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Learning to Receive Care
Hello dear ones!
In the comments for the first issue of CARESCAPES, Alex wrote: “I'm curious to maybe talk in this space about experiences of receiving care and how difficult that can be for those of us who have strong caretaker histories or identities.” And I was like WOW YES I HAVE A MILLION THOUGHTS!!
A few reminders before we get into things:
Paid subscribers have 1 week to submit your questions for OPENINGS: a monthly advice podcast. See the end of this newsletter for all the deets.
CARESCAPES subscribers have 1 week to snag a ticket to my first workshop of 2022: Aligning Our Actions With Our Values. Scroll down for more info.
Why is it so hard to receive care from others? I don’t know about you, but I have a REALLY REALLY hard time accepting care from others. You’d think I’d be thirsty to receive care after growing up in a family where my care always came last and was regularly sacrificed in the name of caring for others. But wanting something deep deep down, and being able to receive it when it’s presented to you are two totally different things. If we’ve historically been denied care, we may find ourselves longing for this experience and then being utterly terrified when someone shows up with the desire to offer us the same level of care that we offer them.
Our brains get hardwired through the experiences we have. Let’s imagine that to get to school each day, I walk through this big field. My footsteps flatten the grass. Eventually the grass disappears and what we have is a dirt path. Without even thinking about it, I find myself on that same dirt path each and every day. It becomes what I know. One day, I decide to mix things up and take a different path. I’m excited about this change. I start to create this new pathway. And then one day I find myself back on that old path. “WTF!” I think to myself. “How did I get back here?”
This old pathway is what I know. It is familiar and therefore comforting. If that pathway was built out of traumatic experiences, our trauma brain is less than stoked about us doing something new. It screams at us to return to the comfort of what is known, even when what is known is no longer serving us – and even when it is causing us great pain. Drawing on the work of John Bowlby, the creator of attachment theory, Lindsay Gibson writes: “The most primitive parts of our brain tell us that safety lies in familiarity” (11). Receiving care after a lifetime of care deprivation requires us to build a new neural pathway, one in which we learn to open ourselves up to the care of others.
Our ability to receive care might also be complicated by the fact that the only person we trust is ourselves. Because that’s what we learnt growing up. No one else was gonna show up and give us what we needed. And so we became this solitary island of self-preservation. Receiving care from others requires us to trust that that other person is actually going to show up and follow through on their offer. If they don’t show up, we’re guaranteed to feel disappointment. And we will do ANYTHING to avoid disappointment. Receiving care from others requires that we make ourselves vulnerable. Now that might be the most terrifying thing we can do.
I was reading Brené Brown’s newest book, The Atlas of the Heart, and paused at this passage: “Disappointments may be like paper cuts, but if those cuts are deep enough or if we accumulate them over a lifetime, they can leave us seriously wounded” (52). I appreciate how Brown acknowledges that disappointment can reopen old wounds. To open ourselves up to disappointment is extra risky when we live with trauma. And so it makes a lot of sense to me that I’d have such a hard time receiving care from others. When people did show up to offer me the care they said they would, my trauma brain moved the goalposts: “Just because they showed up this time doesn’t mean that they always will.” If I’m being honest, it probably took me years to truly trust that my BFFs wouldn’t stop caring for/about me.
Here’s the other kicker: when we let ourselves experience what we didn’t have growing up, we have to acknowledge and grieve that absence. And grief is a motherfucker that our trauma brains would prefer to avoid. Confronting our grief also means holding space for a lot of other uncomfortable emotions, like anger. I remember a therapy session shortly after my father died. My therapist was trying to help me feel the anger I’d buried so long ago: anger that my father neglected me, that he expected care from me without any acknowledgment of how that impacted my life, that he made me feel bad if I tried to prioritize my own care over his, that he’d hold prior acts of care that he’d offered me over my head when I tried to assert my boundaries.
