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.

 

Naturally Mindful

Miracle Moments

Cross-posted at my SageWoman blog.

During some intentional inner work time, I pulled the Mother Mary card from the Guidance Guidance Oracle card deck. I felt an aversion to the phrase it contained—“expect a miracle.” My childhood religious training has infused the word miracle with implications of salvation from sin and requirements of faith. My scientific training has added additional complications by creating great skepticism in me as to whether anything can exist that could not ultimately be dissected and analyzed. However, as I reflect upon for today’s #NaturallyMindful Monday, in sitting with that word for a while in meditation and carrying it in the back of my mind throughout the day, I’ve found myself growing in my ability to relate to it from a place of awareness and gratitude.

Unexpected good fortune is one hook with which I’ve caught ahold of the experience of miracle. I had a situation a few weeks ago in which I had a highly charged moment that I thought would be repeated ad nauseum for the next several months. Without any effort on my part, the situation instead resolved itself with a day. I can get caught up easily in the useful fantasy that the only way positive events will occur in my life is if I work very hard to make them happen. The experiences of delight and relief that pepper my pathways when I finally stop striving to create them are blessings indeed.

Instances of serendipity also help me grab onto the concept of a miracle. I’ve been stressing about my dog who is a few years old and may need surgery at some point for his knee condition. Even though he should have a good long time with me yet, I get myself worked up about what it will be like when he ages and passes on. As I pondered this, a random stranger came up to me at a pet store and told me she had a friend whose two Yorkies lived into their mid-20’s! Twenty or more years as a possible outcome was not something I had even considered (and know is highly unusual). But for a second, it felt like Goddess herself was appearing and letting me know that trusting in the moment and allowing life to unfold without a firm sense of where or how each fork in the road will occur is not only a happier choice but also possibly a more realistic one. I wonder how many “angels” I brush past in my rush to control rather than to be present with my fate.

Nature presents herself as a living miracle to me. It has been a “real” winter where I live with lots of snow. The temperature has been creeping upward for a few days recently, even thought the nights are still cold. It only took hours of warmth for me to notice some kind of greenery (probably weeds!) starting to poke through the mulch, as well as some insects to begin to buzz around. What seemed just days ago to be lifeless, decayed and rotted is already unfurling and crawling with movement and hope, as if Goddess in her Nature form is being transfigured from death to life.

What do you think of the word “miracle?” To what extent or in what ways are you able to appreciate it, and where might you feel challenged by it? What blessing and “angels” have appeared in your life?

Goddessing Self Care

Reconciling Compassion and Healthy Boundaries

For today’s #GoddessingSelfCare Sunday, I will be examining what it means to be compassionate within the context of healthy boundaries. Compassion includes feelings of empathy and acting in ways that are caring and kind to others. It does not apply solely to other people, in fact, I believe it has to start with compassion toward ourselves. In this way, self-care and compassion are intimately related.

Compassionate behaviors are habits I am forming, not ones that comes naturally to me. I’ve shared about some of my personal journey in my #Embodied Heart posts. The traumatic experiences I’ve faced, among others, have made it difficult for me to respond with empathy to others, even though I can intellectually see things from different perspectives. I am especially afraid of acting like a martyr or being taken advantage of by others to whom I might offer gentleness. Given my struggles, I felt a desire to determine what it means to be compassionate and to remain boundaried at the same time.

Compassion Antidotes and Their Function

Before I fully explore what it means to be compassionate, I first need to look at what I’ve held in its place inside. In my studies of social psychology, I’ve come across several concepts that can serve to blunt or mute our responses of compassion. These include at minimum hatred, prejudice, self-righteousness, dehumanization, self-importance, greed and detachment. My particular drugs of choice are hatred and self-righteousness.

