One of the biggest challenges for people working through developmental trauma is trying to figure out, what pain is healing, what pain is just more misery? How long will this take? Are the things I’m experiencing “normal”? Why do I feel better and then go back to feeling, sometimes, even worse than when I started?
So I sought to answer this question for myself after years of my own journey and years watching and supporting others on this journey, I tried to answer, in a direct, concrete way:
What is a reasonable path to expect when healing from developmental trauma?
1st, I’m seriously uncomfortable, I don’t seem to learn or evolve. I get more mature perspective and ideas, but my reactions and actions stay the same and I get the same outcomes. I can’t sleep. I feel scared and small very often. Relationships seem often impossibly painful or difficult. I know I should want to be more ambitious in life, but I really feel like crawling into a hole and hiding. I know I’m smarter than I seem, I know I’m more capable than I seem, but I’m exhausted halfway through the day, just fighting off anxiety, depression, anger and fear.
2nd Perspective and neurological groundwork. Through talk and study (with or without a therapist), I come to realize there is nothing sick, weak or different about how my mind and body operates, with the exception that I’ve had some intense experiences at important developmental stages. I build an understanding that I am not my nervous system, that it, like an animal, has been habituated to some uncomfortable (at times, even extreme) emotional and physical responses. I’m still in denial and am not sure those experiences are really abuse or traumatizing, but I realize that what was wired in, can be unwired. Regardless of whatever caused it, I think it’s possible to change it. This comes with a realization that is both a relief, but also a challenge – you can’t talk (or think) your way out of what you experienced your way into. That’s not how the brain works. The bulk of this phase is about understanding that even if I seem unable to feel hope, there are concrete, proven scientific exercises that will alter my nervous system in a way that relieves me. I can’t imagine how that feels, but I take a leap of faith that maybe this might work.
3rd I begin cautiously engaging in breathing, meditation, EMDR and somatic resourcing, bilateral stimulation. I start exercising, eating better, trying to sleep better. Two possibilities come of this.
- I feel a little bit better and this is really exciting. If a little work can bring a little relief, let’s go after this. All of a sudden, I’m all about connecting to my body, meditating, bringing up calming resources. I feel hopeful and I take this practice and run with it (caveat, this hope is going be dashed temporarily, it’s a predictable part of the process). I’m begging friends and family to try it, I’m ready to heal, I’m ready to heal the world.
- The instant I start meditating, breathing or noticing my body’s reaction, I am overwhelmed by the amount of anxiety, feelings of horror, doom, I struggle with suicidal thoughts. Not only has therapy not helped me, but I feel far worse. I desperately fight my way back to old coping skills, distract, ignore, work too much, tell myself, I’m just being a baby, life is hard for everyone.
- I give up (don’t give up! It doesn’t stay this way!)
- I ask my therapist, what in the hell, I feel way worse, is it supposed to happen like this?
4th I’ve had mixed results. Maybe I was somebody whose first response was total overwhelm and I had to talk myself down, come at it more gently and finally experience some mild relief and hope for the possibility of hope. I proceed really cautiously and realize this is going to take some time and for the most part, nobody can tell me exactly how long. Maybe I was the person for whom it worked, and I went after it, but in a while I got tired – why do I have to work this hard just to be ok? I barely have time to be a human being. I’m starting to get stressed out by being forced to do all this self-care in order to just get near a neutral level of functioning. I might feel doomed again, I might have suicidal thoughts. There must be something wrong with me if I have to work this hard just to be “normal”.
5th, Whether or not I was the person who started fast and had to slow down or the person who started with overwhelm before seeing some relief, I realize, either way, this is going to take some time. It definitely works, I’ve proven it several times, but I’ve also gotten tired and overwhelmed from the process. My dream of throwing down a couple thousand dollars on therapy for 3 months and being totally free of it are gone (this is possible for PTSD caused by car accidents, etc. for people who had largely functional parents and healthy developmental experiences. 3 months is not reasonable for most people).
6th, I’ve achieved some mastery of the skills. I begin to realize, that I no longer have to consciously slow my breathing in stressful situations. I notice that my body has internalized some of the skills and it feels like a normal adaptive response to stress, it feels like what other people look like when they claim to be stressed – it’s difficult, but manageable. It’s not that massive overwhelm, feelings of doom, heart slamming in my chest, floods of adrenalin, feeling dizzy, being forced to leave the situation and take hours, sometimes, days weeks or months to recover from a triggering experience, feeling floaty and dissociated, feeling weak, feeling disgusted with myself, feeling helpless.
7th, the mastery of the skills brings a new realization, partially incredibly hopeful and joyful, partially scary. I can continue to work, continue to heal. I can manage the pace, I can do some of the work myself and save on therapy. However, there are still moments when I trigger, and struggle with intense discomfort. It’s not enough to destroy my life, but it does slow me down compared to someone who never had the experiences I had. I begin to realize, I am totally normal and in some ways, I experience things that other people will never understand, even if I explain it to them. I ALSO realize that even with an adaptive, functional nervous system, life is still hard.
8th, I have internalized so many of the skills that the larger portion of it is an unconscious response, that I feel grateful and proud to have as part of my adaptation. I feel more like a part of the human race. I’m now beginning to pursue things out of a sense of curiosity, ambition, joy, rather than a race away from the fear of failing, of being discovered as a failure, homelessness or failed relationships. I mostly live in my body, I have healthy boundaries with others and I know how to slow things down and take care of myself.
