TRAUMA SURVIVORS IN LOVE (PART 4 of 4)

This series arose from the notion that people who have been traumatized by formative
relationships will find intimate relationships especially challenging.

I believe that relational trauma survivors who embark on romantic relationships are as
audacious as ice climbers! Like other extreme athletes, TSIL need to engage thoughtfully
in their extreme sport.

 

In this spirit, I offer the following Trauma Survivors in Love (TSIL) preparation guidelines:

1. Understand what you are embarking on;
2. Practice resilience & strength-building routines;
3. Build trust. Be each other’s allies;
4. Gather safety equipment, safety protocols & First Aid Kit;
5. Gather support teams.

This final part of the series covers the fifth guideline.

5) GATHER YOUR SUPPORT TEAMS (DON’T TRY TO BE EACH OTHER’S ONLY SUPPORT!)

Your support team is everything. They are your base camp. They help you prepare for a tough climb. They take care of you when you fall.

It is important for every TSIL to gather a support team that suits them.

This can look a lot of different ways.

Over the years I have gathered solid and trustworthy healing/teaching/support teams that at times have included clinical herbalists, somatic therapists, chiropractors, physical therapists, yoga teachers, psychotherapists, spiritual teachers, body workers, intuitives, Chinese medicine practitioners, plant and animal allies, business coaches, and various learning, healing, social justice and practice communities.

Your healing team may include doctors, naturopaths, psychiatrists, chiropractors, pastors, priestesses, rabbis, lamas, physical therapists, herbalists, personal trainers, energy workers, spiritual guides, massage therapists, doulas, psychics, etc. Whoever meets your particular needs.

I find it enormously helpful to work with practitioners from different disciplines and perspectives. I embody the same trauma dynamics and healing potentials wherever I go, so these practitioners may be seeing and telling me similar things.

But the combination of overlap, repetition and unique languaging helps me absorb the healing that I need. The varied interventions support holographic learning within my body, mind, emotions, and spirit.

TIPS FOR CHOOSING PRACTITIONERS

You get to interview, hire and fire your practitioners as you see fit and as your needs change. This article offers a thoughtful, detailed breakdown of how to choose a therapist; you can apply the same approach when choosing other kinds of practitioners.

Sometimes it is crucial to work with practitioners who share your life experience, ethnicity, class background, or values.

If you need a practitioner who “gets” specific aspects of your or your community’s oppression, then look for them, and persist. If your body cannot relax in the presence of folks who have more privilege than you, then respect that.

At the same time, listen to your intuition and allow yourself to be surprised. The universe is mysterious, and sometimes we “click” and find deep healing with someone who we initially wouldn’t think we could trust.

As much as possible,* avoid overlapping with your partners’ practitioners and healing/learning communities. One reason is to make that space I talked about in part 3; giving each other space reduces reactivity.

Another reason is that you want your team to be your safe haven over the long haul. Break-ups happen. Can you handle running into your ex at every healing community gathering, or at your therapist’s office?

Let the prospective practitioner know what your life challenges and goals are, and ask them how they can support you to be your best self in your romantic relationship(s).

Make sure they are either trauma savvy, or that they see and deeply respect you, and are competent in their field.

Don’t try to see too many practitioners at once, or study with too many learning communities. I cannot give you a number.

How much is enough versus too much is up to you.  Avoid running from appointment to appointment, or receiving too much input to put into practice.

Less is more.

Consider diving deeply into a handful of approaches and practices for a few years, so that your body feels at home and you can learn through repetition. Repetition is the key to embodied, sustained change.

Repetition + the right team = results.

You know you are working with the right team when get results. What do results look like?

Specific, goal-oriented results can take months or years to clearly manifest, but you might be able to notice the small steps you are taking towards your goals.

One result that should become obvious early on is a steady, gradual increase in your compassion and love for yourself.

A GOOD TEAM WILL NURTURE & CHALLENGE YOU

Sustainable healing is an ever changing balance of challenge and nurture. A trustworthy healing practitioner will consistently treat you with compassion, while encouraging your body-mind to move beyond comfort zones and stagnant modes.

Not everyone on your team needs to fully embody both gentleness and challenge. Some practitioners will love you roughly; some will exude lovingkindness. You need to receive both, in the proportions that work for you.

These proportions may look different across the physical, emotional and spiritual levels.

To give a personal example, I am someone who thrives on emotional and spiritual challenges, such as intuitive reader trainings and rigorous meditation retreats.

The opposite is true for my mind and body: Engaging in very “heady” activities creates too much mental struggle. My body shuts down with harsh treatments such as allopathic drugs, painful bodywork or aerobics.

So my mind and body need more gentleness than my spirit or emotions do, although at all levels I respond best to compassionate presence.

Since I learned these things about myself, I have been able to choose my practitioners accordingly.

I allow myself to engage in fairly demanding spiritual and emotional disciplines, choose mental practices that soothe my chattering mind, and physical practices that are subtle and spacious, such as craniosacral bodywork, flower essences or acupuncture.

I encourage you to find out which combinations of effort and ease are most nourishing for your particular body/mind/emotions/spirit.

Overall, your team should challenge and nurture you, and give you plenty of examples of what challenging and nurturing yourself looks like.

Working with your team over time (and providing them with feedback and course corrections) will teach you when and how to shift between self-nurturing and self-challenging modes.

SANDBOX SUPPORT

I introduced the Sandbox Approach to relationships in Part 2; establishing self-care routines and self-stewarding your trauma healing are essential preparation for applying this approach to relationships.

To recap, the Sandbox Approach is about taking full responsibility for yourself in your romantic relationships.

This means 100% of the time, no matter what is happening between you and your lover(s), you commit to play the role of parent or steward for those tender and resilient aspects of yourself that we sometimes call our “inner kid,”  our animal body, or our psycho-biology.