I have been able to hate with the same intensity with which others love. A part of me is actually proud of the sustained force with which I can hold grudges and feel anger towards certain people. When I sit compassionately with this part of myself, what is revealed to me is that my hostility serves as a yardstick, shoving away any attempt to treat me with disrespect or to humiliate me. Somewhere in me, I believe that if I am filled with sufficient hate, no one can hurt me or take advantage of me. The truth, thought, is that my Inner Being, which is infused with love, is much stronger than any outside individual’s attacks could ever be. No one can possess my soul or the core of who I am, no matter how they treat me. Now I just need to convince the hateful part of me of this truth.

Self-righteousness is especially complicated for me because I was raised in a religion that eschewed even “false humility.” We had to be humble, really humble, and even acting humble wasn’t enough. The odd thing was, there was a lot of arrogance and I-know-best guised in “God told me…” My scientific education has only served to increase my propensity to self-righteousness, because I can quickly pull on my body of knowledge to correct any errors in logic that I perceive when another person is talking with me. A good part of my internal dialogue during conversations with others, especially when they are sharing a struggle, is “shut up, shut up, shut up” not because I doubt myself but because I can tell I am speaking from “I know best” instead of “what do you need right now.” After a few decades of low self-esteem, my high self-confidence is all too happy to make herself known. What self-righteous behavior protects against, at least for me, are feelings of helplessness and uncertainty. I feel a ton of uncertainty about how to fix the things I don’t like in my own life, but I often believe that I have ten solutions at the ready for anyone else who needs help. I have a lot of work to do to form a solid trust that other people know what is best for their own lives and that building them up with a compassion that celebrates their Inner Being is the truest solution of all.

Acts of Compassion That Respect Our Inner Beings

With the ways in which I normally disengage myself from compassion in mind, I turn now to ideas about how to elicit compassionate behaviors. I opened this piece discussing boundaries, but I’m also inspired to conceptually consider Inner Beings as a point of departure. I feel very confident that I am my own best healer, and I am beginning to see that this is true of other people. In this light, choosing actions becomes simpler.

In cases where someone is acting in a way that provokes feelings of hatred in me, I can respond with love. I believe that we each have a responsibility to turn to our own Inner Being first, so I first would need to engage in self-care and seek the wisdom of my Inner Goddess (this behavior would take on different forms, depending on someone’s religion and culture). This would often mean that I would not respond immediately to a provocation but would take my time to soothe myself and remind myself of my worth first. From this empowered and embodied place, I can set boundaries and speak my truth, doing so in a way that broadcasts genuine care for the other person as well as myself, instead of malevolence. If the other person is not treating me in a way that I feel is respectful of my Inner Being, I can speak to them in a way that acknowledges their “best self” in the hopes that they will then access this part of themselves. If this fails, I can stand firm in my expectations that I be treated respectfully and can show them this same respect. As I write this, I realize that I do actually already engage in this behavior in professional settings in terms of how I hold boundaries, but I frequently forget to turn to my own Inner Being and acknowledge myself first. In my personal life, I’ve put minimal effort into doing any of these behaviors. It is much, much easier for me to hate than to love. Recognizing the energy that it takes for me to be compassionate seems like a positive self-care step I can take right now.

In cases where my self-righteous, fix-it-now, and intolerance of incompetence are heightened, I can sit with the part of myself that resists any feelings of helplessness and uncertainty. I can remind myself that other people have access to their own Inner Being who is standing by, ready to help them at any moment. Perhaps, in relating to others who are feeling overwhelmed or indecisive, encouraging them to check in with that part of themselves is wise. In addition, if I do give advice, I need to do so from the place of my Inner Goddess, not from a place motivated by impatience, anxiety, arrogance or frustration. When someone makes a mistake, I need to show them the same kindness I would want to be shown in the situation.

