FEELING THE POWER LESS
It occurs to me that I might seem to make this whole business of being guided by my feelings sound so simple and clear. In a way, it is, and yet it’s taken me my whole life to learn. Feeling the Power is the process of taking a confusingly complex mystery, and making it simple and clear, one experience at a time. The essential challenge is to stay with what is happening in the present moment.
Emotional experience can be disturbingly overwhelming: often there is just too much happening for me to track it all. I may have several feelings happening at the same time. I might be experiencing a blur of shifting feelings, one into the next into the next. In our fast paced world, having too much happening too fast is commonplace. I consider this to be one way to understand stress. So much is happening so quickly that I can’t process the feelings as they come and go. Often I am just feeling too much! I have to find a way to shut down my feelings so they don’t distract me from taking care of business. I block the experience of feelings by tightening muscles. The more stressful my day, the more muscle tension built up by the end of it, the more emotional energy I have backlogged. A great deal of recent medical research has broadened the acceptance of a psychosomatic component to most illness. Blocked emotional energy gets stuck in the body and impedes healthy functioning.
Emotional Wisdom is vital to physical health. The more adept I become at understanding my feelings in the moment of experience, the less overwhelmed I am, the less stressed out I am. My feelings make information available for optimal decisions. I can get better and better at this. The learning is a lifelong process.
Sometimes getting overwhelmed becomes extreme. I am thrown into intolerable experience, traumatized. Trauma means that not only is too much happening too fast, it is at a level of intensity that threatens my ability to remain present. I cannot tolerate what is happening. I can’t see what I’m seeing, can’t hear what I’m hearing. I can’t think what I’m thinking. Above all, I can’t feel what I’m feeling. And so, I shut down. I’m not seeing nor hearing what is happening. I’m not thinking, not feeling. I go numb. I absent myself.
So many life experiences can be too extreme. Unbearable!!
- Soldiers get flooded with trauma. Hearing bullets whizzing by. Seeing a friend’s leg blown off. Holding a comrade as the life ebbs from his body.
- Police enter violent situations daily. A husband is threatening to shoot his wife. A mother has just drowned her children. A drugged out man has just stabbed my partner.
- Medical personnel confront the insufferable. A mother walks in carrying her son who has been shot. A husband must be told his wife is dying. A patient dies during a presumed simple medical procedure.
Trauma can happen anytime to anyone.
- A woman returns to consciousness held upside down by her seat belt to find her husband dead beside her.
- A father of five has a sudden heart attack at the supper table and dies on the spot.
- A husband comes home to find his wife with another man.
- A wife discovers her husband has gambled away everything they own.
- An elderly woman living alone wakes up to find her fifteen year companion cat, dead.
- A wildfire consumes the family home.
- A hurricane renders several neighborhoods unlivable.
- A tsunami decimates an entire village.
So much of the daily news might simply be titled “Today’s Traumas”. They are happening all the time. One could happen to me at any moment. A plane could be hurtling out of control toward the roof above me even as I type. Not likely? Shit happens.
I believe everyone has been traumatized. Worse than that, I believe everyone has been traumatized in childhood. Most children are astoundingly resilient. Nonetheless, every family situation has its liabilities, and then again and again, shit does happen.
- Bullies are chasing me at school threatening to beat me up. My mom is so depressed that I can’t bring myself to talk to her about it.
- My dad just whacked the side of my head so hard that my head bounced off my shoulder.
- You are four years old. Your brother is killed in a fire. No one even talks to you about what has happened.
- My dad is berating me for a mistake and yells at me to look him in the eye when he’s talking to me.
- I’m ten years old, babysitting, my baby sister has been crying for three hours and I have no one to call.
As a child I find the best way I can to cope with intolerable experiences. In one way or another this means accomplishing two contradictory things: pretending it never happened, and trying to make sure it never happens again. Depending on the frequency and severity of the trauma, these ways of coping with fear become more or less entrenched. Eventually my way of playing it safe can become deadly for me. Too much of what is lifegiving has been excluded because it could be dangerous. I can get trapped inside the walls that keep out what I fear. My way of coping may eventually cost me more than what I am protecting myself against ever has. And there may seem to be no way out.
Extremism is a Trap!
Trauma is an extreme experience. It engenders the profound fear of it happening again. What is natural for anyone who has been traumatized is to keep as much distance as possible from anything like the trauma. If the trauma has been at one extreme, I go to the other. I tell myself it’s safe there. The trauma involved loud noise, so I keep everything nice and quiet. The trauma was sexual, so I make myself as asexual as I can. The trauma happened with someone close to me, so I keep everyone at a distance. I was traumatized by a man, so I involve myself with women. The trauma came from someone too different from me, so I stick with those who are like me. So it goes. My whole life gets broken up into pieces. Some pieces are safe. Some are fearful. The further the distance between the safe ones and the dangerous ones, the better. The greater the distance, the greater my clarity, the more rock solid my illusion of control.
For those with unresolved trauma, extremism becomes a way of life. The world is neatly polarized into the potentially traumatic, and the definitely not. It’s the only way to be sure that trauma will not happen again. What seals the trap of extremism is what psychologists call avoidance conditioning.
Whenever I do something to avoid what I fear,
the relief I feel when the bad thing doesn’t happen,
reinforces the validity of the fear – and the act of avoidance.
Every time I go to one extreme in order to avoid the other, and what I fear doesn’t happen, I become more convinced that the other extreme is bad, and that my avoidance is well founded. This is how the fears of snakes or heights or whatever become stronger and stronger – and how life becomes smaller and smaller.
Extremism shrinks my world.
I can’t afford to allow trauma to happen again. I have to know what to avoid. I have to keep things under control. In order to do so, I split the world into “either/ors”. In so doing, the integrating Lens of Emotional Wisdom is shattered. The complementary polarities are torn apart into extremes. What results is a narrow view of the world with rigid categories. A program is put in place. It runs on automatic. It doesn’t require awareness nor choice.
I’m safe as long as everything is under control. The less control, the more anxiety. The more control, the more invulnerability. That is the illusion.
You always get what you always got when you do what you’ve always done.
As I spent time fearfully scrutinizing my life through the lens of Extremism, I began to notice a set of patterns parallel to the Cycles previously identified. I recognized that when the free flowing reciprocity of each Cycle was disrupted, the result was a Trap. Each Trap represents a profound distortion of one of the primary relational themes.
When Trust breaks down, I’m trapped in Survival. I cannot afford to be open to my experience. I could be shattered by anything unexpected.
When Faith is broken, I’m trapped in Dependency. Unmet needs mean I’m unlovable. I get control of at least one sure thing, to ward off any disappointment.
When Dignity shatters, I’m trapped in Dominance. I have to have power over others in order to prove to myself that my choice has not been taken away.
When Mutuality fractures, I’m trapped in Caretaking. I’m responsible for preventing the suffering of others. I have to make everything alright for everyone but myself.
When Creativity gets shut down, I’m trapped in Conformity. I am an outcast unless I find a way to fit in with my reference group. I have to have people who like me.
When Intimacy is lost, I’m trapped in Payback. I must find a way to hide (from) my vulnerability by showing you just how vulnerable you are.
When Community fragments, I’m trapped in Fundamentalism. As a representative of the ultimate authority, my judgments make it clear who is in the fold, and who is not.
Each Trap offers its own uniquely distorted version of the broken lens of Extremism. Each has its own destructive internal dynamic powered by a core fear. Each is resolved by bringing awareness and choice to the fear, thereby allowing feelings to flow again.