There’s something the body does that reflects what the nervous system does – a reflex, in response to a trigger. I’d like to explore this with you. When a person encounters a trigger, the body closes. What I seem to be noticing with myself and my clients is a popular trigger called “ALLOWING A PART OF MYSELF TO BE SEEN THAT I WASN’T SURE I WANTED TO SHARE.” Since for many of us, opening up emotionally has been so unsafe in the past, it can understandably be really frightening, and before you even know what’s happening, the body reflexively closes.
This is really important because it’s in those moments that we do connect – that we have connected without our defenses up – that the brain is re-wired. Whenever the body is guarded and only the intellect is open and engaged, no rewiring gets done. It’s just kind of the same old same old.
And so the thing that just occurred to me now is that when a person tells a story over and over again as if they hadn’t already told it to that person, they are temporarily disconnected from the memory that this actually was a shared telling; this was a valuable, precious shared event, and that the person you are telling it to would actually remember that. So you are disconnected from the experience of having shared a moment of connection and being heard together. The wires are down. It’s almost like the fact that we shared it can “disappear.” Just like that, our most powerful resources can disappear when we are triggered. The good thing is that we can learn to reconnect. Reconnecting involves being aware of and relaxing the body (including the nervous system). Don’t worry. It isn’t as hard as you might think.
You have abundant resources. They’re all around you and they are also right there in your brain. But, as you have probably seen or experienced, survivors of early relational trauma have learned to disconnect from things they feel and know. It’s part of what the body does in survival mode.
I came across a really interesting thing in a YouTube video called The Shoe. Maybe you saw it on Facebook. If you watch the body language of this kid actor, which the director catches so powerfully, you can see it for yourself. It’s a visual representation of that shift that happens: from when the boy is snarling in disgust and frustration with the broken shoe at about 1.3 and then he sees the other boy his age with new shoes. At 1.33-1.37 his body opens and you can see him shift from isolation – his own miserable, impoverished world – to a place of allowing, where he can see the things around him. He can see what is happening with other people, and empathize with their experience. In this case, this ability to empathize ultimately leads to a brand new pair of shoes and this powerful (if brief) exchange with the other boy. The boy doesn’t have the layers and layers of repeated trauma and loss that an adult can, so the shift happens readily. This shift is possible for all of us when we learn how to put down our defenses; when we learn to physically relax. When we can, we automatically reconnect with all the resources available to us in this moment now.
Interpersonal events are amazing things, and there is just so much that is communicated below the level of our conscious minds. I have been learning that if I can keep my primary focus on my own body, I can make use of the complex wiring systems that have served to make us mammals the wildly successful, sociable creatures we are. If I instead pay attention to what’s happening to you (what I can see and comprehend with my eyes), I have a much more limited and mind-oriented framework to operate from.
Paying attention to the emotional state of others has been my default, but that – thank goodness – has begun to change in the past several years. Staying with and tending to my own sensations in the moment give me much more valuable information. Here is an example. I work with clients who have triggers, naturally. And I have had moments with clients where I can see that they are suddenly triggered. Incidentally, being face to face with someone who disconnects from me emotionally, can be a trigger for me. But as I learn to manage triggers, there is more of me available to just watch, and not get carried away by the emotion and the story and the personal memory of the trigger.
I am remembering a particular time in which I am face to face with a client who has just been triggered by me, and I notice myself kind of freezing up, and I notice that I’m not able to communicate with a relaxed, open, spontaneous heart anymore. I notice that what I say or do after that just sort of comes from my head, awkwardly, which neither of us can access with the heart, and my client can’t hear anyway because they’re suddenly all closed up and protected.
In life, and in therapy, it is a good practice to reach for those moments where we are able to feel safe enough to open; those moments when we truly connect. Maybe we won’t even consciously acknowledge them when we are in them, but we can certainly look back and say, mmhm….I was open then.
This makes me remember a time when I was in grad school when I felt safe enough to open up with a particular professor. I had reached out to her due to her specialty in domestic violence. It was in a moment of trusting and hopefulness that I reached out – and from a place of newly identifying as a victim of domestic violence.
It was obvious to everyone that this professor had a great passion for teaching DV. I had reached out to her in that moment of unguardedness and shared myself, my personal interest in DV and how happy I was that she was teaching this course, and then I drew back. I hadn’t retreated or closed up consciously. But looking back, I certainly had closed myself off to further interactions with her. Maybe it was because I had shared a part of me that I was not accustomed to sharing. For whatever reason, I pulled way back, and at the end of my school experience, that professor pointed out that I had opened up to her and then closed up again.
That she had noticed it really touched me. I felt kind of disappointed in myself for closing to a potential mentor/ally/connection, but my pulling back had been a reflex, not a conscious decision; a reflex based on an unexamined trigger.
At that point I probably didn’t have the tools to stay safely connected. This was also the professor I went to at the late stages of working on my final project and broke down in her office because I needed help and she wasn’t helping me in the way that felt helpful. I didn’t even know how to ask for the help I needed except to say I had no idea how to finish a particular section of my paper/project. It was the policy piece in the realm of teen pregnancy prevention. I had been reading about policy but I had virtually no real-world information or experience from which to draw. This was my final project and I hadn’t the foggiest idea how to talk about changing legislation or influencing public policy. I didn’t know enough about government; I was clueless about how to talk about it. And she couldn’t really help me because what I “needed” was for her to write the damn thing for me. So I broke down right there in her office, and I was either crying or near tears, and I stumbled out, confused, overwhelmed, disconnected, disappointed.
I pulled through and I patched it together, but it was an excruciating moment and I never did connect again with her about this and in the process I learned something about myself that I am reflecting on now.
All this has to do with a physical reflex. It’s not something that one does to manipulate or punish another person. It’s not stubbornness or stupidity (I can’t vouch for everyone out there; people can really only know their own experience and motives). But as we learn about what is physically happening, we can more readily recover, stay in the present moment and make empowered choices. When we can do this, we can also begin to understand that vulnerable emotions are fairly universal, though the disabling and alienating impulse to hide them is virtually as universal in our modern, Western culture.
If you can identify with this, it is quite possible that you, too, have experienced such a neurological event. If you have, you are in the right place to learn more about it. Begin to notice when it happens without judgment. Notice that it passes – it always does. Do what you can to learn about how the nervous system works in trauma and under stress. Pay attention to your own experience. Eventually you can learn to recognize when it’s happening so that you are more able to stand back and observe your feelings instead of being overwhelmed or hijacked by them. One day it will even be natural to share vulnerable emotions with others in responsible, attachment-enhancing ways. Slow and steady. Gentleness and curiosity will serve you so much better in this realm than perfectionism or high expectations. And mentors and teachers are to be had if you know where to look.
The emotional work that you are being invited to do has to do with what Bessel van der Kolk and Steve Porges are talking about. It’s noticing the moments when we do feel safe enough to open and connect (with ourselves and others); it’s acknowledging those moments – the moments when you let yourself be seen and you feel that you can let your guard down and your body physically relaxes. That is when life turns around and you can operate from a place of presence, true empathy and compassion. Reach for more of those moments.