Fear of Insanity Narcissism and Denial of Feeling : more insights from Alexander Lowen

the experience of horror (in childhood) makes one question one’s sanity.  What one is experiencing does not make sense, it doesn’t accord with one’s image of reality which even a baby has on a biological level.  To avoid the resulting mental confusion, one must dissociate and deny all feelings.  As long as one sticks to logic, one is safe.  But feelings are life, and one cannot fully avoid emotional experiences no matter how coolly one plays it.  The narcissist faces the risk of being overwhelmed by feelings and going wild, crazy, or mad, should his defence of denial break down.  This is especially true of anger. Every narcissist is afraid of going crazy, because the potential for insanity is in his personality.  This fear reinforces the denial of feeling creating a vicious cycle.

Reading the above paragraph again in Lowen’s book today gave me more insight into my brother, who threatened to walk out on me last October when I got angry with him.  It reminded me of terrifying incidents he faced in childhood and of how my father did pretty harsh things to him as a boy as his own childhood had been similarly harsh.  I was in tears again last week after yet another conversation with my brother where we was working as hard as he could to split off all expression of emotion.  I usually leave every interaction with him crying or disturbed in some way.  Now instead of feeling angry I  just feel really sad for him as I don’t ever think he will look at the roots of his own workaholism.  Once again I shed heaps of tears after I got off the phone on Thursday.  It is not that he is an unkind person either, all time the conversation revolved around helping my sister and I to get the best interest possible on the money Mum has left us.

It is now never the less a great comfort to me to be able to say I now know I am not crazy and I know why his side of the family have sidelined me before as well as other members of my family, looking upon us with such distain and disapproval due to our emotions.  That said I am also aware of the charge of anger that I have carried which I know I inherited from my mother’s side of the family.

Collapsing into a state of helplessness may be one response to such terror or violence in childhood.  Flight or fight may be two other  responses but both the later would often be blocked by an abusive parents.  Escaping or fighting back may be shamed or made  impossible as was the case of Bill whose story Lowen covers in Chapter 7 of this book.

Bill did not feel any anger.  He denied his anger, just as he denied his fear.  Instead, he adopted an attitude of submission and attempted to understand the irrational behaviour of his father, and others,  His submission to his father may have had a lifesaving value, but almost cost him his life.  (Bill was later on nearly killed by a hitchhiker he and a friend picked up on the side of the road who began to attack them.)

Lowen explains how Bill then came to fear his own anger.

(he).. believed that if he lost his head he might kill someone.  But to lose your head is equivalent to going crazy. Bill was terrified of the potential craziness in himself as he was of the craziness of others.  When I made this interpretation to him he remarked, “Now I know why I became a psychiatrist.”

Not everyone will be able to contain their rage from such incidents, others will act it out.  Lowen tells the story of David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam”, serial killer who murdered 6 and wounded 7 others.

What then are the dynamics that precipitate a seemingly sane person into insane action? … there must be some subconscious force.. This force is the denied feeling of anger.  Because the anger is denied, it is not experienced, which would give he person some control over it.

Many narcissists develop an ego unconscious split in these circumstance which means at times such subconscious forces can erupt and cause havoc or be projected on others.  Such and effect is called flooding…. an overwhelming feeling or excitation which ..”(temporarily drowns us)…in the torrent of sensation.  Imagine a river overflowing its banks and sweeping across the surrounding country side.  In a similar way the gush of feeling wipes out normal boundaries of the self, making it difficult for the person to distinguish between inner and outer reality.  Reality becomes confused and nebulous….. (there is a sense of) nothing solid to cling on to.  The person feels ‘at sea,’ estranged.

Such estrangement is not dissimilar to dissociation although Lowen compares it to disorientation.   The flooding of something we held down can make us dizzy, it may erase normal consciousness for a time.  It may well be what we experience in a panic attack (repressed or split off lively life energy or anger).  We can also be overwhelmed by pleasant sensations and if our sense of happiness or joy was also supressed or shamed in childhood we can begin to get fearful of insanity when we start to feel energised or even happy.

In the bioenergetic therapy Lowen used feelings which have been repressed or shut down are helped to liberate by the therapist who assists in the process so flooding and disorientation is not as intense as it would be if we were misunderstood or unsupported in the process.

The problem is that those damaged in childhood continue to carry split off emotions such as anger and sadness into adulthood, we may even attract relationships with others who act them out for us or vice versa, one partner can then pretend they are okay, it’s just their partner that is the problem.

Lowen points out in his book Narcissism : Denial of the True Self the connection between being called ‘mad’ (as in insane) when one is actually angry.

To say a person is mad may mean that person is either crazy or angry.  What this tells us is that anger is not an acceptable emotion.  Children are taught very early on to curb their anger; often they are punished if, in the course of an angry reaction, they hurt someone.  Disputes, they are admonished should be settled amicably and with words.  The ideal is to have reason prevail over action.

