Everyone gets anxious, some more than others. While many associate bouts of distress with “mental illness”, for me, it’s simpler to see these experiences as the wounded child within acting out.
We all have a wounded child inside. She gets triggered. He worries and frets. She catastrophizes and gets sucked into obsession. Past pains are projected onto present moment situations, again and again. We get afraid.
We aren’t broken, as I like to remind my counselling clients. Rather, we’re just re-living unresolved trauma and attachment pains from childhood.
(Anxiety/distress also comes from shock trauma or pain incurred in relationships later in life, but I will simplify this article to developmental trauma.)
Something is needed in those moments of distress. Certainly, it doesn’t help to judge ourselves for losing our center. Nor is it helpful, in most cases, to label ourselves as having some kind of disorder. What’s needed is something most of us did not get enough of from our primary caregivers.
We need to be held. We need a soothing presence. We need to be met with empathy and re-assured.
Many, if not most, people do not have a safe, nourishing presence in their lives to offer this kind of objective support; someone who is calm and has the social and emotional intelligence to be with us without an agenda. And so we can, at minimum, learn to give this support to ourselves. It’s why I teach the two “containment holds” in the image above to my counselling clients. In trying them on, accompanied by a few deep breaths, they usually feel immediate calm in their nervous system. It becomes a tool they use at home and work when they feel distress and need to self-regulate. Some lie in bed at night or first thing in the morning holding themselves in this way. Some bring it into their meditation practice. They learn to be with without needing to change their experience. They bring loving, empathetic attention to the younger part inside still needing care.
A few months ago I wrote the article, “It’s okay.” “I’m with you.” “It’ll all be fine.” ~ Why Children Need to Hear These Words More Than You May Know. Most of us did not hear these words as much as we needed when young. We didn’t feel felt. We didn’t have parents that offered soothing empathy. Instead, our primary attachment figures resorted to ignoring, fixing, discounting our feelings, or being verbally or physically abusive. Our parents and schoolteachers did not have the information we have today on attachment theory, nor did they get their attachment needs met when young.
There are consequences when calming co-regulation is absent: We grow up with our nervous system dysregulated, with attachment issues that affect our ability to rest in intimacy, and with distortions to our personality rooted in beliefs such as “I’m not lovable”, “I’m not worthy”, and “I am wrong/bad”.
We spend the rest of our lives searching for someone who can safely hold us and with whom we can rest in connection.
That special someone may not show up for years, if ever; or s/he may be absent, if only for an hour. We can, in the meantime, learn to hold and thus soothe ourselves. Wrapping our arms around our heart and shoulders, we can offer the following empathetic words out loud or internally: “It’s okay. I’m with you. It’ll all be fine.”
With practice, we learn to re-parent our wounded, scared younger self. We give ourselves today what our caregivers failed to give us 30 or 60 years ago.
In re-parenting ourselves, we re-pattern ourselves. The part of us that defaults to worry is met with calming assurance. The part that believes the world is unsafe is met with safety. The part that frets that something is wrong is held with a gentle, “Ssshhh… everything’s just fine.” Slowly, new neural pathways are built. Slowly, we re-pattern towards feeling safe in our body, and in the world.
The competent mature adult in us strengthens. S/he, with practice, becomes a kind observer and strong container for anxiety, and without being pulled into and identifying with it. We are like the parent who can be with his or her child, maintaining objective composure, presence and attunement, without getting lost in the child’s painful experience. This inner witnessing of the wounded child without identifying with it, while consciously being with it, is an essential step in healing.
I offer this to you now. Try these containment holds out while adding your breath. See which one feels better. Feel what it is like to hold yourself this way; to slow down enough to be with the discomfort and fear rising in your body/mind. You may be reminded of the power of touch to regulate the nervous system, and why touch is so important in co-regulating with infants and children. This touch does not have to be limited to an “other”, but can, in fact, be a gift to ourselves as well.
*** By the way, it’s worth noting that re-parent and re-pattern have the exact same letters, except for one extra T! Something to think about! 😉 Perhaps the T stands for Touch!
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Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults