On fear : befriending and working with it

The following insights on making friends with fear are taken from Chapter 7 of Miriam Greenspan’s wonderful book Healing Through the Dark Emotions : TheWisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair.

Befriending fear in a fear negating culture is essential if we want to use this emotion wisely. To do this, we have to be aware of our negative, limiting beliefs about fear, and to reconstruct and affirm a new set of beliefs.

We cannot be warriors of vulnerability, if we think fear is a shameful, debilitating emotion… Think of fear, not as a weakness, but as information, a signal of unsafety, a usable energy, a way of knowing… What fear tells us is that we are human. We are vulnerable. You are interconnected with others in the fabric of life. You can let yourself feel fear, breathe through it, and use its energy. You don’t have to let fear become panic by avoiding it. You can feel it and let it be, and doing so can open the gates to joy.

These affirming statements about fear may seem dubious. Honouring fear and treating it like a legitimate emotion can be uncomfortable, and feel ‘wrong’. Affirming the value of fear requires a kind of revolution within, to transform the fear negating culture we have internalised.

Try this : Write a list of fear affirming statements and pin them on your bedroom or bathroom mirror or some other place you look often. Changing what you believe about what you feel is one of the most impotant ways to shift an old emotional pattern. Psychologists call this “reframing” and its one of the important skills in the alchemy of the dark emotions.

The following questions might help you frame your fear affirmations.

What fears have you faced? What did you gain from facing them?

If your answer to that question is “none’, ask yourself Why not? What got in the way of facing your fears?

Think of a time when you felt paralysed by fear. What kept you from moving through it? What, if anything, helped?

Think of a time when you acted in spite of fear or acted with fear. What happened?

What did you learn?

What fear(s) are you holding in now? What fears are you avoiding? Aht do you think would happen if you let yourself feel them.

Following this, try the following sentence completions:

If fear didn’t scare me, I would use it to……

The resources and strenghth I now have to face my fears creatively are…

When I view fear as a teacher, I learn…..

Something productive I can do with my fear is…..

Changing your shaming beliefs about fear creates an opening, a place in the heart where fear can live without wrecking your self esteem and composure. The open heart can befriend fear and is ready for alchemy.

Getting it touch with fear in your body and soothing it is the next step….hang in and use mindfulness of what it feels like and stay with the discomfort without acting it out (unless you are in real danger) Consciously experience it and talk to it in a soothing way and to find out what it has to say..

The third step is to find the context of fear.. Say you have a fear of heights, in that situation you question exactly what it is you are afraid of : falling and dying, being out of control, fear of uncertainty. Try to find the peace inside that fear, if you cannot control the time of your death what can you control?… fear of death may underline much of our anxiety.. The antidote is to recognise it is inevitable but not always likely… what might it mean to live well, with a fear of death? And if the fear is in response to a real threat what can you do to minimise the threat, what action can you take or changes can you make? What is one simple thing you could do to make things a little better?

The fourth step : mindfullness of fear is related to feeling it in the body….and relates to tolerating fear as a part of life while using a meditation practice to be with it and breathe it in, instead of push it away or avoid it.. taking fear into our heart we may even find a part of us so scared just in need of some love and kind words. Tonglen, a spiritual practice shared by Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron asks us to breathe in fear and breathe out joy. This practice gives an antidote to the ‘spiritual bypass’ of many New Age practices and involves alchemising the dark and primal. If we avoid painful feelings we only end up creating more pain and suffering.. When we react or lash out, out of fear things never improve, we just get trapped in a further cycle of suffering.

The fifth step is related to taking action in the context of fear. Finding out the things that fear or upset us may promote us to take positive action to make a change.

The sixthe step involves the path of surrender, it comes after looking fear in the face and seeing it for what it is.. Prayer may be a part of the path of surrender, this is the practice of handing over what seems too much for us to a higher power or place of faith. Here are some helpful prayers.

May I accept my fear. May my fear guide me to do the right thing.

Help me when I am afraid, not to be afraid of my fear. Help me allow it to move me to an action in service of life.

When all else fails find some comic diversion.. taking a break from fear to laugh and experience joy provides an antidote to the suffocation and heaviness of spirit fear can bring about in our lives…..