My whole life, I’d excused the harm he caused me. “He lost the love of his life, became a single parent, and developed a disability,” I’d tell myself. It was as though there couldn’t be space for compassion and anger. My first session back after his death, my therapist asked me if it might feel possible for me to acknowledge that anger now. I responded: “But what if there is a heaven and he’s there and he can hear me and my anger. That would hurt him so much.” I don’t know if I believe in heaven. But in that moment it didn’t matter. My trauma brain wanted to keep that anger (and the grief that would follow) at bay however it could.
Four years have passed since his death and I’ve learnt to feel the anger and the grief at not receiving care from the person meant to care for me. It was hard work. Deeply uncomfortable work. And I can understand why my trauma brain didn’t want me to experience care, at the same time as it desperately craved it.
After my father’s death, another thing happened that surprised me: I felt like I’d lost all sense of myself. Growing up, my identity was shaped around being a caregiver. In the wake of my mom’s death, I learnt that the two ways to receive my father’s love were to get good grades and to care for him and my brother. With my brother grown up and my father dead, I felt totally unmoored. Who was I if I wasn’t caring for someone? I asked myself this question again and again. And it puzzled me.
Add to this the fact that Cancer, my sun sign, lives in my 8th house of trauma, grief, and mental anguish, and being a caregiver feels like my destiny. I remember reading Chani Nicholas’s description of Sun in the 8th house humans and crying because I felt so seen:
“Having your Sun in the house that deals with the psychological pain that comes from loss can make you acutely aware of suffering, both your own and that of others. Therapists, trauma specialists, healers, death doulas, bereavement counselors, mediums, and those who help others cross the waters of our most difficult emotional states often having something significant in this house” (You Were Born For This, 75).
It’s funny how the idea that I could receive care from others and still be a caregiver never really crossed my mind. In my house it was either/or.
A final consideration: we have grown up in a world of capitalist, ableist, racist, misogynistic, colonial violence, which tells us that needing others is a sign of weakness. And so it follows, under this logic, that receiving care from others is a sign that one is weak. Who does this logic support? Systems of oppression! We’re stronger together and so it makes a whole lot of sense to me why the myth of the bootstrapping individual is so vital to those who wish to wield power over. We have so much more power with each other than we do alone. I offer myself this reminder each and every time my internalized ableism pops up telling me that I shouldn’t ask for help, that I should just do x thing all on my own. Asking for and accepting care is a vulnerable and radical act that helps us build the world we’ve been denied.
Right now I’m feeling A LOT of feelings. In some ways this is always the case for me — but right now, as I sit on the couch beside my ex-partner, cat on my lap as I type these words and he looks at apartments, I’m feeling grief and ease simultaneously. Drinking our Sunday morning coffee, this feels so normal.
And then I remember that this is our last week nesting together. He’ll fly back to Toronto for the holidays and I’ll have moved to another city by the time he gets back. There are moments where I think to myself “What have I done? This person is amazing. Why did I go and blow it all up?” And so I suppose that fear is here too.
Breakups suck. There’s really no way around that. And as I sit here beside David, I know that this is an opportunity to be with all of the feelings that ebb and flow through me. I can be afraid and I can feel grief and I can feel at ease - all at the same time. This is pretty revolutionary for me. When I started with my therapist four years ago, I thought I was so good at feeling my feelings. Turns out that wasn’t the case.
Growing up, my feelings were always too much for my father, and so I learnt to stuff them down, lock them away in the basement of me. Looking back, I can see how I was full of emotion, but they surfaced during times of dysregulation. As though my feelings had oversaturated a sponge and were now leaking everywhere. I don’t know if I spent much time at all in my window of tolerance. To feel these feelings while remaining regulated is a pretty magical thing.
Human beings were meant to feel things. I want to feel all the feelings. The hard feelings, the soft feelings. And I’ve built the capacity to do so. In a way, this feels like a homecoming. Letting myself feel my feelings is an act of care for myself.