But conflicts can not always be settled amicably, with reasoning.   Tempers may flare.  I don’t mean one has to resort to physical violence to express an angry feeling.  Anger can be expressed in a look or by the tone of one;s voice.  Once can assert with feeling.  “I am angry with you.”  Some situations do call for the physical expression of anger.  If violence is used on you it may be appropriate to fight back.  Without the right to strike when one is hit, one feels powerless and humiliated.  We have seen what that can do to the personality.

I strongly believe that if children were allowed to voice their anger at their parent’s whenever they felt they had a legitimate grievance, we would see far fewer narcissistic personalities.  Giving a child this right would allow a real respect for the child’s feelings.

Lowen goes on to site an experience of watching a Japanese woman being hit by her daughter in anger.  He explains how in Japan a child is never disciplined before the age of 6 because they are regarded to be innocent  and such children don’t end up disrespectful or misbehaving.  However when the right of angry expression is denied a child it has an adverse impact and then there are the parents who cannot express their own anger with a child in a healthy way and use punishment instead.  Lowen doesn’t negate the need for discipline, only the use of power and control in the face of a child the parent does not have a healthy way of relating to and helping to develop emotionally.

Such repression of anger in a person in childhood means anger stays present in the person’s system much later in life.  In his bioenergetic therapy Lowen helps patient to discharge repressed anger so that it does not stay trapped inside.  However as he points out, the fear of ones anger and belief it will prove one is insane is a difficulty that many narcissistically injured person’s face on the path to healing.

For narcissists to know themselves, they have to acknowledge their fear of insanity and to sense the murderous rage inside that they identify with insanity.  But they can only do this if the therapist is aware of those elements and is not afraid of them.  I find it helpful to point out to my patients that what they believe is insane – namely, their anger – is in fact sense if they can accept it.  In contrast, their behaviour without feeling, which they regard as sane,is really crazy.

The behaviour without feeling that Lowen mentions here in fact leads to the growing or development of what he calls a thick skin, a protective defensive layer which will allow no real feeling for self or others in those with a narcissistic defence,

such denial is achieved by deadening the surface to stimuli, its effect is to rigidify the ego.  … the result is a diminishing of the ego’s capacity to respond emotionally to reality or to change reality in line with one’s feelings.. the ego’s safety lies in a deadened body, with little emotion.  Yet this very deadening creates a hunger for sensation, leading to the hedonism typical of a narcissistic culture.

But true feeling is then increasingly hidden behind a façade and the building charge of need and hidden feeling is defended against.  Thus addictions come to play a role in diverting attention from the truth.

By contrast those who develop a borderline defence to such negation actually become excessively thin skinned, unable to throw off hurts lodged deep inside from the past often from unfeeling narcissists.  Their work is to understand the source of pain and not project it onto the present, understanding how deeply its roots lie hidden in an often unconscious past.

 

 

 

 

I want your body

No. I don’t mean this in a purely sexual way.  What I am talking of here is how in this world where so much is getting electronic, ethereal or digital and how our mind creates all kinds of stories and trips is of how the body is often left far behind and we lose touch with the need to just ‘BE’ with another body.  Relating face to face.

Okay maybe a lot of this yearning of mine is currently coming to mind as I realise how disconnected I had to be from my own body when trauma hit so as to not feel the full onslaught or of how it was at the tender age of 17 when the prospect of an embodied relationship with a male sparked so much fear lodged in me from a Catholic education which taught me to despise or demonize the female body.  I had my car crash on the back of my first sexual awakening that got aborted and now my therapist believes at 56 I am starting to need to re do my adolescence as so much got stolen from me then.

Well the man who has shown up in my life is online.  He is signed up with the forces till March and may only possibly be able to get out early due to a medical issues and we have made this connection since mid March 2018 which has just been growing and deepening but the frustration is we cannot meet.  I know my Mars energy is burbling from the basement as Mars goes retrograde for two months on 25 – 26 of June which is the anniversary of my second accident in 2005 on the first anniversary of my husband’s decision to leave me.  Ours was never a deeply sexual relationship.  In many ways we were like brothers and sister or twin souls.  We both lost our Dads in our early 20s and were then left by our partners.  When we met this wound bonded us. But when I went on to do my healing my husband wanted me NOT TO GO THERE and so things broke apart for a reason.  That does not mean I didn’t grieve so deeply the loss of my ex husband and our new life in England, actually its taken all of these past 13 years to come to terms with things and to see ours was never going to be a life time relationship and that this wound was just the repeat theme of three other broken hearts I suffered from 23 to age 29.

Now I am so happy to have another opportunity at love.  I don’t want to blow it and luckily I am able to be fully honest with this new friend of mine especially on a day like yesterday when the Mars frustration was reminding me of how it was to be trapped inside a crushed car unable to breathe with pieces of metal inside me and collapsed lung bleeding pleura into surrounding tissue after having been pierced by a broken rib.  And a guy behind me with an oxygen mask I was trying to fight off.  All of that trauma got retriggered following a cranio session back in the UK in June 2005 and I ended up smashed and cut open again waking up after lost time with a paramedic again hovering over me in an ambulance.  Scary shit.  Plus I was 12,000 miles from home all alone.