9th, strangely, after all this work, after truly coming to trust the process, after earning an effortless skill for myself, earning freedom from depression, after seriously reducing anxiety, starting to sleep well – I notice that I’m feeling really anxious again and nothing really helps. I also have bouts of anger. Why!? Anxiety is almost always a cover for intense grief. There are two realizations here and neither one is “just in my head”. They are the truth.
- I finally can truly see what was done to me, that it wasn’t my fault, that whatever reasons those people did what they did, it was a horrific and cruel thing to do to a child or a young person. When I see how normal I am and realize all those horrible feelings I struggled with were forced on me by abusive, sick people, I feel horror again, I feel rage, however, it is a clean rage. I know who was sick and who was not, who was violent and who was not. My anger is not mixed with shame or self denial.
- I also feel levels of grief. If this “normalcy”, this ability to adapt, cope and work through stressful times was always available to me, I realize that I’ve spent years, trapped by the horror that was put on me. My childhood is gone, my teens are gone, my twenties are gone, my thirties are gone. Multiple relationships have come and gone, multiple opportunities, people who believed in me, interesting job offers, chances to travel, dreams and aspirations, all buried and thrown in the trash, because I spent years struggling under desperate, hopeless feelings that wouldn’t have ever happened if I hadn’t been abused or neglected. I no longer feel like going back and fighting the people who did this, I know that’s unhealthy, but I’m still paying for what they did. I feel depressed, I sometimes feel like giving up, even though I know that my practice has worked, works and will continue to work. I am grieving and true grief isn’t something to be healed by therapy. It is a real intense sadness experienced over the loss of something precious and beautiful – my time, my life without a massive overlay of suffering and struggle. I am grieving and I cannot escape it. I must slow down again, make space for myself and take time to realize the enormity of what I experienced, what I recovered from, what it cost me and what I want to make of my life now.
9th, With the help of friends, or a good therapist, I work through the grief, continue my practice and begin connecting to a life, a way of being based in curiosity, joy, pleasant anticipation. However, there is one more interesting step in this process. I know I have succeeded. Most of my adaptations are now effortless and instinctive, I don’t often think about the past and what was done to me unless it is to glean some new learning. However, as I turn my attention away from the inner world that was so confused and undone by the cruel behavior of adults during my childhood, I realize that my outer world, my apartment, my relationships, my job, my savings account, my experiences, my achievements are real tangible things and they haven’t changed just because I have a new way of being. The tangible, objective things in my life were built out of and reflect the past fear, the confusion, the paralysis I once lived with. My external reality is somewhat disorganized, chaotic, and sometimes toxic. Some of the people I know have shifted and become beautiful friends during the process. Some of them I look at and realize they are just a reiteration of the small, sick cruel people I grew up with. Sometimes now, I feel anxiety again, I feel fear and sometimes I feel overwhelm because, it isn’t just thoughts and feelings now. I can either make something of my life or not and I realize, most people don’t have the time, the understanding or emotional bandwidth to deal with or sympathize with what I went through, what I achieved to just be alive and standing here. I’m going to have to build something and I’m on the same playing field someone else is, no excuses, unless I feel like going back and feeling like a victim and asking society for mercy. I don’t feel like that, I don’t want that so I go to work, imagining, building, failing, falling, succeeding, sometimes having old triggers, dealing with them, refocusing on building, enjoying, marrying, divorcing, fighting for a better life, a better world, resting, caring, daring, loving. I now know myself to be a significant presence within the human condition and it’s better for me, in fact it’s lucky I’m strong enough to have struggled through what happened because now, instead of fighting to survive, I begin to seriously enjoy helping others, giving others support, hope and a chance to thrive.
At this point, your therapist should have a conversation with you about taking a long break, or a permanent break from therapy, from “fixing yourself”. If there is a goal to therapy, it is the above paragraph. However, there are people who love talking through things and there is nothing wrong with that. If you enjoy working with a therapist on a periodic basis, by all means, continue. However, be sure that your therapist has evolved their approach to you and acknowledges and understands what you have achieved.
This process can be different for different people, but without fail, if you struggled through recovering from developmental trauma, you have gone through all or most of these steps, sometimes several times.
Nothing Human is Foreign to Me
My overarching mission is:
To mitigate suffering wherever possible. To strengthen and increase resiliency, joy, compassion and curiosity. To normalize the wide spectrum of human emotions, thoughts, behaviors and experiences. To aspire to live in the meaning of a phrase a client once said to me “nothing human is foreign to me”
My primary professional resources are:
The body/mind/spirit/biome/colony’s natural, predictable ability to heal, balance and pursue joy.
A foundation of compassion, understanding, humility and humanity
My tools are:
- A lengthy and rigorous study of and fascination with the human condition
- A rigorous pursuit of images, narratives, ideas, philosophies, imaginings, possibilities that clear space for the body/brain/gut biome to heal itself.
- A rigorous program of breathing and non-judgmental noticing of all spectrums of lived experience, intense, terrifying, neutral, joyful, hopeful.
- A studied, curiosity and science-based knowledge of the central and peripheral nervous system, the body, what works for it, what doesn’t and what how it communicates to the experiencer.
- Extensive training and knowledge of how trauma presents, how it is stored in the brain and nervous system and most importantly, how it can be healed.
- Insight into and an informed respect for every coping mechanism because it has helped someone survive until now.
- Daily maintenance of professional and personal boundaries with clients
- Respect for the client’s expertise, wisdom and knowledge of their own lives (my expertise in a particular field or area does not render others inferior or helpless in any way).
