Being With Our Fear
Hello dear ones,
Thank you, again, for your patience on Episode #5 of OPENINGS: a monthly advice podcast where I answer your questions. This month I had two questions about how we navigate fear when it comes up. If you want to dive more into this topic, check out issue #12 of CARESCAPES: “Befriending Fear; Feeling Grief.”
A reminder that this offering is available to all subscribers, as paywalls don’t really align with my values. It’s my hope that folks who can do so will become paid subscribers and help sustain me and this project.
I’d love for you to submit your questions for episode 6, and you can do so by sending me an email at email@example.com with the subject line OPENINGS SUBMISSION.
You’ll find the transcript of the episode below.
Hello dear ones. As always, I appreciate your patience when it comes to releasing these episodes. Today for episode #5 of OPENINGS: monthly advice podcast where I answer your questions, we'll be talking all about what we can do when fear comes up. A reminder that this offering is available to all subscribers, as paywalls don't really align with my values. It is my hope that folks who can do so will become paid subscribers and help sustain me on this project. I'd love for you to submit your own questions for Episode 6. And you can do so by sending me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line OPENINGS SUBMISSION.
For our first question today, I just want to offer a content note that there will be a mention of sexual violence but no explicit details. So please feel free to take care of yourself whatever that looks like.
Our question: I am haunted by violent intrusive thoughts. They make me sick, anxious and confused. They follow me in my dreams and my waking hours. Especially when I leave the house and even sometimes when I don't. I am trying to understand why they come up, which of my parts is trying to warn me and what of. But it's hard to make sense of when my thoughts - which are often about receiving sexual violence - have no connection to what I have experienced (or at least what I remember having experienced).
How can I work out what is going on with me? How can I gain clarity about something I don't understand? Is there a way to be at peace with inexplicable and shameful pain?
As someone who has lived with intrusive thoughts my whole life, I just want to take a moment, and yeah, just share that I really resonate with this experience. I want to talk about an experience that I had, at the start of the COVID pandemic. This must have been back in maybe February or March of oh my goodness, this is like 2020, I guess now. And I was feeling just terrified of going outside. I was afraid that someone would breathe on me, sneeze on me, cough in my face. And I couldn't understand why I was having these intrusive thoughts. Because, like you, I couldn't remember any experiences where that had happened to me in the past. I you know, while being a chronically ill human who's been sick throughout my life, I've never lived through anything like pandemic before. And so, when I went into therapy one week, I was talking to my therapist about these intrusive thoughts that were really making it quite impossible for me to leave my house. And what we realized was that the connecting piece here, or what was activating my parts, was that outside felt unsafe. And so we started to explore okay, well, well, when in my life did I feel that being outside was unsafe? And what we realized was that the first real experience I had of that feeling came after I was sexually assaulted, which happened outside. And so these were two different experiences. But our trauma brain is always just looking for the patterns. What is is similar to the thing that is freaking us out. And, you know an experience that we might have had in the past.
I'm really reminded of words that I read, in Staci K. Haines, his book, The Politics of Trauma, where Haines talks about how, as human beings, we have these inherent innate needs for safety, belonging, and dignity. And that trauma happens when our inherent needs for safety, belonging and dignity are threatened. And trauma itself can threaten safety, belonging, and dignity. So as an example of this, you know, the trauma that of my mother's death threatened my sense of safety, because now I had a single parent who was left to care for me. It threatened my sense of belonging, because I had always connected more with my mom than with my dad. And it really impacted my sense of dignity or self regard, (that's the language that I like to use, that resonates more with me) because my mom was the one who knew how to give verbal affirmation, who really knew how to make me feel loved and special, and like I mattered. So that's like one example of the ways in which trauma can impact those. But also, if we think about, you know, trauma itself, we think about the trauma of living in a global pandemic, where literally being outside is a threat to our safety. We’re having these intense periods of isolation and lockdown have threatened our ability to connect with one another. And so often, when I'm feeling triggered, and I don't know why, or if I'm having intrusive thoughts, and I just can't understand why they're coming up, I ask myself: which of these three inherent needs is feeling threatened? It might be all three, it might be one more so than others. And from that place, I can ask myself: okay, when do I remember having my sense of safety threatened in the past? Or when do I first remember feeling like, I didn't belong? And so again, you know, our intrusive thoughts, they're rarely about things that have actually happened to us. Because in my own understanding of my intrusive thoughts, what they're actually trying to do is to act as a diversion from the actual thing that I am, I'm really scared of. And this isn't to say that I wasn't also scared of like, leaving my house because of the pandemic. But you know, that fear is very rational. And I want to put the word rational in scare quotes here as it like comes out of my mouth. Because all of our fears, make sense, to our nervous system, and are therefore rational. But what I mean to say is you know, we live in a world that is inherently unsafe. We know that we live in a world of rape culture, where the possibility of sexual assault in our homes and outside of our homes is very, very real. And so it makes sense to be afraid of those things happening. And what I have found personally, is that what is causing the intrusive thoughts is not what is actually happening in the present. It's about what has happened in the past.
