My girlfriend has a vigilant way about her. We live together, and I often notice that she is looking over at me, checking on me, trying to read me. I'm sure this is not super uncommon. People periodically, but consistently, glance over at their people, to assess safety. Now, we're not consciously saying to ourselves 'let me look over at my loved one, to assess their facial features and body language to determine their mood, which might feel unsafe for me.' Yet, that's pretty much what we're doing.
Let me remind you of (or introduce you to) this process called neuroception. There is a constant subconscious scanning of the environment taking place, which is done by the amygdala in the brain and other parts of our nervous system. The radar is alert for anything detected as a threat. A potential threat is not just a physical one, but also emotional/relational. The body goes into fight/flight/or freeze because the nervous system has detected a threat. This is a sophisticated and necessary bodily response. When we touch the boiling hot pot, when a dog growls and snarls, or a car cuts us off in traffic, we don't pause and consider whether or not these stimuli are a threat. Our nervous system and brain have already done that for us, and that's why we jerk our hand away from the hot pot, gear up physically to face the dog, or swerve to the other lane to avoid an accident. If we had to wait for our conscious brain to flip the switch, our species probably would have died off long ago.
Now, let's extrapolate the above to our relationships: Our partner, boss, parent or friend isn't a hot pot or a snarling dog. But we have become hardwired to feel approved of and accepted. Had our ancestors cast out one of its own, that human literally wouldn't survive without the protection of the tribe. In modern days, any threat of possible rejection or judgement has a similar survival response. It's a conditioning wired into us: constantly scan the environment for threat, and react with the necessary vigilance to maintain approval. Again, this is done below the level of awareness, or what we might call the subconscious.
Back to my girlfriend and her hyper-vigilance for any shift in my mood or tone. The deeper layer for her to ideally be aware of, is her felt experience. If she sees my disappointed or angry face, slumping shoulders with my head down, or maybe just a furrowed brow, her system is wired to react a certain way, as if this were a possible threat. She will immediately inquire 'are you ok?'. The threat increases if my 'not ok-ness' persists. Her nervous system has now moved away from safe and social, and toward activation. Her wiring will default to 'maybe I've done something wrong.' She's been conditioned to prioritize the emotions of others. The internal working model she has internalized is: if my others aren't taken care of, it may result in me being criticized, shamed, or even rejected/abandoned. This is her attachment wound playing out via hard-wiring in real time. The impulse to go into fix-it mode takes over, and if that doesn't work (and often that's not even what's needed), she may then shut-down, disconnecting from the intense emotions that are arising. If she's not able to connect to, and authentically express that raw emotion in a way that manifests as healthy, raw, life-force energy, it could have harmful effects in the long term. Developing the skill to observe/witness this sequence (while adding a sprinkle of self-compassion) is vital.
For now, suffice it to say we all have different wiring vigilant for different threats, depending on our upbringing and past relationships. However, all of our wiring is connected to our past wounds, our old trauma, and those times when rejection and judgement really did take a toll. When activated, we usually shift away from the safe/social state of the nervous system, and into fight/flight or freeze/shutdown.
Here's how it works, and let's use anger as an example. Imagine you grew up in a house where your anger or frustration or some similar authentic experience wasn't allowed or accepted. Your parents perhaps shamed you for getting angry, or responded to your anger with anger of their own.
What did you learn? You learned to adapt. Survive. You quickly became skilled at compartmentalizing that anger, repressing it, and disconnecting from it. Of course you did, and that makes total sense. We have to adapt to survive in the one and only house we have, with the one and only set of parents we have. Learning how to co-exist with them is experienced as life or death. Of course you also learned that to feel and express anger isn't safe. Or perhaps it wasn't anger, but some other authentic expression that was totally natural and normal. Not only did you learn it's not safe to be me, but perhaps even there's something wrong with me (cue the beginnings of inauthenticity as a survival response).
So now, here you are as an adult, with an unhealthy relationship with anger (or any feeling/authentic part of you that you had to disconnect from, because your parents couldn't hold space for it). You now feel bad about yourself when frustration or anger bubbles up, believing that you shouldn't be angry. You internalize this experience as something must be wrong with you, which also makes sense, because that's basically the messaging you absorbed repeatedly from your parents. Now, years later, and your family or your partner says or does something that pisses you off. The natural and healthy nervous system wants to voice your displeasure, and release some of that angry energy. However, your neuroception is detecting this moment, this specific dynamic, or this energy as potentially threatening, and your authentic release of the bubbling frustration as even more threatening. So you shut it down. Not consciously. Your nervous system literally goes into freeze mode, or shut-down: becoming invisible, rationalizing the situation, feeling ashamed at your anger, and unable to express yourself. This is what we call a dysregulated nervous system (if it's a pattern). Again, it makes sense, you had to survive in this way. The problem is now as an adult, there are consequences to repeatedly disconnecting from the anger, not giving it a release, and chronically living in that shut-down state. These effects are hopelessness, pessimism, and even depression. And why wouldn't you feel this way? It's hard to go through life burying authenticity and feeling good about oneself.
Another example might be those who as children had to be the caretaker of other's feelings. If you were parentified as a child, or if you had to soothe your parents, instead of the natural opposite, them soothing you. You adapted by disconnecting from feeling and expressing, and now that stored energy from all those years may be stuck. Not to mention the new stressors in your adult life, causing new feelings that you aren't allowing yourself to feel, because of this old conditioning. Again, you had to take care of other's feelings, and in so doing, learned to distance yourself from your own.