- Constant personal and digital vigilance to protect the client’s narrative, identity, emotional and cognitive content from anyone’s knowledge unless I am mandated to report to a social agency in order to protect a child, an elder or a dependent adult.
- Never leveraging my position of trust to interrupt or attempt to control clients’ relationships to others, no matter my opinion of that relationship (the client leads).Though I immerse myself in clients’ narratives, suffering and often hatred of those who harmed them, I respect the humans with which they choose to associate. I respect my clients’ choices once they have clearly made them.
I must be willing to rewrite, rebuild my mission, goals and tools in response to the realities and challenges that present themselves. Evolution is not just advisable; it is a mandate.
An allegory of healing from complex trauma
There was a deep, broad sinkhole of heavy cold mud. A large elegant bird, wings soggy with a patina of wet muck, flapped desperately, wings straining and agitated, trying to stay above the sinkhole, struggling to stay above. When the bird had reached the limits of its endurance, its energy expended, it folded its wings in defeat and dropped into the cold sinkhole. Without looking around, it rested just long enough to build the energy to give a courageous leap, fling its wings into the air and, heavy with cold and mud, flap ever harder, just to stay a few inches above the surface. Sometimes a warm breeze would sweep in and lift the bird a little higher and it was able to spread its wings and coast, just for a minute.
It had moments of hope that it was free of the agitation, the desperation. Then, weather being weather, things turned and it was raining, cold and heavy again and the bird was either in the sinkhole, ignoring it, trying to think warm thoughts, waiting to leap again, or frantically trying to stay aloft, with a few merciful moments of relief when circumstance sent it a warm updraft so it could rest. Occasionally a predator would set hungry eyes on the bird and the bird defended itself with the last of its energy and a bit of luck. The bird knew desperate defense and so far the predators had found it too difficult to bring the bird down. However, the bird feared the moment when it was caught with no survival energy left. The bird, in its core, did not believe it would live out its years, though it didn’t know how things would end. The bird did not want to die, but was trapped between exhausted survival coping and depressed defeat.
In time a spirit guide, a being of light spaciousness, approached the bird and strangely said, “Everything will be Ok”. The bird thought, this character is insane or simply can’t understand how long reality has proven to me that it has never been ok, is not ok now and will probably not be ok in the future. But in the absence of friends or comfort, the bird accepted the warmth of caring and friendship and continued to talk with the spirit guide. At least it provided a little more energy. As trust developed, the bird asked more and more often, “what do you mean, everything will be Ok?” and the guide responded, “I cannot explain to you, you have to experience it for yourself, you have to know it yourself”. The bird felt that things had been slightly better, even if it was false hope and decided to take a chance.
“What should I do?” The guide replied, “Stop flying, stop escaping”.
The bird asked incredulously “you mean, just give up? Sink into the muck? Fail? Fall? Freeze?”
The guide replied “No, I don’t mean, give up, I mean stop flying, rest and then take it from there”.
The bird valued the friendship and mild relief from loneliness. It did not risk it the first or the second time. With waning strength and a seemingly increasingly deep pit, the bird finally risked it the 7th time. This time, with some strength still in its wings, a hint of peace in its heart, it gingerly settled down into the cold, wet, heavy muck.
Guide “Wait, rest, look around”
Bird “I’ve been struggling in this pit my entire life, what do you expect me to see?”
Guide “I know, I’m sorry, please wait, look around, what are you feeling?”
The bird took some time before responding “I have been abandoned, I am alone, no matter how long I fly above the sinkhole, I feel the coldness, the sadness, the grief. All the effort I put forth, no matter how desperate, no matter how powerful, no matter how positively I maintain my attitude, I feel grief, I want to weep, I want to scream at the world, I want to hide my head under my wing and sleep. How is this ok? How is this going to show me that it will all be Ok? I’m sorry, but this sounds like steaming horse manure”
The guide said, “If you ever trusted me, unless you want to go back to sliding between defeat and flapping your wings desperately, I’m asking you to stop, sink into the muck and tell me what you find”
The bird, tired, without hope, without any other options, let go, sunk in and said “I think someone else is in here with me”
Guide “Who is it? Be very kind, very careful and very gentle. Who is it?”
The bird recoiled in horror “it is a vicious, scarred little hatchling. Maybe this is the source of all my suffering, this little demon”
Guide “What is it doing?”
Bird “It is huddled in the muck, cold, alone and savage. It looks relentlessly miserable”
Guide “What happened to it? Why is it there?”
Bird “I don’t know, I don’t want to know, it’s disturbing, I want it to go away. I hate it”
Guide “It is imperative that you do not reject it. Can you ask it what it needs?”
The bird had had enough. The bird leaped and, flapping frantically, flew above the sinkhole. “I exhaust myself trying to escape suffering and sadness and you ask me to keep company with such twisted misery as that? I don’t get it.”
Guide “That’s Ok, tell me exactly what you noticed, before you flew and now”
Bird, “I was horrified, disgusted by the hatchling, I wanted it to go away. It is a sinkhole of sadness, grief and despair. Now I am flying above it, I am tired, I feel fragmented and separated from myself, and the sadness, though muted, feels deeper and more intense.”
Guide “When you’re ready, please settle again”
The bird considered telling the guide to get lost but again, she had never had a companion before and she was loathe to lose the friendship. Eventually the bird risked settling into the muck again and the process occurred again and again. Most of the time, the bird refused to even acknowledge the hatchling existed and begged the guide to show her how to escape.
