Inner Work

Going Deeper: Leveraging Empathy into Responsiveness

For today’s #InnerWork post, I want to delve into an exploration of the ways in which we can show up authentically for those with whom we are close in our lives. In order to care for another, we must already be engaged in inner healing in a way that puts aside excuses and denial and which calls forth vulnerability and raw emotion. One of the foulest enterprises on which a person can embark is to attempt to heal another as a way to scale their own inner walls; we have to be willing to fling open any door inside for which we invite another to ajar slightly.

I am going to limit myself here to an area of identity in which I’ve experienced invalidation on a regular basis, namely, that of being a trauma survivor. As such, my discussion is primarily aimed at those who are trauma survivors and who want to engage in inner work as well as those who desire to be support persons for a trauma survivor. I think there are potential parallels to other areas of oppression that people face, but the systematic nature of injustices such as racism, homophobia, ableism, and so on means that those experiences include additional factors beyond what I am addressing. Please see this page for an evolving list of resources in relation to systemic injustice and solidarity.

I also want to add a strong caveat that what I describe here is in no way a substitute for professional assistance such as therapy. It is not healthy or healing to try to act as a therapist to a friend, family member or romantic partner. One of the main differences between showing up for someone with compassion and being a therapist is that a therapist may try to elicit the memories and experiences behind the emotions the person is feeling and may try to lower internal defenses to draw out vulnerability. If a trauma survivor demands that you act as their therapist and will not seek help, I suggest finding a therapist of your own to help you navigate the relationship. There is a potential for significant damage for both of you otherwise.

If you are secure that you are acting as support person rather than a therapist, but you still get out of your depth, be honest! Let the person know this without sending them the message that they are the problem. It is healthy to set boundaries and to let someone know the specific ways in which you are able to be there for them. At the same time, if someone trusts you enough to show you their pain, holding space for them in a responsive way can move mountains for them internally (and, as I’ll describe below, we can be this for ourselves as well). This is why your own inner work needs to be non-negotiable; if you have significant unprocessed wounds that you’ve never addressed, you will likely harm more than heal if you try to be there for another who’s in pain.

Empathy: Witnessing with Compassion

In order to show up for others, we first have to give our undivided attention to the vulnerability in ourselves. I am increasingly of the mind that vulnerability should be invitation-only, both internally and externally. What I mean here is that any request for it in an area of suffering, beyond a gentle open-ended query, is likely misguided. Demanding that someone show us their pain, or that hurt areas inside of us crack open and reveal their secrets, is rarely effective or welcome. Once you are comfortable responding to your own areas of vulnerability with empathy and responsiveness, you will be more fully able to be there for others. You do not need to be 100% healed by any means, but if you style yourself as someone who always gives but neglects themselves, or as someone who is only critical of themselves, please spend some time working on self-care and self-compassion first.

If vulnerability shows up from another person, empathy is required. It astonishes me how quickly we can move away from this. “Oh, at least this didn’t happen to you too.” “Some people have it even worse.” “I wonder why they (insert traumatic behavior).” and so forth are spewed as a way to shut off that most uncomfortable of feelings—helplessness—and the mental confusion that it renders. I want to allow my heart to be broken by the lived experience of both myself and of others in terms of the anguish trauma brings. I of course place limits on how much I can serve as an effective witness, but I push through my inner desire to minimize as all it does is invalidate either myself or the other person. Acting as though suffering hasn’t happened doesn’t undo it, rather, it adds exponentially to it.

Empathy includes maintaining one’s focus on the individual who is sharing and letting them be in the messiness of their feelings. Immediately offering hugs and tissues and “supportive” words may send the not-so-subtle message that only a titrated amount of pain is allowed to show up, and that anything more is “too much.” I think our work here involves an emotional and a behavioral response.

On a “feelings” level, allow the emotions the person is showing to settle into an open spot in your heart, and reflect them back without becoming subsumed in them. Put yourself in their position (notice I didn’t say to tell them about the one time something only tangentially related happened to you) and let the feelings stir in you as you breathe through it. The most powerful moment of compassion I ever had was seeing my pain reflected in another person’s eyes—not them crying hysterically—but simply witnessing it in me.

