Feeling disconnected and unmoored is one of the most insidious aftereffects of trauma. Whether it’s 2+ years of pandemic isolation or the result of a childhood in an emotionally detached family, feeling disconnected and alone is such a common experience.
I know that personally it’s been a lifelong work in progress to feel the support and care around me after growing up in a family that was emotionally disconnected and spiteful. Even with good friends, loving partners, a solid found family and a community around me, that feeling of disconnection or like I’m going to have the rug pulled out from under me can come on at any moment.
A few years ago, I was meditating through this feeling and I felt myself sink into a warm, soft energetic embrace. There was a feeling of calm and safety, and in that moment, I knew everything was alright.
And it was. In that moment, as with most moments of my life, I was safe. But I usually can’t access that feeling.
The problem arises when my brain reverts to a pattern of hypervigilance and anticipation – after experiencing so many moments where I had to look out for emotional or physical danger, my brain and body have been trained to be prepared. And that state of hypervigilant preparation certainly does not feel like calm and safety, and it doesn’t feel like everything is going to be alright.
But in meditation, I can drop the worry and sink into the moment of what I’m doing – being still, observing my body and mind, in a place and time of my own creation, which is free from any potential threats.
There’s a form of meditation called Settling the Mind in its Natural State where “the activities of the mind gradually subside so that the mind comes to settle in its ‘natural state,’ which manifests three core qualities: bliss, luminosity, and non-conceptuality.” I would add the word “connection” to that list of effects because in that state I found the connection I was looking for. It wasn’t dependent on a particular person or circumstance, but was already a part of who I am. Since my “natural state” is being connected to universal consciousness, I am always connected to the one consciousness that runs through all of us.
In those moments of meditation, that connection becomes real, and (if I meditate daily) it becomes a part of my daily reality, as well. As a result, my nervous system changes, my brain rewires, and eventually my experience of being connected and safe become the baseline instead of something I have to strive for.
I still experience those post-traumatic moments of disconnection at times, but having a meditation practice where I know I can bring myself back to that natural state of bliss and connection at any moment has been such an important part of my healing.
If this practice of feeling connected, safe and cared for sounds like something that you’d like to learn, then I’d love to invite you to join my group program Unconventional Tools for Healing starting April 25. It’s one of the many tools I teach in the class to help you cultivate the emotional balance that we all crave.
See you there!
How do I love me? Let me count the ways.
Ask anyone who’s been in a long term relationship what the secret to success is and they’ll likely mention two things: You have to work at it every day and you have to make your partner feel special on the regular.
That’s sound advice, but it’s advice we rarely do in our relationship with ourselves.
Do you work on making yourself feel special every day? If not, why not? We all need to take time to celebrate and love on ourselves daily. It’s important because if we’re only relying on other people to make you feel special and loved and it doesn’t happen, it can trigger self-critical thoughts of being undeserving.
You (yes, YOU) deserve to have something happen each day that reminds you of how lovable, worthy, special and awesome you are. You are a beautiful ball of sentient stardust (shout out to @domesticblisters for that description) and you absolutely should be reminded of this, daily.
Let me tell you a trick for how I started doing this for myself. First, if you don’t already know your love languages go here to find out your top two or three. My top three are acts of service, words of affirmation, and receiving gifts.
Next, figure out ways that you can do these things for yourself! You’ll have to get creative here. How can I perform acts of service for myself? Well, I can hire someone to clean my house every few weeks. Or order food delivery once per week. What about words of affirmation? I can make a list of all the things I’m proud of myself for that week. Receiving gifts? Easy – I make sure if I see something I like when I’m out, like flowers or a yummy smelling candle, that I either buy it at the moment or add it to a list I have on my phone of stuff to get myself later.
If I find that it’s been a few days since I’ve done any of these things, I make a point to do it. And when life is especially sucky, I make a point to schedule them in. After my last break-up, I scheduled weekly flower delivery for myself for a few months and wrote myself encouraging notes to be included with the delivery. Every damn time I looked at those flowers, I smiled.
Now, I want you to pay very close attention to your inner critic when you start to do this practice. If I’m at the supermarket and I see something I’d like as a treat (a gift for myself) and I think, “Oh, that’s a nice thought, but I don’t really neeeeeeed it,” then I stop and take stock. If I saw my best friend’s favorite candy bar in the whole world at the market right before I was about to meet up with her, would I buy it for her? Of course I would — I would be so excited to do that for her! So, why wouldn’t I be equally as excited to do that for myself? If there’s any part of you that tells you you’re not “worth it”, there’s some shadow work to do, right there. I recommend bringing in your inner caregiver or protector to help you work through feeling undeserving or not worthy.