One day, while on the wing, the bird noted to the guide “I feel a little better, most of the time. I’m still tired, I’m still sad, but I’ve accepted that I can settle into the muck long enough to rest, as long as I don’t look too closely at the hatchling. I can gain enough strength to fly and get some relief from the sadness. And after all, you are here with me.”
The guide replied, “I’m sorry, but you are not done. No one is meant to live like this. This is not a life.”
Bird “but it seems to be my life and I guess it’s kind of livable.”
Guide, “Choose. You can live like this for the rest of your life, or you can be free of it forever, you can roost in a verdant tree, start a family if you want, build a safe place where you can rest without sadness, a place where you can fly without constant exhaustion. Choose.”
Bird “That sounds nice, amazing in fact, but I don’t believe you. I’m not trying to offend you, but I don’t even know what it is you’re describing or if such a thing exists. My mind has a vague notion of what you mean by a “tree” and “family”, but I have never seen those things, I can’t imagine one, there has never been anything but this.”
Guide “I invite you to imagine, if not for you, for some other bird in some fictional land, a warm gentle breeze, flowing under your wings, lifting, supporting you. Rather than frantically flapping to stay aloft, it lifts you effortlessly into the upper most branches. This tree has a large hollow with a small entrance in which you can nest, and rest, warm and safe.”
The bird replied “So something like my flapping now, but with less exhaustion and sadness? And a tree with a large hollow is something like the sinkhole but less cold and wet and less sad?”
The guide replied “Something like that. What do you notice in your wings, in your heart, in your mind and body as you invite that imagining?”
The bird replied, “For a split second, I felt a small burst of energy, that didn’t feel like fear, then my mind told me, this is horse manure and I felt worse than before I imagined it”
The guide replied “That’s good enough for today”
For days, weeks, months, this went on. On some days the bird could almost sense what it might be like, what these words meant, warmth, happiness, love, joy, curiosity, lightness, safety. On those days, the bird’s body felt stronger, as if energized by some fount of life itself, as if there were something other than a sinkhole and exhausted, agitated flying. One day, the bird imagined it so well – when she saw what was possible, realized how other birds lived, and saw the shining possibilities up against, the brutal, dreary, heavy, cold reality she had accepted – she was overcome with grief and plummeted into the sinkhole. This time, the guide said nothing, but only settled into the muck with her and kept her company. When the bird looked up, her eyes bright and sharp with grief she said, “I want that, I want that so badly, it makes me sick to my stomach, I’m sick with sadness, and heaviness and struggle and misery” and she screamed in rage and defiance and for a moment felt better, as if she deserved something else. The guide looked her openly in the face and simply said “good”.
With time and practice the bird became able to access the dream, the imagining, almost at will. Not every time, but often enough that she felt hope or at least the slightest sense of possibility. She asked the guide, “This is not real, I have a real life and it hasn’t changed. I mostly alternate between grief, sadness and anxious, agitated flapping that mutes the sadness but never makes it go away. How does this work?
The guide replied, “For now, I can tell you that there are parts of your mind, elements of your body, of your spirit, that either don’t know, or don’t care about the difference between what you imagine and what you experience. I’m not here to argue for alternative universes to you, but it’s possible that in some way, the imagining is a kind of reality the same as the experiencing”
The bird responded, “What you’re saying sounds simultaneously incredibly hopeful but also makes me feel ashamed and responsible, like what I’m struggling against, is somehow my fault, if only I had imagined the right things. Am I just weak, or stupid? Why are you the guide and I am stuck in this misery?”
The guide responded, “you are neither weak, nor stupid. You did not imagine this misery. It is real, it was forced on you before you could possibly have begun to imagine anything else. You denied the intensity of it because to know, in total, how horrible it is, you would have died or your young wings would have snapped trying to escape. No one deserves or creates what you are suffering. Anyone who tells you otherwise is bartering seeds in the wind. Furthermore, I am not your guide, because I am stronger or wiser in any way. I was also lost in the vicious winds of suffering and I also was helped by a guide. I also could not imagine anything else and I also thought I was stupid and weak. I am not special and forgive me for saying it, but your suffering is not special or unique. You share it with multitudes of birds and other animals and of those multitudes some will give in and live in misery, some will give up and die or fall prey to predators, some will survive by dragging their own hatchlings, mates and family into the muck and – some will choose to imagine something else and from that imagining, a different, kinder, more joyful reality grows.”
Bird, “What am I supposed to do with that. Should I lie and pretend I believe, so I don’t offend you or the gods or whatever miserable trickster allowed this to happen?”
Guide “Many would try to obligate you to believe. I disagree. This blames you for your suffering. As if, everything would be Ok, if you just believed. You cannot believe what you have never seen. I say that the truth is even more beautiful, more hopeful. You don’t have to believe. The gift of healing, of truth is not a magic trick where you say the right words and believe the right thing or you are consigned to hell. You do not have to believe, only invite, imagine. Just practice and hope, that there is a possibility of something else, something not different in quantity, but in quality. Not different in intensity, but of an entirely different state of being. If you practice and hope, and trust that you don’t have to trust. Things will change.”
The bird felt relieved that she didn’t have to fake belief, didn’t have to pretend trust. If she couldn’t trust, she would trust that it was ok, not to trust. If she couldn’t trust that it was ok not to trust, she would trust that it was ok not to trust that it was ok not to trust”.