Your healing team can help you master the Sandbox Approach. A competent therapist or somatic coach will model how to treat your inner kid by how they treat you.

The best practitioners will offer you opportunities to practice taking loving responsibility for your inner kid/animal body/psycho-biology.

BUT I WANT YOU TO TAKE CARE OF ME!

Many of us trauma survivors long for the loving, attentive parenting that we never received as kids.

As grown-ups, when we “fall in love” and experience fierce intimacy with our lover, we may secretly expect them to step into that parent role and magically “redo” our childhood for us.

We may long to hand our wounded young self over to our lover and say, “You take care of them!”

There is nothing wrong with such longings. All of us deserved safe, loving stable parenting. It is natural and self-loving to still want that.

But! The re-parenting we need cannot come from our adult partners.

We are not children anymore; no one is going to parent us now. Let yourself grieve that fact as long as you need to.

Meanwhile, begin to re-parent yourself. This time, you are the responsible grown up. Re-parenting yourself is your job.

(Do you want to tantrum after reading the above? Go ahead. Stop reading and have a loud, arm-flailing, hoof-stomping, full-body tantrum. You have every right! It’s not fair. When you are done, come back and read some more.)

YOU RE-PARENTING YOU
Re-parenting yourself means treating yourself differently than you were treated as a kid.
It means no longer (unconsciously) replicating the neglectful, abusive or fickle care that
your parents or caregivers offered.

 

Instead, you commit to doing it differently. Which, by the way, will take alot of practice!

At first, you will abandon, forget and reject your miserable-scared-lonely-enraged kid over and over again. Just like your caregivers did.

But each time you doggedly return and show up for your inner kid, you get better at it. You learn to hold them steady. It gets easier as you discover how loveable they are.

Your team can help you with this self re-parenting journey. Competent practitioners will give you brief, contained tastes of being parented well.

Most facilitated healing happens simply because your healing practitioner is a steady, non-judgmental presence in your life.

A person with skills, certainly. But above all, a person who sees you and takes you seriously. A person who encourages you.

START BUILDING YOUR TEAM
Now, TSIL, it’s time to start building your healing teams! If money or a lack of
practitioners who reflect your experience are issues, look for appropriate healing
communities or create your own.

 

Or follow remote practitioners that speak to you. Read their teachings or listen to their podcasts. Try out their suggestions, by yourself or with friends.

You can also pray or holler to the universe, “Hey, I need help! Send me affordable help or send money!” Setting a clear intention opens up possibilities.

Once you have set that intention, take some time to rest and wait, breathe and trust.

I thank you all for reading and listening. I hope this series is useful to you. Feel free to send me your questions and comments.

***
Many thanks to my team for showing me how it’s done and being willing to learn from me, too.

*In small communities, including immigrant, trans, queer, sexual or ethnic minority ordisability communities, small towns, etc. this may be impossible. When I worked at the only LGBTQ domestic violence agency in town, we had strategies to safely support clients while maintaining confidentiality and trust. Ask your practitioners how they can help you navigate these situations.

***
1919564_1243693582359_2911008_n

TRAUMA SURVIVORS IN LOVE *online* WORKSHOP

Nourishing Practices for Skittish Partners

*ONLINE* WORKSHOP Wednesday, May 18
11 am-1 pm Pacific Standard Time

Intimate relationships are our birthright. But the neurobiology of relational trauma (neglect, attachment trauma, abuse & oppression) can hijack our hearts & derail mutual trust.

Learn about trauma neurobiology & practice somatic & intuitive tools to soothe hypervigilance. Practice supporting one another to stay open & connected over the long haul.

Singles, couples, triads, all welcome to attend.


Cost: $50

Limited to 8 participants
Register: vanissar@cs.com or (510) 594-6812

TRAUMA SURVIVORS IN LOVE (PART 3 of 4)

In Parts 1 & 2, I compared the romantic relationships of relational trauma survivors to extreme sports such as ice climbing.

 

Playing off this metaphor, I offered the following Trauma Surviors in Love (TSIL) preparation guidelines:

1. Understand what you are embarking on (risks and rewards);
2. Practice resilience and strength-building routines;
3. Build trust. Be each other’s allies;
4. Gather safety equipment, safety protocols and First Aid Kit;
5. Gather support team(s); don’t try to be each other’s only support!

Now I will cover the fourth guideline.

4) GATHER YOUR FIRST AID KIT & SAFETY PROTOCOLS

Extreme sports are risky. Just as spelunkers and ice climbers bring emergency equipment and procedures to their adventures, the savvy Trauma Survivor in Love (TSIL) has emergency tools and routines at the ready.

It’s like having a supply of bandaids, gauze and antiseptic, and knowing CPR—because sometimes people get hurt while doing risky things.

You can use the individual and ally work you have already done (see TSIL Parts One and Two) to create your First Aid Kit and Safety Protocols. The more experience you have in these areas, the easier your safety preparation will be.

FIRST AID KIT (FAK)/SAFETY EQUIPMENT

Collect Your Tools

If you have been working with the tools described in Guideline 1, gather your favorites for your personal FAK. You might want to print a list or detailed descriptions of your FAK practices.  Make sure you have it handy for when you need it.

To create a joint FAK for you and your partner(s), keep your lists and descriptions next to one another in a virtual folder or on a physical corkboard.

[Or create an App! If you do, let me know and I will share it in a future newsletter.]

When your partner is overwhelmed, you can be their ally by reading your partner’s list aloud to them.

Here you can find several tools to choose from:

Emotional First Aid

De-escalating Reactivity Practices

Emergency Response Kits

What else will you need in your kit? Fuzzy blankets? Your favorite music? Think about having your meds, flower essences or  bird essences handy.

