Updated: Feb 1
I had a wonderful conversation with a friend of mine last evening online. It was a difficult one in many ways, but it was still excellent. I chose to speak to her because she is someone who my system has historically recognized and flagged as a safe person and those types of relationships have felt more and more challenging to find lately. I’ve felt stifled. Like I haven’t known where it is safe to share my true thoughts and feelings and to step into my full, authentic self expression. I let her know that I have felt more lonely, disconnected and afraid lately than I have in my life and that’s saying a lot. My system is having an extremely difficult time picking up on any cues of safety in my environment and in the world in general. I can’t help but feel like I’m not alone in this experience.
I have been very hard on myself lately. I have been struggling with a lot of anger, confusion and disillusionment. I haven’t been doing things ‘perfectly’ - a standard I unfairly have been placing on myself for years. I haven’t been expressing my opinions. I have been keeping myself small and silent. When I do share my opinions it has been extremely awkward and ungraceful, emotionally charged and unclear. I haven’t been a good communicator. I have been spending too much time on my fucking phone and not enough time in real, authentic conversation with those I love.
My pre-existing safety with this particular friend allowed me to come to a place of honesty and openness with her about what I was thinking and feeling and she was able to do the same. Because of this safety, we were able to share conflicting perspectives on what is currently manifesting in the world around us on a national and global scale. I was honest with her and shared that I was feeling very confused politically, like I wasn’t sure who I was anymore or what ‘group’ I fit in to. It occurred to me that what I was looking for was a sense of belonging - my system was craving the reassurance that I ‘belong’ to _________ group and therefore everything makes sense and I am safe. Like I have some kind of context from which to measure who I am and how I am existing in the world. The problem is, right now, it hasn’t been feeling so simple for me. I can no longer so easily categorize myself as being a part of any one specific social or political group and I can no longer seek out the so-called ‘safety’ of a label or an identification with any specific political ideology. My beliefs do not fit neatly into one neatly wrapped box of any particular political category and that feels deeply disorienting to me. I am having difficulty holding complexity, nuance and shades of grey. My system feels under threat.
The realization of my ‘safety seeking’ suddenly helped me to be able to view myself and others with a deeper level of compassion and understanding. I realized that the human experience is one of desperately wanting and NEEDing to obtain safety and predictability. It is required for us to function at a basic level. When we feel unsafe we begin to compulsively search for certainty, to categorize, to label, to try to control and even to attack what appears to threaten what we feel is true.
Deb Dana, a psychotherapist who helped to develop Steven Porges’ Polyvagal Theory approach to psychotherapy talks about the ‘Three C’s’ that human beings need in order to not become traumatized by their experiences.
The circumstances of the last two years have not allowed for us to have these things. We have had no control over what has happened or what is going to happen. We have had no choice over how much of it is managed and how it impacts our lives on a daily basis and we have had no context for why things are happening they way they are. We are disconnected from each other and are viewing the world through our devices, uncertain of what is ‘reality’ and was is fabrication. And this has continued for almost two years now with very little refuge. No wonder we are all freaking out. No wonder we are not at our best. We are all collectively traumatized and exhausted. We are also physically isolated from one another - community being a buffer against overwhelm and burn out and a resource not available to help us to support our systems to cope with the ongoing stress.
When my friend and I were in dialogue this evening we realized something important. As we both shared what we were angry about (and we are both feeling very angry) we realized that beneath that anger was fear. What we were afraid of the most was different for both of us - and in both cases it was justifiably based on our own life experiences, individual traumas and challenges. We were both, desperately seeking a sense of safety in the ways that made the most sense to our individual systems. We were both trying desperately to find some semblance of predictability and certainty and justification for our own feelings of sadness, disbelief, anger and fear. Where we sensed anyone threatening this sense of predictability and safety, we became very deeply angry. And it all makes perfect sense. We all make perfect sense, even when our behaviours don’t always appear to on the surface.
The activist who is fighting to end mandates fears government control and overreach. The one who fights to keep them in place fears their loved ones getting sick and possibly dying. The person with a history of chronic illness and medical trauma fears being forced to choose between making a medical decision that they could later regret or being able to secure employment. The burnt out nurse or emergency physician fears not warning their loved ones of the dangers of the virus and later feeling responsible for their harm. The person who has a loved one who’s family member has passed away fears this happening to someone in their family. All individuals have most likely had experiences in their lives that have led them to be most afraid of these particular things. Maybe they are not fully aware of these experiences. Maybe they are not conscious. Maybe they don’t remember them at all. Maybe these beliefs were passed down to them from older generations. But they are understandably afraid nonetheless.
