Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Our internal family

I was reading a blog post by Carolyn Spring, who has Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), the other day called ‘Learning to Control Switching’. She writes of her therapist: She bends in towards me, seeking me out, because I’m closing down connection with her by huddling into my body and staring at my feet. ‘Your parts don’t feel accepted by you,’ she says, gently. ‘They don’t feel that you’re on their side. You don’t collaborate with them most of the time. You ‘curtail’ them. So they hijack you.’

We all have parts, or sub personalities, every single one of us. There would be no such thing as internal conflict if we didn’t have parts, because our one self would always be in agreement or disagreement about whatever it is. There wouldn’t be one part wanting to give up smoking and another part anxious about how we’d cope, for example.

Richard Schwartz, who developed Internal Family Systems (IFS), believes that multiplicity of the mind is the norm as do many other clinicians and researchers. With DID, the parts are more fragmented because of the trauma they hold, and that's very disconcerting and upsetting for the sufferer because it can lead to things like dissociative amnesia.

When we get to know our parts and connect with them using a framework like IFS, we can resolve a lot of internal conflicts which has a ripple like effect in our lives. Like Carolyn, our parts hijack us when we’re not listening to them. In a way they have no choice, they need to get our attention. In IFS, this is called blending and our parts can take us over when we’re triggered. But the more we realise what’s happening, and the more integrated our parts become, the more we can stay in what Schwartz calls, the Self. There are eight qualities of the Self according to Schwartz: calmness, curiosity, clarity, compassion, confidence, creativity, courage, and connectedness.

We can all dissociate when we find an experience overwhelming. The only difference is to what degree we dissociate. Dissociation is a fantastic skill we all possess to cope with really painful experiences that just can't be fully felt at a certain moment in time. There is nothing pathological about dissociating. As Irish psychiatrist, Ivor Browne says: Instead of a way of avoiding external danger, it [dissociation] is now utilised to deal with the threat of internal destabilisation; whenever we are faced with an overwhelming experience that we sense as potentially disintegrating, we have the ability to suspend it and "freeze'' it in an unassimilated, inchoate form and maintain it in that state indefinitely, or for as long as necessary.

Normalising phenomena like dissociation and trauma is important, because to a greater or lesser degree, we've all experienced them. It's the human condition. The stigma, fear and misinformation around mental “disorders” is alive and kicking and education can help dispel a lot of the myths.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Keep it simple

I really need to keep things simple, when I don’t, I can get overwhelmed. One way we can show our self great kindness and respect is to stop doing things that overwhelm us. Whenever you can, take a break when you recognise your own unique signs of overwhelm coming on. The more you do this, the better you become at releasing stress (old and new) and then it doesn’t build up.

I love it when others keep things simple too. I see it as a sign of security in their experience, knowledge and self when they don’t feel the need to dazzle with lots of facts (which are always evolving anyway, the more we learn and know) or big words. As someone I know said, there are no experts, just people with expertise. People with expertise know they’re always learning and give themselves a break for not being perfect.

The Lafcadio Hearn Japanese Gardens, Tramore, Waterford, Ireland.
Keeping it as simple as we possibly can is particularly important when it comes to learning about trauma which can very easily feel overwhelming and like we’ll never heal because there’s too much to do. But, as Martin Luther King said “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. We need to watch out for any signs of perfection or any sense of brokenness because we’re ‘not fixed yet’. These are the exact times when we need to muster up as much kindness as we can for our self, it can make all the difference in the world.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Four definitions of trauma

How do we define trauma? Is it how you experience an event or the event itself? I think it’s how we experience the event. Traumatic events do not necessarily lead to trauma. For trauma to occur we have to persistently dissociate from something we find too painful to feel.
  1. Unexperienced experience ~ Ivor Browne
  2. Dysregulated and disorganised qi (life energy) ~ Alaine Duncan
  3. Disconnection from the self and the present moment ~ Gabor Maté
  4. PTSD Criterion A: stressor (one required). The person was exposed to: death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence, in the following way(s): Direct exposure; Witnessing the trauma; Learning that a relative or close friend was exposed to a trauma; Indirect exposure to aversive details of the trauma, usually in the course of professional duties (e.g., first responders, medics) ~ Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Even though a PTSD diagnosis has become synonymous with trauma, trauma manifests itself in many different ways, it will be unique to you and your life experiences. You do not have to have experienced an event from Criterion A to be traumatised. Trauma can be insidious, repeated experiences that accumulate in your nervous systems over years, causing what is called a dysregulated nervous system. This is why I never use the terms big T or little t trauma. Trauma is trauma. Symptoms of unresolved trauma include: anxiety, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, autoimmune issues, chronic unexplained medical symptoms, heart disease, addiction, bipolar disorder, insomnia and so on.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

What does your heart long for?

Tara Brach asks this question in her brilliant book, True Refuge. The answer my heart gave me was that it wants to feel connected to myself and others.

Sometimes it’s hard to fully feel our longings and yearnings because we can descend into self blame and shame for why we don’t have something, or don’t have enough of it, in our lives. The tendrils of shame can entangle almost anything.

I don’t think many fully realise the absolutely devastating effects of early and developmental trauma, particularly when it is perpetrated by caregivers, what is termed betrayal trauma. If you’re a little girl who is sexually abused by your father and your mother is complicit, what does your heart long for?

How can that little girl have a relationship with her parents when she is finally able to get away? Do people realise what it’s like having no family in this world and how people are judged and shamed for that? I think the stigma of being abused and neglected is much greater when it is perpetrated by a family member rather than by a stranger. To say that I find that perplexing is an understatement. Rather than having our compassion, abused and neglected children are judged and stigmatised for not coming from what many of us call a so-called “good” family.

Tuning into our heart’s longing makes us vulnerable. It opens our heart which can feel sometimes like our heart is breaking and that scares us. I also think longing is often paired with grief. We don’t long for what we have but for what we don’t or didn’t have.

Mahon Falls, Comeragh Mountains, Waterford, Ireland
Asking this question isn’t easy because of all the pain it can bring up, but it’s an important question, one that will tug at us all our life until we answer it. As with anything that’s difficult and painful, we need to find the sweet spot of leaning in just enough, not too much all at once and not too little, because then nothing changes.

Asking what our heart longs for connects us to ourself on a profoundly intimate level. What feels like a dark night of the soul or a breakdown can become a break through, there is nothing pathological about it. If anything, being open to asking this question invites a deep inquiry which can throw us off kilter for a while, even a long while. Jeff Foster describes the pain of a breakdown beautifully in his lovely book, The Way of Rest: The raw pleasure and the pain of it, unfiltered, at last! No longer numb, you will be as softly vulnerable as you were in the beginning.

Vulnerability opens us up to hurt but, as Gabor Maté says, there’s no other way to grow if we don’t risk being vulnerable, we need to shed the shell that has become too small and constricting and grow a bigger one to house our bigger, truer self.

At the same time, if you feel unable to answer this question for whatever reason, trust yourself. As Rainer Maria Rilke says: I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.