There are two things I say that people are skeptical about or outright don’t believe.
The first is that looking at our lives through a trauma lens reveals that most of our reactivity, compulsive thinking, anxiety, depression, fear and dread of social interaction are trauma responses driven by our primitive brain and survival system.
We all know the pain of being human. You didn’t fit in at school. Your mom was depressed. Your parents worked all the time or fought a lot. You or a sibling had a serious childhood illness.
A lack of emotional connection with parents creates fear and shame. Children desperately need to feel like we matter and that our parents have our back. Some children grow up in a home with addiction, abuse and violence. They are not the only ones affected by trauma.
Unresolved trauma stored in the body drives feelings of unworthiness, addiction, perfectionism, catastrophic thinking and a mean inner critic. We are afraid of what we might find when we stop compulsively thinking and feel the energies and sensations in our body. We are stuck in flight/ fight/ freeze. We avoid our heart because we aren’t sure we can survive feeling what we’ve suppressed all these years.
Kindness is all we need to heal. That is the second thing. People’s eyebrows shoot up and they challenge me. Really? It can’t be that simple. Can it?
Yes. It is that simple. In the last 24 hours, what caused pain for you? What caused you to tense your shoulders, grit your teeth, snap at someone in irritation, or retreat into a screen to distract yourself? Most of us can relate to something like this.
You are in a meeting at work and a colleague cuts you off, getting an approving nod from the boss for the very point you were about to make. This isn’t the first time this guy has talked over you or stolen your idea. First it makes you mad then your inner critic jumps into action. What’s the matter with you? Why didn’t you keep talking instead of letting him interrupt like he does all the time? No wonder he’s going to get the promotion. You’re pathetic, sitting there like a frozen lump.
Would kindness help? You might take a few deep breaths and relax your shoulders, acknowledging to yourself that what just happened is wrong and it is not your fault. The reality is that you work in a setting where your ideas are co-opted and you have to fight to be recognized. You make a promise to yourself that you’ll inquire into this more fully after work. You tell your inner critic to stand down, remember to breathe, return your attention to the meeting, and look for opportunities to contribute to the discussion.
After work, you set aside time to inquire into what happened. You look at images of him, hear the sounds of his words as he talked over you, how you must have looked sunk down in your chair. Bring your attention to words or an image, put it in a frame, and notice this is a memory. You are not back in that room right now. Tap with two fingers on your forehead and take your attention away from the thought by focusing on the sound of the tapping and the sensation of your fingers on your forehead. Do this a few dozen times then bring your hand down and take a few deep breaths. Notice the sensations or energy in your body. Notice they appear in a location and there is space around the edges of them. Using these inquiry tools, we settle our compulsive mind and relax our body.
Two foundations of healing are to understand what is actually going on (our nervous system is responding to a threat) and to have tools to settle our nervous system and address compulsive thinking. We realize the immediate threat has passed and we can access the higher development in our brain, like our prefrontal cortex.
The inner critic is a primitive brain mechanism with the intention to protect us. The purpose of shaming is to stop us from doing something that could get us kicked out of the tribe and it is a reliable, fast way to stop us in our tracks. A shame storm shuts us down. That’s what is going on when we’re sinking down in our chair, avoiding people’s eyes, our throat glued closed and our brain frozen. Shame storms have their roots in our previous experience, especially as a child. This not evidence we are flawed. This is how our system is designed to work.
Kindness, empathy, compassion and gratitude literally cannot exist in our nervous system at the same time as fear and shame. Cultivating these gives us the direct experience of ease. We gain access to executive function of our brain. That is a practical reason. We break long standing habits and our inner critic begins to settle.
A more fundamental reason to offer ourselves kindness is that we deserve to be friends with ourselves. Our primitive brain and survival system developed these knee-jerk reactions of shaming and being aggressive with ourselves. These responses are misguided, unnecessary and actually harmful. We don’t need to reject them. We can bring them onside.
We are no longer children. We are adults with resources and a developed brain. We can heal the impact of our early years and get to know and fully love ourselves. We gain resilience and strength and we spend less time in flight/fight/freeze/fawn. Hypervigilance calms down into an appropriate level of attention and we gain capacity to respond in the moment. We notice when we are turning against ourselves and we pause, take a breath, see it for the protection mechanism it is, and offer ourselves kindness and support.
Put your hand on your heart, offer kindness and compassion to yourself, especially if you are in distress right now.