You might want to create a compact version of your FAK for vacations or family visits; these are often triggering situations.

.

Share Your Trigger Go-Tos

In Part Two, I invited you to become experts on your own and your partner’s “Trigger Go-Tos,” which will be some combination of fight, flight, freeze, appease, freeze and dissociate.

You can share this information with your partner: “When I “freeze,” I hold my breath, get very quiet and try to make myself invisible.” “When I go into my “fight” mode I clench my jaw and harden my eyes; I may start talking sarcastically.”

When we use this information to observe our partner, it’s easier to notice when they have entered their triggered body state.

You can also brainstorm antidotes to triggered states. One way to find this out is to take turns roleplaying a situation that *mildly* triggers you. Both you and your partner can compassionately observe the body cues of your automatic “fight or flight” state.

Then you can experiment with different sequences of soothing and grounding practices. Find out which combination of practices reliably helps your body recover from that mild trigger.

Then switch roles and repeat the process with the other partner. After you have identified reliable antidotes for each of you, add them to your joint FAK.

You can use your personal antidotes to interrupt vicious cycles of mutual triggering before they get out of control. It doesn’t matter which of you calls up your personal antidote first; interrupting any point of a joint vicious cycle benefits everyone involved.

Body states are contagious: when your animal body calms down, your partner’s animal body senses this, and relaxes a little, which relaxes your animal body, and so on.

SAFETY PROTOCOLS

 

In Part Two, I invited you to be a good steward of your individual well-being by discovering and practicing the self-care tools that reliably soothe your body and brain.

Safety Protocols are about team wellbeing; they are familiar routines that you and your partner(s) agree to follow when one of you is triggered.

Gather Raw Materials

I encourage partners to generate safety protocols that suit you and your relationship(s). Set aside some relaxed time (perhaps a lazy breakfast date?), and bring all your raw materials.

You probably have some effective tools at your disposal already.

For example, maybe you have learned Nonviolent Communication (NVC) or Powerful Non-Defensive Communication (PNDC) skills.

Perhaps you deeply embody Access Intimacy wisdom.

Perhaps you practice consensual BDSM, and can share BDSM staples like safe words and aftercare skills.

Or maybe the boundaries practices from TSIL Part Two are now automatic for you.

What resources or transferable skills can you bring to your Safety Protocol project?

Generate Protocols that Work for You

You and your partner(s) will need to come up with protocols that are compatible with your specific trauma histories and temperaments.

Throughout your protocol generation process, ask yourself the following questions:

* What helped me in the past when I was triggered by my partner(s)?

* What are my typical trigger scenarios?

Here are some examples of trigger scenarios you might want to develop protocols for:

* What to do if I have a panic attack.

* How to help me when I am terrified by unfamiliar physical symptoms or pain.

(A sample protocol for this situation: “When I am convinced I cannot breathe: Please point out to me, repeatedly if necessary, that since I am able to talk, I must be getting enough air.”)

* What to do if I emotionally withdraw in a social situation.

(A sample protocol for this situation: “If I suddenly shut down, ask me if I want some attention. If I say yes, let me know when/for how long you can give me your full attention (anywhere from five to thirty minutes), and then follow through. If I say no, give me space and ask me again once we are alone.”)

* What to do if I start blaming you in the middle of sex because of a flashback.

(For survivors of sexual abuse or assault, watching the Healing Sex movie with your partner(s) can inspire your own “triggered during sex” protocols.)

Finally, you can add the group/team versions of these practices to your protocols.

 

Accept Your Limits

For each scenario, find direct and indirect ways to offer support. For example, if your partner is having a flashback, and you aren’t feeling up to helping them through it, have an alternate protocol ready.

Do they have a quiet, cozy space to retreat to? Is there a trusted friend they can call?

We cannot always be the support person. Learn about and accept your own–and your partner’s–limits. Since trauma healing takes years. being “on call” 24-7 for your partner is a recipe for burnout and breakup.

Remember the sandbox approach, and be honest about what you can and cannot do. Do not agree to any protocol that you cannot realistically or safely follow.

Conflict Protocols

a) You can add communication prompts from models like PNDC or NVC to your protocols.

b) If you and your partner(s) already enjoy externalizing your evil twin through expressive art, try roleplaying a *non-verbal* evil twin argument (no words or physical contact allowed!)

Instead of words, use growls, grimaces, whimpers, whines, eyerolls, arm-waving, etc. This way you get to release pent up energy without anybody getting hurt. If you end up laughing, so much the better.

Well, That Just Happened

Planning ahead is one way to develop your protocols. There’s also the “well, that just happened” method.

Extreme athletes likely developed their safety protocols after experiencing mistakes, accidents and disasters. In the same way, some of your protocols will emerge out of necessity, through trial and error.

If you have never had a panic attack before, you and your partner will probably find a way to muddle through your first one.

Assume that you will run into some unexpected triggers. It’s helpful to cultivate an “accepting-what-is” attitude: “Ok, that just happened. What resources do we have to cope with this?”

Don’t waste time arguing with reality because it is “unfair” or bizarre. Just take care of it—and each other. Not resisting “what is” will save you time and energy.

One more thing: If both/all partners are triggered at the same time, you may be too far gone for protocols. The downside of contagious body states is when everyone gets caught in a vicious cycle.

When this happens, the Sandbox  Approach (see TSIL Part 2) is best. Now is the time to put on your own oxygen mask.

BEING IN DIFFERENT PHASES OF TRAUMA HEALING

 

There are 3 distinct phases of trauma recovery: 1. Safety and Stabilization; 2. Remembrance and Mourning; 3. Reconnection and Integration.