The problem of self calming : some reflections on activation and calming

Recently my sister and I were discussing our childhood. Her words were this when talking about my mother : “she was like a tornado”.. to be honest it was hard to relax around my Mum.. I got my foot burned on one caravanning holiday when she left a bucket of boiling water underneath the table I was drawing on while cleaning the floor and I stepped into it and got 3rd degree burns.. now another more attentive child, perhaps not so ‘lost’ in her own world or passion of the moment may have seen it and averted disaster.

I learned in time to try to use substances to calm me down or take the edge off.. my parents used alcohol for this purpose at the end of each working day and we were encouraged to do the same.. for me it ended in addiction and I am happy I got to put alcohol, drugs and cigarettes down in 1993 but I still find looking for comfort in food just comes naturally…

I had a discussion with a friend over the past week in which she said that being told to ‘be calm’ or ‘calm down’ is a sure trigger for becoming less calm….it might be like telling a person with really bad insect bites not to scratch without some other kind of soothing being offered such as balm for the soreness. Balm for the uncalm might be words like “I am sorry its so uncomfortable right now” or “that must have been very distressing” validation, empathy causes the increase of oxytocin and the reduction of cortisol.

I don’t know what would have calmed my mother during one of her frenzies or OCD rampages…its taking me years to know I don’t have to clear up and wash all the dishes immediately I stop eating or cooking.. one of my ways of being seen was to run around after Mum cleaning up after she got home from her job at her dress shop every day around 6 pm. Later in my recovery I had a dream in which the dream young me was all wired up through the shoulder with a wire coat hanger.. What a powerful metaphor for how entwined I was body, mind and psyche with family energy patterns of looking good and over drive…

Calming for me now comes with writing in which I tap into and release the stored vibrational charge of feeling; in writing poetry, in listening to music, it comes in nature (as I share ad infinitum here); with my dog; with calm loving friends who are emotionally present and honest with true open hearts..

Triggers for me are : criticism, the disapproving stare (flared nostrils and hard dark stare often proceeded one of my Mum’s rages.) I can forgive my Mum in a way now as I know she never got lovingly contained or mirrored and she carried so much from the maternal generational legacy of buried built up stress and repressed emotions…that was impossible to contain. I can forgive my Dad for not knowing how to cope with it, and so checking out… and I can understand the deep roots of my anxious avoidant attachment style which at other times can be disordered..

Calm is only coming slowly but it is coming… I am still activated but only by the old triggers and stepping down from them is becoming quicker and easier as learn where my wound and necessary boundaries and self soothing strategies lay.

How to validate our emotions

Validating our own emotions is not easy for us raised in emotionally dysregulated or neglecting homes.  It is something I have struggled with so much in my sobriety and feel sad that its taken me at least 23 years in sobriety to get this lesson right.  What am sharing here below comes from the excellent book Calming The Emotional Storm by Sheri Van Dijk, MSW.

Calming the Emotional Storm

(the first step)… is to increase your awareness of how you think and feel about your emotions.  If you don’t know how you respond to your feelings, you won’t be able to change your response.  You can practice the following mindfulness exercise to help you become more aware of and accepting towards your emotions.

Sitting or lying in a comfortable position, take a few moments to let your body relax and rest, letting your breath come comfortably and naturally.  When you are ready bring your attention to the present and begin noticing whatever sensations are taking place in your body, specifically turning your attention to any sensations you have been pushing away or fighting, such as pain or tension.  Without trying to change any of these sensations, just let yourself notice their presence, be curious about them and open toward them, without judgement, even if you do not like what you notice.  Each time you notice yourself struggling against an experience, as best you can, let your body relax into the experience and let your heart soften towards it.  Also allow yourself to open to the experience rather than continue to fight it.  Breathe into the sensations and just let them be.

Now turn your attention to your feelings and thoughts, noticing whatever is present in this moment.   Again draw your attention to any specific feelings or thoughts that you are struggling with, that you are invalidating, judging, trying to avoid or push away.  Bring your curiosity to these expereinces, being open to them as best you can rather than continuing to fight them.  Breathe into these feelings and thoughts, just let them be.

Without judging any of these experieces or thoughts just continue the practice of being to, and letting them be as you deepen the breath.

Levels of validation 

To make the idea of self validation easier, you can break it down into three different levels of acknowledging, allowing, and understanding.

Acknowledging The first most basic level of self validation is simply acknowledging the presence of the emotion:  for example, “I feel anxious.”  By just acknowledging the emotion, and putting a period on the end of the sentence rather than going down the road of judging it, your are validating your anxiety.