Because my friend, I promise you that you are worthy of that and so much more.
I hope you try this out and let me know how it goes. Like any change to our belief systems of self-concept you may have to “fake it till you make it” and almost force yourself to do small acts of love for yourself at first as the inner critic “I’m not worthy” voice comes up. But once you make it part of your routine, and part of who you are, then your daily practice of letting yourself know how special you are becomes one of the best parts of your day.
If you want to know more about how exactly to translate your love languages into things you can do for yourself, then check out my group course starting on April 25th, Unconventional Tools for Healing. We go into this in-depth and you can get personalized coaching from me on how to do this to make the most positive impact on your well-being.
I’m in the middle of doing research for my next book and I want to share some cool info about your nervous system and how you can change it for the better.
Many years ago when I read the book “The Holographic Universe” I remember being struck by a study by Alan Richardson where, “he took three groups of basketball players and tested their ability to make free throws. Then he instructed the first group to spend twenty minutes a day practicing free throws. He told the second group not to practice, and had the third group spend twenty minutes a day visualizing that they were shooting perfect baskets. As might be expected, the group that did nothing showed no improvement The first group improved 24 percent, but through the power of imagery alone, the third group improved an astonishing 23 percent, almost as much as the group that practiced.”
This idea stuck with me and later, when I was in my Occupational Therapy program, I read about how OTs and PTs were using what’s called “mental practice” to work with patients after strokes. This entails doing regular physical rehab and then doing additional mental visualizations of the same rehab task using “internal, cognitive polysensory images.” The results showed that those patients who did regular rehab plus mental practice had greater improvement than those doing regular rehab alone.
So, what’s going on here?
The gist of it is, our brains are meaning-making machines. They take information from our senses (sight, smell, healing, interception, etc) and decide what it means. Our brains are weaving a narrative out of disparate pieces of sensory info, and then matching that to our past experiences to create our “reality.” But here’s the twist: that info can come from the outside world (something we’re actually seeing or hearing) or it can come from the inside world (“internal, cognitive polysensory images’) and our brains don’t know the difference. That’s right, we can trick our nervous systems into thinking something is real just by imagining it well enough.
While most of the studies I’ve read talk about using this to make physical changes, like improving free throw score or improving arm use after a stroke, I decided to try using it to improve thought patterns, emotional states, and maladaptive belief systems.
My friends — it worked wonders.
Mental practice is a lot like guided imagery, but the key difference seems to be the polysensory aspect of the visualization. When we visualize doing an activity, it’s important to imagine what you’re perceiving with all of your senses. In last week’s post, I talked about bringing a caregiver character into your mind as a way to heal our inner critic voice. We can use the concepts of mental practice to not only make this a way to soothe ourselves in the moment, but to permanently change our nervous systems to a place of calm and safety.
Next time you imagine your caregiver, I want you to close your eyes, see your caregiver, and then check in with all of your senses in this visualization. What does your caregiver look like? What do they sound like? Do they have a scent? Where are you? Are you inside? Outside? What does your body feel like — is it relaxed? Heavy? Light? Can you feel anything on your skin — clothing? Wind? Imagine all of the sensory details that you can — the more, the better.
The more sensory details you can bring to this, the more your brain has no idea this is a visualization and the more it encodes it as “reality.” Which means, the next time you feel triggered, your brain will be able to call on this mental practice as a past real experience, as if it was something that really happened. And then — this is the really cool part — it will match the pattern of what’s happening (the “trigger”) to the past mental practice experience of having a wonderful caregiver and your nervous system will be soothed, it will have had the experience of a trigger, followed by the exact emotional care you needed, and it will automatically calm down and feel safe and relaxed.
Isn’t that the coolest?!
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Like I said, I’m writing a whole chapter on this in my upcoming book and I’m excited to share more ways that I use the concept of mental practice in real life to rewire our trauma brain into a happy brain.
If you try this, let me know! I love hearing stories of how this went for you.
When we let the ego drive the bus without having other ways of looking at the world, it can drive us a bit mad. One of the most effective tools I know to become a happier person and make sure we’re not only listening to the ego is to cultivate three distinct voices in your head:
- The Ego
- The Observer
- The Caretaker
The Ego — this is the you that is experiencing all of things that are happening in your life. Ego is the part of you that feels emotional reactions to events and people and creates narratives about why this is happening — people’s motives, the reason for your reactions, the fact that the events happening around you are fair or unfair, etc. Basically, if your life was a movie, your ego is both the main character and the narrator that explains it all. Usually our ego makes its interpretations and creates that narrative on a subconscious level, before we’re even aware.
