I remember, in 2013, prior to my second flight from the Midwest (the first being to Bangladesh, in 1994), giving my clients the following homework: Take a week to be just as lazy, selfish and irresponsible as you can be. I’m not kidding. If that is not possible, take two days. If that isn’t possible, then at the very minimum, take four hours. That was the advice I, myself, needed to take and so I finally did. But it took me this long to realize what that would actually look like, and what it really meant. In hindsight I wonder how possible it was for any of my clients to do this assignment without drastically changing their environment – the cultural, political and economic setting of the USA in the 21st Century. But why, you might be asking. Why this assignment? I will give you the long explanation now.
So many of us, as survivors of early relational trauma, have been programmed for survival, though the danger is not what we think it is. So many of us have an inner critic that berates us mercilessly, perpetuating feelings of shame and self-doubt, if not self-loathing. It hurls names at its person, and depending on the words their family used to express their unresolved pain and shame, these might have included “lazy,” “narcissistic,” “selfish,” “stupid,” “irresponsible,” etc. Many of my clients are learning what to do with the part of themselves that spews these toxic messages. What we are learning together is that this abusive part is actually an automatic reflex designed to “protect” its person from feeling the overwhelming feelings of pain and loneliness from the past. It protects us from the pain and overwhelm of one or more tender, vulnerable parts that are stuck in the past, needing our help to get them out. But it is designed to remain undetected to our conscious mind, and that is what makes it tricky to deal with in a straightforward way.
Until we do bring consciousness, care and compassion to these unresolved issues, these parts will continue to get activated and wreak havoc in our lives. I knew this when I created Self-Abuse & The Drama Triangle, but I’m realizing it at a deeper level now, as I recognize with renewed clarity what a tremendous amount of my energy can still be wasted in self-doubt, self-flagellation and something just under the surface that is keeping me from feeling like my clear and shining adult self.
My inner critic is 14-15 years old. She feels indignant and she believes that she can’t stop or she will be just as outrageously unforgivable and deserving of repudiation as the ones responsible for the violence and neglect she experienced in the past. She believes that if she lets up, she will fail us both (she is operating from her adolescent perspective with righteous indignation and her 14-15-year-old determination to keep me from getting hurt). And so she continues to do her thing, just beneath the level of my awareness. Her toxic message – this survival reflex – gets kicked up as I diligently work to reclaim my original, First Nature, and say NO to the generations-old programming that kept me small and quiet by telling me that the world is an unsafe place and that I should not expect to be loved.
This reflex kicks in to preserve the status quo. With the incisiveness and sophistication of a terrified 15-year old, it scrutinizes and second guesses my motives, my choices, my decisions, my reactions, my performance, my physical appearance. She can go on and on and on before I recognize what is happening in there. When I ignore this dynamic over time, it chips away at my confidence, at my general sense of well-being, my health and my Life Force. This part does not trust me because of mistakes she is sure I have made in the past. She can be seriously abusive because she is terrified and she doesn’t believe she can ask for help and get it, and because she believes our lives and integrity depend on her keeping up this internal battery and its concomitant feelings of shame and self-contempt.
I am thinking of one of my clients who has figured out how to talk to his angry little one inside. His is only five years old. He shows me how firm but loving boundaries can be instituted and maintained with this little one, who has brought so much destruction to his closest relationships in the past. When he feels his angry little one starting to get agitated, he checks in with it. He reassures it. He has even learned to be preemptive. In the mornings he snuggles up with it, telling it that it is okay, and that he is big enough to hold it and protect it. You are safe now, he tells it. You can trust me to take your needs seriously. I love you. I am here now. I will not abandon you. It is your job to play and have fun now. You don’t have to be big and angry to keep us safe anymore.
Another client too, has learned to take a bit of time to attune to the disturbance and the players inside. Like mine, his is 14-15-years-old and has a tongue that slices him to shreds if he allows it. He is learning to talk to this inner critic softly but with assurance, pointing out the landmarks of his growth and success, what he is doing right. Reminding them both that he does not deserve to be punished, and never did. As the inner critic softens, he is freer to accept himself and his past mistakes and release the remaining shame, self-loathing, self-doubt and self-censure that he has stockpiled but failed to examine all these years. Together we form the alliance necessary to glean the wisdom from his life experience, to acknowledge his successes, and discern his real needs and the real maturity he has gained through his efforts and experiences instead of just trying to hide, amputate or erase this terrified, vulnerable part of himself, along with his imperfect past.
We need to be able to attune to and acknowledge the wisdom beneath the disruption, this hidden chaos inside. Because what other recourse does the powerless have than to revolt? The parts that feel powerless and abandoned need to be listened to because they showed up in the first place for a reason. They have wisdom that is profound and irreplaceable. But we do need to get support and take the time necessary to find out what is actually happening in there.