Love is scary for me.  I know that now but what is scarier is facing a life without the opportunity to experience a fully embodied love in skin.  Today I got a call from my sis asking me for a coffee which was so so great, as some of you know she just got out of hospital after 6 weeks of treatment for anxiety and depression.  We met in the arcade my Mum used to run down alone on those afternoons after school when she had no one, the arcade where my parent’s first business a continental deli was in the 1950s. I made a real effort to get there, cause I know my sis is trying so hard to live again after hospital and all of her grief.  Her husband also left her in 2010 so we know a similar heartache.  We don’t talk much of these things but just being with her was good.   There was so much silent history there too, but some of my resentment is fading these days.

I want to grasp every opportunity there is to connect, share time and really live after so  many years spent in the wilderness.   I want to be in a body and relate to others in bodies in a really present way.   I really want to full embrace life, warts and all, knowing my body and psyche has the ability to withstand all of the onslaughts and the courage to summon up and face my deepest fears while answering with love : body to body, face to face, eye to eye, heart to heart, soul to soul.

Letting go of numb

The following extract comes from Tara Brach’s book True Refuge : Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart.  Interestingly it concerns a woman who Tara was working with in therapy who as a young child had her long hair cut off by her mother as it was too much bother. I was sharing in a post a few days ago how this also happened to me and the trauma of it was felt when I went to the hairdresser late last week following my Mum’s death.   The woman in question, Jane, had also had her mother die a few years before the time she was seeing Tara.  In therapy she was sharing how the pain of this event had awakened in her heart through intense feelings of fear, felt as a claw “pulling and tearing at my heart”.  What followed was an outburst of anger towards her mother for subjecting Jane to this ordeal.

The anger soon turned into deep sadness as Tara worked with Jane encouraging her to feel the pain and grief deeply in her body, and in time it transformed into peace.  Jane had reached some deeply powerful realisations as a result.

Brach writes the following in her book :

Carl Jung wrote, “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment, and especially on their children, than the unlived life of the parents.”  The outer domain of our unlived life includes all the places where we’ve held back from pursuing and manifesting our potential – in education and career, in relationships and creativity.  But it is the inner domain of our unlived life that sets this suffering in motion.  Here we find raw sensations, the longings and hurts, the passions and fears that we have not allowed ourselves to feel. When we pull away from the energetic basis of our experience, we turn away from the truth of what is.  We make a terrible bargain.  When we separate from the felt sense of our pain, we also separate from the visceral experience of love that allows for true intimacy with others.  We cut ourselves off from the sensory aliveness that connects us with the natural world.  When there is unlived life, we can’t take good care of ourselves, our children, our world.

The feelings you are trying to ignore are like a screaming child who has been sent to her room.  You can put earplugs in and barricade yourself in the farthest end of the house, but the body and the unconscious mind don’t forget.  Maybe you feel tension or guilt.  Maybe…. you are baffled by intimacy or haunted by a sense of meaninglessness. Maybe you fixate on all the things you need to get done.  You can’t live in a spontaneous way because your body and mind are still reacting to the presence of your distressed child.  Everythingy ou do to ignore her, including becoming numb, only strengthens your link with her.  Your very felt sense of who you are …is fused with the experience of pushing away a central part of your life or running from it.

In shutting down the passion, hurt and pain she had experienced as a young girl whose precious hair was butchered, Jane had locked herself into a numb and anxious fragment of who she was.  Yet something in her was calling her to live more fully.  By beginning to contact her body’s experience, by touching ground, she was opening the door to what she had been running from.

Traumas of this kind may seem inconsequential, but really they are not.  Something was done to us we didn’t want or need and had no power over and feelings do remain.   The true self in Jane probably loved her long hair,  it wasn’t all just about ego and looking a certain way, hair does hold our power and is connected to our heads which are such a vital part of our being. To be subjected to something that upset us and then to be laughed at for reacting (as Jane was) leaves a scar and a powerful subliminal message.  Going numb to it does not mean the feelings go away, they need to be dealt with, with compassion and sensitivity.

Some thoughts on disconnection and connection.

Connection

Well back here we are my sister, Mum and me, alone again after all the trauma with little Lyra hit, worrying and wondering and feeling how it is to have no loving family apart from each other close.  I called my nephew this morning he only texted back everyone is excited and elated, Lyra is now smiling and out of sedation, call you later the text said.  I breathed such a huge sigh of relief but today all three of us are feeling the trauma and the void more deeply than ever.  I am sure he has a lot going on as his wife’s extended family were flying in to join them all this morning.  I am glad Lyra and Gerrard have all of that loving support.  But it does drive home how isolated we can be at times.

I do believe separations are a part of life.  With Mercury planet of communications very close the astrological heavy weight Saturn (planet of being alone and separate) now with Mercury moving backwards its driving home to me how deeply Saturnian our family is.  Those who managed to break away have close bonds, my nephews all have loving partners and families.  My brother has a very close bonded family.   The rest of us, well our relationships dissolved for one reason and another.