The Observer – also known as metacognition, this is the concept that there is an aspect in us that can simply observe what the ego is doing, without judgement. The best way I’ve found to practice cultivating this voice is mindfulness meditation. When you meditate and a thought comes up, name what it is. Like “thinking” or “remembering” or “worrying.” In this way, you can practice becoming the observer of your thoughts and emotions. This can then start expanding out of your meditation practice and into your daily life. Once this happens, you become able to watch your ego, thoughts and reactions in real time!
Getting to know the observer can be an especially powerful tool in working with anxiety and depression. As Ram Dass said, “Learn to watch your drama unfold while at the same time knowing you are more than your drama.” When we can connect to that part of ourselves that is observing the drama, we realize that there must be some aspect of ourselves that isn’t depressed or anxious, because the observer is neutral and calm and is looking at the drama from another perspective that isn’t filled with helplessness or worry.
Note: once you start developing a relationship with the observer, you may start to get some interesting intuition “downloads” from this POV. I believe that our observers are somehow related to our spiritual selves, or our oversouls, and that in cultivating your observer you’re actually strengthening your connection to universal consciousness.
The Caretaker — this voice can counter the negative interpretations of the ego. For so many people, our egos can have aspects that are rooted in insecurity or feelings of shame or worthlessness. The caretaker is the antidote to that. When the ego interprets a situation as shameful or worries about other people’s judgements, the caretaker can come in and say the exact right thing we need to hear. I recommend spending some time really imagining and developing this character. They may change over time, but start with someone that feels loving and kind to you. My current version is Carol Kane, she is both caring and sweet and can also kick some ass and tell my inner critic off when she starts saying mean things to me.
In case you need some examples of what your caretaker could say to you, here are a few ones to start with. Pick the ones that resonate with you and make you feel cared for:
“I love you.”
“You are special to me.”
“I see you and I hear you.”
“It’s okay to make mistakes. It doesn’t make me love you any less.”
“You are a good person”
“It’s not what you do but who you are that I love.”
“You don’t have to be alone anymore.”
“Of course you were afraid, that reminded you of something scary in the past.”
“If you fall down or fail, I will pick you up.”
“I am proud of you.”
“You are such an amazing person. I love who you are.”
It can feel funny at first to cultivate these different characters or voices in your head, but the ability to switch from one to the other when I need to has made a huge difference for me. Now, instead of having no choice but to follow the drama of the ego, I have two other options that I can lean into and see what they have to say or how they feel about the situation.
Let me know if you try this and how it works for you! I’d also love to know what your caretaker says or does for you. As someone who didn’t have good roles models of caring early on, I’m always looking to collect new ways to speak to myself and treat myself in caring ways.
One of the most challenging things on my path of spiritual awakening is figuring out how to reconcile my awareness of who I really am, an eternal source of energy from a place of pure acceptance and love, with the reality of my human-ness and its associated capacity for physical and emotional discomfort, pain and suffering. How can I exist as a being who is made of and comes from pure love, and at the same time feel abandoned, hurt or undeserving?
It’s quite a paradox.
I was speaking with someone about my NDE the other day, and said, “Well, it isn’t like after I saw where we go after we die and who I really am, I then went to meditate on a mountaintop as an enlightened being for the next 60 years until I died. I came back to anxiety, depression, and the pain from chemo.”
And that’s the conundrum, right? Even if we’ve had profound personal spiritual experiences, it’s not like we then spend the rest of our days in some blissed-out zen state of equanimity and joy. We’re still having the same human experience as always, only now, we have an expanded awareness of our true spiritual self. Ram Dass called this the process of waking up and falling asleep again, over and over.
So, what’s the answer? How do we balance being a human being and a spiritual being at the same time?
What’s the way forward?
I don’t claim to have all the answers to this question, I’m still trying to figure it out myself, but here are a few things I think are important.
The first is to sit with the paradox. There’s a quote I love by Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, “Keep two pieces of paper in your pocket at all times. On one: ‘I am a speck of dust,’ and on the other: ‘The world was created for me.’ You are both a speck of dust, having a transient human experience AND the force of universal consciousness that has created this entire universe. So, don’t take yourself or your life too seriously and at the same time, take yourself incredibly seriously because you are the be-all and end-all of existence.
The second is that the awareness of these two aspects of ourselves, human and spirit, leads to the ability to have each one inform the other. As a result, I no longer feel like I am doing this human thing without any kind of guidebook or plan. Having access to the part of me that is eternal and all-knowing means that I can ask it for help and guidance. There are many ways to do this, but I primarily use intuition, emotional resonance, and meditation. Intuition usually takes the form of a strong push or pull or sometimes a direct message in the form of a thought that occurs to me over and over like, “you should ask your friend for help with your business” (even if that friend knows nothing about my biz). Emotional resonance is the experience of a pull towards something (excitement, inspiration, curiosity) or away from something (not wanting to do it, feeling apprehensive, feeling like I “should” instead of that I want to) and I have learned to listen more closely to these messages. Meditation is something that I’ve been doing for years, and now that I can reach a place of stillness and expand out past my ego, I often get direct messages from source about myself and my life while in that state.