1. Safety and Stabilization (approximately 70% of the healing process)

We discussed this phase in detail in Part Two. Safety issues are going to come up when you are in the presence of your partner, and these are excellent opportunities to practice your safety and grounding tools.

This may mean going off by yourself to take care of you, or asking your partner to stick around while you do your self-care thing.

If both of you are in Phase One, where the feeling-safe-in-your-body learning curve is steep, you may often find that “together time is triggered time.”

You will need some drama-free breathing spaces in your daily life. Partners can build in accessible opportunities for separate space and privacy.

For example, you might have a standing agreement that it’s fine for one of you to go for a walk, or to another room, as needed.

If you live in close quarters, or if it is not safe/accessible for you to go for a walk, maybe you can commandeer the bathroom for a bath, sit on the porch, or put on headphones and get lost in binge TV or a book.

Such pre-arranged “outs” are essential protocols. When we feel confined or trapped, our reptile brains have a harder time calming down, so make a habit of mutually creating space.

2. Remembrance and Mourning (approximately 20% of the healing process)

This phase is about processing your specific trauma experiences. This means gently entering the tender feelings and sensations, and slowly defusing the landmines.

Although much of this delicate work should be done with your “team,” (see the fifth guideline) trauma material will inevitably arise when you are with your partner(s). Have some agreements or protocols set up in advance.

What are you both willing to do if one of you gets triggered during sex, or in the middle of making a time-sensitive or high-stakes decision?

3. Reconnection and Integration (approximately 10% of the healing process)

This phase of trauma healing is about re-learning how to be in relationship. This includes learning relational and communication skills, and practicing self-care while in the presence of others.

In this phase we experiment with negotiating boundaries, asking for what we want, and making space for our partner’s needs.

Being in Different Phases

To put your FAK/Safety Protocol creation process into context, I recommend that you and your partner(s) learn about the three phases of trauma healing.

Then self-identify which phase each of you is working on, and have a conversation where you share this information and talk about what it means to you.

What if you discover that you and your partner(s) are at different stages of trauma healing? Don’t worry, it’s not a dealbreaker, any more than partners having differing sexual desires or ages or social classes are automatic dealbreakers. It is simply useful information.

A beginning caver may face different levels of risk than a seasoned adventurer. An experienced ice climber may have more calm and confidence in themselves, and more patience (or more impatience!) with their less experienced climbing buddy.

I invite you to have a relaxed conversation about this with your partner(s), and see where it leads.

***

FAK/Safety Protocols are about independence and interdependence. They build on the essential foundations of individual self-care, individual trauma healing work, and practicing co-allyship with our partners.

It may sound like alot of effort, and it is. It also can be fun and satisfying. You may end up proud of your badass selves.

Relationships are audacious and complex undertakings for trauma survivors. For us, love is as perilous and beautiful as scaling a frozen waterfall.

Get out your crampons and love bravely, TSIL. I am cheering you on.

Much gratitude to Phyllis Pay, Denise Benson, and my extremely patient exes.

Next Month: Trauma Survivors In Love Part IV

1919564_1243693582359_2911008_n TRAUMA SURVIVORS IN LOVE ONLINE WORKSHOP!

Nourishing Practices for Skittish Partners

*ONLINE* WORKSHOP Wednesday, May 18 
11 am-1 pm Pacific Standard Time

Intimate relationships are our birthright. But the neurobiology of relational trauma (neglect, attachment trauma, abuse & oppression) can hijack our hearts & derail mutual trust. 

Learn about trauma neurobiology & practice somatic & intuitive tools to soothe hypervigilance. Practice supporting one another to stay open & connected over the long haul.

Singles, couples, triads, all welcome to attend.

Cost: $50

Limited to 8 participants

Register: vanissar@cs.com or (510) 594-6812

Livestream Somatic Group Starts April 7/16

New SOMATIC & INTUITIVE

COACHING GROUPS start APRIL 2016

Choose from 3 Groups:

1) Online group for out-of-state & access needs participants,
Thursdays, 3-4:30 pm PST

2) In-person Tuesday Morning Group, 10-11:30 am

3) In-person Thursday Evening Group, 7-8:30 pm 

both in Rockridge, North Oakland 

Build compassionate community & receive personalized coaching from Dr. Tarakali in the presence of the group.

Together we will practice using a wide array of somatic & intuitive tools to support our personal healing & social change goals.

Pre-registration & full series commitment are required.

Limited to 5 participants.

Cost: $360 for 8 sessions

Find out more at vanissar@cs.com or (510) 594-6812.

 You can find Testimonials here:
 

TRAUMA SURVIVORS IN LOVE (PART 2 of 4): In the Sandbox

In Part 1, I observed that for trauma survivors, romantic relationships are like extreme sports such as rock or ice climbing. With this metaphor in mind, I offered the following relationship preparation guidelines:

1. Understand what you are embarking on (risks and rewards);

2. Practice resilience and strength-building routines;

3. Build trust. Be each other’s allies;
4. Gather safety equipment, safety protocols and a First Aid Kit;
5. Gather support team(s); don’t try to be each other’s only support!

 

In Part 2, I will finish up the first guideline, and cover the next two.

1) RECAP: UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU ARE EMBARKING ON (RISKS AND REWARDS)

Part One was about naming the risks for trauma survivors in love. I described how it is common for us trauma survivors to “flip out” over small things such as our partner being inconsiderate, or looking at us a particular way.

Our implicit trauma memories sound these alarms when a dangerous situation from our past becomes superimposed onto our present.

In sum, dating a trauma survivor is a challenge, because we are easily triggered. Two (or more) trauma survivors dating one another can become a trigger-fest.

Rewards/perks for Trauma Survivors in Love

Yet there are advantages to being two (or more) survivors in love. You can understand and empathize with each other’s struggles more than a non-survivor could.