Next, ask the person how they would like to be supported. That’s right, you don’t have to have all the answers! Some people struggle with knowing how they can be held in kindness—allow there to be a sense of expanse in terms of your willingness to learn with them. If they ask for it, feel free to share a few things that help you—some trauma survivors have never been met in this way and genuinely do not know what to do with it. This may be an area of discussion they decide to tackle with their therapist. If you’ve shown yourself to be a caring person who isn’t going to leave them at the first sign of issues, they may feel safe enough to begin to let you know what they need. Count this an honor, not a burden, as it is rare in our society for people to be direct and honest with each other. It is up to you to set your own boundaries and to be forthcoming if what someone needs exceeds your capacity (see the next section). You do not exist in a survivor’s life to heal or fix them; you exist to be in relationship with them. Do not delude yourself into thinking they would be lost or hopeless without you; we survivors tend to be highly adaptable and able to find a way through even the most difficult of situations.

Responsiveness: Compassion in Action

One of the least helpful therapists I ever subscribed to the viewpoint that empathy wasn’t sufficient for healing. She was right on one level—someone caring about our pain is not the only ingredient needed for healing from trauma—but she took this instruction too literally and straight up skipped past it entirely. If those of us who have suffered immeasurably at the hands of humans never receive the message that someone cares about our suffering, it is very challenging to move forward. At the same time, knowing that our pain matters can still leave us feeling stuck in the past if there is no sense of anything changing as a result. This is where responsiveness comes in. Responsiveness requires a depth of maturity and security in one’s self that challenges nearly everyone. What it looks like at times is sacrifice. Sacrifice engenders bitterness if it is not offered with an open heart. It is much, much better to “let down” a trauma survivor by sharing honestly in regards to your own boundaries than it is to pretend at a responsive façade.

Let’s walk through an example. Suppose the trauma survivor became triggered in a moment of physical affection. Perhaps you pulled them in for a kiss and this brought up feelings of being trapped for them. They let you know what they were feeling and, instead of getting defensive (this is where a large percent of people tap out right away), you were able to be with them as they expressed their feelings. Let’s say you even asked them what they needed to feel safe with you, and they shared that they would like to be asked before you kiss them, even though you are in an established romantic relationship. You are now at the moment of potentially offering responsiveness (as well as negotiating your own boundaries and needs). What you don’t get to do, if you care at all about the person (and if you’d like to claim to be a decent human being) is to say, “sure of course, I’ll ask” and then “forget” to do so on a regular basis, or to try to manipulate the person—“if you loved me, you’d trust me and would let me kiss you whenever I wanted to.” Let’s say, for the sake of argument, being able to be spontaneous in kissing is your most important thing ever and you cannot possibly be happy without it. In this case, you may need to renegotiate yourself out of the romantic relationship as it stands. You get to say “no, I need this instead” but you don’t get to (if you want to be a decent human who cares about the survivor) force them to gratify your needs. Or, you could make a sacrifice. You could (maybe temporarily as you decide together) allow your need for spontaneity to go unmet in order to respect the survivor’s boundaries. Survivors’ needs often look “controlling,” but they are only controlling if the person doesn’t let you walk away easily and deploys force/manipulation to keep you in a relationship that doesn’t meet your needs. Asking someone to limit their behavior because it triggers the other person isn’t controlling; engaging in a responsive reaction, in which you support the survivor’s healing, means that what’s brought you together is stronger than the inconvenience or disappointment of the “no/not now.”

So, how might we define responsiveness as it relates to being an “ally” of a trauma survivor? To me, it means taking seriously what a survivor tells you they need and doing your best to provide it without turning their need into an immediate demand of your own on an unrelated topic (in other words, not using it as a bargaining chip to get what you want). It means talking through needs if they conflict until you find a solution that honors everyone’s boundaries. It means replacing “controlling/telling me what to do” with “I’m making a choice to honor their needs in this area; it is a sacrifice I’m happy to make because I know it is what they need to feel safe.” If all that comes up in you is a mindset of “they need to get over it” or “I’m being manipulated by their problems” then get yourself to a therapist to sort it out. It has been devastating to me personally to have it take just about everything I have to share, in a moment of vulnerability with another person, the “real” shit that goes on in me and to have them get angry at me because, for a few short seconds, I wasn’t giving them what they wanted or I was treading too closely to their own unresolved feelings of inadequacy. If you are in a relationship with a survivor, expect to feel helpless, and welcome it as a sign of authenticity rather than using it as shame-fuel for your own problems.

