Tom was having relationship issues - with his girlfriend, his family, and even his co-workers. He frequently felt criticized, defensive and argumentative, which resulted in outbursts of shouting and door slamming, followed by pangs of intense shame with reconciliation only a few hours later. Utterly confused by his behavior, he felt betrayed by his best intentions. I know better. I don't want to behave this way, really I don't. Yet each week, he would recount similar scenarios. While some of the leading characters and triggers changed, his reactions, nonetheless, remained fairly predictable.
How often do we repeatedly berate ourselves for our actions? Why did I do that? Why can’t I make better choices? First of all, these guilt- and shame-ridden questions typically prove to be unsatisfactory and unhelpful. Focusing on the path not taken provides limited insight and fails to acknowledge the behaviors we actual pursued. What did I do instead proves to be a question of greater utility and shines a light on our unexamined motives and drives. Why didn’t I go to the gym can keep us stuck in a loop of shame, often deescalating into further judgement and criticism, and ending with the inevitable query – WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME? When we embrace what we did instead (binge watching Netflix for 6 hours), we can begin the work, which involves examining our deeper motivations. For what purpose did I do this? How did it serve me?
Tom didn’t want to yell at his girlfriend, let alone his colleagues. After mapping out his behaviors, he was well aware of what he was doing, he just didn’t understand what perpetuated them. He would watch himself going through the motions, even heard the voices in his head scream for him to cease and desist. And still. Is that what we all say? And still… Almost every single time I ask about the payoffs of a patient’s behavior, they invariably and adamantly tell that there is none. I disagree. I believe we rarely engage in any behaviors without significant benefit or payoff - be it ease, comfort, or familiarity.
Despite seeing clearly what he was doing, what kept Tom argumentative and defensive? What keeps any of us stuck in any of our unsatisfactory or dysfunctional behaviors? The answer is relatively simple, and involves our nervous system, learning, and hardwiring. I am not making allowances for our actions or abdicate responsibility. Instead, armed with this knowledge, perhaps we can engage in healing rather than shaming (of ourselves and others), which serves no purpose in growth.
The work of Stephen Porges has shown that our nervous system is ordered along a continuum from threat to safety, and our behaviors are linked to our conscious or unconscious perception of safety level at any given moment. During times of perceived threat, all mammals (and that includes us humans) initially activate the oldest, unmyelinated branch of the vagus nerve (10th cranial nerve), which is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, and not sympathetic, which most people mistakenly think is involved in all stress responses. This vagal activation causes our entire system (mind and body) to freeze and immobilize. As result, we can feel faint, lightheaded, dizzy, withdrawn, shutdown, dissociative, unable to focus, and fatigued. Our digestive tract stops working so we may become constipated. Our muscle become sore and tender, and we may experience more pain. When faced with a predator about to make us their main course, this orientation strategy can save our life, since if the lion thinks our limp, inactive body is dead, he might leave us alone, considering us an unappealing and unappetizing meal. While this is the initial stage all mammals go through, some, due to past experiences or trauma, become hardwired for this orientation strategy, making it their default response, and they remain unable to move on to the next stage.
The next orientation strategy is one commonly associated with anxiety and panic – the sympathetic fight-or-flight system. Here our pulse races, blood pressure and respiration rate increases, hands and feet get cold and clammy, and thoughts run a thousand miles a minute. This is the second way our nervous systems respond to feeling unsafe. People can become conditioned into one orientation pattern over another. Repeated activation of either the immobilization or mobilization have profound physiological and psychological consequences including recurrent colds and flus, allergies, cardiovascular disease, poor wound healing, weight gain, irritable bowel disease, insomnia, chronic fatigue and disruption of memory or attention disorders.
Tom felt unsafe in conversations with family and colleagues, and responded by mobilizing and lashing out, although this was not his idealized way of dealing with conflict. What he longed for is social connection, or the third orientation strategy discussed by Porges, called social engagement. Unfortunately, we only have access to this strategy when we feel safe. Then, and only then, the newer myelinated branch of the vagus nerve (the ventral vagal complex), found only in mammals, becomes engaged, and we breathe deeper, our facial and respiratory muscles soften, and the intonation and prosody of our voice increases. Think of how people react to seeing an infant or puppy. We smile, make cooing sounds, and the pitch of our voice rises and falls. The child responds with smiles and giggles. The dog wags its tail and licks our face. For in those cases, those innocent creatures feel safe in our presence. Our words don't matter, but our facial expressions, body posture, breathing rate and vocal quality certainly do. And all those traits are completely opposite of what we do in the midst of an argument or fight. You pet knows when you are angry or loving just by the way you stand, breathe or tone of your voice!
To work with our challenging emotions, or dare I say any behaviors we wish to change, keep in mind this neurobiology of social engagement. Labeling emotions or habits as bad, dysfunctional, or stupid creates a confrontational relationship, as we ourselves view our experiences as threatening, making a sense of safety impossible. Acceptance, which does not involve liking or condoning any action, thought or feeling, involves acknowledging, embracing and leaning into it. Acceptance, therefore, is the first stage to healing, and usually an ongoing one. Acceptance moves us past immobilization and mobilization, as we befriend our experience rather than become triggered by them. Acceptance, in other words, is social engagement with ourselves. Imagine speaking to ourselves in the same manner in which we would try to comfort a child or pet. If we were to do that, we already know the behaviors of social engagement and acceptance.
Next, we peel back the layers a bit more to examine what about the situation felt unsafe or threatening. Once Tom could accept his behaviors and emotions with more ease, he was able to recognize how he perceived any comments about his behavior as an attack on very existence. Tom and I spent a great deal of time exploring gentle methods to soothe his nervous system and find ways to create a sense of internal comfort and safety through breath work, posture and mindfulness practices. From a centered space, Tom could see that many of the habits he labeled as dysfunctional (consuming large amounts of chocolate and caffeine, smoking pot, and storming out of the office for long walks) were attempts to settle his nervous system from the perception of threat, addressing the much needed desire for safety. With practiced, not only did he find himself less triggered, but after several months, he was able to engage in generative conversations at home and at work without feeling attacked.
While healing our relationships with ourselves (and with our emotional states or with others) is a neither a quick nor tidy process, the role of our nervous system bears repeating. Most people with whom I work have an adversarial relationship with themselves (their habits, thoughts, emotions, etc.). The practice of self-compassion is an act of engagement which positively balances the nervous system. Secondly, most of our habituated responses and behaviors are attempts at self-care. We are trying to take care of ourselves, although possibly the not through the most efficacious means. Finally, whenever we feel strong emotions, such as sadness, rejection, anxiety and even anger, at the core is often a sense of lack of safety. When that is recognized we can stop treating the symptom and begin addressing the cause by finding ways to cultivate safety within.