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.

Longing to be seen in unavailable families : some current insighs

I sometimes wonder if you even stop longing for the wrong people to see you.. Growing up in a narcissistically oriented family its a lot like you don’t exist as a real person.. your soul gets negated or killed off so often, but in such a silent and difficult way, as to make you end up doubting your own reality..

When I started studying naturopathic theory in 1991 I came across the double bind theory of schizophrenia developed by Gregory Bateson. In this theory when a child goes to a parent with their emotional perception the parent denies the truth and doesn’t explain their own behaviour (since, I guess, they aren’t even conscious of it themselves.) This sends a younger child a little crazy and begins to fill their head with second guessing and self doubt, they begin to question “were things really as I perceived them to be? Mum seemed angry but she says she isn’t and that if only I left her alone or did not do or say that, she would be okay.” the child may have to develop an inner dialogue to survive, but it is a confusing and unrestful inner dialogue.. One also begins to question everything.

I have done a few posts on the protector – persecutor archetype which lives deep inside the psyche of those of us with childhood wounding, trauma or neglect…Elaine Aron the founder of the concept of the Highly Sensitive Person addresses this archetype and inner force a great deal in one of her books : “The Undervalued Self.”

If we had to protect ourselves from a wounding parent or compensate for an unavailable one in childhood we may also transfer this dynamic onto new relationships.. we get easily triggered and may see things in others from the past, we also have a lot of work to do so that we don’t continue to attract the exact same invalidation, nor internalise it.

We also have to learn to trust our true feelings and perceptions. Not being seen is very crazy making and it can fill you with profound feelings of helplessness and frustration.. Also having your boundaries over run or being placed in a position where its nearly impossible to delineate and express them is even harder.. Its only lately I am seeing how much I have struggled with boundaries, most especially around family members in later life when their behaviour has been hurtful, invalidating and confusing.

Up til now I have kept an open mind with family knowing that we all came out of a lot of emotional neglect but the wash up over my mother’s inheritance and my brother’s assumption of complete paternal control has been triggering me over the past 24 hours.. He is not willing to release even a portion of what Mum left to us and its making me really distressed and upset my equilibrium entirely over that time…So often with my brother I experience that narcissistic individual’s impenetrable wall…. they cant see you, don’t want to see you, have already decided you are less than and only worthy of their contempt or to be erased psychologically or ignored.. they can erase you so easily even when you are in the same room.. my brother has done it to me so many times now and I could not hide from my fury and rage over it last night..where the fuck does he get off controlling my sister’s and my life in this way? I need to vent about it here as I don’t have therapy until Monday.. When I got the news last night a family friend who has worked in the past for he and my father made it plain she agrees he is not being fair.. I think if my sister and I were both men he would not be treating us in this way…

There is nothing at times that triggers me than not being seen or having boundaries over ridden.. It was hard enough in my family as the youngest by a long way having things pushed on me I didn’t like.. I got in trouble with alcohol too as Dad made us drink at a young age thinking that would help us to be responsible drinkers, the problem he didn’t model how to have healthy emotions and boundaries either and so that made alcohol a hiding place not a stress release especially with low confidence and inverted narcissism.

Today I was tempted to turn everything back on myself again… but then I realised what I was doing, taking the blame for something not my fault.. I have managed to stay sober for over 26 years now so that has to be saying something, but my boundaries have not been good.. I got dragged along in things due to lack of insight and protection, I denied and sucked up things I should have said no to, sometimes due to ignorance, at others just I longed to be or to stay connected at all costs, even to those who did not treat me well…..Today some more of my denial broke down as I saw how I can press the emotional truth down and how painful it was to be treated in a state of emotional melt down as if my feelings made no sense. Its been one hell of a painful and damaging conundrum… and I really had to hold and validate my inner child today.. I had two nights of trying to be there again only to not be related too though there are some small signs of progress…

Today I feel in a strange place, the sun is shining but it still feels like the dark old world of the past is lapping around my ankles like a pitch black ocean… I don’t want to go under again and in some way I can feel my feet on the sand.. but I need to continue to be mindful and not blow off my own instincts, gut feelings and true perceptions.. nor tone down my fight response just because I fear being misunderstood or sidelined.