Responsiveness may not be a boundary-setting experience, it may also be an invitation to go deeper in revealing your own vulnerability. Perhaps the survivor feels that what would be supportive to them would be to know if you’ve ever experienced the same thing as they have emotionally, or to know more about what came up in you as they shared about themselves. If you haven’t done your own inner work, this may feel like a challenge or even a threat. The more you are able to engage in self-care and healing, the more fully you will be able to respond with support to these experiences. Resist an urge to turn the entire conversation into a monologue about how things go for you; do make it known if you value the opportunity. Some survivors modulate their internal experience by hyper-focusing on the needs of everyone around them; this may take professional assistance to navigate if you find yourself in this situation on an ongoing basis.

I’ve written so much here yet I think I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic. What I would find most helpful would be to hear the questions you would like answered if you are a support person of a trauma survivor. Please respect their story enough to not share personal details; let me know if there are general sticking points for which you think it would be helpful to read about in a post. If you are a survivor, what did I write that captures your experience? What is missing or different for you? How are you best supported in your areas of vulnerability?

Photograph of a wooden fence with a tree and vegetation behind it.
Embodied Heart, Surviving & Thriving

It’s a Just World (Not at All?)

I was talking recently with someone who’d received unexpected negative news in relation to their employment. As I spoke with the person, there was a distress evident in the sense that the person could not link up how, after giving so much effort and care to what they were doing, they were still experiencing loss and frustration. I had a hard time knowing what to say in response, because to me the connection between effort and outcome has always been extremely tenuous at best. In other words, I was confused as to why they thought meeting a high standard meant they were going to receive a positive outcome. I live out this principle on a daily basis—I try hard in life—but I do not actually believe in it at my core.

The name for the belief that effort and outcome are strongly linked, especially in relation to morality, is the Just World Hypothesis. In this worldview, good things happen to good people and, if your life sucks, it’s probably your fault. There is a convenient absence of digging into systemic oppression and undue privilege; here, we’re all born on 1st base and the distance we make it in life is solely dependent upon how true and hardworking we are as a person.

A related phenomena is the Law of Attraction. With this philosophy, what happens to us is believed to be the result of our intentions. Some core concepts include: 1) think good things, and that’s what you’ll get, 2) unhappy people bring their own misery, 3) do not speak of hope, speak of actuality even though it is not yet your reality.

We will explore these psychological biases in for today’s #SurvivingnThriving Tuesday. For trauma survivors, I wonder if the Just World and Law of Attraction are more easily perceived as the shams they are, given how quickly and thoroughly we tend to be taught by life that, despite all our efforts, we can be harmed and, no matter how tightly we control our thinking, it can happen again. At the same time, because of the compulsion to repeat our traumas, we may find ourselves trying to resolve our core dilemmas by thinking “this time” we’ll get it right if we just keep trying. Please feel free to share your perspective on how this plays out for you as a trauma survivor in the comments!

Where I’ve personally run into the most problems is in relating to people who buy into one or both of these “theologies,” as it is typically very challenging for them to show empathy. I was once told that perhaps I’d “signed up” for the abuse I experienced before I was born. I’ve also encountered many people who can’t handle acknowledging that anyone has abused as a child as it seems too “unfair.”

To quote Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zero’s, “life is hard.” It is groundlessness and mist, but we insist the shaking soil of our current state must become marble. Believing that the world is an unfair place where no amount of mental sanitation can cure all ills does not make me feel hopeless. Rather, in allowing myself truth instead of denial, I feel more ready to roll up my sleeves and try to fix it up my little corner of things as best I can in the time I have. It is when we insist that everyone gets their dues and that hoping equals outcome that we stifle and avert-eye ourselves into a narrow corridor from which there is little recourse, when, as happens in nearly every life, SHTF and we have to deal.

