I am consistently kind and compassionate with myself. I don’t turn on myself when something “goes wrong”. I intimately know myself and I am on my own side.
That is not true for most people. It has not always been true for me. How does someone get from the usual internal atmosphere of inner critic, social anxiety, fear, hypervigilance and core deficiency beliefs, to feeling at home in oneself?
We all have basic goodness and we all live in mammal bodies. We know that life is fragile. We have nervous systems that are not well suited to the stresses and threats of modern day life. We live in a culture where we are highly conditioned to believe that we are not good enough unless we are rich and successful by society’s (impossible) standards.
We are fed a Disney version of what life should be like, and that we are a failure if we don’t have secure attachment in our family, well adjusted and behaved children, a group of loving friends, and a meaningful job.
Our basic set up is impossible. Life actually isn’t like that. Pain and loss are a normal part of human life, not the result of something we did wrong.
Some people were fortunate to have a “good enough family” where they developed secure attachment and a basic feeling of being known and cared for. They are included in the family unit and this is the basis for confidence in life, at school, and their community. They have a basic trust in people and themselves.
“Safety is an absence of threat and the presence of connection.” Dr Stephen Porges, Polyvagal Theory
Many of us did not have this experience. Intergenerational trauma is a factor, and many parents are themselves dissociated, addicted, under financial pressure and stress, or otherwise unable to regulate their own nervous systems. Babies and children need emotionally well regulated adults to co-regulate with so they can develop a stable, resilient nervous system.
Many parents are not able to provide a home environment that is physically, sexually, socially and emotionally safe. This is very challenging in our highly traumatized culture. Children who are afraid for their lives grow up with an alarmed nervous system and developmental trauma. Children who are not seen and known grow up believing there is something fundamentally wrong with them.
Do you blame yourself for your nervous system and brain development that happened when you were a child? Understanding your nervous system will help you stop.
What do you berate yourself for? How much of what you don’t like about yourself is driven by your hypervigilant nervous system?
- Catastrophic, worst-case scenario thoughts
- Over eating, drinking, zoning out with screens
- Social anxiety and difficulty trusting people
- Feeling fundamentally broken, bad or wrong
- A foggy mind and inability to concentrate
- Control …
Looking at this through a trauma lens helps us to understand ourselves. We all need safety in our lives, and to be known and included. Other people in our situation develop similar strategies. The ways we cope are not our fault. Once we see how this works, we can take steps to regulate and heal our nervous system. True, this process takes time. It is also true that we have an abundance of proven, reliable ways to heal. We are not powerless anymore.
We develop more resilience in our nervous system and are not as easily triggered into fight/flight/freeze/fawn responses. When we are, we recognize it and know what to do to come into a state of trust and connection.
Shame that no one cared to know and include us leads children to assume they are inherently unworthy. Learn to recognize the signs of a shame storm and how to come out of it. This is a key to come out of hiding, connect with other people, and learn to be on our own side.
We all long for connection, especially when we have turned against ourselves or life is really hard. Ironically many of us disconnect more when we feel disconnected. Instead of calling a friend or doing a guided relaxation, we grab a drink or ice cream and zone out with a screen. When we’re jumping out of our skin, we head to the mall or into online shopping instead of doing a yoga practice or going for a walk with a friend.
These are strategies to calm our nervous system and are meant to help us feel better. The release of dopamine and other feel good hormones in the brain does help short term. We get to avoid and suppress feelings like grief or anger. We put off setting a boundary or having a difficult conversation.
Cultivating a kind and compassionate relationship with ourselves is a process. Looking through a trauma lens, we educate ourselves, begin to understand why we react as we do, and develop healthier strategies for coping and surviving. Our nervous system develops strength and resilience. We no longer helplessly believe our mean inner critic. As we experience less threat and more connection and safety, our survival responses of fight/ flight/ freeze are activated less often. When they are, we know what to do and come back to emotional self-regulation. And with that (drum roll please!), we naturally feel kind and compassionate towards ourselves.
Two options to explore this together: