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We live distant from ourselves…for good reason

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By Daniel Kingsley

Earth From Space Smaller

Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
thing
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.”

David Whyte – Poet

 

Most of us live distant from ourselves most of the time.  We don’t want to feel our difficult feelings.  We don’t want to engage with our difficult thoughts.   We don’t want to recall our difficult memories.

So, we distract ourselves.  We listen to our podcasts, watch Netflix, scroll social media on our phones, check our emails or the news.  Anything but be where we are feeling what we’re feeling and thinking what we’re thinking.

And to some degree it works.  We get through and we get by.  We get from one end of the day to the other.  And yet there is a cost.

 

The costs of not feeling

The first cost of distancing ourselves from difficult feelings, is that we feel disconnected from ourselves.  Because there’s a whole bunch of stuff we are not feeling, we are forced to distance ourselves from the felt sense of our body and these (suppressed emotions).  This can often show up as a sense of life as inherently unsatisfying.  Rather than resting in the moment and appreciating our experience in the here and now, are minds are constantly asking “what’s next?”.

This in turn will impact on our confidence.  Because we are aware (subconsciously) that there are feelings we don’t want to feel, there’s almost a sense of being in the back seat of a car being driven out of control.  Put another way, it’s impossible to feel truly confident if there are important feelings that we are pushing away.  We may try to create a confident persona, and pretend we are feeling confident, but this often makes things worse, because we know that deep down it’s a lie.  We’re faking it and we’re scared at some that we’ll get found out.  This is the root of imposter syndrome.

All of this will impact on our ability to be relational with others.  To truly listen to them without trying to control them or judge them.  It’s not possible to be open to others when we are essentially closed to ourselves.

Not feeling confident or being relational significantly impacts our effectiveness as leaders in our organisation.  It also affects our ability to speak confidently and connectedly with our team, or in a public speaking context.

 

Why we live distant

The short answer is that the reason that we live distant from ourselves, not feeling these feelings, is that many of them are painful, often very painful to feel.

In understanding this reality, we need to understand a bit more about trauma.

Trauma is essentially unprocessed emotion, memory and energetic charge.  Stuff that was too difficult to feel at the time when it happened, so we bury it, locking it away in our bodies and minds.  This is rather like nuclear waste that we don’t have the facilities to process that gets buried in a toxic waste dump.

The most obvious trauma is car-crash or war-zone trauma.  Massive, shocking terrifying events that no human being can take in or process all at once.  Losing your job or other painful life events can also come into this category.  Not all of us necessarily have this, though many of us do.

Less obvious is developmental trauma.  Painful stuff that happens to us in childhood.  This can be single shocking events, or the drip-drip of really difficult painful or scary experiences over a period of time. The thing about this sort of trauma is that we are often unaware of it because we have buried the painful memories and/or minimised them.  In my experience, everyone, no matter how idyllic their childhood has at least some of this.  Some of us have more of it than others.

Lastly there is inherited trauma.  The stuff that happened to our parents that they were unable to process so they end up passing it on to us.  It may be passed on through their behaviour towards us (see developmental trauma above).  But it may also be passed on energetically – rather in the way that one tuning fork can cause another to resonate.  Lastly some people suggest that it can also be passed down through our genes – epigenetically.

The bottom line is that unless you’ve done loads of therapeutic work (and often even if you have) you will be carrying a decent chunk of trauma that you’re not aware of.  It usually contains feelings like terror and/or pain or anguish. There will be very difficult memories stored not just in your head but in your body of stuff that felt too painful or scary to feel at the time.  In my experience of speaking to clients, this is all of us.

This trauma and the coping strategies that we have developed in order not to feel it form the background hum of our lives – the baseline from which we operate on a day-to-day basis.

And this stuff is difficult and painful.  If it wasn’t it wouldn’t have got locked away in the first place.  We locked it away because we were scared to feel it.

 

Protectors and Exiles

I work with the Internal Family Systems model, which I find very helpful both in my personal process and in working with clients.