As I look back I see how hard it was for me to understand emotional connection and closeness growing up.  Trauma has the affect of fragmenting us anyway and relational trauma is the worst.  If you have a trauma and those around you pull close to you and surround you with love you do a lot better.  The loved ones may not understand the deeply traumatised person but they may try.   In the case of my older sister and I (and my dead sister, too) when trauma hit us and emotions were challenging there was not one partner who stayed around.   I hate to say I am a little envious of Lyra being surrounded by all of that love, but I am.    With my Saturn Moon I have to carry that burden of solitude and aloneness and realise I will only connect for a time to anyone.  Trauma from my own past made my hypervigilant and gun shy, very fearful of being betrayed and abandoned again in any relationship.  I see how I have held back due to fear and then became a lone wolf but hungering for love never the less.  All the love I give to my own inner child and inner self is important but it doesnt always make up for a hug from others.

Today I am worried for my mother who is alone now after witnessing that trauma with Lyra the other day.  Having people close who then go through trauma or leave has been a constant in our family which seems to have been dogged by separations, leavings, emotional absence and loss.   I need to find a way to bear all of this with good grace.

I don’t feel disconnected from myself today and I am thankfully not inside that trauma space.  I am so very grateful to the caring souls on WordPress who yesterday reached out to me with so much love, thank you Laina, Grizzly Man, 1 Wise Woman, Alexis, and Twinkle Toes.  You made getting through yesterday just the little bit easier for me.  I am so lucky to have a connection with you and value your support a lot.  I was telling my sister today how much being able to write about what is going on and be connected to here and through my blog helps me.  I hope to do the same with others, for there are all times we need a hand to hold in the midst of difficulites.

Relational trauma interrupts the bonds that connect us to others, to our heart and to our feelings as well as to ourselves.   Trauma creates a schism that can keep us so alone.   Trauma fractures our identity and if we are not held it feels as though we are falling through space.

Last night I googled ‘Trauma Vortex’ as its something Peter Levine talks about in his book Waking The Tiger .   I found an excellent article by someone who works with the body in trauma.  I will post the link to it below.

http://owenmarcus.com/deep-change/insights-on-healing-the-trauma-body/

If we never experience being held in love or connected to when we are in trauma it’s enough to tear our hearts so deeply apart that we may not even survive.   I was also thinking today that those of us who are born with fine radar and are highly sensitive are far more likely to struggle in this life.   We become more vulnerable to energies around us, we pick up a lot and we may struggle or suffer if we do not recognise this.  I could not help but think a lot about this a lot last night as it affected my grand niece.  I think it was far too big a trip for her for four days, she was not eating the same as she may have at home.   We were at cafes for lunch on several days.  Her tummy was a little sore on Sunday night due to this.   Little children need us to stay connected to and in tune with them.  On Friday I was careful to take her away and spend some time playing and exploring when it got all a bit too boring with the adults sitting around and discussing adult things.  I noticed the frown on her face when she didnt like some of the food and was told to eat it up.  At that age its so important that our tastes are respected and I know kids need boundaries but they need to be fair ones.  I remember being taken out to dinners with Mum and Dad a being fed alcohol when I was only still very young and then wishing I could go home and go to bed but having to wait around.  We learn a lot about about how to care for our bodies and souls in childhood by the way others treat us and knowing that we have a right to what we like and need is so important.

Today I am in a much better place than I was yesterday, the sadness at feeling disconnected is very strong anyway as we head towards Christmas, I know its a very common sadness for so many of us.  At this time if we don’t come from a happy family its hard to watch those who do, having times together and being connected, however at this time of year no matter how disconnected we do feel we can always reach out to others for connection, to know that someone cares and is there for us is so important.  We are relational beings.  Even if we are empathic introverts we still have a need to be connected in ways that are not compromising or overpowering for us.   Feeling invaded in the past may make us feel gun shy, but there are those out there who will love and respect who we are.   Pain of the past can make us self absorbed, especially if we feel others would not understand us.   But in the end, at times we have to let it begin with us, when it comes to reaching out.   Those of us who can end up faring better than those who can’t.

Heaven on earth

Kundalini.jpg

This power that lives in your spine

It is a serpent and it will rise

Do not believe the ancient myth

That says he was the evil one

Instead remember him as bringer of truth and power

So long exiled

By the patriarchial world

Running half crazed

In fear of the feminine

The viper inside

That rises

When innocence is transgressed

Will be the freedom fighter

Who comes with the sword

To liberate you from your prison of

Bad Don’t Ought and Should

He will not let you be a slave

To domination

By the captor

Who demands the price of your soul

Through acquiesence

The reptilian brain was always given to us to trust

And serve

It brings a sword that must marry with mind

And use to cut away

From those who would ensnare our souls

In their paralysing traps

This power is the bringer of a light

That cannot be denied

That can inform the human side

Which turns dark and cold and heavy

When light and love and power are lost

True instinct

You are the force that takes us home

And that has the strength to realise

Full embodiment of our spirit in flesh

Heaven on Earth

If I don`t hold you : the fraught dynamic of trying to connect with my Mum

I am so used to holding others feelings that I get upset when others won`t help me hold mine.  I know its up to us to relate to our own feelings but sometimes just having a human body or soul with you as you undergo feelings helps on all kinds of levels.  The best help is when they dont say much but stay present with you and you feel, felt.   And then its easier to access what is inside, if you were caught up in your head before.  That said there are also times we access those emotional depths best alone, and cannot share them or have them understood.