Just as important as recognizing that they are there for a reason and having compassion for these tender parts, it is necessary that we let them know that they are not allowed to abuse us or others anymore. We need to value ourselves and have enough substance – enough Self – to put into place firm boundaries. Though we have been programmed otherwise, we need to be more selfish to do this. As my sense of Self strengthens, that’s what keeping my commitment to doing a daily meditation feels like for me. It is a revolutionary act, holding nurturing routines in place, adjusting them as I grow to fit my continuously changing needs. And it is what is necessary to leave the status quo and achieve the change I really want.
* Stifled Longing
This morning, as I put the finishing touches on my owner’s manual, I realize that I have been newly reconnected with envy and how much this emotion has impacted my life without my even knowing it. I was so clueless of envy, never thinking that word described any part of me. Well now I see how anger, jealousy and envy were so central to my life and experience, and how thoroughly I blotted them out, pushing them under so they could be hidden, so I could maintain my image of a “good girl.” Now I can see how this has contributed to the stifling of my reaching reflex. How it crippled my ability to want what I wanted and even to receive what was sweet and available all around me.
Now, I am reclaiming my envy, and with it perfecting my own reaching reflex. Every hint of envy is my new best friend because it tells me what I want more of. It no longer needs to remain hidden. As with anger, it can now inform me. I am so grateful for everything in my current life that is helping me develop my reaching reflex. Films, Netflix, free time to reflect on my relationship with people I have judged as selfish, irresponsible or lazy. Newly admiring their ability to enjoy their lives and allowing myself to distill my own understanding of my unique constitution, tastes, values and desires as similar and distinct from theirs. I am so thankful for my clients. Each one of them a tremendous gift. So thankful for each day, a dance, a step closer to a life that is even more filled with the things that I have been afraid to ask for. A calmable nervous system. People who help me calm my nervous system. People with whom I can and do regularly play and explore the wonders of this experience called Life.
As I sit here with rubber bands between my molars, I feel the “opening” of my avenue of expression. It’s uncomfortable but it is fundamentally changing me. Expanding my ability to experience joy and pleasure. Expanding my ability to express and share myself. I feel everything falling into place just as it should.
I am learning to enjoy liminal space these days, not exactly knowing what will happen next, and it’s uncomfortable sometimes. But it’s okay. Better to be in this space than to jump prematurely to the next thing.
I vigilantly work on recognizing self-doubt when it comes up, I attend to the tender vulnerable feelings underneath, and step in to make sure that nobody is abusing me inside.
Here’s what I can watch out for, lurking in the shadows:
- Feeling critical of myself
- Comparing myself with others
- Feeling critical toward others
- Negative self-talk (You’re irresponsible. Who do you think you are? etc.)
Nurturing a stronger, more reliable sense of Self means that I can more readily step back and recognize this as the abuse that it is, and that it says nothing whatsoever about me. Once I recognize that I am doing this again, I can firmly but compassionately redirect that energy. I am committed to mastering the skills necessary to do this.
In the spaciousness of my life, here in my Mexican retreat, I can recognize that disruptive younger part of me now and tell her that I appreciate her and all she has been through. I speak to her softly, lovingly, and assure her that I am committed to learning how to be embodied, how to gracefully navigate the world as an adult and how to live a life that we have been worthy of all along. I let her know that I’ve got this now, thanking her, but assuring her that she can safely rest now, and do what she, as a 14-15-year-old, enjoys. Supported in my village and with my ancestors and guides, I am in a position to keep her safe now, and I let her know that I am committed to doing just that.
I let her know that I am learning the skill of turning feelings into needs. When she feels critical or judgmental, I can understand that she is scared or envious or angry or ashamed of being scared or envious or angry. I can help her know that her tender vulnerable feelings are okay, that there is a place for them, and that it doesn’t hurt anyone on the outside when she makes me aware of them. I can be curious about what she is feeling without making her wrong. And once I know what the feelings are, we can work together to figure out what she needs. This can take some work, but I am up for it. And I am worth the effort it takes. I am anything but lazy, though from the outside I might be judged otherwise. That is why it is so important that I surround myself with people who share my values and worldview at least a large part of the time.
You are enough, I tell her. You no longer have to be better than anyone else. You can just show up. We have all the love and support we need. We are thin enough. We are attractive enough. We are smart enough. We work hard enough. We have plenty of money. We have enough time and resources to take care of ourselves, and I am committed to taking the time I need to stay adequately attuned to your vulnerable needs, preferences and potential. This may be the most important work of all. And then I make sure that my schedule is open enough to stay attuned to her needs and appreciate her contributions to my life. Some may call that selfish or lazy or irresponsible. I call it coming home to my fully embodied and integrated self; making my body a place where it feels good to be, where I truly belong.