In the IFS model, the traumatised memories that get locked away are called exiles.  They are often holding fear, pain or anger.

The parts of our psyche that have taken on the job of preventing us from feeling these difficult feelings are called protectors.  They will use lots of different strategies in order to do this.  Distraction, worrying, judging, blaming other, blaming yourself, zoning out and all sorts of addictions are common ones.

Although the exiles are usually more obviously emotional than the protectors, both aspects are made up of a combination of memory, feelings and energy, stored in the mind and body.  The protectors are usually feeling somewhat scared, though they often won’t admit it (initially).

 

We don’t feel this stuff because it doesn’t feel safe to

We locked the stuff away because it didn’t feel safe to feel it at the time. And it still doesn’t! Very few of us have the tools to meet these very difficult feelings and to allow them to release.

So, we don’t need to be hard on ourselves because we are not feeling these things, and because we have such a wide range of strategies for avoiding feeling these things. It’s normal, natural, and very sensible not to go there when you don’t have the proper tools.  We live distant from ourselves for good reason!

 

It’s not always (just) trauma

Of course, not all the strong feelings we are feeling (and don’t want to feel) relate to stuff from the past.  Some of them most definitely relate to the present.

Whether you’ve had an argument with your partner or child, feeling worried about a loved one, concerned about losing your job or grieving the death of someone you are close to, there are plenty of intense feelings caused by current events.  And these can often feel pretty overwhelming too.

To make matters worse, these current world feelings can get “turbo-boosted” when they connect with traumatic memories from the past.  If the argument you’ve just had with your partner reminds you in some way of a dynamic that used to happen with your mum or dad, a strong feeling can become an almost intolerable one.  This is the psychological phenomenon of triggering

Just the way the small action of pulling a trigger on a gun can cause big result – the explosive firing of a bullet, a small or medium external stimulus can cause a disproportionately large emotional reaction within us when combined with painful memories from the past.

 

Whether trauma is involved or not, the situation is the same

There are therefore often lots of pretty big feelings going on for all of us in the background of our mind and body that other parts of us (protectors) don’t want us to feel.  For many of us this will be a constant background state.  (I’d certainly include myself in that camp, and my guess would be that this would relate to the majority of people).

The result is that we “bounce out” into our heads, into distraction, worrying, judgment or addictions, and we are largely absent from feeling our bodies.  Because that’s where the uncomfortable feelings live.  We move from our natural resting state of feeling being predominant, connected to our bodies, to our “survival” state of thinking being predominant, living in our heads.

And we pay the costs outlined above, in terms of life feeling less satisfying, our confidence being impacted and our ability to connect deeply and authentically being impaired.

 

But living distant doesn’t have to be the end of the story

So, that’s the bad news.  But the good news is that we can learn how to gradually bring ourselves back into contact with our bodies and our emotional world, including all the buried emotions.  The result is feeling more “joined up” on the inside, more connected on the outside, and feeling more satisfaction in life.

It’s a process of slowly coming “back in” and making friends with ourselves.  Making friends with our feelings and sensations, and with the parts of us that don’t want us to feel them.

It needs to be done slowly and gently, because much of the stuff we buried, was buried for good reason.  And it needs to be approached gradually and skilfully.  The later stages of this process for many people will almost certainly need the support of a trauma therapist.  But there are plenty of things that anyone can do right now without therapeutic support.

(The health warning here is that if anything you’re doing does feel too intense, stop doing it, at least for now.  Feel your feet on the ground.  Look around the room and orient to the objects there.  Feel the sensation of your skin.  Rub your hands together.  That will get you back feeling easy, present moment stuff).

 

Getting back in the body

The simplest thing we can do in terms of coming back in, is feeling basic physical sensations in the body.  Your feet on the ground.  Your back and bottom on a chair.  Tension in your shoulders, back or jaw.  Warmth in your belly.  Coolness in your hands and feet.  This is the basis of the body-scan meditations practiced in yoga or mindfulness.  I’ll publish one of these shortly, but in the meantime you can find plenty of them on YouTube.  This is a pretty decent one.

