Friday, May 28, 2010

Trust and Safety: The Story Continues

Trust and safety. Ever since I started writing on this subject two weeks ago, I have been dogged by these words. Are they synonymous or does one lead to the other? Here is another example.

In January, as many of you know, I was hit by a car. Now, being hit in such a way is a near death experience. I was incredibly lucky—barely injured —but had the driver been going faster, or failed to stop when she did, I could have been seriously hurt or even killed. It is enough to make one doubt their safety …

So, not one to miss a chance to doubt, for the first few months after the incident, I began experiencing my age-old nemesis: generalized, amorphous anxiety, a sure sign that safety was lacking. Interestingly, I didn’t recognize it at first. It took a close friend to open my eyes and even then, I denied it. “I am over it,” I said, “I had some fear, but its gone now.” Despite the denial, a part of me did hear her, enough that is, to ever so slightly open the door and let me see what was really happening. Sure enough, I wasn’t “over it”. Not only was I feeling anxious but I was losing trust in myself. (With no safety, can there be trust?) I began questioning my career path, my appearances and my writing abilities. I didn’t recognize it at first. Losing trust is like the insidious seepage of toxic waste — before you know it, one’s sense of safety is a crumbling edifice.

More importantly, however, than how I lost it, is how did I get it back?

Well, the first step was acknowledgement. That went a long way towards recovery. By stating “a part of me feels anxious” I could separate myself (my Self) out from that amorphous state and start dealing with it. In separation, I became the witness to my feelings rather than being overwhelmed by them. Bearing witness to one’s feelings is somewhat akin to being the ideal parent to a young child. The parent helps the child express their feelings while maintaining a safe environment. They help the child establish healthy boundaries (how, when and where to express) and model healthy expression back to the child. Moreover, they are authoritative rather than authoritarian, offering strong but compassionate leadership that the child can respect and look up to. When we act as a witness to our parts, whether these parts reflect our feelings, thoughts or behaviours, it is like we are reparenting ourselves. And, in that reparenting, we reestablish inner trust and safety.

The second thing I did was to deepen the relationship with this anxious part. I did this by exploring where it lived in my body (solar plexus) and then seeing if there were any images or sensations related to this part. For me it felt like a crazy spiral of swirling fingers mixing up a bad stew… gotta love these images. Ironically, the more I noticed the safer I felt. The safer I felt, the calmer I was which increased my trust. It is like waking up from a nightmare: the darkness at first disorientates and scares but the more you tune in to your surroundings, the calmer you feel. Same with my parts. With deepening trust and safety, I could then listen to what my anxious part was trying to tell me: it was scared of losing out, not being worthy, being alone, and disappearing. If I took each to its natural conclusion, it was really scared of dying. This part was acting just like a child would after any big scare.

With this information, I slowed down and began reassuring this part of myself. I did this by some self talk but also through reconnecting to my body: I noticed my breath and its natural flow; noticed how it felt to sit on a chair and to lie on the floor and walk across the room. I breathed into these feelings, validating them, grounding myself in the process. In turn, my anxious part felt safer —she (my part) was “part” of a bigger picture, she was not alone.

I then confided in friends and told them of my anxiety. I wasn’t looking for answers or sympathy, just a supportive audience and it worked. It took a few days, perhaps a couple of weeks, and the anxiety completely subsided. Self trust and inner safety not only returned to pre-incident levels but gained a stronger foundation.

So, back to the question of what comes first, I feel they (safety and trust) are two sides of the same coin. In this story I lost my sense of safety because I lost trust in my ability to keep safe. In recovery, I had to enough internal safety to trust (and work with) what my friend suggested but, then again, I wouldn’t have been able to go with any of it unless I trusted myself and the process. It’s becomes a circular argument: the more trust we have, the safer we feel; the safer we feel, the more trust we have. And, if I can add one more point, we can only trust another to the degree that we trust ourselves; we can only feel safe in our external environment if we feel safe within ourselves.

So, I end this discussion for now, but as always, I welcome your comments.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Chicken and the Egg

Last week we continued our exploration of how trust relates to codependence. We saw how a lack of self trust decreases one’s sense of safety and opens the door for codependent behaviours. The question I want to keep afloat is how do we promote a trust in one self? There are many ways, of course, each individually proscribed to the uniqueness of who we are but what I am curious about is what comes first, trust or safety? Or is this just another version of the chicken and egg question? Without safety, how can one trust and without trust, is there safety?

I think the first conscious step I took towards recovery from codependence was acknowledging that my sense of safety was dependent on my environment. At first this did not translate in terms such as safety (or trust), it was more of a noting where I felt, or did not feel, comfortable. In groups, for example, I didn’t feel comfortable and, hence, not safe. Conversely, I felt most safe when I was out hiking, especially when alone. The combination of movement and solitude provided for my safest environment.

If questioned I would not have been able to tell you what inner sensations made me feel either way. When I felt unsafe, there was a generalized and amorphous state of anxiety that told me to get out of there. This was absent when I felt safe. However, I was unable to break that feeling down— I could not tell you what part of me felt anxious or why I felt that way. I only knew that when I felt anxious, I looked for ways to escape that feeling.