As I write these thoughts, I find myself wondering why other people, in fact, a good number of people with whom I’ve become acquainted, are so much more able to show compassion than I am. As I listen to my Inner Being, I see immediately that I was not shown genuine compassion growing up, likely because my parents did not receive it earlier in their lives either. Within my religious context, compassion came with a huge price tag of self-desecration. In order to be cared for by a higher being, one had to believe that they were scum and unworthy of being loved. I cannot stomach this viewpoint and I think it is a perversion of true compassion. Compassion honors and cherishes; it does not demean and demand a discarding of all parts of self.

Empathy and compassion are likely, at least in part, learned behaviors. If there was no one who taught us how to act in these ways growing up, I suppose we must teach ourselves. With the viewpoint of an Inner Being in each of us, it has become clearer to me as to how to navigate boundaries and needs when engaging in acts of compassion. I believe I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on it. What is your relationship to compassion as well as to compassion “antidotes?” How do you determine how to act in situations that cause you to feel anger or helplessness? What for you represents your “Inner Being” and how do you access this part of yourself and/or Divinity during times of struggle?

Sacred Spiritual Growth

What It Means to Wish

I recently came across an Instagram post with the following quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” I uttered “YES!” and felt vindicated in terms of my focus on planning and doing as opposed to dreaming. I value hard work and dedication to a near-religious fervor and easily feel scorn towards people I perceive as hoping their lives will improve without making any effort towards what they want.

Soon, though, my inner work during ritual revealed a weakness in my thinking. Goals with plans are indeed more likely to be accomplished, but is the entire point of life to dust off a display case of successes? Is showing ourselves steady and reliable the only virtue on which we should focus? For today’s #SacredSpiritualGrowth Saturday, I will be exploring what it means to allow ourselves to mentalize beyond what seems in our grasp, and how this broadening of our thinking, coupled with dedication, can propel us into previously unimagined places on our spiritual journey.

Hope, Trauma and Inner Visioning

Dreaming big often evokes emotions I’d rather not accept or admit to having, including desire, yearning and a sense of vulnerability. If I don’t really want anything that I cannot accomplish in a straightforward manner, and I do not long for things that I historically have been unable to achieve, I will no longer feel disappointment. Or, so goes in my inner reasoning. The reality is that my life can end up feeling flat, empty and unfulfilled nonetheless.

Traumatic experiences, especially those that occur during young childhood as mine did, can cause a devastating loss of hope. I’ve often felt that, in regards to myself and people like me, we have solved a terrible riddle, the answer to which only we are privy—“why do bad things happen to good people?” “Because there is no real justice in this life or any other.” I see myself with the innocent childhood belief in basic trust and connection to the outside world irreparably damaged a few short years into my life. I don’t believe in karma; I don’t believe in family loyalty; I don’t believe we get what we deserve. From this framework, within which I still exist, it has been extremely challenging for me to do more than survive and get by. Thriving has felt like something that others get to do if they are lucky—a level of existence from which I’m exiled.

The profound shift that occurred after my inner work in which I pulled a “dreamseed” card from my Soulful Woman Guidance Card deck was that I realized I can create a vision of myself that does not solely rely on my current reality as its basis. There is nothing stopping me from doing so aside from my own fear of failure and disappointment, and the harsh internalized criticisms of my youth.

Creating the Dream

Where my internal processing led me was to write out a vision of myself. I instantly contemplated an elaborate vision-board but the personal growth I’ve experienced through writing led me instead to a word-based mentalization. I incorporated a focus on the following areas:

  • Who I Am Becoming, including my:
    • Physical Being
    • Thoughts
    • Emotions
    • Behaviors
  • How I Will Spend My Time
  • What Qualities My Relationships Will Espouse
  • What Characteristics My Environment Will Hold

I held nothing back in terms of exactly what I want my life to be, in other words, I did not use my present experiences and place in life as the basis for my vision. I wrote mostly in generalizations as I believe life and fate will fill in the detail for me. I then put in bold typeface all the sentences that feel “aspirational,” meaning I have work to do in order for them to be realized in my life. I already have a list of goals on which I am working, so I am now incorporating aspects of my vision into practical steps I can take to manifest my intentions. I continue to return to the concept of self-compassion as a core principle that must underlie my undertaking. It is possible I will feel just as far from some areas as I am today when I re-evaluate my progress as the end of the year, but I believe simply having an articulated statement of “this is who I want to be” will inspire additional growth and insight.