It’s great to practise this sort of mediation at least once a day.  It can be good to do it first thing in the morning and last thing at night.  It will get you much more familiar with feeling the sensations in your body and as a bonus it will almost certainly result in you feeling less stressed and anxious.

Once you start to be more familiar with what this feels like, you can start to take mini body scan breaks throughout the day, for 10 or 15 seconds, stopping what you’re doing and feeling your body on the inside, with eyes open or closed.

 

Making friends with your emotional world

A good way of reconnecting with your emotional world is to notice distraction behaviour and track back from it, to find the emotional source that’s driving it.

Distraction behaviour will be things like worrying, checking email, judging/blaming or anything that feels in some way compulsive or addictive to you.

When you notice this behaviour, you can use the AAC technique – Awareness, Acceptance, Choice.

Awareness – I’m engaging, or about to engage in a distraction behaviour

Acceptance – That’s OK!  There’s probably something underneath that a part of me really doesn’t want me to feel.

ChoiceLet the behaviour go, just for now, feel your feet, feel your body and get curious as to what’s underneath and driving the behaviour.

Notice I don’t say that you should let the behaviour go right now – just that you can do this.  There will be times when you notice that you’re engaging in a distraction behaviour and you choose to continue doing it.  (I often do!)  But at other times, when you are feeling curious, more resourced and perhaps a little bit braver, you may elect to enquire a little on the inside.  Always be kind to yourself in these investigations.

 

A part of me is feeling something

If you’re engaged in a distraction behaviour there will be a part of you feeling something strong and somewhat difficult.  It will usually be in the direction of sadness, fear or anger.  (Though of course it can be a combination of emotions).

Because the behaviour will often be mental, it can be tempting to imagine that the trauma is a mind-only event.  But research indicates that it will always have both a mental and physical component, whether we are aware of it or not.

Experience suggests that the best way of engaging with these parts is both physical and mental.  Physically we feel the place in the body where it’s stored and what it feels like.  Mentally, it can be very useful to have a dialogue with this aspect of us as if it were a person.  These aspects are usually quite child-like in how they function, so they often need to be treated accordingly, with warmth, understanding and reassurance.

(This way of relating with ourselves forms the basis of Internal Family Systems therapy, whereby the different parts of our psyche are treated as characters that we can meet, dialogue with and support/heal).  In my experience of using this method myself, and of working with clients, it can be amazingly effective as a way of relating to these aspects of ourselves, even though it can feel a little strange or even silly at first blush.

Ask yourself:

  • What’s the emotion that part of me is feeling?
  • Where in the body can I feel it? (It will usually be somewhere in your torso).
  • What does it feel like? (If you were describing it to a sketch artist what would you say?).  Size, textures, temperatures, even the impression of a colour can arise here.
  • It can be useful to put your hand on that part of your body with gentleness and kindness.

Now listen to that part:

  • Is there are story or belief associated with that part? (There may or may not be).  It could be something like “I’m not safe in the world”, “I’m all alone”, or “I’m unworthy”.

Empathise with and validate that part with kindness and warmth:

  • E.g. “You’re feeling really scared right now. You believe that you’re alone and unsafe.  That must be really difficult”. 

Offer that part some reassurance:

  • E.g. “I’m here with you. You’re not alone any more.  This is just a difficult memory from this past.  Right here and now you’re safe”.
    .
  • If the part is feeling angry about something that’s happening in your life right now, this reassurance phase may require you to make a promise to yourself (and that angry part of you) that you will take action in the world to set a boundary or make a change in your life. E.g. “I will tell my boss that I’m no longer willing to put up with his behaviour, and if he doesn’t change what he’s doing I will leave…”.
    .
  • Anger is usually a response to another part underneath, feeling scared or hurt, so that part might need some attention (listening, empathy, validation and reassurance).
    .
  • If there’s sadness reassurance may be as simple as “…You’re feeling sad right now, and I’m here”. (Said with warmth and kindness).