I am thinking of this as I just called to see how my Mum was, she asked me `what did I WANT` I then immediately wanted to get off the phone.  I only rang to see how you are I asked.   I let her go and just burst into tears.   I know I said enough is enough I still worry and yes (obsess) over my Mum.  Today she is pushing herself beyond her boundaries to be with her mahjong group, its okay she has the will and energy to be with them but not with my nephew.  I can understand there has been so much pain with my nephew`s mother (my now dead sister) I believe Mum will do anything not to go there with her grief.  Its why she married as quickly as she did after my father died and then ended up hurting the guy who really loved her, where as for her he was an escape.    After they separated he used to ring me and cry over my mother, how much she had done for him, how well she had looked after him, how much he loved her.   Mum would old say `he was a nice man, but I never loved him`.  Its not up to me to judge my Mum but she sure doesnt go deep at times.

I just need to be with what my sadness was telling me.  At the moment Mum is trying to get to be with the friends she loves who give her comfort in the way our family does not.  I had the thought over past days that Mum would have been better off not having children or at least me.  I was an accident, I know that much and later an accident nearly took my life.  The body always knows and the soul knows when it was really wanted.

Now its up to me to mother me.  My therapist is not going to do it, fair enough.  She will help me to do the work as I undergo this painful time of emotionally separating with my Mum.   The connection to our mother is one of the most important ones in our life.  It becomes the connection to our own body.   I need to nurture mine at the moment.   The only real home I have is this body and I need to take care of it.  I can`t look to others to do it, though some of my connections here and in the world help me in ways they could never know, just by implicitly understanding.

I must exercise gratitude for the places I am received and try to steer clear of the places I am not if I want my body to feel better.  This is something I am coming to realise.   And maybe my Mum should no longer have to mother any more.  Maybe now she just needs time alone to get ready to die.   I keep trying to reach out but maybe the universe is trying to get me to wake up to reality. I keep trying to mother my mother but maybe I should not and maybe I should stop trying to hold or give a voice to feelings she would rather not face or be with alone.

Being sad and not sad, moving on from grief.

A post from Friday I didn’t post then :

After a tough morning (inside my mind with all kinds of thoughts revolving) I went down to sit in the sun at our local fruit and veggie market and read the final chapter of my novel  This Must Be the Place, by Maggie O’Farrell.  I have been lingering with it for over a month now as I love it the story so much, ending it will be like losing a good friend or heart companion.

The story encompasses all kinds of emotional themes that really resonate for me, and the following excerpt really put into words something I could not fully articulate with my brother last week when he told me Dad’s death was so long ago now it should not be an issue any more.   I share this kind of stuff more for me but since others may struggle in similar ways I hope it speaks to some of you too.

In the novel (spoiler alert, stop reading here if you want to read the book) there is a death that takes place and the threads leading to it are multifaceted and complex.  Guilt is involved, earned or unearned for the central character, Daniel who was the father of Phoebe, Niall was her brother.  Anyway here it is :

“Can Niall come, like last time?” asked Marithe.

“We can ask him.  I’m sure he’ll come if he’s not busy.”  I go over to the sofa and take her by the hand.  “Come on sweetheart.  Time for Bed.  I think.”

Marithe stumbles to standing position, leaning on my arm as we move up the stairs.  “Does Niall still live with you?” She asks.

“Not any more.  He has his own place now.”

“Have I been there”

“No.”

“Can we go?”

“Sure.”

At the bathroom door, she turns to look at me.  “Is he still sad?”  she asks.

I reach out my hand to brush the hair off her face.  “Niall is a lot better.  You musn’t worry about him.  It’s nice that you do but Niall is OK.”

My daughter looks me in the eye and says devastatingly, “Are you still sad?”

I swallow.  “Am I still sad…. about …. Phoebe?”

She frowns, concerned and nods.  And I look at her, this perfect being, her skin so vital, so pale that you can see the life blood coursing beneath it.  I am besest by twin sensations: that I am luck, the luckiest man in the world, to have this daughter, these children, and that I would kill, main, destroy any person who tried to harm them.

“I will always be sad about Phoebe,” I say with an effort to keep my voice even, “and so will Niall.  But what happens is that after a few years, you slowly realise its OK to be happy too.”

She looks at me for a moment longer, as if checking the veracity of this idea.  Then she turns and goes…..