I find it more challenging when I try to extend this philosophy to relating to others who are going through difficult times. The best approach I’ve been able to muster is to 1) ask them how I can be there for them and 2) identify and share the feelings I have in hearing their story in a way that empathizes with their plight and 3) if possible, become involved in dismantling the systems of injustice that are contributing to their difficulties. In relation to sharing my feelings, I typically find that, in response to unjust and depressing circumstances with which others are dealing in their personal lives, I feel helpless. I share this with them at times, not to center myself, but to let them know that I perceive the injustice and wish to right it, but that, if it is of an interpersonal nature, there is little I can do directly to rectify it. For instance, if a friend is having a conflict with a romantic partner, it is not my place to step in the middle of this.

I desire to integrate a more active response to situations where there are institutional and systemic injustices. I have little experience IRL with encountering others who openly name these injustices, and, when I look back on the few experiences I have had, I’ve failed miserably. Rather than responding to these instances from a state of helplessness, I now plan to act in solidarity by contributing to social justice causes. Our world can become more just and our perceptions brighter only through dedicated action in which those who have been systemically wronged are able to take the lead in seeking justice and when privilege, where it exists, is leveraged in order to disrupt the power structures that keep many people marginalized and oppressed.

What is your take on the idea of a “Just World” and the “Law of Attraction?” In what ways do you see these concepts being used to undermine social justice causes? How do you respond to those around you who are going through difficulties over which they have little control?

Photograph of tree with several trunks and sun shining through.
Naturally Mindful

Return to the Moment

Cross-posted on my SageWoman blog.

I’ve spent a lot of time planning my future lately. Most of it felt very centered and aligned with my Inner Goddess. Then it started to take on a mind of its own—planning for the sake of planning and agony about the disconnects between my present reality and my potentially brighter focus. For today’s #NaturallyMindful Monday, I want to reflect on my experience of present-moment awareness.

Mindfulness was all the rage when I was in my Ph.D. program for psychology. It has since spilled into the pop psychology world and many other venues, promising an escape from living entrenched in the past and beholden to the future. Most of the inner workings of it are rooted in Eastern thought, specifically Vipassana, a Buddhist practice. I spent over a year attending a Buddhist mindful meditation at least once a week, and it did in fact alter my relationship with my thoughts. It increased my awareness of the separation between my direct experience of the world through my senses and the explanations which I give to my direct experience. In order to rejuvenate my experience of mindfulness, I’ve been deliberate about making more time to engage in it on a regular basis.

When I practice present-moment awareness, I allow my mind to momentarily cease its constant churning through possible scenarios that could occur in the future. As a result of my trauma history, I have an inner program that runs a constant loop of hypervigilant scanning and planning. I recently had an interpersonal conflict that I thought would be ongoing the next time I saw the person. I ran scene after scene in my mind of everything I would say and do the next time I saw them. The person then chose to remove themselves from my life, and all of my planning was a complete waste of time. I fight so many more battles in my mind than I will ever face in real life.

By returning again and again to my breath and body sensations, I interfere with the analytical mind’s focus on the future and allow myself to settle down. Even if I need to spend some time determining my next step, it is different do to so from a place of inner connection versus an unsettled state. As I shared in the past, this is one of the biggest stressors in regards to my house, because I do not know for sure if it is going to be quiet enough for me to be able to feel safe in the present. I have only succeeded in truly finding inner awareness in settings in which I feel relatively safe and secure. With my hyperacusis and misophonia, certain noises seem to be too powerful for me to just simply “notice” as mindfulness requires.

Even though it feels like I have limitations on when and where I can achieve a mindful state, I do know that being in one affects not only me but also those around me. When I am presenting ideas to others, they seem significantly more engaged when I am fully present, rather than when I am internally distracted. I’ve also noticed that I find myself drawn toward people who I sense are slowed down enough inside to notice what the different parts of themselves want and need, instead of ignoring the majority of their requirements for physical, emotional and spiritual nourishment because doing so would require noticing and sensing instead of thinking and doing.

