The Soft Animal Of Our Body
Hello dear ones,
These days I’m realizing how writing is one of the ways that I move through the grief and shock of heartbreak. I am so grateful for these moments of lucidity, where I can channel what I am moving through into language, and that I can share these words with you all.
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There is a quote from poet Mary Oliver that I have been seeing again and again on Instagram: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body/ love what it loves.” (To be clear, I love this poem and am speaking to the ways in which therapists and new age healers have taken this quote out of context.) I can see why this sentiment resonates with so many. So many of us have been taught to disavow what it is we love thanks to systemic oppression. There is so much power in honouring what it is we love. And I feel, at the same time, that this quote is written for those who live in the landscape of secure attachment. What happens when the soft animal of your body has been taught to love danger and chaos? What happens when love and intimacy, emotional vulnerability and safety are the very things that your soft animal body repels from?
As someone with disorganized attachment, I have had to do a lot of work to unlearn what I was taught to love. “The disorganized attachment style,” explains Jessica Fern, “is most commonly associated with trauma and it typically arises when a child experiences their attachment figure as scary, threatening or dangerous. When we are afraid, our attachment system gets activated to seek proximity to and comfort from our attachment figure, but what happens when our attachment figure is the person causing the threat? This puts the child in a paradoxical situation where their caretaker, who is supposed to be the source of their comfort and the solution to their fears, is actually the source of their fear instead.” Disorganized attachment also develops when our caregiver is unpredictable, when we’re unsure of whether we’ll receive their love or their punishment. What do you do when the person who’s supposed to comfort you is the person who is causing the harm in the first place? You vacillate between the desire to be close and the desire to pull away.
When your attachment system is shaped by disorganized attachment, you do not develop an accurate safety map. In other words, you cannot discern the difference between safety and danger. In their book Nurturing Resilience, Kathy Kain and Stephen Terrell explain how: “Clients who lack a ‘safety map’ are primarily tuned to danger. They have well-developed filters and somatic narratives about what danger is and what it means—because danger has been an imperative in their lives—but they often have a somewhat limited ability to recognize safety.” Janina Fisher describes how “Because closeness and safety are intertwined when we are dependent for survival on caregivers, the implicit message is: ‘It isn’t safe to depend. It isn’t safe to get too close or to love those closest to you.’”
Attachment shapes attraction, romance, love, and intimacy. If we grew up experiencing insecure attachment, then our reward circuit is hardwired to release dopamine and oxytocin when we receive the hard-earned rewards of insecure relationships. If you’re anxiously attached, the reward is your partner turning towards you. If you’re avoidantly attached, the reward is distance from your partner. And if you have disorganized attachment, proximity and distance can each be their own rewards. For us insecurely attached humans, secure attachment will not feel as good to us because of how our reward circuit is oriented. We may find ourselves thinking “This can’t be love because I’m not feeling all of these intense emotions that usually release these reward chemicals that make me feel good, while also paradoxically making me feel bad.”
As a child, I was forever chasing my avoidantly attached father. And all of my romantic relationships followed suit: I was always falling for boys who couldn’t fully commit; who were scared of intimacy; and who withheld their depths of their emotional landscape from me. This chase, and the brief moments of intimacy I’d sometimes obtain, produced dopamine hits that were tethered to the insecure forms of attachment I grew up with.
When we finally experience our first taste of secure attachment, our nervous system freaks out. Because new equals unsafe. Our nervous system will then decide how to respond. Do we fight? Do we flee? Do we freeze? Do we submit? While all of those options will feel very appealing, we actually need to do the scariest thing possible and be with the discomfort so that we can move through it. We need to open ourselves up to the experience of safety. Which is a lot easier said than done when our survival physiology is oriented towards protection and away from connection. We need to question what it is that our soft animal body loves and why. We need our bodies and our minds.
Since the Cartesian body/mind dualism took over in the 17th century, we have lived in a world that believes that the body and the mind are separate entities, disconnected from one another. Under this logic, we prioritized the mind as the site of all rational being. Now, with the field of somatic therapy gaining more and more traction, we have swung from one end of the poll to the other: “Forget the mind! We must listen to the wisdom of the body!” But somatics is about the wholeness of a person: of body and mind. Our body hold so much information for us — and it is imperative that we listen. The choices we make from this information, however, may be the exact opposite of what the body thinks it wants.
I recently met the sweetest dog. I was told that she had a lot of trauma, would probably bark at me for the duration of my stay, and to not take it personally when she avoided my presence at all costs. I came prepared and with no expectations. But she didn’t bark at me. In fact, she slept above my head every night for my week-long stay, reaching her paw out to my hand when I wasn’t touching her. I watched her owner sit in shock as this sweet trauma bb let me pet her, kiss her, and rub her belly. And then there were a few moments during my stay, when for reasons unbeknownst to us, this sweet pup would jump up and go hide under the couch. As two humans with an understanding of disorganized attachment, we wondered if her attachment system was overwhelmed by the feelings of safety she was experiencing, and she went back to her old safety mapping by hiding.
In those moments, all we can do is acknowledge that our nervous system is activated, that we are scared, and wait until we’re more regulated before we take action. We do our best to not make decisions from under the couch. Because the soft animal body under the couch only knows what it has been hardwired to love: protection over connection, danger over safety. And that is very different from what our adult brain loves and longs for. I want us to let the soft animal of our body love what it loves — and the hard truth is that we can want connection and be terrified of it.
How might we hold space for the conflicting desires that live within us? For the ways in which our soft animal bodies can love things that harm us? How might we learn to practice greater discernment in those moments where our bodies tell us to get under the couch? I love our soft animal body and all of its wisdom. And sometimes, we must say to our soft animal bodies “I know that you love this / and why don’t we learn to love something new?”
It has taken me a long time to understand when my nervous system is activated and what it is I need in those moments. Sometimes pinpointing a feeling (like terror) might be more challenging than tuning into what is happening, somatically, in your body. You can start to practice building your awareness by noticing what sensations are coming up for you. Are you breathing fast, slow, or moderately? Is your pulse racing? Are feeling hot or cold? Where are you feeling tension in your body? Are you feeling present and connected to your surroundings? Do things feel urgent?
Here are some cues that tell me that I’m dysregulated:
My heart is racing, I can’t stop looking around the room.
I am very cold and exhausted.
Everything feels urgent and I am unable to pause.
I start thinking in black and white and there is no space for nuance.
I jump to conclusions rather than asking questions.
My head feels like it is underwater.
Here are some cues that tell me that I’m regulated:
I feel compassion for myself and others and am able to express it.
I am curious.
I am able to pinpoint what it is that I’m feeling.
I can take in feedback from others — even when it’s critical.
I am taking deep breaths into my belly.
My chest feels expansive.
Want to build your nervous system awareness even more? Janina Fisher has some amazing worksheets in her book Transforming the Living Legacy of Trauma, which you can access here for free. Some of them may not make a whole lot of sense without the content in the workbook, but worksheets 1, 5, and 9 will help you get a better sense of trauma symptoms, triggers, and signs of hyper- and hypoarousal.
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