End of extract

Grief is part of us, it seems to me.  Those who find later happiness may have more protection and insulation against being permanently beseiged by the ghosts of lingering grief and loss, something arrives to take the full on agony away a little or provide some kind of relief.  Others of us fall down into a deep well and it takes longer to touch base with our grief and move foward, realising the longing for full engagement in a life left by the loved one .

For some of us being happy again may feel like an abandonment or a betrayal, but really I guess in the end it is a saying that in the end the life we are left with has value and that who ever we have loved and lost still lives on in our hearts, forever.   There may be times we cry, times we are grateful we knew them, we may rue the day, if that ‘someone’ was a someone who hurt us deeply, but maybe even then we learned lessons, and realised after a time we deserved happiness and that that happiness it could co-exist with the sadness, nostalgia or melancholy that we sometimes still feel on the darker days.

Why self compassion helps us more than ‘self esteem’

Self esteem in later years has been touted as the be all and end all to good mental health and raising healthier children, but is it really, or in our focus on raising self esteem are we really teaching that the true basis of self worth, (which involves acceptance of the fact we cannot always be the biggest or ‘best’ someone) lies in becoming more outer directed and narcissistic rather than inwardly compassionate and empathetic to our own and other’s common humanity which involves a spectrum of all kinds of achievement and non achievement?

It’s a question I have been thinking about, now midway through Christine Neff’s book on self compassion.   She explains how self esteem is often about feeling that our worth is based on measurable things or behaviour, rather than intrinsic sense not only of our own worthiness but of our limitations and foibles as well.  If we think we need to perform in certain ways in order to raise our self esteem and be considered ‘worthy’, accepted or deserving we end up becoming quiet  outwardly oriented, rather than a inwardly focused in sense of  inward security.    We can also become less compassionate.

In counter balance to this self compassion enables us to embrace the whole of our selves even when we may fail to reach goals or act in certain ways not associated with high self esteem.  Self compassion enables us to embrace ourselves in the tough moments and surround ourselves in a blanket of care when we may feel sore or hurting.

The three foundations of self compassion, according to Neff are :

  1. Self kindness.   A sense of being gentle with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgemental.   Finding ways to self soothe and tap into what Neff calls ‘the mammalian – system’.  Doing this has been proven by research to raise oxytocin levels (the hormone of love and bonding) which also raises feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness while helping us feel warmth and compassion for ourselves.  In contrast habits of self-criticism have been shown to trigger the amygdala and raise our blood pressure, adrenaline and production of the stress hormone cortisol, in turn activating our fight flight brain.  Self criticism also lights up different areas in our brain increasing our stress levels.  Self kindness and self soothing is demonstrated by saying kind soothing things to ourselves in times of stress.  This is really hard right now.  I am with you.   This will hurt for a while but in time the hurt will pass.  It involves tuning in with awareness to how you are feeling or being triggered at that moment, what you are observing, what you are needing and what you require.  When we are not being kind we ignore or dismiss these things maybe because that is what we learned to do as kids due to emotional abandonment, disconnection or neglect.   Working to change inwardly critical self talk is also a huge part of this first component of self compassion.
  2. Recognition of our common human experience.  So often in grief or depression a huge part of our suffering relates to the feeling that we are so deeply alone in this experience and so very far from human aid or care.  This may on many levels be the truth of how it was for us as children in homes where there was not much emotional care or presence or if we are trapped in relationships with non empathic, abusive people.   Post traumatic stress and complex PTSD can also make us feel so alone and terrified at the same time, terrified to reach out only to be hurt again.   We may feel that unlike the rest of the world we are less than or not entitled to care, concern or belonging, when really the truth is that others also struggle with these same feelings as us and we are all worthy of care love and concern.  Such feelings of isolation can then go along with the development of globally negative views about humanity and the state of things.  While it is true that there is so much suffering in the world, the truth is that there is care and kindness too.  However part of a deeply depressive non self compassionate mindset is that we are alone in this, we keep our focus only on the negative as well as those things that hurt, we fail to trust and reach out and understand our interconnectedness and in this state of mind our focus on bad feelings grows.  On the other hand when we realise we are part of a wider humanity in which suffering is an intrinsic part of life we develop more radical acceptance and are more likely to take steps to improve things at the same time as being fully aware of the global nature of suffering.  In reaching out to share or care we move past our disconnection or deep feelings of not belonging.
  3. Mindfulness In self compassion practice mindfulness refers to the clear seeing and non-judgemental acceptance of what occurs in the present moment, including our so called ‘negative’ or difficult states of mind and being.  To give ourselves compassion we have to notice that we are suffering rather than be reacting to our suffering by distancing and dissociating (all of which we cannot notice when we are not being mindful).  “We often fail to recognise feelings of guilt, defectiveness, sadness, loneliness, and so on, as moments of suffering that can be responded to with compassion….When your boss calls you into his office and tells you that your job performance is below par, is your first instinct to comfort yourself?… probably not.”   Being conditioned to ignore our pain, according to Neff means that we are physiologically programmed to avoid it. “Because of our tendency to turn away from pain, it can become extremely difficult to turn toward our pain, to hold it, to be with it as it is. ” When we do this we shut ourselves off from our true emotions and we also lose our ability to learn at a deeper level about the deeper nature of our experience and reactions.  In mindfulness we develop the ability to turn toward our pain, suffering or other bodily sensations becoming aware of them while not exaggerating them.  For example, we can become aware when an emotion such as anger is occurring for us by noticing we are clenching our jaw, feeling heat rise in our body,  feeling a desire to lash out.  In her book Neff gives the example of a man who endured long term emotional abandonment by his mother.  His therapy involved becoming aware of his acceptable anger without lashing out or acting it out in rage on his mother.  With the use of mindfulness as well as the loving presence of his therapist he was able to feel and understand the basis of his anger and become attentive to what it was saying.  He was also in time able to see how his mother’s abandonment was not necessarily associated with a lack of love for him but was due to her doing what she thought was necessary.  He was able to share his real feelings with his mum in such a way that he expressed them, rather than depressed them and they were heard.  Mindfulness was central to this process.  “We are healed from suffering only by experiencing it to the full.”  (Marcel Proust, quoted on P. 118 of Self Compassion)