Allowing.  The second level of self validation is allowing or giving yourself permission to feel the emotion: for example, “It’s okay that I feel anxious.”  Here, not only are you not judging the emotion.  You are going one step further, saying “This is okay.”  Again, this does not mean that you like the emotion or want it to hang around but that you’re allowed to feel it.

Understanding.   The highest level of self validation, is of course the most difficult.   In this form of validation, not only do you refrain from judging the emotion, and not only do you say it is okay to feel it, but you go one step further and say you understand it.  “It makes sense that I feel anxious being at home by myself, given the fact that I was alone at home when thieves broke in and threatened me with a gun.”

If you have been invalidating your emotions for most of your life it won’t be easy to undertake this practice, and some emotions may be harder for you to validate than others, but stay with it.  Wherever you find yourself in the practice, don’t judge and just keep perservering.  We cannot unlearn old patterns over night.  Please take your time (be kind to yourself) and have patience with the process.

The need to feel safe and the healing power of presence

Elephant.jpg

In order to be able to open ourselves up totally we need to feel safe and we can only feel safe in a climate of acceptance and love.  I do believe it is this open non judgemental acceptance which can free us and often it is given the name presence.  Being present with someone, totally with no agenda is such a gift.  It is about the best gift we can give to anyone who is struggling and has locked up things inside.    People who are suffering don’t need to be told what to do.. they JUST NEED TO BE HEARD AND VALIDATED!!

For so many of us it wasn’t safe to fully express ourselves growing up.  I know I suffered doubly from being at a Catholic School where it was soooo repressed.  As kids we learned just to suck it up but I was listening to part of a radio play in which a young boy was sharing what a preacher had told him from the bible and saying how it was all about being bad and needing to be made not so bad, the inherent idea of original sin was a toxic poison so many of us imbibed with the rancid morning tea milk we were forced to drink that had become tarnished from being left outside too long in the sun. I know I used to gag on mine.

Its a very long journey to learn to be present to ourselves and not totally possessed by the voice of a voracious inner critic we internalised composed of all the things we were told about our badness or need for correction.  And yes sometimes we do need to monitor behaviour but what we most categorically don’t need is blockage against knowing who we are and what we truly feel.   And this can only begin to emerge in a climate of empathy and open presence.  Being present for our own self and offering understanding compassion and love is in my experience the thing that most soothes my anxiety.   Soothing comes from the love we give, increased anxiety comes from speaking to ourselves or others badly or in a critical or unloving way.  We are all human and do it but we can all become more mindful of it too, we don’t have to be perfect just a bit more aware.

 

Dialogues with my inner critic

I have been trying to use active imagination with the force of the inner critic inside me lately.  For those who dont know active imagination is a way we can dialogue with an inner psychic force inside us, Robert Johnson Jungian therapist addresses it in his book Inner Work but my talks with the critic were also inspiresed by another book called Freedom from your Inner Critic : A Self Therapy Approcach.  

One of the things my inner critic does is drive me hard.  As a child growing up we were not allowed to play or have fun until all our chores were done.  A friend in later years said it was like coming to a military operation in our home.  We had to iron our own school uniforms, polish our shoes and clean our rooms I also learned to run around after my mother who would get herself in a state of apoplexy at any sign of mess.  In later years when my older sister was in the care home for acquired brain injury she would laugh uproarously about an incident at a farm when Mum got chicken shit on her shoe.

It was a bit mean come to think of it for as an emotionally neglected child my mother had no one at all there for her.  Her father died when she was 7, her own mother had no war pension and had to work afternoons, evenings and mornings just the times she should have been home for her daughter.  Mum got her own dinner, she made own breakfast, got herself ready for school (where she was abused and punished and used to clean the Nun’s chapel or stood in the corner for not doing home work COME ON!!! WHAT THE FUCK!!!)  Those were harsh times during the 1930’s coming out of the depression years and First World War into the intense climate of the Second during which she met my Dad.

Dad was the oldest of a fatherless family too, fleeing Holland just prior to German occupation in 1938.  He was hell bent on becoming a millionaire.  My godfather, his best friend told me this when I got into addiction recovery in 1993-1996.  We had many chats because my father died when I was 22 and I never knew his history over which he remained quite silent like many of his generation.

