Tag Archives: creativity

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.

Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

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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Authenticity

I’ve been thinking about authenticity during the last couple of weeks.

What, exactly, does it mean?

Oxford Online Dictionary defines it as the “quality of being genuine or real.”

It seems simple enough, until one pauses to think about what “real” means, especially in the current cultural and political context of “alternative facts” and disinformation.

Recently I went through all my old photographs from the days when we took our film somewhere and had it developed. As I thumbed through photos of the first fifty years of my life, looking at all those younger versions of myself in the context of family, friends, and places, I was struck (not for the first time) by how one-dimensional a photograph is. One single moment in time recorded visually. As I was there when the picture was taken, I remember the emotional context of those recorded moments, the relationships, the quality of my experience; but showing the pictures to someone else is like taking the cover off a book and trying to convey the story with just that.

We know this, yet we continue to take selfies and be utterly seduced by pretty pictures, nowadays filtered, air-brushed, and otherwise enhanced. Some part of us believes in that fantasy, envies it, longs for it.

Is a picture authenticity?

No, of course not. But my pictures do record visual moments in a real life: My childhood, long-dead pets, family, trips, school years, my first job, my first day at college, and my years raising two sons. A real person experienced all that, but not quite the same real person I am today.

Authenticity, then, changes as we change. We age, we grow, we learn, people around us come and go, we move from place to place.

Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash

I think of authenticity as a positive quality, one to aspire to and practice. I admire real people, and find them attractive. In some relationships, however, practicing authenticity is dangerous and severely punished. When children repeatedly experience negative consequences for their authenticity, they are effectively crippled in their ability to self-express and form healthy attachments. In order to survive emotionally, they create a pseudo self.

For some, being real or genuine is a horrifying risk. Here is a quote from Patricia Evans, author of Controlling People:

“I have heard many people … say that even when they use all their strength to maintain patience, to carefully articulate their truth, to share their deepest feelings, to explain their personal reality … they don’t receive understanding but instead encounter disparagement, subtle trivializing, or outright rage. People with excellent communication skills, sensitivity, and honesty can’t “get through.” … the Controller experiences this depth of authenticity as an enormous assault.”

When we are children, our sense of self is curated by the adults around us. Too many children internalize relentless criticism and contempt from their caregivers and carry it into adulthood in the form of a vicious internal critic. In this case, what feels like authenticity becomes a lie based on negative beliefs. The genuine, worthy human being is invisible, especially to him or herself, under a crust of trauma and abuse that’s so old it feels real. Ironically, a palliative for this is to risk authenticity with a healthy other and be able to hear a challenge to the false beliefs obscuring our true selves. Sometimes a loving, compassionate onlooker can see us much more clearly than we see ourselves.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

I found an article in Psychology Today about authenticity that was thought-provoking. The author lists qualities of authentic people, including emotional intelligence, the ability to learn, and being able to perceive reality .

Perceiving reality has become an enormous cultural problem recently, as you may have noticed! It makes sense that a person practicing authenticity must be able to recognize what’s real and genuine externally as well as internally.

Being authentic sounds so easy. A simple choice. I haven’t realized before writing this post how difficult it is. We can’t choose it if we don’t know what it is, and discovering what’s real, both inside and outside us, is a daunting challenge.

Authenticity is approached by many paths. The practice of minimalism is one. Peeling away layers of stuff and clutter leads to peeling away toxic habits, thoughts, feelings and beliefs, which helps us peel away weight, addictions, dysfunctional relationships, and a multitude of other unhealthy debris.

Another road to authenticity is creativity. I myself discovered decades ago I’m incapable of expressing anything but truth in my writing, particularly journaling for my eyes alone. Our creative work can expose our deepest selves.

Yet another path is emotional intelligence and healing old trauma. The habits of mindfulness and self-inquiry, the willingness to reveal our scars and wounds and express the truth of our experience to others, help us discern the difference between who we really are, who someone told us we are, who we’re afraid we are, and who we wish we could be.

As I work on my new site (yes, yes, it’s coming!), one of the things I’m working with is reorganizing and recategorizing my content, which amounts to 250 posts. Going through all this content chronologically, starting at the beginning with my first post during the summer of 2016, has been a fascinating and lengthy process. Each post is entirely authentic, but I can clearly see change and progress from week to week, month to month, year to year. The woman who wrote that first post is not quite the woman who writes this one. Yet both are (were) practicing authenticity.

