Reconnecting with Self, Part 1: Untangling Early Life Adaptations

Dusk scene, rear view of young person with long hair wearing white dress wandering through overgrown mazeLife does not always turn out the way we’d like. We carry our stories. In some moments, we might feel like kings. In others, we feel like failures. We feel grotesque. For some, the story says, “I’m too much.” For others, it might say, “I will never be enough.” In certain states, every line of the story reminds us we are defective, unsafe, lacking power to choose our life. Some stories empower and open up the world before us. Others isolate us, from people or from goals that seem unattainable.

Some stories confirm themselves. Despite our best intentions, some might appear to play out again and again as our behaviors sabotage our desires or elicit the reactions we fear most. It might seem as if we’re doomed to repeat the play forever.

 Meaning-Making and Automating Our Reactions

“The real connection we long for is the connection with ourselves; the connection with where we are here and now…When the connection with our own presence is broken everything just starts to feel empty.” —Jeff Foster

We carry stories. These stories are about our identity in the world, our connection to others, our purpose, what we are allowed, what they are permitted, our motives, and their intentions. These stories are the underlying codes that dictate the most mundane of choices. These choices might include what we eat, how we present our bodies when in public, or how we react to a romantic partner’s facial expression. These stories, created in response to experience, shape our predictions of every interaction between Self, Other, and World. While only occasionally accurate, they become the automatic, unquestioned backdrop of life.

Subconsciously, we keep watch at an animal level. We track bodily reactions and micro-expressions of others, internalizing these as reflections of our identity in the world and creating rules around the best ways to navigate social interactions. At every emotionally charged moment, we are either building new stories or confirming old ones, and confirmation is easier.

We adapt, invisibly—especially in childhood as our templates are being set—to the surrounding culture and climate. We take it in and recreate it internally. And often in that process we separate from parts of Self. We reject or contain parts that threaten our survival in those settings, opting instead to present or create parts that harmonize with our environment.

This is the original trauma: disconnection from Self.

And in those overwhelmed, transformative moments, we forget our choices. We forget the parts we’ve exiled. We land in other parts of consciousness, and we often fail to recognize that our experience has changed because our relationships have changed. We don’t remember any other way of being. We simply go on, saying, “This is who I am.”

This is a dissociation, a disconnection. It’s also a new story, now running in the background, invisibly directing our play.

The parts of Self we contain remain present at some level. Unchanged, hidden within, they insinuate themselves into our daily choices. They are present in the ways we respond to emotion, our confusion, our unwanted thoughts or behaviors, our nameless depressions or anxieties, our reactive tantrums or withdrawals in romantic relationships.

These are the lower layers of experience. They’re the real agents behind our choices and behaviors.

When it comes to trauma, we cannot change the past. There is no do-over. Our storyteller simply weaves our experience into our narrative.

But while we can’t change the past, we can change its meaning. We can change the stories. And if we have patience and intention, if we bring the secret stories up to awareness, we can change our connection to Self, Other, and World.

Parts Framework

A parts framework simply echoes what we know from neurological studies: the brain is constantly making sense, forming a story, building a cohesive picture out of scattered and unrelated fragments. It finds patterns and creates the illusion of a cohesive whole.

In mindful exploration, we come to recognize that we are both the judge and the judged. We experience both simultaneously in our bodies. With practice, we can actually land fully in either position. We might be the abandoned or oppressed child one moment and then flip to become the part that hates that child or some part that feels love and empathy for the child.

By separating our experience into parts, we can observe the relationship between parts. We can recognize and mediate internal conflicts. We can step in and out of states, accessing them for the purpose of learning about them and finding empathy for them.

This is the work.

In these tiny moments of genuine empathy for the parts of Self that have survived trauma, we integrate. We acknowledge, accept, embrace, and join. In these moments, we are feeling what could not be felt in the past. We are seeing it through new eyes and gifting it a new story. This new story, something more palatable, releases us from the need for internal containment. We are providing some hurting parts with the love they need, the relational connection that should have happened after a traumatic moment.

The framework itself invites curiosity, decreases judgment and conflict, and opens up windows of access through which we can provide this missing experience. The end result is a felt sense of gentle witness. We feel seen, heard, felt, known, accepted, and loved.

Regulation First: External, then Internal—Other, Then Self.

“A friend is one to whom one may pour out the contents of one’s heart, chaff and grain together, knowing that gentle hands will take and sift it, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.” —George Eliot

At a subconscious level, we track surroundings and social connections for physical and interpersonal threats. Doing with others utilizes our sympathetic nervous system. Being with someone is healing. Accessing our parasympathetic branch allows us to rest and digest, both physically and metaphorically.

External regulation occurs when we can witness the body of someone else in close proximity, remaining externally present to our experience without physical overwhelm on their part. When their body calms, smiles warmly, looks back at us with soft eyes, and remains connected to ours, our body calms. This is co-regulation. This is where we feel free and welcome to express ourselves with the knowledge that an Other is not burdened by us, wants us, will see the best of our intentions and “get” us. This is also an antidote to shame, an invitation to reveal those parts we thought we had to hide in exile.

Someone else can provide the regulation, by remaining calm and offering verbal assurance, validation, and permission, for example. But once we have internalized this experience at some point in life (whether with another person or even through watching movies), we can also provide our own calming as an internal process.

