Belonging

Today is the Autumn Equinox. It’s cool, cloudy, and damp here in central Maine. My attic windows are open and I can hear acorns falling from our oak tree and cars going by, tires hissing on the wet road.

I’ve been reading The Enchanted Life by Dr. Sharon Blackie, and yesterday I laid the book in my lap as I sat outside in the bright sun and boisterous breeze and cried.

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Dr. Blackie’s book is about reclaiming our relationship to the natural world. This process necessarily begins with reclaiming our relationship to our bodies and physical experience. We can’t feel at home in the world if we don’t feel at home in our own skins.

Blackie suggests that each of us is a part of the world, just like a flower, a tree, a bird, or a cricket. I’ve probably read something like this a thousand times in my life, worded a thousand different ways, but I’ve never read it without an automatic unconscious resistance. Others might be part of the world, but not me. I’ve never believed I had anything worthy to offer.

My lifelong feeling of being an intruder has kept me slightly divided from people as well as the natural world. A sense of pure belonging is so rare for me I can count the experience of it on one hand. The water. My children. A crippled cat, long gone. My dance group, also far away and long ago.

As I read about belonging to the world yesterday and relished the beautiful autumn day and the waning September sun, my resistance was unexpectedly absent. The words arrowed straight into my heart. For the first time, I seriously considered that maybe I am not just a tourist, a spectator, someone passing through. Maybe I belong in the world as much as any other form of life.

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I realized then I’ve lived most of my life as a sort of apology for existing. I’ve felt gratitude, appreciation, even awe in the presence of the natural world, which I love and cling to. Most of my life I’ve lived in rural areas and revered the landscape, the plants, the animals. Yet I always felt ashamed to be intruding on the loveliness of the natural cycles and seasons and the wild places. As a member of the human race, I felt like a destroyer, a besmircher, part of what’s wrong with the world rather than what’s good and beautiful and natural.

Blackie writes of reciprocity; of listening to the voices of the leaves rustling on the trees and responding with our own voice. She writes about a woman who sings to the jungle, joining in with the myriad songs already there as a rightful part of the ecosystem.

When I touch a tree in reverence, is it touching me back? Is the feel of my hand as sacred to it as the feel of its bark and body are to me?

Healthy relationship is about reciprocity. I know that from my study of emotional intelligence. Communication is reciprocal, which is to say it moves in both directions. Moving fully into belonging, then, would mean not only learning and marveling at the liquid notes of the wood thrush, but sharing my own voice with him. He is in my world, and I’m in his. His song and my song are both part of the chorus of this place. We are, perhaps, woven together.

Could it possibly be that the world is richer for my presence, rather than burdened by it? Might my step, my breath, my voice, my touch, and my prayers be to others what the coyotes’ night song, the morning mist over the river, or the falling leaves and browning ferns are to me?

This shift in perspective is staggering. I don’t quite know what to do with it. It assuages a longing within me to belong, to be more than just tolerated.

Photo by Manuel Barroso Parejo on Unsplash

When I look around from this perspective, I see gardens existing because of me. A variety of mushrooms grow in and around the compost pit because of me. Herbs, flowers, and vegetables thrive together, feeding insects and birds, creating habitat for snakes, amphibians, and rodents, because of me. There is greater plant diversity in the landscape because of me.

The most remarkable thing about this new perspective is that it lies at the heart of my fiction trilogy. I have a firm intellectual grasp of interconnection; I’ve just never included myself. I’ve been an outsider looking in. I haven’t seen myself as worthy enough to be part of the web.

Writing can be an exercise is discovering intuitive or unconscious truths we have not yet fully integrated. To date, I’ve written 700,000 words about interconnection, but not until yesterday did my heart accept that I’m part of it too, not as a stain but as a uniquely beautiful organism within a tapestry of uncountable other uniquely beautiful organisms. As I touch, hear, see, and smell the presence of others, they touch, hear, see, and smell me. As I communicate with others, they communicate with me, though I may not know it.

Life, the weather, the COVID virus are not happening to me. They are in relationship with me. We are woven together in a changing, dynamic dance of becoming, minute by minute. We belong to each other. I am neither alien nor separate.

I’m home, where I belong.

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Traumatic Response: Flight

Last week I wrote about the traumatic response of fawn, as described by Pete Walker, author of Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving.

This week I’m tackling another of my strongest trauma responses, that of flight.

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Flight, or fleeing, is a natural response to threat or danger. It’s an instinctive life-saving behavior. However, we’re not physiologically made to live in a constant state of flight. It exhausts our adrenal glands, our immune systems, and our psyches. I believe it’s at the root of much disease and chronic pain. Sadly, we reward people for operating out of this particular trauma response by calling them “productive,” by which we mean “making money” or “benefitting me in some way with their work.”

Flight, like fawning, encompasses several behaviors I’ve struggled with all my life and already written about in this blog.