And so, when my intrusive thoughts come up, the first thing that I do is I really just work to give myself some validation, and comfort. Because in earlier moments of my life, where I was scared, I didn't get that comfort, I didn't get that validation. And those missing experiences were in and of themselves a kind of trauma. So the intrusive thought comes up. And one of the first things that I do in those moments is I place my hands over my heart. And I tell myself: “it makes so much sense that you'd be scared of that,” or “that sounds really scary.” You know, I think about this example that one of my first therapists offered me, we were talking about anxiety. And she said to me: “you know, when a child wakes up in the night, scared that there's a monster under their bed, and they run into their parents room, hopefully their parents response is going to be ‘Oh, my gosh, that's so scary. Like, let's go take a look and see if that monster is there.’” For many of us, we got a different response that told us, “oh, that's irrational, there's no such thing as monsters.” And so we, in offering ourselves that validation, and that compassion in those moments, we are providing ourselves with the comfort that we need, and that we needed at one point in time. What we're also doing in those moments is showing those younger parts of us that are scared that there is an adult self here now, i.e. us that is going to take care of that.
So to come back to your questions: how can I work out what is going on with me? How can I gain clarity about something I don't understand? My first question, and my first response to your question is another question: Can you be with the fear when it comes up? What is your response to yourself? In those moments when the intrusive thoughts come in, can you offer yourself the reassurance and the validation that you need? Then, can you remember how old you were when you first started to experience fear like this? And you know, it might not be like a concrete age, it might be an age range. And then you can sort of think: Okay, well, what was I afraid of, then? Because that's what is actually needing to be tended to. And then finally: can you offer yourself the reassurance that no matter what happens, even if the worst thing does happen, that you will be there for yourself? In other words, can you offer that scared little person inside of you the reassurance that adult you isn't going anywhere? To your last question, is there a way to be at peace with inexplicable and shameful pain? I would say, yes. I mean, you know, the word “peace” is interesting to me. The word I think of is like, can I be gentle with myself in the face of inexplicable and shameful pain? When we offer ourselves compassion, we feel the shame decrease. Compassion really is the antidote to shame. So, can you offer yourself love? Can you offer yourself care? Because then I find when those moments those painful moments, when those intrusive thoughts come up, you know, what I've experienced is that in offering my self compassion, the pain passes so much more quickly. Intrusive thoughts are painful. They're, you know, they, yeah, they just really are. They're really hard when they come up. And they don't need to rule our lives in the same way. When we get curious about what's happening, and even if we can't figure out what the root is, there's so much that happens from being able to offer ourselves that compassion.
All right, question #2:
I am currently in an extremely supportive, loving, and healing romantic relationship. We have entered new territory, where I can feel my heart closing off, and myself dissociating a bit, when we are having very emotionally intimate or loving time together. It feels like my heart has a hard time accepting the love and feeling it fully. What do we do when love feels scary, when it feels too much like past traumas and activates our trauma responses? How can we move past that to fully feel the joys and depths of our love?
Someone with insecure attachment, I feel you. It is wild, when we enter into a romantic relationship that is, as you say, like extremely supportive, loving and healing. When you need to remember that newness is scary for our trauma brain. Trauma brain is way more comfortable with what it knows, even when what it knows is painful. This is why, you know, so many of us have struggled when receiving love because that's not what is familiar. What is familiar might be criticism, or abandonment, or withholding. And as much as those old experiences caused us pain, our trauma brain knows what to do with that. And so here you're having an experience where you're getting to create new neural pathways in your brain, which is so cool. And a metaphor that I've like found, you know, really helpful is that, you know, like I grew up walking to school across like, there's like a big field between my house and and the school that I went to. And I could walk the exact same path through that field every day. And, you know, as we know, when we, you know, are walking cross grass, if we take that same track every day, you know, first the grass is going to get smushed down, then eventually the grass is going to disappear, then we're going to have dirt, then that like path is going to like sink in more. And this is really what's happening with our brains with like, the experiences that we have in the world, not just like early developmental experiences, but like, you know, experiences that happen in our adolescence in our adulthood. They form a neural pathway. And so let's say one day, we're like, alright, you know what, I'm going to mix things up and I'm going to take a new path. Our brain is going to find its way back to that old neural pathway. Just like with just by pure muscle memory, it's not even going to be conscious. And so as we're building this new pathway, we have to just notice when we’re like over on the old path and reorient ourselves to the new pathway.
