices here return to the giver in abundance. Life-giver, guardian of the deep, all that is. Tunneled in every direction from this altar was a web connected to each of the individual altars; She under-girds all we do.

Everything to which we dedicate ourselves exists within this medium. There is no escape in the most affirming way possible. Sure, we can enslave ourselves to false pillars from which no life has ever emanated. We can serve graves and mourn the living. We can spend decades holding fast to the cold marble of bygone or neverhad, unaware of the abundance which would flourish if we would simply unfix our gaze. But we don’t have to anymore. More than knowing, I experienced this reality—the belonging to and for and how that for so long has evaded me.

I find a profound justice in this model of the world. No matter the altar, each of us meets our end on this outstretched plain. She calls everyone to Her when they die, returning all to Herself. No one gets to write the last lines of their story except for Her.

In the glow of this revelation, I think transcendence occurs when we are able to glimpse our altar to Self turning to grave and relish the gathering dust as our final gift to the world. We can die not clinging to the edifies of what was or should have been, but prostrating ourselves in gratitude for what has been received as well as taken. Only in the exchange of being held and losing refuge do we meet love.

Does this mean we should not grieve what is gone and what could never be? No, but I think we do well to know when it is that we face memory and when it is that we face possibility. Mourning is relevant, sacred and true. It may mean we spend time clinging to and scrapping at rock, willing life where it no longer blossoms. If we give ourselves over to it wholly, I think mourning eventually allows us to set our back against tomb and to recircle ourselves with all who celebrate Her. Love is daring to devote ourselves to Self and others, with an embodied understanding that time loops us all into non-existence or at least recycles every bit of who we are. Life is so precious that nothing endures.

Toko-Pa Turner has noted that sacrifice means to make sacred. My vision revealed the depths of this for me in a way that has unbound my heart and released my holding to flimsy and false rockface. I have home now, stone steps and the wide berth of granite that goes on forever. I rise to meet Her there, carefully placing each flower and spoon of honey and grain offering in turn. She consumes them as She envelops me. I am remade each time I offer myself, returning lighter and deeper and fuller. There is nowhere we can go without Her, and no one She cannot transform at the World Altar.