Many of us default to dissociation, controlling, fixing, placating, distracting, or other methods of internal management. These are often reactions internalized from early life caregivers. But our bodies naturally calm when internal parts are finally met in the ways they have yearned to be met.

Mindfulness and Distancing: States, Transitions, and Cycles

As trauma is stored in parts or states, with particular networks formed during traumatic periods, the way to heal is to head toward and access those states. By doing so, we bring new energy and kinder eyes. We amend an old story that was written with limited perspective. Each state comes with its own state-dependent memories, perceptions, expectations, rules of engagement, emotions, physical posture, and beliefs. Meeting each as a part—as a different version of you with its own persona—requires development of an observer. In other words, a part that is outside and separate that can provide empathy and support.

With practice, many people find state-shifting becomes easier. Quick shifts might require nothing more than remembering a friend’s smile or imagining a favorite place in nature. Longer-term shifts come when actually bringing novel experience, or missing experience, to some part of self that is expecting and preparing for negative outcomes.

Life becomes a bit easier when we recognize we are not our thoughts, not our sensations, and not our emotions. We can do this through mindful awareness, or by observing mind and bodily reactions. These will all play out on their own, and we can observe them safely, from a chosen distance. When we start to actually feel our own physical responses to each internal/external stimuli, when we give each response a name, we remove the mystery from these micro-transactions. Things may then become a bit more predictable, a bit more understandable, a bit more acceptable. We recognize that we’re okay, that things are as they are and nothing more. We recognize a story that makes sense, coming from a source we trust, and our body calms.

When it comes to trauma, we cannot change the past. There is no do-over. Our storyteller simply weaves our experience into our narrative. But while we can’t change the past, we can change its meaning. We can change the stories.

This in itself is a missing experience.

For many of us, there was nobody in childhood just sitting with us, looking at us with soft eyes, saying, “This is what you’re feeling in your body… It’s okay to feel this. It makes sense. Everyone feels this. This is a word we use to describe it… This is what you can expect… It will pass. You will be okay. I’m here with you. I’m not going anywhere, and I’m not burdened at all by your experience. Let’s just sit and feel it together.”

In working mindfully, we can observe all of these processes in real time. By accessing states, we can witness physical reactions, notice changes in perception and expectation, and begin mapping out the different parts that arise in response to triggers and resources. (In this case, triggers describe anything connected to defeating beliefs and resources describe anything connected to empowering beliefs.)

We come to see patterns in the way we relate to others, by observing internal reactions in triggered moments. We notice protective parts that seek confirmation of our worst fears, present evidence by bringing up memories, and project old fears into present experience. And in this, we find choice points: windows of opportunity to respond instead of react.

We can begin a relationship with these parts, once we differentiate from them. When we meet a stranger and feel our body constrict, we can recognize this reaction as that of the child inside, reacting to meeting a male that reminds it of its father. We can talk to the child, meet it, give it assurance and validation.

Transitions, too, come with stories. Transitions between physical settings, between internal states, or between modes and strategies used to navigate present needs. With practice, we can feel our body respond. Maybe it contracts to protect or expands to connect. In this, we can learn to tolerate uncomfortable states for longer periods of time, even breaking them down to simple bodily sensations. Those who are avoidantly attached may find peace in physically calming with an Other. For those on the anxious end of attachment, we can find genuine connection internally, ever present and responsive.

Distancing allows both space and connection. This is the process of stepping out of a hurting part and landing in a more safe or neutrally-observing part. We separate in order to meet, in order to experience an Other at an internal level.

In moving toward more cognitive distancing techniques, we might notice ourselves calming as we head toward “big picture” thinking. Outside of our present states, we may elicit curiosity, awe, and wonder when stepping back to observe patterns and cycles. From the simple in-and-out of our breath to the contractions and expansions of our life and the universe, to the rhythms of connection and disconnection in the present moment.

Sometimes just imagining hovering above our own body can create a distance that helps us differentiate from internal parts that are experiencing intense emotion. And this separation is actually what gives us the ability to come back and be with those parts in a healing manner. 

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Rather than being in the pain, we learn to be with it.

If you would like help beginning this process, contact a compassionate counselor today.

Read on for Part 2: Mindfully Heading Toward Discomfort

References:

  1. Gendlin, E. T. (1981). Focusing. New York: Bantam Books.
  2. Kurtz, Ron. (1985). The organization of experience in Hakomi Therapy. Hakomi Forum Professional Journal, 3(1), 3-9. Retrieved from http://www.hakomiinstitute.com/Forum/Issue3/OrganizationExperience.pdf
  3. Lewis, T., Amini, F., & Lannon, R. (2000). A general theory of love. New York: Random House.
  4. Noricks, J. S. (2011). Parts psychology: A new model of therapy for the treatment of psychological problems through healing the normal multiple personalities within us: Case studies in the psychotherapy of mental disorders. Los Angeles, CA: New University Press.
  5. Porges, S. W. (2011). The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.
  6. Schwartz, R. C. (1995). Internal family systems therapy. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
  7. Siegel, D. J. (2010). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York: Bantam Books.
  8. Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score. New York, NY: Viking.

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jeremy McAllister, MA, LPC, therapist in Portland, Oregon

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