Flight becomes a trauma response when we are unable to flee from chronic threat. If we cannot physically escape, we default to mental and emotional escape by dissociating or distracting ourselves with activity. We push ourselves without mercy into workaholism, extreme stimulation, and chronic anxiety. We micromanage everyone around us, trying to maintain some sense of safety and control. We cannot sit still or relax without feeling panicked. We produce, and produce, and produce. If we’re not producing we feel empty, worthless, and scared.

We lose our ability to be. All we know is how to do.

There’s nothing wrong with achievement, but we need more than that to be healthy and happy. Of course, capitalism depends on achievement, and as consumers we are romanced with uncountable ways to be more productive, better at multitasking, and faster workers, not so we have more time to relax, rest, and play, but so we have more time to produce, multitask, and work!

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Hard workers and super achievers are rewarded in the workplace with paychecks, promotions, bonuses, good references, and recognition. We are not culturally rewarded for taking sabbaticals, sick days, disability leave, family leave, or vacation days.

Here are some of the ways flight behavior shows up in me:

  • Pacing.
  • Panic attacks.
  • Teeth grinding.
  • Chronic physical tension and pain.
  • Working without pausing for rest or food.
  • Eating disorder.
  • Refusing to accept physical limitations of pain or illness, thereby ensuring more pain and illness.
  • Chronic worry, anxiety, racing thoughts.
  • Insomnia.
  • Migraines.
  • Weakened immune system.
  • Chronic exhaustion (chronic fatigue syndrome, anyone?)
  • Rushing/speeding.
  • Schedule shaming.
  • Self-loathing if having fun or relaxing.
  • Resistant to taking breaks.
  • Shame and guilt if not “productive” or “useful.”
  • Shame and guilt over mistakes.
  • Inability to sit quietly and meditate, read, dream, or gaze at my navel.
  • Refusal to engage creatively. It’s not “productive.”
  • Constipation.
  • Perfectionism.

Remember that trauma response behaviors are on a continuum. Every day I look at a graphic from Pete Walker’s website depicting the four trauma responses at their most polarized and destructive as well as healthier, less extreme options.

For example, fleeing in blind panic has become a deeply ingrained behavior pattern for me. I feel panicked, but there is no threat, not here, not now. I’m safe. I don’t need to run away from anything. Yet the smallest trigger produces a flood of adrenaline that demands I flee. If I don’t obey the compulsion, I have a panic attack, which is extremely mortifying when I’m in public.

I counteract this old trauma response by practicing disengagement and healthy retreat. Disengagement means, instead of running like a panicked rabbit, I excuse myself with dignity from situations in which I feel uncomfortable and walk (not run!) away. I don’t pick up poisoned bait. I don’t accept an invitation to have conflict. I create some distance between myself and the trigger. I lay down a boundary. I say no.

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I’ve written about healthy retreat in my post on quitting. Sometimes a healthy retreat is the best choice we can make for ourselves, no matter how uncomfortable, frightening, or even devastating it can be. Unfortunately, we are often unsupported in this choice. When we understand we’re in the wrong job, the wrong relationship, or the wrong place, we have a right to choose a healthy retreat. We don’t need to drop an atomic bomb as we leave, but it’s okay to change our mind, make a mistake, outgrow a situation, or simply realize things aren’t working out for us where we are.

I’ve been challenging what I now identify as my flight response for some time. I developed a meditation practice. I developed an exercise practice and then began working with a personal trainer to ensure I wasn’t pushing myself too hard (I was). I get regular dental care and wear a mouth guard at night. I eat regularly, no matter how busy or stressed I feel. I’ve slowed down. I no longer strive for perfection. I make it a point to relax, laugh, play, and take breaks. I do creative work every day. Because I’ve learned to relax during the day, I sleep much better at night, and I’m careful about my sleep hygiene. I stopped making to-do lists and no longer engage in schedule shaming myself or anyone else. If I feel tired, ill, or just plain uninspired, I rest.

The funny thing is, I’m more productive now than I’ve ever been in my life before. I’m also far less exhausted, much healthier, and happier. These trauma responses have had enormous power over me, but recognizing them, naming them, and understanding where they come from have reduced them to habits I can break. And I’m breaking them.

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Traumatic Response: Fawning

Sometimes I think I’ve been collecting puzzle pieces my whole life, never knowing they would all fit together someday to make a complete picture. Now, as I approach my 60s, I have enough pieces that I begin to see larger patterns I never knew were there.

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In a recent post I mentioned Pete Walker’s book, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. I’ve read it cover to cover twice, and I can’t possibly convey to you how it’s changed my life.

Walker explores, in depth, four human responses to trauma: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.

Fawning is defined as exhibiting affection, attempting to please, or seeking favor or attention. It’s a behavior we often see in dogs, especially when they’ve just done something naughty. (No self-respecting cat would ever fawn!)

We develop trauma responses when we’ve experienced some kind of emotional or physical trauma, and many times we develop them so young we don’t even remember the trauma, thus spending our lives unaware of (or deliberately denying or avoiding if we do remember) the wounds that have locked us into ineffective and destructive behavior patterns.