You “get” how brave your partner is, because you know how much courage it takes for you to be in intimate relationship when your amydala keeps screaming, “danger!’

Another advantage is the opportunity to be each other’s allies in healing.  For instance, you can build healing routines into your shared activities (more about this in Guideline 3).

Or, you can incorporate trauma healing into your “mission statement.” Just as some romantic partners dedicate their relationship to serving the planet or facilitating spiritual growth, you can decide to co-create a trauma healing relationship.

Finally, during those times when only one of you is triggered (it happens!), you can take turns offering support and reminding each other why your extreme sport adventure is worth it.

2) PRACTICE RESILIENCE AND STRENGTH-BUILDING ROUTINES

Just as a new ice climber prepares their body for high altitude climbing, in the same way, trauma survivors need to prepare ourselves to meet the challenges of relationship.

The two sides of this preparation are Developing Self-care Routines, and Ongoing Trauma Healing Work.

Developing Self-care Routines

Children who face trauma are too busy surviving to acquire solid self-care habits, and sometimes their caregivers model neglect.

As a result, adult survivors of trauma may lack basic self-care skills, such as getting enough sleep, taking care of our teeth, eating healthy meals, or managing our money. It may be difficult for us to exercise, relax, or groom ourselves.

Now is a fine time to acquire these skills. To avoid overwhelm, start small. Choose a modest goal to work on for a month or two. To develop better sleep habits, you might try going to bed ten minutes earlier than usual for at least four nights a week.

Then see how it goes. Small successes build your confidence and momentum. Repeating something over and over gradually turns it into an automatic behavior, and each repetition reinforces the message that you are caring for you.

Don’t be afraid to be unorthodox—experiment until you find out what gets you to do the new thing you want to do, and then repeat that strategy!

Let me give you an example. I hate washing dishes (but love to cook). I have discovered a game that improves my dishwashing. I wash ten—and only ten—dishes.

Then I do something else for ten minutes. I go back and wash ten more dishes (cutlery counts!) and do something else. When I repeat this over a few hours, the dishes get done, with a minimum of suffering.

Why are self-care routines important for trauma survivors in love?  When we cultivate a baseline of physical and emotional wellness our resilience is bolstered and it is easier for us to re-center ourselves within the ups and downs of relationship.

Ongoing Trauma Healing Work

Healing complex trauma (vs a single incident trauma) is a multi-year process. Part of this healing work requires the presence of others, such as therapists, somatic coaches, bodyworkers, spiritual guides, and support groups or healing communities.

Since complex traumas are relational wounds, the cure is relational; thus, much of our trauma healing unfolds within trusted relationships.

At the same time, we each must take responsibility for our own healing. This means lots of solo practice time with our chosen healing practices (see Phase 1), and applying what we have learned in our relationships and communities.

Embodying our healing requires consistent, kind self-observation and self-care practice repeated over months or years.

Phases of Trauma Healing

There are three distinct phases of trauma recovery: 1. Safety and Stabilization; 2. Remembrance and Mourning; 3. Reconnection and Integration.

It can be helpful to assess which phase of the trauma healing process you are in, and what your tasks are for that phase.

In Phase 1, the longest phase of healing (perhaps 70% of the process), we learn how to habitually restore our serenity after being triggered. First, we discover which tools reliably restore our sense of safety and self-connection. Second, we practice these tools until they are embodied.

During Phase 2 we use the stable foundation we built in Phase 1 to process the actual trauma. With this foundation we gently unpack the implicit trauma-based memories, decisions and identities held in the body. Phase 2 takes up about 20% of the healing process.

Phase 3 is when we take the healing and insight of Phases 1 and 2 into our relationships.

As we test out our new behaviors and identities with others, we discover that close relationships can be sources of trust and mutual support instead of the sources of shame, abandonment and betrayal that they used to be.

After Phase 3 we may repeat mini 3-phase cycles from time to time as our life experiences stimulate even deeper body memories to rise to the surface.

More About Phase 1

During Phase 1 we learn to safely experience and tolerate a variety of feelings and sensations, including shame, anger, terror, grief, overwhelm, etc. There are a variety of somatic tools that can help us navigate these strong sensations and restore our sense of safety and self-connection.

Your Trigger Go-Tos

An important part of Phase 1 is becoming familiar with what your body does when you are triggered.

Triggers start when our reptilian brain and limbic brains perceive a threat coming our way and swiftly respond to restore us to safety. This reaction is known as the “fight or flight” response.

“Fight or flight” is actually a repertoire of at least five automatic survival responses: fight, flight, freeze, appease, and dissociate.

The fight response can show up as clenching our jaw and/or fists/arms. In conversation, it can look like defensiveness, or argument.

The flight response can show up as physically leaving the room, or our muscles subtly pulling away from the perceived threat. In conversation it can look like avoiding certain subjects.

The freeze response can show up as silence, holding the breath, or feeling stuck or paralyzed. To others, we may seem poker-faced or extremely calm.

The appease response can show up as smiling, submissive body language, or yielding our personal space to others. It can look like caretaking, “making nice,” or trying to smooth things over by asking sympathetic questions or cracking jokes.

The dissociate response can show up as “checking out” from our experience and not noticing our sensations and feelings. To others it can look like a faraway expression, or seem like we are “not all there.” Dissociation can also show up as emotional detachment, forgetfulness, obsessive thinking, or a drive to “figure out” everything.

To get to know your personal trigger “go-tos,” try to notice the specific sensations present in your body when you are triggered; this somatic awareness will help you “come down” from the triggered state.

Why is ongoing trauma healing work important for trauma survivors in love? Effective trauma healing work gradually sucks the reactivity out of your body, making it easier and less frightening for you to trust and communicate with your loved ones.