So what is familiar to you I would get from what you're sharing here, is the heart closing off and dissociation. Because those are the things that kept you safe in the past. And it's just you just have so much insight here already, right? Like, you know, you've shared it feels like my heart has a hard time accepting the love and feeling it fully. Yes, absolutely. But for me, the main reason outside of okay, this is like new and scary — so that's one reason that, you know, I can feel my heart start to close off — another reason is that when we get to finally experience the love and care and support that we have always wanted, it brings with it so much grief for all of the years in our lives, where we didn't get to experience that. And so here, I'm wondering what you can do to create some space for that grief. Dissociation, you know, is something that we really mastered, to really help us from feeling the pain in the present moment. And for so many of us that pain is grief. And so, you know, our flight part, our freeze part in particular, I mean, all of our parts can use dissociation in different ways. But those two in particular, because flight really wants us to experience pleasure and freeze is really terrified of grief. And so dissociation becomes a great tool for accessing joy, and for not feeling grief. So, you know, in those moments, where you feel yourself start to dissociate, or the heart starting to close up, can you allow yourself to feel some of the sadness that's there?
In answer to your questions, what do we do when love feels scary? When it feels like to when it feels too much like past traumas and activates our trauma responses? We just have to learn to be with those parts of us that are afraid. Similar to you know, the person who submitted the first question in this episode, there are younger parts here that are obviously afraid. And that don't understand the difference between what is happening in the present. And what happened in the past. One thing that my brilliant friend Varvara shared with me recently, when I called her after going into a pretty major panic spiral, because I have started dating someone who is showing up and meeting me where I'm at, in a way that I've never experienced romantically. And it is like, all that I've wanted. And getting that is terrifying, AF. And so I got on the phone with this friend who's a brilliant somatic practitioner, I'm going to drop her Instagram in the transcript for this because if you're not already following her you absolutely should be. You know, and she said to me, like, can you hold the hand of, you know, this younger you which for me is like adolescent me, and show her all of the ways in which this experience is different from what happened in the past? And so I did some journaling, with that younger me in mind where I said, like, you know, hey, like, here's, here's all of the ways that this person is showing up that are different. And also, here's what's different about you now.
One of my sort of internal conflicts between my parts is that you know, my youngest part my like, attach cry part, just wants to be loved at all costs and is very romantic. And so, you know, this part of me will sacrifice our self regard and our safety in order to experience belonging and connection. And then there's my fight part, which really didn't have a say growing up. And our fight part is really the part of us that's all about our boundaries and our self regard. And so having done all of the work that I've been doing over the years to get in touch with this fight part, you know, I have fight part saying like, whoa, whoa, let's like not get too invested here. Because investing in connection equals disregarding our own boundaries, placing ourselves into unsafe situations, and really diminishing our sense of dignity and self regard, in order to maintain connection. And so these two have like this internal conflict that's like happening within me. And then it activates other parts of me, because then it's just like, really overwhelming. And it just becomes this, like, emotional hunger games inside of me. So figuring out which trauma responses are activated, what it is that they're afraid of, and what it is that they're doing to try to protect us in this moment. So those are like three kind of key questions to explore, when love feels scary.
And the more that we can tend to the fears of those parts of us, the more we're able to move into feeling the joys and depths of that love. And so it really is like a both/and, you know. We can't, we just can't experience love without there also being some fear there. Because love, even if you're a human who doesn't have trauma — and I mean, I questioned more and more every day, like, is there anyone out there who doesn't have trauma, but that's a whole other conversation — love confronts us with our own non-sovereignty. And, you know, what I mean by non-sovereignty is like, you know, our sovereignty is like this sense of like, autonomy, agency, power. And when we enter into romance, or love, or, or any kind of connection with another human being, to be quite honest, we are saying, “I might get hurt here. I can't control how this other person is going to show up.” They, they can tell me that they'll never hurt me. But like, that is a promise that is pretty hard to keep, because wow, humans are messy, and we're gonna hurt each other. And we're gonna mess up. And so, you know, I, the more that I come to accept that love brings fear with it, and that love also brings grief with it, because when we love, we're not only confronting the past, in which we didn't have the love that we wanted, but we're also confronting the reality that like, you know, we could lose this person. And so there's kind of, like, anticipatory grief there. And so the less I tried to focus on getting rid of the fear and the more I tried to create space for it, the less fear I actually feel. And so if we can shift out of this, you know, either/or kind of thinking or this, you know, feeling of like, Oh, I just don't want to feel the fear. I just want to be able to feel the joy and the fullness and the love. You know, and we shift towards that. Like, it's a both/and — yeah, it's just it's been pretty magical for me.
So. Okay, I hope that these thoughts and reflections on how we navigate fear when it comes up, whether those that fear is coming up in intrusive thoughts, or it's coming up, you know, when we are getting to have the experiences that we might not have ever had before. Yeah, really the this all just boils down to how can we learn to be with the fear? All right, y'all. I'm always just so grateful to be trusted with your questions. reminder that if you appreciate this offering and you have the means to do so, signing up to become a paid subscriber helps me so much. But I also love it when you share this newsletter with folks in your life. Sharing is caring as they say. And I'll see you next month for another episode of openings.