Embodied Heart

When the Best Option Isn’t Good Enough

I’ve spent a good bit of time the last few months waging the battle we each face between seeking to change things in our lives that we don’t like or deciding to accept them for what they are, which I’ll be unpacking in today’s #EmbodiedHeart post. A flash of insight recently occurred that showed me some of the areas in my life that feel the most frustrating to me exist because there is a wide gap between what would be “good enough” for me as a person in terms of meeting my needs, and what the best option out of the choices I could make right now appears to be. In other words, the choice that outweighs the others is still below the threshold that would satisfy me. It may be possible that my personal growth as an individual can slightly alter what feels “good enough,” creating flexibility to allow a range of solutions to meet my needs instead of one or two outcomes. At the same time, I believe that a circumstance such as my housing that feels quite far away from good enough is not going to allow me to grow as quickly or effectively as I could in a place that more fully meets my needs and may actually add to my burden in life because of the triggers it contains.

A major hurdle that can trip people up prior to my current dilemma is feeling helpless, stuck, or trapped in unpleasant situations. By and large, once we are adults, we are very rarely genuinely trapped or helpless. To believe we are can flow naturally from an experience of childhood trauma in which we were stuck and unable to improve our lot in life. Once we’ve grown up, though, we almost always have other options to consider. The choices or changes we might acknowledge are there for us can be daunting in terms of the sacrifice and time required to realize them, and they may provoke quite a bit of anxiety because they require us to take risks. By and large, things we dislike do not need to stay the way they are. As someone with a rock-solid internal locus of control, I am challenged by my difficulty empathizing with people who readily share a litany of excuses as to why life sucks but can’t be made better. I embrace change as a necessary part of seeking satisfaction in life.

Despite my ability to see that change is possible and that I do not have to keep at things I dislike, I have been hitting against limits in certain areas of my life, mostly my living situation. In regards to my housing, the most reasonable and realistic decision is to “stay put” for a few years, even though I am on the verge of hating where I live. Guilt bubbles up as soon as I acknowledge how unhappy I am, because a good portion of people would find my situation more than satisfactory, and because there are plenty of things about my house that are perfectly fine. That’s the thing about “good enough” though—I perceive it as a right-brained, gut-level knowing deep within me that, although perhaps being slightly malleable, is relatively fixed once enough data have been collected to provide an assessment. Some part of me discerned very soon after moving into my house that it wasn’t going to be my “forever home,” but it took the rest of me quite a while to fully acknowledge this reality.

My primary solution to knowing that what I’m choosing to do (to stay put for a few years) is the best but also an unsatisfactory decision, is to accept my circumstances for what they are and to make effective use of my time. I want to become significantly more self-sufficient and to reduce my impact on the environment. There are so many tools I need to acquire and skills I need to learn. In that context, there is a tiny sparkle of gratitude in me that my goals of moving to a location that more fully meets my needs cannot yet be accomplished, because I have to prepare myself for the life I envision. I’m good at learning on the spot, but something tells me actions such as raising chickens or transforming an entire lawn into permaculture are probably much less overwhelming and susceptible to failure if a person has taken some time to become informed and to practice skills ahead of time. Maybe we can only see why our needs felt thwarted and our progress slowed once we have arrived at the milestones ahead. Maybe the path I’m on will head off in directions I cannot yet conceive. It could be that it’s only in a backwards glance that I will able to rejoice in by the drudgery of my present place.

How do you reconcile situations when all of the choices you can see are less than what you know you require to meet your needs? When life limits you, what do you do with the time before you can take the next step you are craving? How do you come to know what “good enough” means for you? Is your concept of “good enough” amenable to change, and, if so, how do you alter it?

Embodied Heart, Surviving n Thriving

Unreality: The Distortion of Dissociation

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

Aspects of Dissociation

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

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

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

Depersonalization

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

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

Derealization

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

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

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

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

Dissociation and Spirituality

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

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

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

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