Photo by Khoa Pham on Unsplash

I can’t think of anyone more authentic than a newborn baby. Maybe life is a journey from a state of absolute, completely innocent authenticity, through chaos and identity confusion and enormous cultural and societal pressures, and gradual reclamation of who we were born to be, less innocent, but more fully ourselves, as we grow old.

Certainly, I feel more authentic in this moment than I did when I wrote my first blog post. Will I be more authentic yet in a year? In two years? In five?

Interestingly, my new site says “A Journey Into Power” on the landing page, and authenticity is one of my categories. To be seen, heard, and loved for our real selves is a core human need, a longing we all share.

The power of authenticity. My daily crime.

All in Good Time

One of my coworkers and his wife had a baby girl yesterday.

I’m thinking about them, and remembering the birth of my own first child.

Photo by Khoa Pham on Unsplash

Creating something new. What a magical process, and what an anchor to our humanity.

What a terrifying, exhausting, consuming act it is to make oneself into a creative vessel, and then, when the time is right, deliver what we’ve conceived and made into the world.

Creativity, it seems to me, is the ultimate act of faith in the world, faith in the future, faith in ourselves and others.

Faith can be hard for me. Trust is even harder.

Yet I am compelled to create, just as I felt compelled to be a mother.

I forget sometimes that creativity is a journey from conception through patience and labor to, ultimately, delivery.

Except delivery, of course, isn’t the end of the journey, but the beginning of a new one.

About a month ago (I had to look back in my notes – it seems like a year ago!) I suddenly decided I wanted to redesign and uplevel this blog.

Step by step, I’ve been working toward that goal ever since, in a daze of inspiration and creativity. I’ve made sketches and notes, researched other popular and award-winning blogs for design ideas, sorted through hundreds of images, written word lists, created new categories for my content, and worked with a web designer.

Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash

It’s going to be beautiful. I wish I could show you the inside of my head as a preview!

It’s also going to be wider in scope, more ambitious, and more authentically expressive.

Creativity forces us to be bigger, and that’s uncomfortable. Once your belly has stretched over a baby, it’s forever changed. There’s no going back.

In order to create my new website, I need to step beyond my comfort zone in several ways, and stretch, and fall back on patience, trust, faith, and resilience.

It’s a stony road, but the vision in my head is so compelling I don’t always notice.

Today, a day off from my bread-and-butter job, was The Day I was going to finally start building the site. All the pieces are in place, all the elements collected. I’ve watched tutorials on using the software I chose to build with. I could hardly wait to start.

Starting looked like opening everything up and sitting in front of the screen without a clue.

For three hours I struggled with more tutorials, trying to find definitions for terminology, and trying to understand how to use this amazing, beginner-friendly, software!

I paused and emailed my web designer. I’m going to need help. We made an appointment for the end of the month.

I don’t want to wait that long. I dove back in. Surely I can figure this out!

At the point I felt torn between hurling the laptop out the window or bursting into tears (maybe both), I set my notes and the laptop down on my work surface (gently!) and walked away.

Sometimes there’s nothing else to do.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I went outside and sat in the sun. It’s a gorgeous day, sunny and warm. It’s also the height of black fly season, and I’m half demented and a little sick from several vicious bites incurred earlier in the week. I’ve always had trouble with insect venom, and it’s unbelievable how savage these tiny insects can be. If you’ve never experienced them, you won’t know what I’m talking about, and I can’t adequately explain.

Anyway, right now it doesn’t pay to linger, uncovered, in the sun, but I gave myself a few minutes to enjoy the birds, the new green growth, and the warmth while I struggled with my frustration.

I thought of that new baby, and I sighed.

Creation takes time.

Conception, labor, delivery, and whatever comes after, take time.

Living creatively is a journey, not a destination.

It is, after all, a day off. Am I going to choose to beat my head against this wall or leave it and go on to something else, like writing this post?

The post I wanted to write was the introduction to my new site!

Not yet. It’s not time.

Gah!

Photo by Bill Williams on Unsplash