Resilience, Strength-Building and the Sandbox Approach to Relationships

 

Once you have a repertoire of well-practiced self-care routines and some solid trauma healing under your belt, you are ready to practice what I call the Sandbox Approach to Relationships.

The Sandbox Approach to Relationships

The Sandbox Approach is about taking full responsibility for yourself in romantic relationships.

The Sandbox metaphor goes like this: you have a kid, and you decide to bring them to the playground. Your lover also has a kid. You both bring your kids to the sandbox in the playground, where they can play and learn with each other.

In this metaphor, your “kid” and your lover’s kid are your “inner” children (or your psycho-biologies, or your animal bodies, etc.), and you are the parents or stewards of these aspects of yourselves.

When you are on a date or making love, your inner children get to connect and play. It’s playtime. Sandbox time. Sandbox time is a wonderful thing; we are meant to enjoy it.

We are also meant to take care of our inner kids at all times. When you bring your kid to the sandbox, you stick around. You don’t walk away. You supervise them, because you are their parent.

If you don’t like the notion of an “inner child,” use a different metaphor, such as bringing your dog to the dog park, or your animal body to the meadow, or your psycho-biology into the presence of someone else’s psycho-biology. Or bringing your loveable, traumatized, trigger-able self to a party.

In any case, you are the responsible grown-up, the dog owner, the guardian of your sensitive psycho-biology.

You don’t hand over your dog to the other dog owners at the dog park, right? You don’t stick your toddler in a sandbox and walk away, hoping that the other kids and grownups will parent them. No, you stay present while your dog or kid plays and interacts.

You make sure they are safe; make sure they don’t act out and hurt other kids or dogs. That’s the Sandbox Approach—you and your partner(s) are each 100% responsible for your own needs and well being. Your partner is not there to rescue you, parent your inner child, or take care of your inner dog.

When To Step Out of the Sandbox

Now let’s say you are spending some intimate time with your love, which means your inner kids are in the sandbox together. What do you do if your partner’s inner kid starts (metaphorically) throwing sand in your inner kid’s eyes?

You act like a responsible parent, and ask your partner to take care of their kid, and stop the harmful behavior. If they cannot or will not (perhaps they are in “fight or flight” mode), the compassionate and self-responsible thing to do is to step out of the sandbox.

You can have compassion for your partner’s triggered state while removing your kid from harm.

By the same token, you don’t allow your inner kid to throw sand back. When your partner does something you find hurtful and you get triggered; if you find are on the verge of speaking or acting harmfully, it’s time to step out of that interaction. Take a breather.

Now is the time to take your kid out of the sandbox and soothe them. It’s time to take care of your inner dog. Your job is to restore your perspective. Hopefully your partner will do the same. You certainly cannot do it for them!

If both your inner kids are freaking out, if both your psycho-biologies are threatened, it will take at least twenty minutes for the amygdala response to calm down. So this is not the time to “work out” the conflict.

Do not try to offer amends or make requests. Later on you can do these things, and perhaps share with each other what you have learned about your inner children/dogs/psycho-biologies.

I invite you to reflect on the Sandbox Approach. I hope it motivates you to be diligent with your self-care and ongoing trauma healing work, so you can navigate the sandbox with ever-increasing love and wisdom.

If you are hungry for more, Evil Twin work is a proactive way to cultivate self-responsibility.

 

3) BUILD TRUST; BE EACH OTHER’S ALLIES

This third guideline is analogous to when an ice-climbing crew engages in team building.

Allies in Healing by Laura Davis can help us imagine what sustainable allyship looks like in our romantic relationships.

Trauma survivor partners who want practice mutual support/allyship can: make self-care dates; try some boundary repair practices; and share your trigger go-tos.

Make a Self-care Date!

Make a date to do one or two self-care practices together, or in parallel.
Pick a practice you both like, and do it together. Here are some practices to try out.

Or, practice different self-care practices while in the same space. One of you could do a restorative yoga pose for twenty minutes while the other one journals or colors.

You can stay home and practice together, or you can go out for your self-care date. Try visiting a bathhouse or sauna, or going on a silent hike in a park.

Boundary Repair Practices

Trauma destroys our innate boundaries, so it is necessary to rebuild them. First, try these practices with a friend, therapist, somatic practitioner or supportive group.

Once they are familiar, you can practice them with a partner. Boundaries are challenging for trauma survivors, but it doesn’t need to be a grim affair. It can be fun!

Here are some playful, gentle ways to practice healthy boundary skills together.

Yes/No/Maybe Practice

Take turns giving and receiving “Yes” “No” and “Maybe” boundaries with your partner. Start by standing, facing each other with several feet between you.

When it is your turn to set the boundaries, speak each of these three words aloud, one at a time, while making the following gestures:

“Yes” with arms open at your sides, your palms open and receptive, facing out;

“Maybe” with arms in the “yes” position, with palms open but turned back;

“No” with your arms fully extended at shoulder level, palms forward, fingers up.

Cycle through Y/N/M several times, then switch roles. Whether you are giving or receiving Y/N/M, pay attention to how each one affects your mood and body sensations. Remember to keep your focus on learning about yourself and your partner.

Go! Stop! Practices

Although boundaries are serious business for trauma survivors, playful practices can transform our sense of agency.

These practices can give our bodies an experience of having our choices respected without reservation.

As before, partners take turns giving and receiving boundaries, this time around being looked at or touched.

  • Look at Me/Stop Looking at Me!

Both partners sit or stand comfortably. The first person who will be setting the “look at me/stop looking at me” boundary instructs their partner on how to stop looking at them:

“When I say, ‘Stop looking at me,’ I want you to cover your eyes (or look down, or look away, etc).”

