I am eating ice cream off a stick, tasting the sweetness and feeling the coldness with only half of my mouth. I put my attention on tasting with the “awake” side with double focus. The chocolate shell is melting quickly, but I have a plate to catch it when it falls, here at my table in a small ice cream shop in Santa Tere, Guadalajara, where I can watch people walking by on the sidewalk. The air is hot and dry. I recall how my mouth dried so quickly when I was sitting in the dentist’s chair, under her bright light, less than an hour ago.
I am thinking about so many things. About comparing; the energy of comparing. What happens when I am afraid? I analyze and judge. For me, it’s automatic: When I am afraid, I see people in terms of their threat to me. What I’ve recently realized is that I’ve found “safety” in being “better” in some way. Growing up, us children divided ourselves into two groups: “the good ones,” and “the bad ones.” At least that’s how I made sense of the world in my childhood. Mind you, it wasn’t that I was “good” but that I was in that group because nobody knew how bad I was. Just me. And often staying out of harm’s way meant maintaining or nurturing this divide. Now that I think of it, I am definitely responsible for perpetuating this idea among my siblings.
Problem is, the “safety” I achieved from this strategy wasn’t safe at all. It might have protected me from disapproval, physical blows and contempt that my sisters received when they expressed dissent, but in terms of relating with people, it put me at a very unfortunate and decades-long disadvantage. My already stressed-out body responded to this constant inner chatter (analyzing and comparing myself to others) by bracing, warding off confrontation, and maintaining a steady flow of stress hormones. Judging and dividing my siblings left me with a sense of uneasiness in groups, an inability to let my guard down with people who were different from me, to feel close or to take in the goodness that other human beings have to offer, through their very essence.
Prettier, thinner, more deserving, etc. In my adult life it has remained mostly unconscious, but it has never left me, particularly in social situations where I do not feel I have enough control. It has been very, very present: “I am safe if I am on the right side of this divide – you over there; me over here.” That’s how my attention was oriented.
As I gain tools, and a general understanding that judging and comparing are actually things that signal that I’m experiencing vulnerable emotions (feelings I had learned to automatically disconnect from), I’m vigorously exploring healthier alternatives.
This habit of comparing has affected all my relationships. I’ve found safety in partners who are “good enough” to make me look good but not quite as “right” as me. I found comfort in relationships where my opinions were the ones that “counted” (in my mind, for one reason or another). That required – you guessed it – me feeling somehow “one up.” I wasn’t at all confident in my ability to advocate for myself or negotiate. And I had no concept of what it might be like to coexist peaceably alongside someone with whom I disagreed (who must be wrong, of course).
Moving through life like this did nothing but perpetuate my anxiety and fear about my place in the world. Judging and comparing others always does this funny boomerang thing; fear of being judged and coming up short is always the result.
I did not know that I was chronically afraid, that I felt threatened by the “betterness” of other people, much less how to turn that around.
My lifestyle now offers me a time warp through which, rather than living afraid, I now Iive more consciously and at peace. And my body, as a result, is learning to relax as my senses come back online. I follow what gives me pleasure, choose what I desire, filled with gratitude for all that I have. Since I live with a nervous system that is no longer on high alert, I am more aware of what there is to appreciate in this sacred moment, and in the other beings around me.
There’s a profound difference between seeing others through a lens of guardedness and anxiety and removing that lens and just allowing pure sensory information to enter, no longer needing to be “one up” somehow. But this distinction is – more than you might imagine – a product of the nervous system. What has happened to me in the past four years was a subtle but life-changing shift. It has affirmed in me a deep knowing that I don’t need to pretend to be anything I’m not. That I am safe, as perfectly imperfect as I am. That all is well. That regardless of what happens, I will be okay. None of this was possible when I was constantly analyzing my safety based on how I measured up to those around me. That kept my body tense and poised for battle.
In my new life, there is time to do my emotional work. It is safe to feel what I feel and know what I know. Though I am alone, I know that I am safe and have adequate support. Alone, what I enjoy and what I want matters immensely. I am curious about what amuses and entertains me, and it certainly varies from day to day. And my interactions with others is based more on what I like and what leaves me feeling affirmed and inspired.
I’m thinking about the other evening that I spent with my sister, Tracy. It was a very strange visit. I’d had a long day. I was returning from the lake, where I pack in a lot of socializing and play. Back in Guadalajara with Tracy, I noticed my faculties failing me. I literally felt “retarded,” kind of stunned, not at all able to express myself or even find simple words that I needed. Her being four years older, there are a lot of things about Tracy that can trigger me. But this time, while it is true that I was triggered and my body was not acting right, I did not go into an emotional flashback like I have during longer visits with her.
I had been looking forward to seeing her before she left on her trip to Texas. Throughout our visit I was trying to understand what was happening, holding off on any self-judgment or despair about how stupid I was in comparison to her. I was able to just notice the sluggishness of my mind. I didn’t blame Tracy for directing her attention outward and interacting with others in her fluent Spanish from time to time as the evening wore on or for moving at a vibration that was too high/fast for me. She was excited about her upcoming trip and her travels are always interesting to me. Besides, it was a short enough visit, and Tracy is super kind, so I didn’t feel judged or even embarrassed, really.
As usual, my relationship with Tracy gives me so much to chew on. Spending time with her always provides me with information that I can use to grow. I “got through” the visit continuing to hope that I could rebound and be my fully-functioning before it was over, but I didn’t. My brain didn’t come back online until after I left. I did leave fully connected to my sense of humor, my curiosity, and a knowing that I would eventually recover, and that Tracy loved me unconditionally.
Among the triggers that tripped that night were: Being the little sister. In our family, Tracy has always been the one who reaches out for what she wants. That hasn’t come so naturally for me. Tracy is in full swing with her vibrant, exciting career, a career that she declared so many years ago when she went to school for journalism in her early twenties. Tracy is many years ahead of me in terms of language acquisition (Español), so our visit threw me back to being two (when she was six) and she got real good at telling everyone what I meant, thought and wanted. Or so I hear. Tracy’s home here in Mexico has taken shape rapidly; a reflection of the amount of time she has lived in Mexico and the many harrowing and costly trips she has made across the border with trucks, cars and caravans. She actually has furniture.
With my sense of humor intact, I could recognize, that evening, that there really was no competition involved here (and there never was), no one up or one down. I could also recognize that I was not functioning at my best, and that it wasn’t her fault. Some days I am likely to return, momentarily, to my habitual way of comparing and judging. I apologize in advance. But when I do, I more quickly remember that it is no more than a red flag to alert me to my own vulnerable feelings.
And as I do my emotional work, my body relaxes. Intrinsic to this growth journey I’m on is taking responsibility for who I am, getting clearer about what’s important to me, and through staying connected with my entire system, returning again and again to conscious awareness of not just what is okay with me and what isn’t, but what I like, what I need and what I don’t. The effect this has had on my nervous system is enormous, and that evening with Tracy gives me evidence of this.
When I am physically relaxed, novelty is the spice of life, and not a threat. In this state of receptiveness I more readily greet the unknown with playfulness, laughter, and delight. I don’t have to be perfect to be good enough. Recovering from developmental trauma involves relaxing the body so that the world can be experienced as the rich and delicious place that it is. Each of us brings our own gifts, our own essence to share in the world. We are surrounded by inspiring, talented, brilliant and interesting people. Not one of us more or less than the other. Just different. People are not for comparing.