Anyway back to my inner critic who I call Mr A and my therapist calls The Annihilator.  He often wont let me rest and the other morning when he was off on a rant I just gave him a hug in my active imagination then I put an ice pack on his head.  It was a while until he calmed down but I got a good insight into what lay beneath just as when one time I stopped my Mum mid flight in an OCD cleaning spree to hug her and she also burst into tears!!!

I have been grieving a lot more since this incident.  The self punishing voices are still there but I am able to bring them out and ‘unblend’ from them (a term used in the second bood mentioned above.)  My child inner often gets tormented by Mr A he blames her for everything, including a host of things that never in a million years could be her fault.  But of course this is what happens to those of us emotionally neglected in childhood.  But we can take back control over these inner forces if our desire to love and seek the truth is stronger than our possession by them, if we are willing to do the inner work to make them more conscious.

As Jay Earley and Bonnie Weiss point out in the second book our Critic is so often hostile to our Inner Child but we can learn to change this by self compassion and in the process our compassion for the wounds of those who abused us also grows.  We know they were hurting and did the best they knew, even if it was in no way good enough, we are on an evolutionary trajectory in regards to that carried or inherited trauma.

Two triggers

I noticed today two triggers that propelled me into flashback mode.  Doing some cleaning and tidying up today I hit my head and was immediately in flashback and my system and hormonal/neurotransmitter responses were being activating, flooding my brain and gut.  I lay down on the floor and gently head my head and said to myself “You are having a flashback,  you feel scared but you are safe”, I then connected on breathing as I practiced self soothing, I did what an earlier body harmony therapist taught me.  Looked around the room, connected to something pretty and safe in present time,  an embroidered cushion and eventually I was able to stand up and self calm.  Part of my PTSD trauma is that I crashed on a pushbike after doing a cranio sacral session to deal with my near death accident at age 17 and was flung over the handlebars, cutting my head open on an iron foundary  This occured close to the first anniversary of my husband returning to the UK and telling me he was going to leave me.  I also had another accident (more minor) on the second annivesary in 2006 and at that stage I did not know what flashbacks were.  I was living totally isolated and alone at the South Coast.

The second trigger prompted sadness over something my friend, was asking me about yesterday concering my ex husband. I shared with her my sorrow over a pregnancy I decided to terminate when I was only 6 months sober from active alcohol addiciton in 1994 and only 8 months married.   I made that decision from my own fear of not being able to be a good enough mother and I know it hurt my ex husband as after he left me he quickly got involved with someone new who gave him a child and told my mother before he told me.  (Mind you they both bonded over refusal to allow me my therapy to deal with a traumatic neglectful past.)

Today this sadness about children was trigger as when Jasper my dog and I go on one of my favourite walks we pass by a child’s play centre and the kids are behind the fence and often they run down and call out to us saying things like : “look, doggie!!!”  So today we went over and then I helped them by throwing back about 6 plastic spades that had been thrown over the fence near to where Jasper and I were standing.   After I left the children behind this huge wave of sadness came upon me and I started to cry and feel so guilty with thoughts like “its no wonder your husband left you”, “you were just a hopeless alcoholic” despite the fact that by that stage I was working as hard as I could on my recovery.  Anyway we kept walking as I cried to the oval where we threw the ball around and then walked back to sit in our favourite spot by the swings on a bench under the tree and by that stage I had moved through the trigger.

Its good to be able to share about these things, about the sadness I will always carry not only for the 5 children I could not bring to term but also for the inner child in me who never really got to become a proper grown up.  My therapist often says that due to the traumas that befell me between age 17 and 23 I never got to properly leave home.  She uses the expression “it was like you were flung out of a cannon”… I was also drowning my shame and false sense of inadequacy in booze and drugs from 23 to 31 when so many other expereinces of emotional abandonment and isolation kept replaying.  The final two abandonments were my husband and then last partner leaving me while telling me I was damaged goods, something it has been hard to get out from under.  But today I can say I think I am making progress. Realising a flashback is a reminder of being so small, powerless and helpless THEN… but not necessarily NOW is so important.  As Pete Walker points out some of us who become passive or co-dependent have our fight and flight responses disabled and we have a lot of work to do to beat the inner critic who beats us up or comes at us from others who know fuck all about our real inner history.  Learning to fight off and not succumb as much to the flashbacks and to make sense of them is so so important to recovery.   It really really is.

Who ARE we really? The lost feeling self and it’s role in suicidal ideation.