I feel embarrassed by the judgment I’ve held in the past towards others and towards parts of myself who might want things that do not seem possible. I see now that I’ve been allowing some of my potential as a person to lie untapped because I was fearful of failure and of the bitter pain of disappointment. Dreams and visions are not just for the mystics; they can inspire each of us to become the most evolved versions of ourselves to which we have access in this life.

What is your experience of creating dreams and desires for yourself? What is the relationship between planning, goal-setting and inner vision in your life? What holds you back from dreaming big, and what allows you to open yourself to possibility?

Sacred Spiritual Growth

Mistaking the Familiar for the Safe: On Whose Path are You?

There was a major snow storm in my area this winter. My Yorkie, despite his diminutive size, typically vies for the lead with me when we go for a walk, ambling wherever his little heart desires. After the snow, however, we ended up with snow drifts three or more feet deep after shoveling the driveway and walkways. As I walked him, I became nearly claustrophobic as I sensed how much his world had temporarily shrunken. He could only go where I had cut a path for him. As I observed his behavior, I wondered about the extent to which each of us might engage in similar behavior in terms of our life choices. For today’s #SacredSpiritualGrowth Saturday, I will be exploring the implications of making decisions based on what we’ve known, rather than in relation to what is possible.

In another post I have coming out soon, I wrote something to the effect of “mistaking the familiar for the safe.” This line brought chills to me as it hit at the core of much of my existence. How often do I make decisions that are comfortable because they line up with previous choices I’ve made, only to later realize that I was unnecessarily limiting myself? Or, alternatively, when might I try the opposite of a frequent course of action, not because I really buy into it, but because it allows me to rebel against my own norms?

Psychological theories of social learning and conditioning provide ample explanation as to why we might act in ways that curtail or cut off the truly revolutionary choices and actions in our lives. We can easily become habituated to a particular series of events, ones that to an outsider would appear frightening or “crazy.” This is of particular concern for childhood abuse survivors, who may allow individuals into their lives who act harshly or in a demeaning manner, simply because that is what they have come to expect from people. In addition, the rewards offered by individuals who are abusive in the form of “sincere” apologies, contrition, promises to do better and literal gifts are often sufficient to entice survivors to believe that this time will be different or to question even their own perception of the abusive incident that now seems dulled under so much “love” and hope.

How do we go about making decision and interpreting events in ways that expand our horizons rather than contract them? A concept on which I’ve been mulling for some time now is that of an “Inner Goddess.” This is one of many ways of stating that I believe there is a wisdom in the universe into which we can tap that is greater than the sum of the parts of ourselves. Something about perceiving it as housed inside me reduces my fear of it, although thealogically I see Source/Self/God(ess) as both within each of us and intertwining through every piece of existence, permeating space-time without the normal adherence to the laws of classical physics. The nature of this energy can be endlessly debated; my interest instead is with the practical lived experience of centering myself in Her and instantaneously being granted a clear-sighted vision of my life that I know at my core shreds my normal limitations of habit and conditioning. My main obstacle is that I return repeatedly to living without accessing this higher consciousness. I follow the path that either my own fear and anger or another person has decided to carve for me, tracing and retracing the same worn footfalls. My earnest hope is that I can now root myself in Being that is somehow the trajectory of path itself, the sum of everywhere I’ve already wandered, the birds-eye view of the pattern my wanderings have and will whittle out, and the ground on which I walk.

Where has your path in life led you to mistake the familiar for the safe? Do you have a sense of an energy that transcends your own learning history? If so, what has been transformed in your life as a result of the guidance that this energy has provided to you?