At this moment, she had a glimpse of what it meant to experience something different in kind, rather than in amount. Previously, she had tried and tried to make herself think or believe something that combatted the sadness, the fear, the hopelessness. But every thought took enormous energy to generate when everything in her experience, her honesty, her integrity of self, told her, you are not experiencing that, you do not believe that. This was an exercise in futility.
Suddenly, the bird had a blinding revelation. Before, amidst frantically attempting to fly above her misery, she only confirmed her misery by how desperately she was trying escape it. Every attempt to think positively, to feel safe, to be stronger, only confirmed that she was not positive, was not safe and did not feel strong. Her fears told her – be afraid – and in attempting to escape the fear, she confirmed that fear was a thing of which to be afraid, which made her more afraid. Finally, she understood, that settling into the muck, did not mean giving up or giving in. It meant, not expending all of her precious energy attempting to escape something, that by her very attempt to escape, proved that there was something to be escaped, proved that she was sad, alone and bereft. Suddenly, she remembered the first thing the guide said, that had seemed insane “everything will be ok”. But somehow, midst the pain, midst the insanity, still sad, still grieving, still exhausted, she felt, mysteriously, inexplicably that everything was ok.
Afraid of losing the first real and actual freedom from suffering, if not from pain, the bird, mentally, emotionally, spiritually clutched desperately at the sensation – and it was gone. Heart wrenching in her chest, she described to the guide what she had experienced. Infuriatingly, the guide nodded and explained. “You realized the truth, that all suffering comes, not from the pain, but from the fear of the pain, not from fear, but from fear of fear. Not from loss, but from fear of loss. Fear is a self-fulfilling, closed system. It seems so entirely rational and based in evidence, but it completely obscures any evidence that could discount it and screams only the evidence that confirms itself. It is entirely irrational. You cannot use fear to escape fear. You cannot use fear to find freedom from fear. You cannot fear loss of freedom from fear, without filling that glorious, light filled space, with more fear. You attempted to control freedom from fear, with an action based in fear – control. So you filled that lightness, that space for spiritual and emotional freedom with fear again. You experienced freedom, which is by nature free and attempting to control it you dragged control between you and freedom. Freedom remained free, because that is what it is. You did not experience the loss of freedom, it is very present. You experienced your false attempt to control freedom, an act based in fear.
The bird responded bitterly, “So again, it is my fault, I would not be suffering if I were not so controlling or if I didn’t lack the wisdom or spiritual consciousness to win free of this mess.”
The guide replied “No. Fault implies the illusion of control. It is a lie based in the fear that you are the “kind” of bird, who lacks, and who, because of her lack, deserves to suffer. This is irrational and untrue. No one deserves to suffer. However, we do suffer if fear is imposed on us by the world, by life, by experiences, by parents. It is only when we see the glimmer of a choice, the hope of a possibility of a hope that we get the chance to work for something different.
The bird responded “I see the sense of what you’re saying, but in reality, the only reality I know, I continue to be trapped between this sinkhole of sadness and loneliness and terrified, exhausted flapping above it. I’m tired of platitudes, philosophy, spirituality. I’m suffering, I’m sick of it, my body is tired, my mind is tired, if a god were going to rescue me, it would have happened already. You say it doesn’t have to be this way. So how do I make it not this way? What do I have to do? I’ll do anything, anything, if you will only tell me that the outcome will be better”
The guide said, “all the practice of imagining and receiving the strength and relief of those imaginings, all of the experiences of relief you have felt in your wings, in your body, in your mind, your imaginings of kind and firm parental guidance, of safe nests, of towering trees full of sustenance, of warm gentle uplifting breezes, of wise spiritual guides, of fierce protectors, I ask you now to invoke them, make them bodily realities, hug them, hold them and then, I invite you to settle, even fight to the very bottom of the sinkhole, find that hatchling and look at it. Hold it in your gaze. Do that and tell me what you see.”
With great trepidation, the bird invoked all of her imaginings, flapped rhythmically in a manner that activated them in her wings, in her, heart, mind and body and then tucked in her wings and settled into the muck, digging deeper, feeling the upwelling of grief, loss, abandonment, despair. At the urging of her guide, in fact at the urging of her imaginings, she shook her body and wings, settling ever deeper until she was eye level with where she had seen the hatchling and before she could lose courage, she turned her regard in the direction she could feel and gazed at the hatchling.
A flush of fear crept in, chilling her. Her protectors, her guides, her totems kept holding her, warming her, whispering encouragement. She felt a wisdom, a compassion of which she had not been aware, filling her. And suddenly she saw and understood. The fierce, scarred hatchling, croaking angrily, furiously, attempting to scratch at her with its claws and peck at her with its little beak, was awash in terror. The agitation of its little body was the trembling of exhaustion and cold. The fierceness with which it pecked and clawed was infant desperation, hopelessness, trying to stay alive one more moment, unable to live and afraid to die. Its hatchling face, scarred, wet and filthy was the face of helpless weeping. The muck, the mud, the wet and the cold were waves and waves of lonely, abandoned, grief-stricken imaginings. The wet heaviness of the sinkhole was the longing for love, care, and a place in the world.
The bird was overwhelmed by the old horror, a desire to look away, a desire to protect herself from the misery of being in contact with the hatchling. She was also overwhelmed by a flood of fierce compassion, love, an intense desire to protect. Suddenly, within her breast there was a violent war, to fear or to love, to fear or to love. All of her guides, her imaginings soothed and comforted her “Don’t look away, just see the truth, see with clear eyes, be here, be love, be loving, be loved.”