The inability to discern and fine tune what we feel (or think) is typical of codependence. When codependent parts are at play, it is difficult to identify our own thoughts and feelings—we may rely on others to tell us what we feel and think. This sabotages our ability to trust ourselves. When we trust ourselves we have the ability to look closer at our anxieties and judge the validity of them for ourselves. Trusting ourselves helps us respond to life rather than react.

Back to me,I never consciously concluded that I felt safer when I was both moving and in solitude. I just found that I spent most of my time alone in the forest. Therapy and courses at The ARC Institute, however, helped me challenge myself to find other ways to be safe. Could I feel safe when I wasn’t being physically active? Could I feel comfortable when I was alone but still?

Following the adage that if you want change, do the opposite, I started the challenge on my next solo hike. Midway through the day I stopped and sat down on a rock in stillness. The discomfort was immediate. The age old anxiety returned urging me to keep moving, eat something, write in my journal or busy my mind—anything to keep from being still. At first I gave in to the impulses distracting myself from the stillness that invited an inward gaze. When I finally did manage to sit for longer periods another distraction took over. Instead of physically escaping by movement, I left my body

“Leaving one’s body” is an attempt to find safety. Ironically, it is not safe to do so but we usually learn to do it in childhood as a way to escape certain situations that are too painful or uncomfortable to experience. Symptoms of leaving one’s body include numbing out and not feeling to daydreaming and dissociation. It is also a symptom of codependence. Our codependent parts seldom feel safe and will do anything to distract us from feeling what is going on inside, whether that be difficult memories or thoughts of unworthiness. Physical movement was my primary distraction. When I stopped moving I needed another way to escape: I left my body in an attempt to stop feeling.

When my numbness became apparent I simplified the exercise. As it was too scary to look within, I focused instead on how it physically felt to sit on a rock. Did the rock feel hard? Was it warm or cool? Were there edges or rounded curves? What colour was it? I then looked at my feet on the ground and asked similar questions. I moved my focus to my hands clasped on my lap and my shoulders feeling the pull of the knapsack. Each time I asked straight forward questions about texture, colour and temperature such as you might ask a young child. Yes, it was basic, but if performed a miraculous feat: not only did I begin to notice more but I began to feel.

Over time, I started hearing the distinct sounds of different birds and the wind rustling through the leaves. I noticed more of the colours around me: the dirt, the sky; the greenery covering the ground. Venturing inwards I was finally able to detect different emotions like sadness and joy; grief and anger. I expressed them and felt validated in the process.

By challenging myself to slow down in what I considered to be a safe place, I created space for my inner world to match up with my outer one. I began to feel safe inside. Within that safety, I could begin trusting what I experienced: the feel of the rock, the song of birds, and the deep greens of the cedars; anger towards the past and grief at my losses. In my forest sanctuary I took the first steps towards trusting myself and what I experienced. I began a journey of self discovery, self care and self respect that allowed me to carry forth this experiment to groups and other “unsafe” places. I created a foundation for internal safety so that I no longer depended on my environment for safety. I could be safe in whatever conditions I found myself because I trusted myself to do what was right for me.

So, in answer to my question about what comes first, it seems that I needed to create an internal sense of safety before I could begin the process of self trust. Then again, did I not have to have a certain amount of trust to create space for that safety? Hmm, how was it for you?

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Codependency of Distrust

In last week’s blog, I somewhat belatedly noticed that there were no explicit references to codependency. Perhaps because, at least in my mind, it is an assumed thing: trust, or to be more specific, self distrust is one of the core components of codependence. Lack of self trust sabotages intimacy and healthy boundaries; promotes cynicism and hijacks innovation and creativity. It underlies a poverty of spirit that defeats us at its more primal level, eroding our will to live: we lose our sense of self and a basic trust in life. We live in fear rather than safety. Charles Whitfield wrote: “Codependence is a disease of lost selfhood. It can mimic, be associated with, aggravate and even lead to many of the physical, mental, emotional or spiritual conditions that befall us in daily life.” If codependence is the disease of lost selfhood, lack of self trust is the virus.

Last week we also discussed how, as a community, we can support the maturation of children into competent adults by just believing in them—instilling in these children some semblance of self trust. Self trust enables us to feel safe in our environment and strong in who we are. Self trust, however, is not a black and white issue. We can, for example, feel that sense of trust (or safety) when we are with animals but feel unsafe, or distrustful, when at work or with certain people. The deeper we trust ourselves, the father afield our sense of safety goes. Moreover, the safer we feel, the less our codependent parts feel the need to take over.

The question to ask yourself then, is when and where do you feel most safe and when and where do you feel unsafe? Who are you when you don’t feel safe? How do you behave, think and feel? What codependent parts are activated when you do not feel safe? And, most importantly, how can you support yourself to feel a stronger sense of inner safety?

By first identifying when and where we don’t feel safe, we can start isolating the codependent parts that tend to take over. In this way we can then communicate with them, much the same as we would any small child. For therein lies the truth, codependent parts are generally formed in childhood and therefore behave and respond like children. So, as with children, we reassure them while providing safe but firm boundaries. I’ve spoken to this subject several times over the past few months but here is another example.

