As I sat down in front of my computer to meet online with a colleague, a notification of a group email flashed onto the top right of my screen. It was announcing my decision to change roles in one of the organizations I work for. In my mind it was meant to be my announcement to make. In my mind, something had been taken from me.
In that moment, a flash of childhood memory glanced through my body: a memory of a surprise birthday party for me, aged 12. I opened the front door to my house to discover my classmates sitting in our family lounge room, ready to announce, “Surprise!” My amygdala came online, ready to fight, fly, or freeze, as I experienced the horror of being out of control; of something large having been done behind my back; of feeling unsafe and unknown. I hate, and always have hated, surprises of this kind.
12-year-old me sat placidly in the lounge room for a while, dampening any urges to run, sitting amongst girls who sat and looked back expectantly at me. I was expected to enjoy this event in my honor; I was expected to be the center of attention; and I was expected to be grateful that my family had done this for me. Instead I felt trapped, exposed and shamefully ungrateful.
Eventually I fled upstairs to my bedroom to cry, my mum made some excuse to the group about me not feeling well, and everyone went home.
So, here I was as adult me, with that same feeling of not having control, of being exposed, and of feeling ashamedly ungrateful.
I could see my colleague’s lips moving, hear her talking, but the meaning in her words was fairly rapidly lost to me. The brain cares little for a meeting agenda when it’s responding to a threat to its survival.
The mechanics behind these feelings is not that important to me. There was once a time in my life when I’d get “into my head” and try to work out why I was responding this way. But now, I get back to where the real action is: in my body.
I sat for a while with my colleague, as our online meeting started, and felt a rising sensation in my torso. This sensation related to emotions of dread, horror and fear. At the same time the cognitive part of my brain started to go offline: I could see my colleague’s lips moving, hear her talking, but the meaning in her words was fairly rapidly lost to me. The brain cares little for a meeting agenda when it’s responding to a threat to its survival.
The corresponding moment for the 12-year birthday girl was when she opened the front door to discover her classmates. Fear, horror, dread.
But, 30 years later, here’s what was different: As I felt the rising sensations and emotions, I no longer felt condemned to simply endure them: I knew I could respond. My amygdala was taking control, and there’s little to be done to change that. What I could change was how I danced with it.
I said to my friend, “I just got an email that made me really angry; do you mind if I take 5 minutes?” She was totally OK with this (12-year-old me had no way to assert herself this way, to know she could ask for time to take care of herself). We tuned off our videos and microphones, and I stood up.
I didn’t even know I was feeling angry until I spoke to her. My pre-frontal cortex was coming online and I was able to start disentangling the overwhelming threads of emotion. I stood up and moved away from my computer, escaping the “scene” of the event. This is what our survival reflexes are primed to do: carry us to safety. In Peter Levine’s thinking, this served as “completion” of what my system needed to naturally do to keep me safe. Walking into the midst of the party or staying in front of my computer as if I hadn’t just felt threatened are ways to thwart that natural process of protection. And, as Levine points out, when we can’t allow that natural process to do its thing – when we stay when our system tells us to leave – that latent energy has nowhere to go, and it expresses itself as tension, blockage, any number of physical complaints. Depending on the original situation, some of these can be chronic; some of these can last a lifetime.
We can shepherd our amygdala’s bodily responses into a safe place, in the same way we might protect a child from harming herself while she’s throwing a tantrum, not by stifling but by holding compassionately.
So, I walked the short distance to the kitchen, and let my amygdala have at it. I felt anger, I shook my body all over, I stamped my feet and waved fists of rage. I had my angry dance. And then, in less than 5 minutes, it was all over and I could return, calmly, to my meeting. Completion.
Anger felt – anger expressed in a totally safe environment – energy discharged – relief. Sometimes the best therapy is listening to our body and responding naturally. Given the power of our pre-frontal cortex, we can choose to do this in a way that doesn’t cripple relationships, burn bridges or threaten our employment. We can shepherd our amygdala’s bodily responses into a safe place, in the same way we might protect a child from harming herself while she’s throwing a tantrum, not by stifling but by holding compassionately.
Mindful self-compassion practice along with learning about my body’s survival mechanisms helped me to get here. I take care of myself, and I allow myself to listen to my body. In asking, “What do I need?” when my response is, “I need to run, rant, stamp, wave my fists …” then I give myself that gift. The gift of fully felt anger held in safety and kindness. The gift of completion.
Sometimes our most empowered words of self-love can be, “I need a moment to have my reaction.” Try it one day.
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