Just re reading through key chapters in Jonice Webb’s book on Childhood Emotional Neglect, Running on Empty : Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect  is reminding me of this question and how hard it can be to answer fully and honestly if we were not fully allowed to express ourselves or unfold ourselves and our feelings in our family of origin.

In the chapter Cognitive Secrets : The Special Problem of Suicidal Feelings, Jonice outlines the story of Robyn who becomes suicidal after what seems to be a ‘fun’ night with friends.  What is not seen by her friends though or expressed by Robyn is her real and true self.  As Jonice describes Robyn’s childhood she describes a loving family who did not allow any displays of so called ‘negative’ emotions  :

Robyn’s parents seldom argued and they had very low tolerance for negativity of any kind  When a conflict would break out between the children, as they do with all siblings, the parents would crack down by sending all parties to their rooms immediately (no matter what the fight was about).. their motto was “Zero Tolerance”. They also applied this role to complaining or any expression of unhappiness, sadness or frustration.   The result was a quiet household.  The children learned early on that if they had something negative on their minds, they had better keep it to themselves.  Mom and Dad refused to be burdened by nonsense.. they didn’t have the time or energy to put into solving crises, assuaging tears and soothing frustrations  The Zero Tolerance policy allowed them to stay in charge of the household and they felt, keep a positive outlook on life.

Outside the house the siblings did fight and argue, however.  The older siblings could work with this conflict, contain the emotions and felt freed by it, but Robyn who was a sensitive child did not.  She was labelled a ‘Frequent Crier ‘ by the family, due to her tendency to burst into tears and was of course teased about being like this and if the tears continued too long she was,( of course), sent to her room (alone!).  Great solution, Mum and Dad!!!

Throughout all of this Robyn learned a powerful lesson.  She learned that negative emotion was bad and would not be tolerated.  She learned that any feelings she had that were not upbeat, fun or positive must be kept to herself and carefully hidden.  She felt ashamed that she had such feelings, and silently vowed never to let them be seen.  (to such an extent that she even hid them from herself!)

Robyn learned to withdraw, to stay busy and diverted, watch too much television or over work and to fight off any ‘negative’ feelings.

Robyn didn’t just fight this battle.  She lived it.  Her life was organised around making sure that she did not reveal, see, know or feel anything negative from herself.  It took a tremendous amount of energy.  She was bent on hiding the negative shameful part of herself (Robyn’s version of the Fatal Flaw most neglected kid hide deep inside)…..she couldn’t let anyone get to know her too well.

Robyn learned to live alone, to not invite friends around.  She hid even her intense loneliness about this from herself and struggled because she knew her parents loved her, so why would she be struggling so much if she was not fatally flawed?

Since adolescence, Robyn had an outside looking in feeling. At age 13, she had started wondering what was wrong with her.  She’d had a great childhood, so there was no explanation for how flawed she felt.  There was something missing something sick inside of her, a secret void.  The only way she could soothe herself was to imagine being dead.  Being dead would be such a relief  She did not have any intention to kill herself, but she reserved the possibility as a safety net…..Robyn used fantasies of being dead and her secret knowledge of her safety net as her chief method of soothing herself from age 13, all through her adulthood, but she had not breathed a word of it to a single soul.

Jonice goes on to describe how this fantasy and desire was, however, triggered after the night in question Robyn had shared with friends…. how feelings of numbness, emptiness and gloom suddenly began to over take and consume Robyn…As her desperation increased after failed attempts to distract herself with television comedy failed, Robyn reached for the bottle of pills and swallowed them compulsively.

Robyn’s suicide attempt and feelings would most likely make so sense to anyone who knew her because as Jonice explains “the Robyn that everyone else knew and loved was not the real Robyn… She was essentially a time bomb, set to explode periodically”.

Robyn was luckily found by her sister who happened to drop by that day…but many who feel and suffer the way that Robyn did are not so lucky….”they don’t get to share or understand their pain, and they don’t get to explain their final moments to anyone.”  They also never really get to know, love or understand their real feelings or true self.

When I first read this chapter in Webb’s book last year I identified with it so strongly.  I have not ever committed suicide though often I had cherished that fantasy too.  Luckily I got a sense years into sobriety that more was going on underneath my addiction that just ‘defects of character’.  Soul sadness, soul loneliness as therapist Tara Brach points out in her book True Refuge are primary feelings that drive us when we come to mistakenly believe “there is something wrong with me”, the fatal flaw which is symptom seven in Jonice Webb’s list of effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect.