Why anxiety and logic don’t mix : relationships and insecure attachment

Reading the book I recommended yesterday Anxious in Love is putting into perspective for me why things can hurt and go so wrong for us who suffer PTSD, Complex PTSD or anxious and insecure attachment in relationships.  As the authors point out in Part 2 :  Connecting With the One You Love different parts of the brain are operating for us and our partners who don’t see what all the fuss is about when we respond with anxiety to certain events or triggers.  I am being taken back with every word to my last relationship where I would get an hour long lecture on how wrong I had things to be responding in the way I did with little empathy shown.

In anxiety our forebrain (or rational brain) is emotionally hijacked by the lower brains (hind brain and mid brain) where centres such as the amygdala lie.  Being responded to with logic as most of us know is tantamount to having a red flag waved in front of the face of a raging bull!!!!  But we also need to understand our partner may be coping with the situation in the best way they know how while lacking a more complete understanding of how rationality has flown out the proverbial window.

In this situation what is called for is developing the ability to intentionally respond rather then becoming reactive.  The solution is for each partner to understand and have an attitude of curiosity about what is happening for the other.  It’s something an old therapist of mine would bring up a lot about by ex saying “its just sad he cannot have an attitude of curiosity about what is occurring for you”.  To be told you are bad or wrong for responding as you do is just terrible and I think its a key to so called Borderline Personality Disorder sufferer’s struggle.  Perceived abandonment when triggered can send us into a cascade or spiral that takes is into the darkest place for days and if we are left alone in it too long for some the feelings (what therapist Pete Walker calls the abandonment melange) can lead to suicide, addiction and other self destructive mechanisms of coping.

What Carolyn Daitch and Lissah Lorberbaum, authors of Anxious in Love offer instead is a way of each partner entering the other’s reality for a time to validate it, both the non anxious partner and the one who suffers anxiety.   As sufferers of insecure attachment we can learn to understand our partner’s reactions and can learn to voice our needs in relationship in a less angry, attacking or accusative way.  Often non sufferers who operate from the higher brain just do not understand the severity or intensity of our responses to triggers.

Lack of emotional flexibility is one of the hardest legacies of anxiety reactions in relationship, it shuts down emotional attunement between partners and makes an open dialogue impossible.  Being able to set a time out when we know we are being triggered and our brain is going into hijack mode is useful, and hopefully our partner will accept it if we let them know what is going on with us.  The alternative is they respond with emotional distance/withdrawal themselves, judgement and anger (being triggered themselves), misunderstanding or protest which can be very difficult.  The more we can talk through these reactions and responses in our relationships the better change we have of resolving conflict and growing empathy and attunement.    The more we can step into their shoes and understand what is happening the more we can make an “appeal to reason” while explaining what underlies our reaction.

Some partners may be even triggered by us saying what has triggered us, though. They may respond by telling us “that’s all in the past” but in that case they need to work to understand how emotional hijacking works and show empathy in any case.  A person who is not willing to do this for those of us with insecure or anxious attachment may not, in the long run, be the best partner for us.

More detailed techniques for reconnecting are given in the book in later chapters of Part Two but today I thought I would just share what I have learned from the book so far for those not in the position to purchase a copy at this point in time.  The book is building on my knowledge of many years of trying to deal with anxious attachment and its destructive effect on some of my relationships.

Because the experience of attunement with a significant other is powerful, ruptures in attuned connection bring about a sense of absence, loss, and even distress.  Yet those ruptures in attunement are inevitable in all relationships, no matter how solid.  There are times when you just fall out of sync with one another.  It’s important, therefore, that you both have the ability to repair ruptures when they occur.   Just as quickly as you fall out of sync, with some flexibility you can repair the disconnect and engage one another in attunement again.

Anxious In Love, p. 98

A brilliant resource for anxious attachment

Anxious.jpg

If like me you suffer from anxiety or anxious or insecure attachment issues you may find the above resource very helpful.  I have not read the entire book yet but its already given me so many tools not only to manage my anxieties in relationship but just anxiety in general.  There are a number of practical exercises you can do and the authors explain the way to recognise triggers, ask in a caring way for a time out without triggering your partner’s own issues, self soothe then find a way to reconnect from a calmer space where you can speak from your heart rather than from your trauma or defences.

Those of us with anxious attachment and Complex PTSD can really struggle to hold onto loving relationships and relate in a loving way.  This is a resource that actually gives strategies that are useful and will help you to understand more about how anxious attachment affects your relationships.   I highly recommend it.