The bird felt a deep anger at the injustice, the cruelty that could have resulted in this suffering little hatchling. Eyes on the hatchling, she spoke sideways to her spirit guide
“Who!? What vicious, heartless, evil creature, attacked, spurned, starved and abandoned this baby? Who is responsible for this?”
Her guide looked at her with sad compassion “first it was her parents, themselves lost to their own pits of despair, to their own agitated exhausted fleeing and fluttering. Then it was an overwhelmed, hungry world, each creature seeking its own emotional nutrition, its own relief from suffering. Finally, the hatchling was abandoned and scarred by the only one who had and still has a chance to save her.”
“Who!? I’ll peck her eyes out, I’ll claw the feathers from her wings until she can’t fly, until she herself is stuck in a pit!”
The guide replied “I don’t recommend that. It would only further hurt the hatchling as the one who last abandoned the hatchling is the only one who can still save her”
“Then I can’t save her? Am I to keep her company in her misery as you have kept me company in mine?”
“You can save her”
“You said, the last to abandon her is the one to save her”
“Yes, I mean exactly what I said, you were the last to abandon her, you are the only one who can save her”
The bird still gazing at the hatchling struggling in the sinkhole said, “but that is impossible. I am lazy, and stupid, I lack resiliency, I struggle between agitated fleeing and the despair of grief because I am too weak to properly be alive. I don’t have courage, I don’t have the strength for compassion. I don’t have enough energy to love myself, let alone this miserable hatchling.”
The guide replied “The only chance you have to be free of suffering is to unconditionally love this hatchling”
The bird replied “unconditionally? Who do you think I am? I tell you again, I cannot even care for myself. How am I going to care for something so miserable?”
The guide’s eyes betrayed a mild compassionate anger, “You still don’t understand? You still don’t know who she is? She is you! Your hatchling self, her scars are your scars, you were abandoned, you were left to the cold, cruel world, you were given imaginings of incredible suffering and misery. It is you, frozen in time, forever weeping and struggling, waiting for some kindness, for some understanding, for some compassion. Yet, every time you meet your own grief, your own suffering, your own story, rather than acknowledge what happened to you, what a tragedy it is, how much you deserve to be loved and comforted, rather than stay with yourself, you kick off from the sinkhole, your flailing claws scratching your infant self, scarring her already scarred countenance, abandoning her again, leaving her alone again, giving her real world evidence that her imaginings are true, she is unlovable, not worth saving, not worth caring for. She has huddled here, shivering, helpless and alone as you struggled ever harder with your adult wings, adult “understanding”, your adult fear-based logic to escape yourself. You fear the grief that when expressed, teaches you exactly how precious you are. The more intense the grief, the more precious the child. If you were actually stupid and lazy and worthless, there would be no grief, no sadness. No one mourns the abandonment of that which has no value. The intensity of your struggle is exactly the measure of how beautiful, how precious, how beyond earthly valuation you were, as a hatchling, and you are as a conscious, struggling, living breathing creature of flight. Your ache is the ache of freedom in chains, of beauty buried in cold mud, of grace exhausted and stumbling. Nothing meaningless and empty suffers.”
The bird felt a rush of sudden desperation, tucked the hatchling under her wing and attempted to launch out of the pit. The hatchling dug in her claws, fiercely, in terror and huddled deeper into the muck, waves and waves of fear and sadness creating more cold, muddying the pit.
“Stop!” the guide exclaimed. “is this compassion? Is this love, understanding and caring? Or are you just trying to escape once again, with no understanding or patience for what this hatchling has been through?”
The bird replied sullenly, “I can’t do anything right. I only want to save her. Why would she resist?”
The guide replied “What would you have done if I had approached you and without any trust or rapport, demanded that you descend into the muck. In fact, what if I had put my hands on you to force you to do so, what would you have done?”
The bird thought for a moment, “I would have fought you tooth and nail. I didn’t know anything but danger and predators.”
The guide returned “Just so. And I wanted and want desperately for you to be free of suffering, but you know what is the worst about suffering, abandonment, fear and abuse? You are stripped of your freedom, of your choices, even of your knowledge of yourself. If I approached you and refused to honor your choices, and tried to overwhelm you, even with good intentions, aren’t I doing more of the damage that your life experiences have already done to you? That isn’t me caring for you. That is me trying to relieve myself of the discomfort of seeing you suffer. If you can stand to suffer a little longer, then I can stand to walk with you and suffer a little also. If you truly care about the hatchling, you can offer no more and no less”
Dear reader, I apologize for interrupting the tale of the bird. I wish I could tell you that she instantly understood, that she was overwhelmed by compassion, self-love, love for others, joy and wonder so enduring that she remade her surroundings and her life in the image of her imaginings, an expression of her beautiful heart. But life isn’t always like that. At times, the bird regressed and became impatient, fell victim to the lure of the false certainty of fear. Joy thrives on possibility, but fear thrives on certainty. Fear offered her the certainty of suffering and sometimes, that seemed better. Her guide waited, watched and loved.