It’s also an act of care for others. I want to be in honest relationships, vulnerable relationships. Pretending that I don’t have feelings doesn’t actually support the people I’m in relation with. We all need to build our capacity to feel our feelings and talk about them. Sharing our feelings with another person is a gift because it says “This is scary, and I want you to know me.”
In order to be radically honest, I need to know that the other person is able to radically receive my truth. In my zine Radical Receptivity: Fostering Intimacy After Trauma, I write: “If radical honesty is a commitment to not hiding, omitting, or lying about our actions, feelings, and thoughts, then radical receptivity is a commitment to taking accountability for your response to someone else’s truth. Radical receptivity requires us to get curious about why it hurts when someone is radically honest with us.” In sharing my feelings with another, I’m opening the door to connection. In letting myself feel my feelings, I’m opening the door to connecting with myself. Both are deeply vital practices for being a human in the world.
If you find it hard to receive care from others, here’s an exercise you can do with someone in your life that you feel safe with (or safe enough with).
Start by asking the other person if you can do something for them. E.g. Can I make you dinner tonight? (Note: you don’t actually have to do any of these things.) I suggest keeping things fairly low stakes to start.
Notice what comes up in your body when you ask this question. What sensations or feelings arise?
The other person gets to decide whether they say yes, no, or maybe. I suggest responding differently each time.
Thank them for their response. Then notice what comes up when you receive a yes, a no, or a maybe. Does it feel easier to receive a yes than it does a no?
After you’ve done a few rounds, switch roles. Now, your partner will ask you some questions. E.g. Can I take your dog for a walk?
Notice what comes up for you when they make this offer of care. What feelings or sensations arise? Do different questions feel harder or riskier?
Practice saying yes, no, and maybe. Again, notice what comes up for you.
After you’ve both done a few rounds of this, I suggest reflecting on and sharing what that experience was like for each person. And, if you feel called to, I’d love to hear how this practice went for you too!
There are so many things we can do to help heal our communities and the world. To help avoid overwhelm, I recommend starting with one actionable step, and starting small. Each week I’ll share a different actionable step we can all take. This week I want to share this incredible resource from Kai Cheng Thom!
SO YOU’RE READY TO CHOOSE LOVE – Free Conflict Resolution Workbook
In my transformative justice trainings with Mia Mingus, she shares how it’s impossible to do TJ work on a community level if we don’t know how to resolve conflict with those closest to us. Building our skills in conflict transformation is vital for prison and police abolition, and it’s vital for building our capacity to care for ourselves and others in ways that align with our values. Kai Cheng Thom’s workbook offers practical tools and reflections that are trauma-informed and centre anti-oppression.
Submit Your Qs to OPENINGS!
If you are a paid subscriber, you can submit your questions to email@example.com with the subject line OPENINGS SUBMISSION. The podcast will be shared with subscribers on the last Sunday of the month. This month that is December 26th (little holiday treat) and you have until 1 week before (December 19th) to submit your Qs to my email.
If you wanna become a paid subscriber, you’ll find the link at the end of this letter.
Join me for Aligning Our Actions With Our Values!
To help you start off 2022 — and to help me cover the costs of moving — I’m offering a special workshop: Aligning Our Actions With Our Values! Happening Saturday January 8, 2022 from 11am-1pm MT via Zoom.
Right now this offering is only available to you, my CARESCAPES subscribers — so please don’t share it with the world just yet! I’ll be sharing this offering on my IG on December 19th, so make sure to grab your ticket now.
Why talk about values? Our values are our "why" behind the choices we make in the world. When we anchor in our values, we take purposeful and aligned action.
In this 2hr workshop, you will get to:
Determine your core values;
Learn how to find lines of affinity between your values and others;
Discuss the barriers that make it challenging for us to act in alignment with our values;
You’ll also receive the 30-page workbook that this workshop is based off of, filled with additional activities and reflections for you to work with.
Thanks so much for reading CARESCAPES — your support means the world to me! Will share those invitations one more time!
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