In some ways, I view mindfulness as a skill set which can be achieved through practice. At the same time, I also hold it as an internal reality to which nearly everyone has access, but to which very few of us bother to attend. It is not always pleasant and comfortable, rather, it brings into awareness the full spectrum of life, not merely the happy parts. Simply being with our breath, as we are, grounds and re-centers our purpose.

To what extent have you explored the concept of mindfulness? What are your thoughts on the ways it has been appropriated and commodified in modern American society? To what extent is mindfulness integral to healing as a trauma survivor? What might be its drawbacks?

Fluid art painting of green, yellow, purple, pink, blue and white colors in abstract form.
Inspiration Fanatic

Healing Art to Express Your Intuition

For today’s #InspirationFanatic Friday, I will be sharing a few styles of creative work and art designs that I believe can lend themselves well to allowing inner voices, perhaps those to which you don’t often listen, to come forth and make their mark on the world. I will pay particular attention to the appeal of these methods for trauma survivors as well as those who may have difficulties with fine-motor skills.

Intuitive Painting

Creative Revolution: Personal Transformation through Brave Intuitive Painting has been instrumental in assisting me in learning how to paint using my gut and heart more than my head. I used it to make self-affirmation cards to increase my practice of compassion. As I worked on creating the cards, I was awed at the internal connection I felt in painting layer after layer, without a strong need to know beforehand the form the final product would take. The desire many trauma survivors have for control is rooted in seeking safety, but little experiences of loosening boundaries within safe contexts in which we can release a need for control can be very healing. It allows us to let the painting take form and “speak” to us about what to do next, instead of working from a preconceive plan.

Going with the Flow

Fluid art is a medium of art in which I have recently begun to dabble. I made inkblots as a demonstration of psychoanalytic technique in psychology years ago using Bombay Inks and love how easy it was to work with ink. Alcohol inks produce a watercolor-like effect. I find something very feminine in the form this takes.

Fluid art can also involve diluting acrylic paints with pouring medium; this is the technique I used for the photograph that accompanies this blog post. A few tips about this style of painting from a beginner:

  • If your canvas is small enough, consider using puppy pee pads to soak up the excess paint that falls off the canvas. Weird but effective!
  • If you would like to use the minimum amount of supplies (the pouring medium is very expensive), you can move the canvas around to spread the paint after pouring it on it. Please comment if you have a cheaper substitute to pouring medium!
  • Recycle condiment bottles to allow you to drip and make shapes with the paint.
  • The canvas must be elevated from the cloth or pad underneath of it or it will end up glued to it (don’t ask me how I know this!). I turned bowls upside down and rested the canvas on them, leaving the edges free. Once you pour the paint and get things how you like them, you cannot move the canvas at all or it will “jar” the paint because it has been thinned.

Fluid art, at least with the pouring acrylic paint method, is friendly to people with limited fine-motor skills. No paintbrushes are needed and, if the area is set up thoughtfully ahead of time, a canvas can be completed very quickly. It is a playful way of engaging with color and shape that can appeal to people across a wide range of ages and skill-sets.

Circular Patterns

Labyrinths, mandalas and circles all have strong resonance in Goddess Spirituality. These can be drawn, painted, or created out of all sorts of mediums. Mixing patterns with carefully placed objects speaks to me of the holding Goddess provides for us and the many, many circles and spheres in and through which Nature envelopes us. I added a bit of a spiral and circle pattern to the included artwork to draw it together.

Each style of artwork which I’ve described is accessible to beginners (I know because I’m one!) and can produce visually interested creations that reflect inner truths. What would our lives look like if we took a tough moment during our day, and made a pattern to represent it? Or painted a layer for each feeling we carried but didn’t share throughout the week? To move beyond coping and stress relief, what would it look like if you sat in front of a blank canvas and asked the loneliness and the hurt and the fearful within you to dare to show of themselves by color and splash? I hope you’ll share the results if you open to this potential moment of magic!