But in the end, struggle is not special, unique or even important. The consciousness that suffers struggle is important. The bird practiced, she invoked her imaginings, with increasing strength. Her love for her hatchling self became deeper and more fierce, more profound until any expression of fear, grief, sadness, violence or struggle from the hatchling, only elicited a deep love and compassion for her. In time, the bird noticed that the hatchling’s emotions slowly began to shift to trust and love, curiosity and joy. As this shifted, the cold, wet damp of the pit, turned slowly to rich, moist loam in which a seed planted by thought itself, slowly, inexorably grew into a mighty oak. In the powerful, subtly aromatic and verdant branches, there was an opening into the heart of the tree. It was just large enough for a beautiful adult bird to fit through, but too small for predators to invade. It was warm and sheltered from the occasional rain or tempest. Of course, there were seasons, frigid winter, soggy spring, but often enough, there were warm, balmy summer breezes in which the bird soared, effortlessly, collecting food for the hatchling tucked safely, happily into the heart of the mighty oak. In time, the bird met a mate, a funny, daring and loyal bird. They bore a brood of chicks and the bird noticed that it was the deep joy, the profound, wordless love of life within her own hatchling that allowed her to connect most deeply to the mysterious, overpowering love of her children, her mate, her world and of course, of herself. With each day that the bird chose love, compassion, possibility, her world expanded, offered riches of experience, adventure, excitement and joy. Her world grew into, met and far surpassed her wildest imaginings and she wondered that a long-ago reality that had seemed so total, so incredibly deafening and chaotic, could look, in hindsight, like something that had never been real at all. Her suffering might have been a fact, a historical occurrence, but she, the bird, her consciousness was the only thing beautiful and profound enough to be real. She reveled in her life, she encompassed all things. She existed as love, as joy. She was a beautiful elegant bird.
Why “Valuing” Yourself Results in Anxiety, Depression and Dependence
You cannot be valued. The act of trying to build “self-esteem” is an inherently unstable and self-negating act. Telling yourself you are important, lovable or worthy of esteem is really a backhanded way of saying that you are unsure of whether or not you are important, lovable or worthy of esteem. Why are you seeking for others (or yourself) to validate, what you say you already have? Trying to assert your value is a pretty good demonstration of the fact that it is open to debate.
Logic consistently demonstrates that not only is your worth unquantifiable but any attempt to quantify your worth implies that it can change depending on opinions, on shifting circumstances, on finite, transitory realities. A valuation built of external “objective” criteria is dependent on external criteria. You notice the root word “object” in objective? Women are often valued depending on how sexually attractive men find them – i.e. they are objectified. Ask any woman how dehumanizing and demeaning this is. A police officer who only feels worthwhile because he or she successfully maintains a high arrest record will feel terrible when their record suffers and feel anxious when it does not because they have to struggle to maintain control over an external reality in order to avoid a feeling of a loss of value. Feeling that your worth is dependent means you must now compulsively control the state or situation upon which your worth depends. This is inherently depressing, anxiety inspiring and devaluing.
You can attempt to apply “objective” definitions of value to conscious beings in any context you want, and it always results in very unethical, immoral, dehumanizing conclusions. To say Jack Nicholson is more important than mother Theresa, you must agree to an arbitrary set of assumptions, probably something around generating income, influencing or entertaining others. Others may assert that these are not good criteria for establishing the importance of a person. To argue for Mother Theresa, you would have to agree to a set of assumptions that being of service to others, mitigating suffering, these are the objective measures by which we decide the importance or value of a human being.
Be careful here. You want to value mother Theresa based on her selfless service to others? Do we then assert the logical conclusion that a homeless woman, addicted to drugs, having no friends, has no value because we cannot objectively establish what she contributes to her fellow human beings? Does a severely mentally challenged child, needing 24-hour care then rate a negative valuation? If so, perhaps we can grind the child up to make pet food, thus establishing an objective measurable value for them to recoup their negative impact on their family and society. I hope you agree that when you play these arguments through to their conclusion, attempting to establish the “value” of conscious beings is impossible without arriving at some terribly unethical, immoral and absurd outcomes.
Rational thought indicates that conscious beings are beyond valuation. Valuation is a finite system based on arbitrary subjective perspectives, based on transitory whims, needs and circumstances. Consciousness defies any sense made of finite systems of valuation. In this way, conscious beings are literally “invaluable”. To discuss, debate or even try to establish your importance is non-sense. You are beyond systems of valuation.
At this point, many would protest that without some goal or desire for self-improvement, people would devolve into selfish society destroying behaviors. How do we square the enjoyment of contributing to self and others with the non-sense of valuing self through contributing? Does this mean changing behaviors or engaging positive intentions are inherently self-negating?
It entirely depends on your foundational belief about yourself. Perhaps you begin exercising and losing weight. If you do this for the pleasure of having a healthy body and mind, this is life affirming yet does not impose a system of valuation on the person who exercises. This honors the presence of a conscious being. This expresses the self-love of the conscious being. However, to believe that the act of exercising or losing weight actually establishes your value is to assume you are an object, subject to the whims and capriciousness of arbitrary transitory circumstance and people’s arbitrary, subjective opinion of that circumstance. This expresses the self-negating belief of that person. It is not that the behavior itself creates happiness or unhappiness, but that it expresses whether or not you are happy or unhappy with yourself in the first place. Behavior and outcomes can only confirm what we already believe about ourselves.