For most of my life, I didn’t feel comfortable or, in other words safe, in groups. I didn’t trust myself enough to feel okay with whom I was in the face of others. Because I didn’t feel good enough, it felt unsafe to let others come close. To let others in would reveal my unworthiness. To protect myself, I either made myself small, as if to disappear, or made myself large and aggressive to keep others away. This was an unconscious response or a reaction to my fears. However, when I took the time to examine where I felt unsafe in life, I was soon able to discover this codependent behaviour. With that, I could then isolate and communicate with the part of me that felt unworthy. I could visualize her (a little girl) and felt her in my shoulders where I curled inwards in attempts to shrink down or tensed up in preparation to fight. I could hear her telling me she wasn’t good enough, wasn’t pretty or smart enough. The more I noticed about her, the more I could gently communicate with her, letting her know she was safe and that if it wasn’t safe, I would get us both out of there. With this burgeoning relationship I started attending different groups, at first with friends and later by myself, pushing the boundaries while continuing to reassure and comfort my little girl. In time the little girl grew to trust my words allowing me to lead, instead of me being dictated by her fears. The trust of this little girl was a metaphor for self trust and in that self trust, I began to feel safer in groups. With increased safety the need to exercise codependent behaviours decreased.

I’ve just given a snapshot of a process that can help create inner safety. It is only one example and a frugal one at that. The process is rarely so linear. My main point, however, is to say that for those of us who didn’t learn self trust as children, we can still learn it today as adults. Moreover, we can share this knowledge with the children that share our lives. Staye tuned for more thoughts and exercises on learning to trust one self.

Friday, May 7, 2010


Last week I started a discussion about trust. More specifically, how grounding and centring can promote self trust. I wrote: “[In being centred, grounded and aware —mindful] I know that whatever happens in life, my response is all that matters.” I wrote with confidence. I know that when I am in a state of mindfulness, I can trust my response to life as a creative and authentic reflection of who I am. The question is, if being mindful can build or renew this sense of self trust, how do we lose it in the first place?

Self trust is an interesting concept: widely assumed, yet unfortunately, not so widely practiced. It is also the foundation for leading competent and fulfilling lives. Self distrust (or self doubt), on the other hand, feels more prevalent. It piggybacks on the feeling that there is no safety, external or internal, and can manifest in several ways from overdependence on others to Ď‹ber independence. The over dependent person looks towards others for safety, or a means in which to trust life. They cannon find it within so they look for it in others: a Sisyphean task. In over independence, rigid walls are erected to protect one self from the outside world. Flexible boundaries are scary for the overly independent. With no trust in self to feel safe in the presence of another they ask, "What will happen to me if I let another in, let another help me or be kind to me?" Trust in self is the first step in feeling safe but it is also imperative in creating a fulfilling lives and satisfying relationships.

Loss of self trust can occur at anytime: we lose our job, fail an exam or end a relationship, and a period of self distrust follows. However, a persistent lack of self distrust will have its roots in childhood, a time when our survival is dependent on our caregiver’s thoughts, actions and emotions. In that dependency, we have to trust our primary caregivers and in turn, our caregiver’s job is teach us to start trusting ourselves. Abuse and neglect can corrupt a child’s sense of trust but abuse of power doesn’t have to be so extreme. Parenting is a fine balancing act between “taking care of” and “taking over” in times of need. How many times have you been at a play ground and seen a caregiver prioritizing caution over a child’s physical initiative, or overheard an adult telling the child how they should feel, what they should think, or who they should befriend? Self distrust does not necessarily come from chronic physical or sexual abuse, it can be a slow corroding of a child’s confidence through the most mundane events.

Parenting is a difficult profession; there are no exact rules or right methods. Children come into this world with different temperaments, strengths and vulnerabilities. They come into families with different temperaments, strengths and vulnerabilities, and sometimes that match isn’t great. So what can we, as a community, do about it?

In 1955, a thirty year longitudinal study began with the birth of 698 infants on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. One of the goals was to document how early family conditions affect children in later years. The researchers compiled case studies; conducting extensive interviews from professional and lay caregivers and, later, the adult children themselves. One of the study’s main findings came from a sub-group of these infants that were ultimately exposed to several risk factors before the age of two. These risk factors included: perinatal stress, chronic poverty, poorly educated parents (less than grade 8), and family discord (alcoholism, divorce, mental illness, etc.). The researchers found that in this sub-group (129 children), one third of them grew into competent young adults despite their family’s situation. The author concluded that these 72 “resilient” children thrived because all “had at least one person [relative, babysitter, sports coach, teacher etc.] in their lives who accepted them unconditionally, regardless of temperamental idiosyncracies or physical or mental handicaps.”

In other words, there was at least one person who was able to instill enough self trust in these children by just believing in them. Food for thought for anytime there is the opportunity to spend time with a child.

For more info see Werner, E. E. Children of the Garden Island. Scientific American, April, 1989: 106-11.