Do you ever confuse the present with the past?
Are you constantly pulled back into old, familiar feelings and behaviors that once were?
I'll be the first to admit that I seem to learn the same thing over and over and over again, repeatedly. There is a look that my husband makes when he is confused and attempting to reconcile something in his mind that I've done or shared with him, that I constantly perceive to be an attack on my competence. The look says, "you're such an idiot, Kori!"
In an instant, what accompanies those words is a crushing, suffocating sensation in my chest, heat in my face, and a sense of smallness that shackles me where I'm standing. I'm always amazed at how quickly the tears appear and how desperate I feel to re-establish a sense of okayness with him and stability within myself.
In the here and now, there is no sense of okayness to re-establish. It never left. And in the present, I'm perfectly stable.
But that face, with the furrowed brow, scrunched nose, and semi-upturned lip, feels so familiar. It used to be partnered with a demanding question. One that I couldn't answer. One that didn't have an answer. I recall feeling helpless and stuck. There wasn't anything I could say and no response that would be good enough. A question like, "why did you spill your milk?"
Perhaps it seems like a fairly innocuous inquiry. But combine it with a certain facial expression and tone of voice, and suddenly it feels threatening.
I hate that feeling of stuck, frozen, incapacitated. I grew up doing everything I could to avoid it. To avoid not knowing. Because not knowing and not having an answer had negative consequences, the best thing I could do was continue learning, continue growing, continue accumulating knowledge. Saying "I don't know" was a confirmation of my ignorance, stupidity, lack of intelligence, and ultimately, worth.
Perhaps if I had been asked the question and there had been patience and warmth sitting along side it, I wouldn't react the way I do today. Perhaps, if what had happened to me wasn't perceived to be an attack on my worth inside me, there would be no wound to poke, no trigger that would provoke.
Gabor Mate', physician and expert in trauma, addiction, and childhood development, says that trauma is not what happens to you, it's what happens inside you. He explains, “The greatest damage done by neglect, trauma or emotional loss is not the immediate pain they inflict but the long-term distortions they induce in the way a developing child will continue to interpret the world and her situation in it." I took the repeat moments of questioning + the facial expressions + the tone + the behavior I had engaged in, to mean something about me, and over time, a part of me developed a way of being in the world that became very proficient at avoiding moments where I might make a mistake (i.e., the Perfectionist) part.
That was then...this is now.
When I say, "I don't know" now, it's indicative of self-awareness, empowerment, and genuineness. When I say it now, it feels like an act of kindness toward myself. It feels like I'm standing firmly in my truth, without fearing any consequences. How can anyone know everything? When I say it now, especially in the presence of someone else's anxiety and urgency, it actually feels like a way of slowing down time, and setting an example of how we can still be rooted, even in the midst of uncertainty.
When I see my husband's face, in that scrunched up position, I can catch myself gently, reminding myself of the truth. I am safe. I am not threatened. He is confused and trying to figure something out. I still experience emotion, however, it's not so furious, rushing, and debilitating.
But how did my perspective shift? How did I begin to use my triggers to understand my truth and heal the wounded part of me?
When we say we've been triggered, we typically say that to mean we've experienced something uncomfortable emotionally. A certain look on a person's face, the way someone doesn't give you eye contact when they're speaking to you. A client shared recently that she is triggered anytime a person makes a demand or tells her what to do. She grew up in a family where she was not given choices, and where anger was the only acceptable emotion. She finds herself now, as an adult, reacting with anger everywhere in places where she feels her autonomy is being thwarted, in situations with her kids especially.
Practice 1: Begin to understand that you have various parts inside of you, all playing a role out of necessity, and each there to protect you in some way.
When my client said to me, "I want to respond differently! I'm so sick of anger being my go-to emotion! I don't know why I always lash out!" I shared, "because it makes you feel strong." Her eyes widened in recognition, and I could see her entire body breathe.
The angry part of her needed to be there so that when she was a little person, she would be seen, acknowledged, and so she could experience some form of validation in a home where her other parts (i.e., the sensitive, anxious, scared, sad, discouraged) weren't tolerated, welcomed, or respected. Anger protected her from feeling small, vulnerable, and insecure. Ideally, it was her smallness and her vulnerability, as a little person, that needed to be loved and invited to show up, by the big people in her life.
You can imagine these different parts as subpersonalities with different goals and motivations. They all belong, but it's common for us to shut some of them down, to listen more to some than others, and to try to convince, coerce, or even fight them.
Practice 2: Notice that each part may be associated with a specific emotion or set of emotions. It's the emotion that can cue us to know a part of us is working and needs attention.
Often in my coaching sessions, my clients will say, "there's one part of me that _______________________, and another part of me that___________________________..."
And to that I say, "Yes!"
According to IFS, or Internal Family Systems, a model of therapy developed by Richard Schwartz, we have parts of us that have been exiled because they weren't allowed to show up when we were younger. Often our exiled parts are those associated with pain, fear, or shame.
We also have parts that are called managers, running the show and ensuring that we stay on track at all times. They are the preemptive protectors there to prevent painful or triggering emotions from showing up in interactions with the outside world that could be disruptive.
Additionally, we have firefighter parts. These parts rush in when our exiled parts break out, demanding attention. The role of the firefighter parts is to distract our attention from the hurt or pain that is being experienced by the exiles. You might be able to guess what the firefighters prompt us to do. When we try to avoid emotional discomfort, what do we end up doing? Often, we engage in impulsive behaviors like emotional overeating, drinking, binge eating, drug use, inappropriate sex, or angry outbursts.
Practice 3: Acknowledge that you have a core Self (your highest, most rooted and secure-in- its-worth part) that is wise, stable, confident, calm, curious, creative, compassionate, and full of capacity.
When I was debating on the name of my business, I made lists of words that resonated with me. The word "core" wouldn't leave me. I have always believed that each of us has this inner core that is worthy, good, spirited, and wise. It always has our best interests in mind. The core operates from the heart and speaks from a place of dignity, integrity, and spaciousness. Our cores are healing and connected and aim for integration and coherence. The IFS model calls our core the Self with a capital S and recognizes that it can often be covered up by the collection of our various parts. As a coach, I view my role as helping my clients to more readily and steadily access and listen to their core Self-- the deepest part that is sage, warm, and welcoming. I imagine the core Self to be like a mentor of sorts, one who guides us toward our truths in a responsive vs reactive way, and I know I'm operating from my core Self when I'm present, spacious, and collected. I feel gracious and gentle.
So you might be asking what I did to start accessing that part of me more often. Imagine for a moment that you're a parent with a child who keeps tugging on your pant leg. "Mommy....Mommy....Mommy!" You are busy, involved in something else, wanting the voice to just disappear. You don't look down or acknowledge your child is there. Until you can't ignore it anymore because it's so loud! The parts of us that need the most attention respond in the same way to rejection or avoidance. They work harder to get attention. You must learn to tune into them and get to know them. Understand them. Help them feel safe now, using your core Self's wisdom and warmth.
Your core Self is like the CEO at the head of the board room table. All of your other parts are at the table too, each with a very important seat, each with a voice and ideas about what we need. But as the CEO, while you might listen to each of the parts', ultimately, you make the final decision. Often, the CEO is helping
each of the board's members to understand what the current situation is, what's happening now in life, vs what happened then. Often, the board members need time to adjust to new truths, and that doesn't happen by the CEO rejecting them.
What parts of you need love and guidance? Understanding and mentorship? What emotions arise that you desperately just want to push back down? What emotions do you latch onto and cling to? These are the cries of your parts. If you need support in accessing your core Self and bringing all your parts to the table, you know where to find me. Please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org