To clarify, concrete acts can be used to celebrate the ineffable joy of conscious existence, but they cannot be used to justify the presence of consciousness. Without consciousness applying meaning, concrete acts are transitory, arbitrary and meaningless. This is why one person may seem to exude an indescribable, untouchable joy in golfing and may happen to be a world class pro while another person may be a world class pro and commit suicide out of despair and a sense of meaninglessness regardless of their “status” as a pro. If a person attaches their “value” to a concrete act or circumstance, there will never be enough positive outcomes to erase the underlying fear that their value is unstable and constantly in question. The very act of attempting to establish a person’s value brings it into question. The more concrete and “objective” the measure, the more arbitrary and absurd it is to try to use it to establish the value of conscious beings. This is so important to healing anxiety, depression and “self-esteem” issues, I am going to repeat it. The more concrete and “objective” the measure, the more arbitrary and absurd it is to attempt to use it to establish the value of conscious beings.
This argument is especially relevant in the context of mental health. The only reason someone would attempt to establish their value by attaching it to something inherently arbitrary and meaningless is because they already struggle under the delusion that they have been rendered of low value due to some toxic social message imposed on them. This is referred to by many therapists as a transactional relationship to self and others. As in, I can buy (transact) my value by increasing my achievements, or my worth as a person depends on whether or not my wife is happy with me. By extension, other people’s worth depends on what they do for me. How do you enjoy the warmth and safety of a long-term friendship when that friend has no inherent value but fluctuates in value depending on objective payoff for you? When we translate the logical argument into an actual belief system in the context of therapy, it becomes quickly apparent why it is so devaluing not only to the individual but to everyone.
As a therapist, I will not engage the conversation of valuation at all. If someone is discussing themselves in these terms, I know they are already convinced that they are of low value and no amount of “evidence” is going to convince them otherwise. Something based in a delusion, in a lie, cannot be argued, because it was never a valid conclusion in the first place. Being molested may have suggested the self-view that you are dirty, an object to be used for others’ pleasure, but that is a lie. You are beyond valuation. You cannot be dirtied or besmirched, your value cannot be shifted or changed by the ignorant self-destroying actions of another, who desperately sought to build his/her own self value through power and control. Someone who should have loved you unconditionally may have told you they wished they had never had you, but their ignorance, their blind desperate attempt to escape their own lie, cannot damage, cannot change your value because, you are beyond value.
Cleansing the self-esteem conversation of illusory definitions impacts far more than just the individual. The invaluable truth that heals your own suffering, frees all consciousness and conscious relationships from neurotic delusions. True love and compassion for self is the only foundation for true love and compassion for others. That homeless guy on the corner who just urinated on himself, keeps muttering “piece of shit” over and over and who has not “contributed to society” in any way for over 20 years? We cannot discuss his “value” in comparison to anyone else’s because he is beyond value. As a conscious being, he is invaluable. The spark of consciousness in an amoeba cannot be valued as less than the consciousness of a human genius, because all objective systems of value are arbitrary illusions.
Size, duration, impact, mass, speed, shininess, wealth, contributions, number of Instagram followers, nothing can measure and objectively value consciousness. Consciousness brings meaning to arbitrary objective systems, not the other way around. Those who assert the opposite are selling you something. The lie of the “objective” system of valuation has been used to control the free thinker, to own the true innovator, to drive consumers to consume, workers to work, and soldiers to war – you’d better go along with our arbitrarily determined system of valuation or you will lose your value. No gold stars for you. Someone will have an opinion about you and it will count! Delusion. Lie. Your “value” is free of the opinion of others, free of past suffering, free of future fears, free of social definitions, free of arbitrary circumstances, free of past “errors”, free of future intentions. You are invaluable, you are free – you are conscious.
The Human Condition or Why I Became a Therapist
Since I can remember, I have wondered what “this” is, what pain is, what happiness is, anything I noticed, I wondered. In undergrad, I took philosophy after philosophy class, not for the status or the challenge, but because I genuinely wanted to know how the best thinkers in history saw or dealt with knowledge, consciousness, with the human condition. For years, I believed that my constant pondering, inquiring, wondering, noticing was at the very least a foible, but possibly a serious flaw and there were plenty of people who told me so.
I moved into teaching, into education research and was able to examine the human mind, and information in a systematic way. However, I noticed that still, the most pressing questions continued to be the most difficult to answer. We could answer, what is a better approach to teaching, fact based or exploration based? Or how can you teach young children metacognition? We couldn’t seem to answer, why do people hurt one another, how do we stop it? Who bears the responsibility for poverty? Why do we suffer as much and as often as we do? This may sound academic, but I have been intensely serious about these types of questions my whole life.
Finally, after being a teacher, a tutor, a researcher, a writer, a musician, a veterinarian assistant, and a business owner, I found the field that takes these questions as seriously as I do, both philosophically as well as scientifically. This began providing documented answers to many pressing questions about the human condition.
Science is making incursions into the more complex areas of our experiences. We are at an exciting intersection between hard scientific evidence of what the brain is doing with trauma, addiction, anger, depression and anxiety and everything conceptually involved in the human condition. This gives me an evidence-based framework from which to explore someone’s experiences and how they are responding to them. The scope is endlessly varied and fascinating.
In a given day, I might discuss the prefrontal cortex’s management of fight or flight, Kant’s categorical imperatives, the difference between grief and depression, how a business team is like an organism and what the difference between love and need is or why it might be healthy to tell someone to get lost. More importantly, I get to be with people, talk with people without the stress or pressure of needing them to be any particular way, believe any particular thing. I get to truly be with others, as free of preconception and judgment as I can humanly manage.
Maybe I’m an idealist, but I truly believe everyone and anyone can be ok and I intend for that to be true or know the reason why. What I found in trauma therapy is one place where those age-old questions are taken seriously and I found it at a time when we are beginning to actually know the answers, not just theorize about the questions.