Go slowly.  Never push through this.  If it feels good and comforting, continue for as long as feels helpful.  If it ever feels too intense or difficult simply stop and re-orient to the room and feel your contact with the ground as advised above.   You can always come back to this exploration and enquiry another time.

 

Including the Protectors

If you notice the presence of protector parts that are antagonistic towards the vulnerable (exile) parts, it will be important to meet and include them too.  By doing including them, and dialoging with them kindly, they can often be gently persuaded to stand down and relax, permitting you to engage with the exile. 

For example, I have a protector which I’ve named the “I f***ing hate you!” part, which feels very angry towards the scared parts (some of which are terrified), and wishes they weren’t there.  (Deep down it’s rather scared of them).  Before I can get into a proper dialogue with the scared parts, I need to acknowledge and welcome in this part of me.  I will also usually need to get agreement from this part to proceed to engage with them.

The dialogue between me and this part often goes something like this:

“I f***ing hate that one”

– “Yes, you f***ing hate him”   [Empathy]

“I want him gone!”

– “Yes, I really get it.  You want him gone.  You find him really annoying and overwhelming and exhausting”  [Empathy and validation]

“Yes, we’d be better off without him”.

– “Yes.  You believe we’d be better off without him.  That really makes sense to me.  That must be really hard” [Empathy and validation]

“Yes, it’s hard”.

– “Is it OK if I have a chat with him?  I think it might calm him down, which would be nicer for you” [Seeking permission]

– “Yes, that’s OK”.

With this permission and inclusion I can then meet the scared part that this protector has an issue with.  When I forget to carry out this exercise in inclusion, this protector often gets in the way in subtle ways and I usually find that somehow I’m not properly able to connect with the vulnerable scared part.

 

Including everything else

As we open to the difficulty, we can also be more open to the ease in the body.  In fact, deliberately including feeling things that feel comfortable can make it feel easier and safer to feel what is uncomfortable.  This is a skill known as resourcingIt can be useful to enjoy these easy sensations in the body, dipping into the more difficult sensations for as long as feels do-able.  This is a skill called pendulationgoing back and forwards between focussing on ease and difficulty, through gradually including both.  In working with difficult experiences slow is good, so we don’t flood our nervous systems.  Just as much as we can cope with.  This is a skill called titration.

From a base of feeling rather than thinking being predominant, we can also include our worried thoughts, so nothing is excluded.  It’s very similar to (and connected with) the process described above in relating with the buried emotions. If you want to read more about this check out this article that I wrote a while back.

Gradually, what arises within us is an increasing sense of completeness.  Of feeling more “joined up” on the inside.  We are more able to land in the moment and appreciate it, seeing the beauty in everything, including the mundane.  Our day to day life becomes much richer.  And our ability to connect with others in an easy and relational way increases.  We become better friends, family and leaders.

 

This is an ongoing journey of return

This is not a one-shot deal.  This is an ongoing and gradual process of returning to ourselves.  Like a spaceship returning through the earth’s atmosphere, the process can be bumpy and uncomfortable at times.  And in my experience, it’s a really worthwhile one.

The gift of returning to myself, of living a little less distant and a little closer every day, is the greatest and most rewarding gift I have ever received.  I hope that you get the chance to experience it too.

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We start to explore these issues in our Foundation Public Speaking Courses in LondonIf you want to go deeper with them, or can’t make it to London, I’m very happy to work with you one to one over Zoom or Teams.

 

Daniel Kingsley
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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. I realised that the David Whyte from the poem is the same David Whyte whose book “The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship” I enjoyed many years ago. And today I received a letter with a lovely St Patrick’s Day postmark reminding me of lots of things and instructing me to relax for 5 minutes and to read one of your blog posts. Done!

  2. Thanks for directing me to this article Daniel, you were right, it resonates with me strongly and I’m planning to incorporate body scans to my daily routine. Thank you

    1. My pleasure Michal. Yes a body scan is a great part of your daily routine. And also checking in with any parts of us that have anything to communicate at that stage can also be excellent to incorporate.

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