So many of us who suffer urgently need to understand it’s roots if we really are ever to recover our true sense of self which contains all kinds of feelings in response to a life which we didn’t choose and is so often influenced by all kinds of toxic, negating and restrictive influences beyond our control.

(For a full list of all 10 symptoms of Childhood Emotional Neglect please see the following post or read Jonice Webb’s book.)

https://emergingfromthedarknight.wordpress.com/2016/08/30/signs-you-may-have-been-emotionally-neglected/

On ambivalence and facing my wounds

I kind of love the word ambivalence.  I break it down into its two roots ambi and valence.  I know valence is a kind of frequency or charge, I guess we could call it an energy or pull, this by-way pulling of contradictory inner charges of though and feeling is something I go through a lot in my relationship with the outer world and my family most especially.

I seem to be torn at times between forgiving my Mum and family for past neglect and feeling great disappointment, resentment and anger about them.   I long to connect and then feeling thwarted and hurt want to get as far away as I can.   The resentment has changed for me in recent months with the realisation that it can, if buried and the true feelings not dealt with cause disease on many levels.  I do feel this together with the many experiences of wounding and emotional abandonment I experienced together with difficulty forming healthy nurturing relationships contributed to my breast cancer last year.

I know acceptance on some level provides relief.  I can accept something occurred or is occurring although I may not like it, I just realise I am powerless over other people and realise expecting change is doomed.  Only the adult part of me is capable of that since my wounded enmeshed child wants to hold on and not accept the truth at any cost.  When I don`t accept or choose to see the reality I can make excuses for bad behaviour or just keep hoping ‘this time it will be different’ and just stay stuck in anger as a defence against grieving, mourning, accepting and moving on in a rational way.

I just watched a second video from Courage Coaching on how narcissistic parents can infantalise a child and it sent some shivers through me.  I have struggled with feeling a sense of competence and independence in my life due to being over involved and enmeshed with my Mum for some years and this difficult situation was made harder by my father’s death when I was 23.  I feel shame and guilt at times when I see how I acted my own fear and pain and feelings of being not worthy enough or inadequate in relationships sometimes through anger and think gosh I really was strongly on the narcissistic spectrum. But I also know that true narcissists try to avoid any possible introspection and that is not me.   I am overly introspective at times and often make things my fault that are not.  As I now understand it, the home I was raised in and influences around me were out of my control then, I was for a time powerless over the unconscious effects. Pain and difficult emotions such as anger and resentment come as teachers to guide me to a healthier pathway and in recovery I need to contain and work through them so I make healthier choices that don’t lead to more of the same.

I never had my painful feelings mediated or learned how to deal with them growing up.  I saw my own family using alcohol a lot and that is what I learned to do, silencing and drowning the complex mixed up feelings of my child within.  I had, even for years into my sobriety, trapped childhood feelings all mixed up inside.  Therapy is helping as is understanding how a regressed brain and wounded inner child forms in such an environment. This child needs help to understand his or her feelings and grow up.  It`s a long and difficult process for many of us.   That painful relationship we got involved in was just a trigger for us to do our own healing and that now is OUR responsibility no matter what wounds we carry.   If we stay stuck in blame and angry with the abuser or abandoner as a defence against a deeper acceptance we are in trouble.  Anger over what was done to us is an essential stage we must pass through to engage and moblise our push to heal and change and form better boundaries.  We cannot by pass it on the road to healing but staying stuck in it recycling over and over is just not healthy.  We deserve a happy life free of that kind of angst and pain after all we have been through.  When we form better boundaries and learn to self soothe and self care we are less likely to be as angry in my experience.  Our inner child needs our inner adults tenderness, discipline and strength.

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.

Suffering = Pain x Resistance

One of the most healing balms we can apply in life is acceptance.  Its so hard to hear at times that we need to accept painful things that have happened, most especially abuse or the failure to be protected by those we thought ‘should have’.  However what has happened to us has happened and for some of us, perhaps, left deep scars or even a festering wound really as these kind of wounds have not yet formed scar tissues until a way along the journey.

I think at times we can compare our pain to an open wound.  We so suffer unconsciously from what happened to us that is not yet fully known yet leaves its bloody foot prints upon us.  This is where applying unconditional loving presence towards our hurting, painful or contracted places can help.

