Our work, then, is not to abolish our connection to the past but to take it into account without being at its mercy. The question is how much the past interferes with our chances at healthy relating and living in accord with our deepest needs, values, and wishes. ~David Richo, How To Be An Adult In Relationships: The Five Keys to Mindful Loving
David Richo states in How To Be An Adult In Relationships, that in order to be an adult, we need to be self-aware and mindful in our actions.
In other words, self-awareness is vital on it’s own, but until it is coupled with mindful and intentional action (or inaction), we still aren’t fully acting in our frontal lobe, or “adult” brain.
Those of us who experienced chronic trauma in childhood have a lot to be angry about. We have a lot to be sad about. We have a lot to rage and scream and wail about. I don’t believe anyone would deny that. The atrocities that were done to too many of us as children are horrifying and all of it is held in our body and mind memory.
The trauma doesn’t want to stay trapped within us however, it wants to get out. This is great news if we are in therapy and doing a combination of talk and somatic therapies to help move that trauma on out of our systems and being. It’s not so great news if we aren’t and so we try to stuff it down and eventually it bubbles up and out and we spew it all over an unsuspecting passer-by.
That passer-by could be our children, our intimate partner(s), our friends, other family members. It could even be ourselves.
It is understandable that we have so much hurt and torment living within us. I makes sense that it all needs to get out. It is not okay for us to lash out at others.
Even when they cause us harm.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Even when a person causes us harm, it is not acceptable for us to lash out and cause them harm.
The whole “two wrongs doesn’t make a right” thing.
Here’s a thing, though. For most of us, I don’t think our “eruptions” or “lashing out” are intentional. I know for me it mostly certainly isn’t mindful. It comes from a primal place within that only cares about our survival. And so when we are already wounded, like any animal, if we get poked or prodded we go into fight/flight/freeze because we see any hurt as an attack and we need to protect and defend ourselves.
Rollo May wrote: “Human freedom involves our capacity to pause between stimulus and response and, in that pause, to choose the one response toward which we wish to throw our weight. The capacity to create ourselves, based upon this freedom, is inseparable from consciousness or self-awareness.“
The work of self-awareness is to be able to grow that capacity to pause and allow space for us to mindfully choose the response we want to to actually have.
This is not to say there isn’t a part of us that wants our response to be screaming at the top of our lungs and stomping our feet.
It is to say however, that we need to take the moment to consider the longer term impacts of us screaming and stomping our feet. And if the longer term impacts actually cause us and other (more) harm, then perhaps we could consider a different response.
Shifting from a space of automatic, mindless, response to one where there has been space created between being activated and actually responding, is no simple task. We cannot undo the habit of a lifetime of automatic, mindless responding simply because we decide we want to do so.
It takes time.
It takes practice, a LOT of practice, learning to regulate our systems: calm our sympathetic nervous system, activate our parasympathetic nervous system, move the stored up cortisol out of our system.
It takes practice, a LOT of practice, connecting to our boundaries and coming into our bodies. Learning to truly understand, on a very visceral level, where we end and another begins, physically, psychically, emotionally.
It takes practice, a LOT of practice, finding our ways to ground and our own center, being able to find our way to not only be in but stay in, the present moment, despite any and all the discomfort we may be feeling.
And after all of that, it takes practice, a LOT of practice, to break the patterns and cycles that we have become so accustomed to. To actually not engage in an argument even though we may be being provoked, to walk away, to calm ourselves in the moment, to bite our tongues, to actually feel empathy for the person causing harm.
None of this comes easy. Or at least, none of it has come easy to me.
Changing life long, if not generations old, patterns and cycles takes effort. It requires compassion. And we will all screw it up along the way, slipping back into old ways of being because that is what is known.
It can be done. With practice.
What is interesting about changing these patterns and cycles is that as we begin to do so on our end, the person(s) on the other side may try to up their game. When this happens it can be so tempting to engage. Believe me, I know! And, it is all the more important for us to continue practicing our own work, to continue growing that “pause”, to continue our own work of breaking harmful patterns and cycles.
Eventually those who try to engage us will change too. Either they will simply go out of our lives because they aren’t getting the emotional charge from us anymore, or they too will begin to create space, to cultivate and grown that pause, to break their own patterns and cycles.
We can’t do any of that for them though. We can only do our own work. Even in those moments when, right then, we really just want to scream and stomp, and perhaps, especially in those moments.
In rebellious solidarity, always.
This essay was originally written in May 2018 for my weekly newsletter and has been updated and edited for publication here. To receive my most recent essays, you can subscribe to my newsletter here.