The four trauma responses are not cut and dried. Most of us exhibit some facet of more than one or all of them when we’re faced with situations that trigger our fear. However, we usually favor one or two responses and unconsciously fall back on them when we feel threatened.

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Each of the four trauma responses involves a cluster of easily recognizable behaviors. Much of my writing, both in this blog and creatively, has been, at its root, about trauma response. I just never knew it until now.

My very first post was about pleasing people. Pleasing and appeasing people has long been a compulsive behavior I can’t control well and am not entirely conscious of. Pleasing and appeasing others is the trauma response called fawning.

With the help of Walker’s book and graphics on his website, I have been able to put several pieces of my problematic behavior together into fawning. I’m chagrined to find it in every aspect of my life.

This is life-changing work.

I will probably manage my trauma responses, including fawning, for the rest of my life, and that’s okay with me. Most internal work, I find, is a practice rather than a quick destination to complete health and blissful forever-after happiness.

Here are the ways fawning shows up in my life. Do any of these sound familiar?

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Apologizing all the time about everything. Apologizing to chairs for bumping into them. Apologizing to other drivers for using the road. Apologizing for making anybody wait for any reason. Apologizing to the cats when they get under my feet and trip me. Apologizing for needing any kind of service or assistance. Apologizing for being less than perfect. Apologizing for being alive, taking up space, having a thought or feeling, breathing the air or using a chair. Apologizing for not reading everyone else’s minds and anticipating their every move, feeling, desire, and need.

Obsequiousness (being obedient or attentive to an excessive degree). This is a tough one. I can’t really find the line between excessive and adequate, and I’m not sure I want to because adequate feels so inadequate. But then, I’ve always felt inadequate, even when (especially when?) being excessive.

I notice this mostly at work, where I’ve unconsciously made a mission out of greeting and bidding farewell to every patron, patient and staff member who enters or exits the pool facility.

On the one hand, we as a team work hard to make the pools a friendly, safe, and respectful environment, and that’s good. On the other hand, I know many of our patrons don’t need me to be so obsequious. Some people are engaging, friendly, and even demanding of our attention. Others, not so much.

As an experiment, I’ve been refraining from saying good-bye to every departing person. If we happen to make eye contact, or I’m helping them manage their mobility and the door or having another direct interaction, I wish them well and say good-bye. If I’m guarding the pool and they walk by without engaging me, I don’t speak. Our population includes many elderly people, some of whom are, not to put too fine a point on it, grouchy! I suspect they find obsequiousness a pain in the ass. (I find it so, even though I can’t help myself sometimes.) I’ve been letting them come and go in peace, too.

The sky hasn’t fallen. I doubt very much if any of my coworkers have noticed this small change in my behavior. I doubt if the people we serve have noticed it, either.

I notice two things. One is how anxious it makes me to stop being so obsequious. The other is how much less exhausting I find my hours at work.

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Servitude. This is a big one at work, too, but also at home. This also played out in my parenting in negative ways, I regret to say. Once again, I have a hard time finding the line between being of useful service in the world and edging into slavery or excessive servitude. I reason that with the world in such a mess, how can we hold anything back when it comes to being of service? Yet at a certain point we can lose ourselves entirely in service to others. My challenge is balancing service to myself and service to others, and I don’t know a woman who doesn’t or hasn’t at some point faced this challenge.

This issue is further complicated by the fact that people with Cluster B behavior demand and expect complete servitude and retaliate in various devastating ways if they don’t receive it. Also, women are burdened with a heavy cultural expectation to be of unending service to their families. Emotional labor is part of this service.

Trying too hard. Trying to be the best person I can be. Trying to protect people. Trying to communicate my love to people. Trying to make a positive contribution. Trying to never be a burden or an inconvenience. Trying to make sure nobody feels “stuck” with me. Trying to please. Trying to be perfect.

As I recently asked in a post, when have we tried hard enough?

As I identified in that very first post: fawning doesn’t work. We learn it when we are powerless and depend on the adults around us to care for us, but it’s not a life strategy. As adults, it doesn’t keep us safe or loved. It’s entirely disempowering. It strips away our dignity and sends a message to others that we don’t value ourselves. If we don’t value ourselves, why should anyone else value us?

Recognizing these various fawning behaviors and the underlying anxiety and fear triggering them has been a revelation to me. Challenging them by refraining or making different choices is an even greater revelation. Dredging automatic patterns from unconsciousness into consciousness is weary work and reveals how deeply-rooted my fawning behavior is. No wonder I find socialization so exhausting.

Now that I notice my own fawning, I’m sad to recognize it frequently in others. Fawning is a common human trauma response, especially for women.

Peter Walker is helping me disengage from fawning in such a way that my natural inclinations toward love and service, empathy, fairness, and listening are more effective and genuine and less exhausting and personally destructive. This is a win for everyone around me as well as myself.

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