Christine Neff talks alot about the equation that heads this blog in her book on Self Compassion in the chapter on resilience.  What she says, and what many Buddhist teachers teach, is that it is really our resistance to our pain or things we wish did not nor did not want to happen that causes us even more suffering in the long run.  I know for myself when things don’t go well or I hit a brick wall my immediate response is to try to find a way to more through it or react, that is when I need to pause and bring my energy back deep within in order to move it in a more helpful non resistant direction.   I do this a lot on the road when driving and getting stuck behind a very slow moving car.  I pull back and slow myself even more in this situation.   But I can also see situations in which I did not do this in my personal life and my not accepting and fighting against the certain thing I didn’t like I made things far harder for myself.  That said there is a time to fight for things that are within our power to change when it would be for our own or another person’s good.

We are in the long run human and our reptilian brain does cause us to react.  Christine explains in her book how we are hard wired to escape pain and predators as mammals, those defensive reactions served us well in the past but if we are reacting to being retriggered in the present all the time such responses become counter productive.  In PTSD and Complex PTSD we can get frozen in those responses.

Key to understanding how and why we resist and react is the concept of experiencing emotional flashbacks or what John Lee has called age or emotional regresssion.  I am the midst of writing a post on this concept.   When we age regresss or flash back we are no longer in present time and we often do not recognise it.  We can say things that were better not said, we can get frozen in time.  We can start to try to fix or give unwarranted advice.

I am just reading a book which deals with the concept of being hijacked by what the author calls our ‘toddler brain’ this occurs when we are age regressed and triggered by some kind of cue, perhaps the harsh tone of somone’s voice or undeserved criticism.

When we are in age regression or hijacked by the toddler brain we cannot respond well and with empathy.  We may not see the truth of a situation.  We may lash out.  We may sever friendships.   Getting ourselves back in adult brain takes work for those of us who had difficult or traumatising childhoods that left us with deep attachment wounds.

When we can open to a difficult reaction in the present moment with our full awareness (one of the skills we learn when practicing mindfulness); we can be less reactive.  We can practice self soothing.  The adult part of us can turn toward the inner child and comfort him or her, we can take ourselves into time out in order to have that inner dialogue.  We can also set boundaries with our wounded self in order to take care of him or her and not react.

Christine makes the point in her book that we are more hardwired to remember negative experiences than positive ones.  I guess this is one of the ‘pinning’ aspects of trauma I spoke of in a recent post.  When we are pinned to the negative sticking place we see only threat, we may be flooded emotionally or physically with a panic attack.  In my own case when this happens now I remember to work to take a few deep breaths into my belly because when I pay attention to my body I realise what has happened is that I have frozen my body or stopped breathing something I had to do when trapped in the car waiting to be cut out all those years ago, something I also used to do a lot when my Mum’s energy was upsetting or troubling me.   I have then learned to shift my focus and my attention to something beautiful in the surrounding environment.  I will have to deal it time with things that call me stress and anguish but being mindful in the present moment means I don’t have to ‘blow them up.’

Stopping the running of negative dialogues and scripts is also a part of this process. Often when stressed or panicking if I pay attention to my inner dialogue its all about resistance, saying things to myself like “this is all too hard, all too much. shouldnt be happening” or feeling and telling myself I cannot cope.  Sometimes in order to feel better all I have to do is place my attention on a task in hand that is right before me and start with that one little step instead of looking at the big picture and totally freaking out.

Doing something loving for our body is another way we can draw attention away from pain when we pinned in place and increase the flow of good chemicals such as oxytocin inside.  For example when I woke this morning and push pull symptoms of PTSD began I reached for some hand cream beside the bed and gently applied it to my arms and hands.  This soothing action took me into a gentle, loving, peaceful place.

Decreasing our resistance and lessening our suffering is also about opening to body sensations that may have come from our compulsive need to resist that formed over long years if we were not taught as children to engage in a positive way with challenging emotions.  Burying them inside us is not helpul.  For myself I know how my body has suffered from the chronic tightening that goes with repressed or denied anger I was not allowed or helped to express.  Today I sometimes deliberately tighten my muscles or limbs as an excercise to help them release stress and relax and I find this exercise helps me., but this exercise is totally different to a lifetime in which we had to bite down hard on difficult emotions and experiences.

All in all there are many things we can do to deal mindfully with our pain so that it doesn’t have to turn into deeper suffering.  Self compassion, mindfulness and learning to work with painful sensations, thoughts and emotions are all ways we can apply the soothing, healing balm to our wounded, contracted, hurting or fearful places.