This conversation with my friend gave context to the degree of anger that I am witnessing in the world (and I include myself in that grouping).
Beneath anger is usually fear. Beneath fear is usually pain. When I was able to view humanity as a species understandably consumed by fear, I could more easily understand all of the anger, the finger pointing, the division, the hatred, the ostracism, the rage and the confusion. Our western illusion of certainty and predictability has been crumbling. And so we attack. We get angry. We label. We blame. We shame. It is our way of coping with what is happening around us.
We are, after all, animals, but we are no longer living in the wild and we forget that our biology predisposes us towards tribalism from a place of survival. We must belong to a pack in order to feel safe. It is a part of our physiology.
A friend of mine in University’s mom told us a story about when she lived on a farm growing up. She and a group of her friends were tie-dying for a school project and decided that it would be funny to immerse one of the farm chickens into a bucket of dye. They put the chicken back into the coop and the next morning my friend’s mom came to see that the rest of the chickens had pecked it to death. Its difference was threatening to them. We are the chickens and right now, the world is the coop and we are all constantly on the lookout for who is ‘other’, different and threatening to our particular way lot viewing life. It is our natural, inherent, physiological propensity. It’s not our fault.
Communication via technology makes us forget that we are, in fact, communicating with human beings and we are losing our capacity to sit in nuance and complexity of dialogue and opinion. Our nervous systems are geared towards black and white/fight or flight and we are so quick to judge and label. Basking in self-righteousness, we spew our perspectives angrily onto others as though they are the correct and ONLY truth. But, perhaps beneath the anger and self-righteousness is an emotion that we don’t want to allow ourselves to feel because it is too deeply uncomfortable and scary for us and this is: helplessness. It is easier for us to project anger, blame and shame outwardly than it is for us to acknowledge where we feel so entirely and completely helpless and out of control over our own experience. Anger is easier. And we all currently feel justified in our individual flavour of rage.
I long to share my thoughts and feelings and to not be pecked to death in the coop. I long to have open, authentic dialogue that honours nuance and complexity and to feel safe doing so. I long to feel seen and heard even if (especially if) my perspective differs from those around me. I believe that the only way to truly induce change and to move forward is to be able to hear differing perspectives and engage in open dialogue. To hear ALL perspectives, even if they stray from the acceptable narrative of the moment. But perhaps in order to do that, it involves us being able to lay down our armour and maybe right now, we aren’t able to do that and that has to be ok. We are all in self protection. There is deep wisdom in that state, as well.
I don’t know where our world is headed, I don’t know how I can be a part of the moving forward. I don’t know how or where I will speak. I don’t know when or if I will openly share my thoughts and feelings, most of which don’t fit neatly into one ‘side’ or the other. Maybe I will share in quieter ways. Maybe I will continue to share my personal experiences and thoughts in individual situations that my system recognizes as safe, just like I did with my friend. Maybe that is enough for now. Maybe, what is need is to step away from technology. Maybe what is needed is a return to community somehow, in any way that I can.
I am grateful for my experiences learning about my own mental health prior to this pandemic. Years ago I would have thought them to be a curse. They were horrible, vicious dark nights of the soul where everything felt painful and uncertain and like they would never end. Now I feel grateful to have learned what I did prior to moving into this pandemic. It gave me tools that had I not had, I would be far worse off right now.
Sometimes we can’t know how the hell that we are currently going through will lead us to a new place, a stronger place, a brighter place, a more aligned place. I am holding on to that possibility right now.
I am holding on to the idea of the dark night of the soul clearing the way for clarity and flow. We often can’t see the way in the darkness. We just have to trust that the light at the end of the tunnel exists. And that’s the hard part, the trusting, because it takes a massive fucking amount of faith. I’m grateful for my previous ‘dark nights of the soul’ because they made it easier for me to navigate this one. And that’s all any of us can do right now, navigate it, as best we can, with the knowledge we have, with the values and beliefs we hold close to our hearts. At our core, we are all deeply, imperfectly flawed human beings who are just trying to feel safe. Holding on to the knowledge that I am not the only one brings me some relief and semblance of belonging, at least.
Reilly Scott is a singer/songwriter, blogger, yoga teacher and facilitator residing in Kenora, Ontario. She is passionate about combining trauma informed practice and body based healing modalities with the arts to support psycho-education, health and wellbeing.
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