As children, our budding nervous systems were often overwhelmed with sensations or feelings that we couldn’t understand or contain. When this happened, we often learned to contract our mind and body, shutting ourselves down, to minimize the damage. Even more so if the adults we depended on were unable to be there for us to offer love or protection when we were frightened, exposed, or flooded with emotions. Shutting down and the experience of contraction became ways of protecting ourselves.
We learned to get very little when we needed to — To shut down our anger, our tenderness, our belief in love, even our will. Our survival often depended on it. We formed negative judgments about these parts of ourselves to justify this contraction and increasingly withdrew our awareness from them.
In time these contractions became the core of an overall style of living — basic habits shaping our identity. Our identity increasingly was based on learning to reject painful aspects of our experience, to numb out or comfort ourselves when we felt uncertain or in pain. For example, in my case contraction around the experience of anger grew into a pattern of always trying to be a “nice” person. I concluded, if I am just “nice,” enough people will like me and I won’t be rejected or hurt. My parents trained me well in this way of being. I also learned to curb a natural enthusiasm and zest for life out of fear that I would draw too much attention to myself and be shamed. I am sure each of you can identify exactly those places where you experienced the most contraction in your experience and how it shaped certain aspects of your identity.
This is important because these contractions eventually form the nucleus of our overall style of being. Our identities become more and more based on rejecting or defending against painful aspects of our history and experience. Because these “identities” are not really who we are, they require ongoing maintenance. We have to prop them up and defend them at all costs – especially when we feel they are threatened. It is like we are continually attempting to maintain the walls of a fragile sand castle against the rising tide of the ocean constantly smashing into them. As the noted psychotherapist Steve Gilligan has said many times, “Life is out to get you.” Like the ocean, life is continually wearing away these beliefs and constricted self-concepts, which limit our freedom and ability to experience the full wonder of life. The continual need to prop up our defended and constricted identity takes a tremendous amount of effort and attention. It becomes exhausting. This constant wear and tear and maintenance creates yet another level of pain and suffering — an ongoing state of tension, anxiety and stress that we carry with us wherever we go.
One way we learn to hold our constricted identity together is by telling ourselves stories about who we are and the way life REALLY is. The story serves as an unfolding interpretation of our experience that increasingly shapes how we perceive “reality.” After a while, these stories come to organize more and more of what we see, feel, and experience. They are so ubiquitous that we don’t even notice how they shape our perceptions and expectations about almost everything. That is the way stories work — they become self-fulfilling prophecies, creating a reality that in turn reinforces the story, locking us more and more into a false self system that increasingly distorts what we see, feel, experience. For example, in my case, my shut down around anger — and the pattern of “niceness” I constructed to defend against it — has led to an overall belief that I must “curb my enthusiasm” and be very careful in expressing myself, because people tend to get hurt when I “let myself out,” so to speak. This in turn is associated with a deep longing for attention and contact that goes underground but keeps bubbling up unexpectedly causing me to hurt or frighten people when the inherent largeness of my being shows up unexpectedly and in ways that feels a bit out of control. Then, horrified at the mess I appear to have created, I contract again, feeling great shame and with deeper resolve to be “nice” so that people won’t get hurt or offended by my presence. Get the picture? We all have these patterns that increasingly run our lives and prop up our “false self” system.
Of course there is no way we can completely identify with or give into to this false self. Our inherent expansiveness and intelligence knows we have been caught in a web of stories and manages to find a way to leak out and grab our attention. As we know in psychotherapy situations, this tends to be when symptoms show up. We also know that the first step in healing is to take the risk of exposing the wound and examining all the different ways we have been disconnected from this larger more expansive self. If we turn away from this we know it is only going to get worse and we will add yet another layer of contraction and frozenness that further constricts and dampens our inherent expansive nature. With good sponsorship, we learn to make a fundamental discrimination that allows us to slowly separate from our stories and connect more deeply with our core experience. I often talk about this as reestablishing the flow of beingness and relatedness.
We tell ourselves stories about the healing process as well. Sometimes therapists unwittingly help in this process. When we first start asking ourselves questions about our pain and suffering it usually takes the form, “What’s wrong with me?” “Why do I hurt so much?” Then our story telling mind steps up and says something like “Well, it is your inferiority complex,” or it is “Your hang-up with your mother,” or it is your “Codependency” or your “Wounded child.” This is very understandable, perhaps even necessary, at first. But eventually, such stories become major obstacles in healing because they tend to take us away from our felt experience and stuck in the limiting confines of the small self and its stories. Good sponsors develop many skills in helping clients move beyond these limiting accounts and into their experience. If a client tends to identify with labels or frozen categories in describing themselves, we attempt to get them to move beyond their stories into their feelings and core experience. Since we therapists also have our own models of the therapy process, we need to continually examine our stories as well – the stories that tell us we know exactly what’s going on or what our client needs to do to get better. Although we are trained to think of ourselves as “experts” in working with people who are in pain, the truth is that there is no such thing as an “expert” when human experience is involved. One of the profoundly important things Milton Erickson taught in the margins of his unique way of being with people, was that human experience is unique, unbounded and open-ended. Expertise is not so much based on what you know — the set of conceptual boxes into which you sort “reality” — it is the ability to join whatever arises with a fresh perspective, relinquishing any fixed idea of how experience should unfold. Skill in sponsorship is increasingly the ability to be present with what arises in experience, to stay with “not knowing” long enough to see things freshly and to find surprising new directions to pursue in the moment. It is the ability to trust that what is arising within the client is much larger than what can be placed in any conceptual box. To stay put in this uncertainty requires a lot of courage and experience. We have to quiet ourselves enough to be able just be present with the experience of the therapeutic relationship as it unfolds. We have to be able to trust that the sparks of our inherent brilliance will arise in the relational field, like a lotus rising out of the muck as Buddhists describe it, allowing healing to occur as the problem-saturated self dissolves.
When anyone is in pain, what they most want is this kind of presence rather than pre-formed answers, or soothing platitudes. They want to know we are willing to risk really being there with them no matter what they are experiencing. That’s also what our wounded places most need from us in our own self-relational process — to just stay there and not move away when the pain is great and the outcome uncertain. If this kind of presence is not there, no amount of symptom relief will ever result in genuine health. What have you noticed that a friend or sponsor has done when you have been in pain that has made the biggest difference? My guess is, whatever else they said or did, they demonstrated an unequivocal and clear commitment to being unconditionally present and available to you no matter what!
About the author:
*Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D. is a Life Coach living and practicing in Los Altos Hills California. He is a long-time practitioner of self-relations psychotherapy and Ericksonian hypnotherapy. With an abiding interest in music, art, yoga, and other mind-body practices, Dr. Rossel is also a Buddhist who has sought for many years to find ways to apply meditation and mindfulness in his practice. He may be reached at 10490 Albertsworth Lane, Los Altos Hills, CA 94024. Address all correspondence to his E-mail address: Rosselrob@aol.com.