There is a theory that trauma lives in the body, that our memories are experienced through our senses, and stored in our bodies (Bessel van der Kolk). I believe it’s not just traumas, but all events. Just like you can see stressors or major events in a tree’s rings, these impact our bodies in ways that leave marks that you may not be able to see on the outside.
I can physically feel my angst and anxiety live in my body, in the pit of my stomach, deep in the back of my heart, tight in my shoulders and neck. I can feel these spaces fire up when I get anxious or afraid or sad. I know these familiar friends, they are old reflexes, my body responds like it always knew how.
When my body and my mind and my heart automatically react in these ways, I’m tensing up, anticipating what might happen next. I’m pushing up against possible outcomes. I’m trying to control the future. I’m doing all of that because I’m hoping for something different than what’s happening right now that’s triggered the reaction. I want different circumstances, a different outcome.
When I’m reactive and looking for what might happen next is precisely when I need to embrace all the unknowns as it unfolds in its own time. This is exactly when I need to accept the current circumstances life is offering right now, without judging them as good or bad or confusing. But accepting it all just as it is. I need to practice acting in different ways, instead of reacting. I need to practice viewing the triggers in different ways.
Sometimes doing hard things is really hard for me. I have good intentions and I try really hard, but sometimes I get a bit neurotic and become a whirling dervish of blathering emotions. Sometimes I get stuck in a familiar place of confusion or sadness or anxiety, and despite knowing intellectually how to get unstuck, I stay stuck. And then I judge myself more for that, and stay stucker.
Sometimes it just takes different words, a reframe, to shift my perspective and understanding of the situation, and then I’m not so stuck. Pema Chodron writes, “…you begin to think of your life as offering endless opportunities to start to do things differently.”
That, I can do. I can start to do things differently. I used to think of it as: “I’ve got to stop giving in to my fears,” or “I’ve got to stop panicking or getting anxious when I think about potential future outcomes I cannot control,” or essentially, “I’ve got to stop doing all the things I used to do. On such a larger level, I’ve got to stop being who I used to be.”
When I think in those words, it’s difficult for me to just stop doing it. I have been able to do so to some degree, but it’s still a pretty tumultuous place. But I have also learned to offer myself the same loving kindness I would offer a child. That includes how I talk to myself, what words I use.
A useful and effective strategy when working with children is to ask that they do something as an alternative, instead of asking the child to just stop a behavior. For example, instead of saying, “Stop running!” it is oftentimes more effective to say, “Please walk!”
People oftentimes know they should stop a behavior, but are at a loss as to what behavior should be in its place. We need to give people alternatives to fill the void. They need to know how to act in addition to what they need to stop doing. Losing weight is too amorphous. Teaching someone what specific things to change in one’s diet and activity level makes it doable.
This is also why we role play in therapy. Telling someone to be better with boundaries is wonderful and necessary. But we need to practice using words in a safe place to be able to actually be better with boundaries in real life.
These slight shifts make all the difference. So I can be kind and gentle with myself and stop flagellating myself with thoughts that I should know better, and instead just bear witness to current circumstances and how I automatically react. And then I can start to do things differently.
I can start by acting like the person I want to be. I want to be someone who is full of grace and empathy and compassion even while feeling anxious. I want to be gentle and kind even while feeling sad. I want to be someone who is patient and accepting even while feeling confused. I want to be someone who trusts life’s unfolding. This is a shift from the old thoughts of “I shouldn’t freak out,” or “I shouldn’t feel hurt,” or “I shouldn’t try to control things.”
Instead of what I shouldn’t do, I’m practicing being active in what I do want, in being the person I want to be. I’m practicing not fighting with myself, fighting against myself. Instead, I’m starting to do things differently.