Mindful ways of working with pain are shared in detail in chapter 5 of Christine Neff’s book, which I highly recommend, she also goes in to more detail about the two other basics of self compassion I have shared in this post.  I have been using a lot of the self compassion practices myself lately,  I used them today when I went for my yearly breast cancer follow up screen check and I was able to calm myself when the therapist left the room for a long tme leaving me alone after telling me I may have a cyst in my breast.

I do believe that self compassion in my own case is far more important to me than high self esteem.  Self compassion gives me a way to be with what is occurring in love and acceptance.  It helps me understand myself and others better.  It is a practice I am very grateful to have found.  It is a practice I want to share more about in upcoming posts.

Self compassion helps us to understand that we are lovable as we are, even if we don’t achieve big things, it teaches us that its okay not to be perfect, to mess up and make mistakes.  It isn’t an excuse for bad behaviour but it is a way of allowing ourselves to soften and go more gently not only with ourselves but also with our fellow humans as we recognise how much we all struggle in the earthly sphere of life where there is often suffering and things are far from ideal and perfect.  It can also encourage to keep growing and be kind in that process rather than self punishing.

Softening

Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies. Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard. Angry people live in angry bodies. The bodies of child-abuse victims are tense and defensive until they find a way to relax and feel safe. In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.

Bessel van der Kolk

Pain and abuse or trauma can make us harden and contract.  Some of us erect steely defences, we fight or we may take flight.  Others of us just collapse in a big heap with our insides spewing out all over the metaphorical floor.  In any case pain, abuse or trauma can and does change us and fosters in us certain reactions.

I had the thought as I awoke early today to a soft morning after gentle rain had fallen (which was like nature mirroring my inner world as last night when I wrote about tears as the gentle rain, the skies were clear. But isn’t our grief just like this?  It comes in shower, storm or a wave and washes us through.)   The thought I had was that my soul is often in grieving for my false or fighting self that had to push through all the pain and trauma alone.  My therapist and I were talking about how the inner critic forms yesterday in the vacuum left by a parent’s lack of availability or as a way to please and how it then becomes unconsciously melded to us, until we do the inner work of uncovery and recovery.  We wouldn’t survive without this push to bring us through.  Many collapse in depression or inward turned anger and take their lives or end up with such a compromised auto immune system that all kinds of diseases can result.  Last night I was reading a post of someone who endured two terrible losses and ended up with fibromyalgia due to the complex feelings she struggled to express, process and understand.

I have always been a great believer in the soul which I see as a kind of deeply authentic internal witness that knows all about us.  I was drawn to the work of Carl Jung and Jungian therapists such as Thomas Moore, Robert Johnson, James Hillman and Marion Woodman in my early sobriety because they spoke of the importance of this soul and how its symptoms are cries for healing that may sometimes fall on the deaf ears of our false self who had to turn away or compromise.

I remember a few months back when I was beginning to open up to a lot of grief in therapy, Kat my therapist, said to me so wisely : “these are the tears of your true self.”  At the age of 54 trauma and my own defences have stolen from me so many life opportunities .  As I look back at past relationships I also see how I blame myself for wounds I was not conscious of.  My emotional hunger made me bond with inappropriate people far too early.  My emotional neglect meant I did not have strategies of self care.  And when I was in rampant addiction there was really no real me to show up to protect or be truely intimate even though my soul longed for this deep intimacy.

What I have realised is that for me to ever find such a form of intimacy, it is going to need to come from my own soul first.  After years of validation I needed my current therapist so desperately but I cannot tell you the amount of times my inner saboteur, critic and nay sayer has tried to get me to abort this last therapy.  I wonder why a part of me would fight something that helps me so much.

