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?

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