Lastly, we are here learning, and the lessons are supposed to be hard sometimes and easy at other times. One of the things I saw clearly from the other side was that before we incarnate, we get almost giddy at the idea of being able to be in a human body for a while. And it’s not just the things that you and I would think to be excited about, like puppies and love and chocolate, it’s also heartbreak and disappointment and grief. Weird, right? But it was so clear to me that the ability to experience emotions at all was so novel that we look forward to all of it: the good, the bad and the ugly. So, when I’m going through something tough, I try to remember that this is like a trip to Costa Rica — even if I may have just fallen and skinned my knee in the jungle, I don’t get to be in Costa Rica forever and even the bad experiences are part and parcel of this once in a lifetime “trip”.
I’d love to know what are some of the ways you balance the paradox of knowing your eternal nature with the messiness of being human?
Ready to hear one of my secrets to happiness? This particular trick is one that combines scientific research with a spiritual practice, one of my favorite things to do.
This strategy is based on the work of Carol Dweck who researches “growth mindset” and how it can positively affect learning and self-esteem. I was first introduced to her work when I was a pediatric occupational therapist working with students with neurodivergence and learning disabilities and it made a huge difference for those students.
The basic idea of growth mindset is an awareness that your intelligence, capabilities and performance are malleable or changeable and can grow over time. (The opposite is a “fixed mindset” such as, “I’m just not good at math.”) You can change your intelligence and capabilities through putting in effort in order to learn and grow (and make mistakes) along the way. Dweck’s research shows that if we can feel good about the process of trying and putting in effort, rather than fixating solely on the result, it leads to more resilience, grit, and better self-esteem.
One of the key components of a growth mindset is learning how to enjoy the task itself and not just the outcome. If you can enjoy the process of trying to learn something new or achieve a goal, then you’re much more likely to stick with it and find satisfaction than if you’re only placing value on the end result — a.k.a. did I succeed or did I fail?
So, how do we shift from a fixed mindset into a growth mindset? The secret lies in a combination of Dweck’s scientific research and an age-old spiritual practice.
- Cultivate a growth mindset. Know that you CAN learn and grow — you are not “bad” at something, you are simply in the process of learning, practicing and evolving yourself into someone who is better at that thing. Make sure to recognize that there can be enjoyment not just in reaching a goal, but in the process of learning and growing as you work towards that goal.
- Practice mindfulness. When you learn how to be in the present moment and keep your mind and thoughts on whatever is right in front of you, you can more easily enjoy the process. If you are thinking ahead to whether this will succeed or fail or if you’re feeling stressed about if you’re doing it right, you won’t be able to enjoy the moment. Each moment we have can be enjoyable just for itself, regardless of what happens next. Working on a hard problem can even be fun, like a good challenge, when we’re not tied up in worrying about whether this particular effort will be the one that succeeds.
The science shows that both of these things — cultivating a growth mindset and practicing mindfulness — lead to the release of two “happy chemicals” in our brains, dopamine and serotonin. So, if you practice these things in tandem, you may find yourself with a very happy brain on an awesome natural high.
I should note that this shift to a growth mindset can be particularly hard for trauma survivors, especially those of us who grew up with parents with narcissistic or borderline personality disorder. The problem is that as children, our success at a task could often trigger our parent with NPD or BPD as we took the spotlight away from them, so we learned to keep much of our happiness under wraps. In addition, many of our behaviors and actions were centered around proactively preventing and avoiding narcissistic scorn or rage, so tasks were often filled with anxiety, hypervigilance and perfectionism, lest we “get it wrong” and trigger our parent. This made it quite difficult to enjoy the process.
Dweck asks us to look at if we have, “a fixed-mindset reaction when you face challenges. Do you feel overly anxious, or does a voice in your head warn you away? … Do you feel incompetent or defeated? … Do you become defensive, angry, or crushed instead of interested in learning from the feedback?” The type of learned helplessness that comes from growing up with a parent with NPD or BPD sounds very similar to what Dweck describes here. If this sounds like you, please give yourself extra grace and love when trying the process to shift that I describe above. A healthy boost of self-compassion and shadow work may be helpful, too.
If you try this process, I want to hear about what you find! Drop me a note and let me know, I’d love to hear from you.