The person who will be respecting the boundaries needs to swiftly obey the “stop looking at me” command, so if the requested posture is physically painful for you, suggest another way you can “stop looking” at your partner, until you arrive at a posture that works for both of you.

Once you are set up, the boundary-setter begins, saying “Look at me!” “Stop looking at me!” over and over, at their own pace. Important: the partner who is looking/looking away needs to obey IMMEDIATELY. So pay attention.

You can set a timer for this, or you can just stop when it feels like “enough.” Then switch roles, set it up carefully again, and repeat the practice.

  • Touch me!/Stop Touching Me!

In this practice you take turns giving and receiving boundaried touch. To prepare, each of you chooses a neutral or mildly pleasant place on your body where you are completely comfortable being touched.

The partner who is to receive touch first instructs their partner where and how they are to touch them: “Hold my feet, with your palms on top of my feet, using this much pressure.” Make sure your partner understands and can comfortably do what you want.

Once that is set up, the person who will receive touch commands their partner: “Hold my feet! Stop holding my feet!” (or, “touch my elbow! Stop touching my elbow!” etc.). Important: the partner who is offering touch must obey IMMEDIATELY. So stay present.

Remember, it doesn’t have to be done in a serious manner to “work.” Try using a relaxed, or silly or over-dramatic tone of voice when giving commands. Feel free to experiment with how fast or slow you give the commands. It can be powerful to keep these practices playful.

You may find yourself laughing or giggling (or crying) as your body re-learns that it is allowed to have boundaries. You may find yourself enjoying giving your partner exactly what they want, when they want it.

At the same time—and this is VERY important—the partner being given a boundary needs to obey the Start!/Stop! instructions IMMEDIATELY.  If you do, somatic magic can happen. If you do, trust between you and your partner will grow.

However, if you are uncomfortable with these rules; if you find you are not willing to obey your partner’s instructions, then this is not the time for you to engage these practices. For both your sakes, give yourself permission to “opt out.” It’s fine if you are not ready for this exercise. This is just another boundary that deserves respect.

In the same way, if either of you gets tired in the middle of the practice, if it stops being fun for either of you, stop (it’s okay if it’s a little scary or uncomfortable, as long as it’s fun)! Continue another time.

After doing any of these Boundary Repair Practices, take some time afterward to debrief any “ahas.” Share with each other which boundaries were easy or difficult to give or receive.

Our sexual boundaries are often in need of repair, so *after you have experimented with them in nonsexual situations* you might want to bring these practices into your sexual repertoire. There is much to learn here, and much fun to be had.

Also, I invite you to make up your own boundary repairing practices based on these ones, such as, “Come Closer! Step Back!” or “Listen to me! Stop listening to me!”

Share Your Trigger Go-Tos

Tell each other your trigger “go-tos.” Give your partner(s) permission to track your “triggered” body cues. With practice, you can notice early on when your partner has entered their typical fight or flight reaction.

Once you have this information, you have some options:

1. You can make requests of each other. “When I go into freeze mode, I hold my breath, get very quiet and I try not to be noticed. If you see me in this state, can you please do ___ to help me feel safe and ‘come back?’”

Or, “When you see me go into flight mode please give me lots of space. Don’t ask me any questions. That will help me bring myself back to center.”

2. With their consent, reflect back what you observe in your partner’s body, using a neutral tone of voice: “I notice your jaw is clenched and your eyes look hard.” You might add, “I wonder how you are feeling?”

3. Or take number 2. a little further by adding a tentative interpretation: “I wonder if your body feels it needs to fight right now?”

4. You may decide to give your partner (and yourself) some space and time to “come down” before continuing a difficult conversation.

You could say, “I notice your body is doing ____. I am glad your body is taking care of you. I’d like us to wait until we are both more centered before we continue this discussion.”

Why are trust-building and ally practices important for trauma survivors in love? A solid foundation of trust and interdependence helps us access more options when it is time to negotiate, communicate and de-escalate together.

Feeling like a team can get us through the hard times, and sweeten the easy times.

Thanks for reading. Please be gentle with you and your loved ones.

Much gratitude to Phyllis Pay, Denise Benson, and my incredible clients.

Next Month: Trauma Survivors In Love Part III
Find out more about Dr. Vanissar Tarakali or make a somatic coaching appointment at www.vanissar.com

Trauma Survivors in Love (Part 1 of 4)

A disclaimer as I begin: I haven’t got “it” all figured out. I am not a poster child for the happily-in-love trauma survivor.

However, I have had time to reflect on my past relationships, and many of my clients are (or want to be) “trauma survivors in love.” I am grateful that they allow me to witness their relational journeys, and I am happy to share what I have learned from them.

So dear reader, are you a trauma survivor in love? Congrats! I am happy for you. And, my friend…you have got your work cut out! Let’s look at what a trauma survivor in love is up against.

TRAUMA IS UNDIGESTED EXPERIENCE

What is trauma? Trauma is undigested experience that is stored in the body as contractions and implicit memories. Traumatic experiences are situations where either our life is at stake or we perceive it to be; or when we witness a threat to someone else’s life.

The definition of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) includes symptoms such as 1. the re-emergence of implicit memories in the form of intrusive sensations; 2. a tendency to avoid situations that remind us of the traumatic incident(s); 3. and ongoing hyperarousal (ie. hypervigilance, difficulty sleeping or concentrating).

Trauma survivors become “triggered” when our traumatic past is projected onto the present.

TRAUMA NEUROBIOLOGY

What are your brain and body doing when you become triggered? Those of us with PTSD need to know that we don’t have any choice about getting triggered. This is because the parts of the brain that create fight, flight orfreeze responses are designed to override the rest of the brain.