Anyway this morning I woke up soft.  I woke up just before dawn.  I made sure not to contract my muscles and to try to breathe deep into my belly as part of my pattern of trauma involves unconsciously holding my breathe.   I was trapped in the car in 1979 for a long time and had to be cut out.  I had a collapsed lung so it was hard to breathe and they were behind me trying to put on a mask.   I held my breathe in my family to put my own needs back and try to revolve around Mum to be seen.  I tried so hard to do everythign right.  Yesterday as I was crying with Kat in therapy I heard a deep inner voice say : “you better get everything right and perfect, or there will be hell to pay.”  Part of my own defence and ancestral defence is to try to make order out of chaos.  I know often in adult children of alcoholics meetings I would hear how this reaction was a response to the chaos of a parent’s addiction.  In our family the addiction was my great great grandfather’s,  My grandmother and mother carried both the trauma imprints and reactive imprints.  With my Neptune in Scorpio in the third house I know it is my fate to bring awareness to all of this so I can free myself but first I have to see it and realise that maybe such deep rooted patterns are not always easy to change.  I need to have patience with myself and practice self compassion while still trying to set limits and boundaries of self care so I am not driven all the time by the emptiness of my childhood neglect.  Only self care will help in this situation.  A false self develops as a survival strategy and it takes time to release it.  I am engaged on this process.

I have a lovely book on the soul by Deepak Chopra that he wrote as a response to the 9/11 attacks called The Deeper Wound : Recovering The Soul From Fear and Suffering that I rediscovered earlier this year.  In it there are 100 poweruful meditations with a core saying to help us get in touch with our souls, that soft wise inner part of us that just sees and knows beyond all the fears, insecurities and strategies of the false self or wounded ego.

I am making a practice of letting these meditations soak in as a kind of healing balm when I am forced to push or fight something it may be better to open up and surrender to.  I don’t doubt my soul knows what is required to embrace my fractures.  I just have to trust and stay open and soft enough to let that healing in while staying strong and setting boundaries for good self care.

Finding connection through disconnection after trauma

Some people just get us.  Some people are an energy of love that you can just feel.   When you are with them your heart opens and you feel your energy lift.  They don’t subtly or so unsubtly invalidate you or put you down.  When you have not known this kind of pure love and open heartedness it can be so easy to distrust.  And we sensitive ones do need to be careful at times who we open up to as a lot of people may blame or shame us.  But still I do think there are also those out there who recognise our high sensitivity.

I often wonder how much less sensitive we may have been in a better or more self protective way if this side of us was seen, acknowledged or valued earlier on.  Traumatic things hit us hard and Peter Levine, the trauma expert makes the point that how we are treated immediately after trauma affects how well we recover.  In my own case I was on the other side of the world so far from family support when my second trauma hit and I escaped there as to be around their energy felt violent emotionally to me.  After the accident I struggled to find a safe space then freaked out and came back home.  It was a night mare.

I retreated alone and then got into a relationship with someone who brutalised me when I showed grief.  I justified how he treated me and kept going back because I did not know I needed more.  I was not kind to myself and had never learned really to value who I was and my capacity to feel.  I put down alcohol and smoking at 31 as I really wanted to live in a kinder way but that was just the beginning of understanding how the energies of others around me affected me and how I was responding.  As I look back over the past six years of being back near family I see I have struggled to maintain my own boundaries and self care with all the other traumas that followed especially the attempted suicide of my other sister.

Not one family member has chose to do any emotional work at all.  I try to point things out but it is often like trying to lead a horse to water.  And I am beginning to see that by myself I suffer in a family at times where feelings and sensitivities have to be so hidden and that is physically so repressed and non demonstrative.  I see how my living sister uses exercise herself to connect in the absence of the love and holding that is really needed.  These days I only see one or two friends who I can really connect with and often I think my body is suffering and crying out for holding care and love.  Maybe it is time for me to start to seek out some kind of touch therapy and holding, I have been considering Reiki.

I have often come to grief with holding therapies.  I had the accident after a session of cranio sacral.  The second time I tried it I freaked out with the therapist and she shamed and invalidated me so much I left, letting someone into your body when you have suffered traumas to it and violations of it is fraught with peril and such big feelings but at the moment I think it may help to release some of what my tissues have had to hold so deep inside over past years.

I am sharing about this today and the synchronicity with astrology is that today Mercury is in the body ruled sign of Virgo which relates to earth mother and is coming up to oppose natal Chiron in the seventh which is all my wounds in relationships from the past and maybe that is healing now as on WordPress I now seem to have made so many good connections with people who truly validate and understand.   It helps me to write about all of this and what others post really prompts and awakens my own healing.  In this way I make connections in all kinds of ways and that is the work of Mercury who travels and links us.  Today I as I was walking I was imagining the entire world as a web of interconnected energies.  Who we meet with and connect with on any day has such a powerful impact on us for good or ill and surely there people out there who we could really gel with but just never get to meet.  In any case here is where I get to share and pour out the way I feel and I am so grateful for that.