To learn more about attachment wounds and the nervous system, check out this article.
Sometimes expressing that fight/flight energy is healthy and appropriate. However, disconnecting from that fight/flight response in order to shut down, withdraw, and disconnect from feelings doesn't serve you. It's in the direction of hypoarousal and this is a pattern that is associated with the Avoidant Attachment Style (audio version here). I've had clients who because of their upbringing have linked finances to lack/scarcity. In this case, the perceived threat is the conversation about money with their partner, or a financial situation not meeting expectations. Instead of staying in regulation and communicating in healthy ways, a person triggered by this stimuli will also resort to shut down, becoming overly independent (it's not safe to ask for help), and interpreting moments of financial concern or dialogue as threatening. Disconnecting from the feeling and the dialogue is what's familiar, so that's their go-to reaction.
My girlfriend also has a shut-down wiring. The messaging she internalized growing up was of not being good enough, not measuring up, and if someone leaves, it's her fault. So it could be a smell, a facial expression, a certain choice of words, or any other stimulus/energy that reminds her system of some of those past wounds. Her reaction will be to activate, and prepare for the threat. If that threat isn't immediately 'fix-able,' she may shut-down.
Oh, did I mention how our threat detector is often inaccurate? This is an important little add. Just because our system has detected threat, doesn't mean it's an actual threat. In the same way the smoke alarm sounds off when the toaster is burning toast (not a real threat, it's just burnt toast), our neuroception is also vigilant for anything that resembles old threats (the furrowed brow or body language). This is vital to be aware of, because the healing is not only knowing when we are activated, but also in showing our system that this moment is actually safe, and not a real crisis. In the case of my girlfriend, there are very specific things that activate the threat response, when in actuality there isn't a threat. This is a main take-away from this article: Your system is wired to detect threat when this moment might actually be totally safe.
If hypoarousal is shutting down and withdraw, hyperarousal is the opposite. It's engaging and mobilizing. The energy can be manic, demanding, reactive, and anxious. I'll write a similar article on that. In the meantime, you can read about People-pleasing and the Anxious Attachment Style. (Audio Version here).
So, now that we understand the root of our old trauma wounds, now, how do we heal? We want to witness our reaction to the felt experience of that authentic energy. If the reaction to the felt experience of anger is to swallow or suppress it, we want to observe and witness both the felt experience of the anger itself, and also the reaction to swallow it and disconnect from it. This is not an easy thing to do in the heat of the moment. This is why we practice meditation and mindfulness, so that we become skilled at becoming the observer, and not getting swept away by feelings, thoughts, and intensity. Or, if we do get swept away, we develop that practice of noticing, finding a safety anchor, and coming back to witness it all, and/or let it be felt. In meditation, we learn how to create space for it all, and begin to relate to all in more healthy ways.
In the moment itself, in your day-to-day, the practice is to witness the tightness in the chest, the clenched jaw, etc. Allow the energy to come into your body. Next, we validate it. We have discussed how this makes sense. It was a necessary and adaptive survival response. You know how we always say the way we talk to ourselves matters? Well this is a key moment where we change the way we talk to ourselves/think about this moment. Instead of shame, and confusion, we compassionately validate the experience, acknowledge the pain, and talk to ourselves in nurturing ways. It's ok to be frustrated or angry. It's ok to set limits or boundaries, or tell someone how this feels for you. It might feel scary, or even unsafe, but connect to something in the body that feels safe, and release that angry energy in small bite sized pieces, if that feels do-able.
Next: It's important to learn how to process both old stuck energy, and new current stressors that evoke emotion and energy. Expressing what's coming up for you, means speaking it out, or venting, to your support system. Perhaps even more importantly, is giving it an energetic release. This means connecting to that feeling and letting it do what it needs to do, which isn't always pretty. A primal scream. A visceral F bomb. A sigh. A single tear is an energetic release of sadness. Taking it out on a punching bag, or a pillow. This is life force energy that needs connected to and released.
The well-known Gabor Mate', the author of When the Body Says No, has this to say: Habitual repression of emotion leaves a person with chronic stress, and chronic stress creates an unnatural biochemical milieu in the body.
He also said that the people who are prone to chronic illness, are the ones who tend to put other's emotional needs compulsively ahead of their own. They tend to repress healthy anger and struggle setting clear boundaries. This might even manifest as a belief that you are responsible for other people's emotions, and you must never disappoint anyone. Fascinatingly, he links the old expression 'the good die young' to this dynamic. Again, if this resonates, you may check out the article on people-pleasing.
Next: Stand up for yourself and communicate effectively. This isn't meant to change someone else's behavior, which is out of your control, but this for your benefit: connecting to and releasing that very real energy so it doesn't stay bottled up, and showing yourself that your authenticity is ok and allowed, and you're still loveable!
@lexyflorentina says in one of her IG posts:
Meeting ourselves where we're at looks like:
Not self-shaming when our emotional response doesn't match the 'rational response.'
Peeling back the impulse to 'calm down' every time you get angry or worked up.
Allowing ourselves to notice what we're feeling before trying to self-regulate.
Honoring where your capacity is today, not where you want it to be.
Allowing yourself the space and time to process something before digging up or searching for something else.
I hope this was helpful! This is obviously a complex and nuanced topic, and I hope I was able to tie it together in a way that is at least somewhat meaningful to you. Thank you for your support!
I'm a licensed psychotherapist (similar to a psychologist) in California and Vietnam. If you need further help, you can contact me for a therapy session, online or in-person.
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