The main brain systems that are involved in trauma responses are the limbic brain system and the brain stem/reptile brain. The limbic system is the emotional brain that experiences danger, pleasure and pain. Your reptile brain (or brainstem) governs breathing, defecating, sleeping.

When we are not in a traumatic experience, we can access our pre-frontal cortex. This brain is capable of conscious, rational decision-making, empathy and observation.

TRAUMA VS TRIGGER RESPONSES

Trauma Responses

Trauma responses involve three components of the limbic brain: the hypothalamus, the amygdala and the hippocampus. During a traumatic experience, the hypothalamus sends a visceral message to the amygdala: “something terrible is happening to me!”

As the message reaches the amygdala, it creates intense anxiety. The amygdala then tells the hippocampus “something scary is happening!” which causes the explicit memory function of the hippocampus to shut down. Now we have stopped consciously recording what is happening.

Our implicit memory continues to record events, but not in an organized or retrievable fashion. Instead, sensory input during traumatic events is stored in our bodies in disconnected fragments, like scattered jigsaw puzzle pieces.

The sensory fragments we collect during a traumatic event set the tone for getting “triggered” later.

Trigger Responses

We can become triggered days, months or even years after a traumatic experience. When we encounter smells, sounds (tones of voice), visuals (facial expressions) and behaviors that unconsciously remind us of some aspect of our past trauma, our amygdala decides the current situation is dangerous.

The amygdala’s fear message is carried by the hypothalamus to the brain stem. Suddenly the stakes are high! As the reptile brain roars into fight or flight mode, it shuts down the pre-frontal cortex’s ability to discern and respond appropriately to the present moment.

At this point, all we can do is what we have done before; feel what we felt before. We react and adapt just like we did before (usually some variation of fight, flight, freeze, appease or dissociate). We may repeat the stories we told ourselves before. That is PTSD in a nutshell.

During a trigger moment, the implicit memory floods us with unbearable sensations that are disconnected from the original traumatic event.  Disturbing sounds, smells, tastes, images and kinesthetic sensations arise, and with them, intense thoughts and emotions.

It is as if we are suddenly holding a random collection of those puzzle pieces. This experience is so vivid that we connect it to our present situation and try to make current meaning from it.

Lacking that original context, it is natural to blame our discomfort on the current environment. For example, if we feel sensations of terror or violation, we point at whoever is with us, and say to ourselves, “s/he is violating me. S/he is dangerous.”

If we are re-living a childhood moment of being controlled and helpless, we may say to ourselves, “My friend is trying to control me.”

Of course, there may be a grain of truth in our assessment. Maybe our friend isdisregarding our boundaries. Maybe they are trying to get their way. But our somatic response is extreme: life-or-death. If we were not being hijacked by implicit memory our response to the same situation might be mild hurt or annoyance.

Or we might be calm enough to able to say, “Hey, I told you I need you to ask me first,” or, “Please do not push me.” We might be able to start a dialogue. But with that sense of imminent danger flooding us, we lose perspective.

THE IMPACT OF SINGLE INCIDENT TRAUMA

Let me give you an example of what this imposition of past trauma onto the present can look like in real life. Let’s say you are a passenger in a car traveling on a highway. A high wind buffets the car. Suddenly the car collides with another car. Your head is flung back and forward.

The amygdala’s alarm takes the hippocampus offline, so later on it will be difficult to remember what happened. Meanwhile, your implicit memory records it all.

After this accident, if you do not receive EMDR or some other trauma integration treatment, these implicit body-memories wait in the background, alert for similar kinds of danger.

Months later you are a passenger again, this time in a plane, seated by the wing. You can feel and hear the wind. Suddenly there is turbulence, and the plane starts bouncing.

With these three cues (being a passenger, windy conditions, bouncing) your implicit memory kicks in: You feel helpless; your neck and shoulders lock up to protect your head; dread fills you, and you start sweating; and you feel an urge to jump out of your seat and run.

The rest of the flight you are nervous, even after the turbulence ends. This seems strange, because before your car accident, air turbulence didn’t bother you. But now you cannot bear it.

Why is this? Your implicit memory is re-running and reliving the car crash, with its strain on your neck and a sense of imminent death.

That is how the implicit memory of single traumatic incident might be triggered by an unrelated event.

THE IMPACT OF COMPLEX, COLLECTIVE TRAUMA

I just described what can happen after a one-time incident. Just imagine the impact of this hippocampus offline/implicit memory online situation in the case of early childhood traumas (poor attachment, neglect, physical, emotional or sexual abuse, witnessing domestic violence, etc.) on a child’s developing brain.

Children, adolescents and teens are also subject to racist, fat-phobic, transphobic or homophobic bullying or attacks. Imagine the impact of one or more of these repeated traumas experienced by a child for years on end.

None of the above traumas are one-time incidents—they are “complex traumas” which create deeply layered trauma responses.

Now add in the ancestral (and current) collective and institutional traumas that children with disabilities, female, queer, transgender and non-gender conforming children, adoptees, First Nations children, immigrant and refugee children of color, or Latino, Arab, Black, Asian, mixed race, Muslim, Sikh and Jewish children face or have faced directly or indirectly (through family or community members).

Such institutional traumas can include: inaccessible spaces and services, micro-aggressions, psychiatric and medical abuse, police brutality, deportation, incarceration, abductions, hate crimes, poverty, massacres, internment camps, foster care abuse, detention centers, drone attacks, war, political torture, and religious persecution.

These collective, cumulative traumas also fit the definition of complex traumas.

Collectively we are swimming in a great deal of relational trauma.

During these traumatic events, the meaning-making hippocampus is shut down, while our individual and collective body memories continue to record and store sensory input.

Unless we have the time, resources and compassionate space to process and digest these collective traumas, our implicit memories simmer beneath the surface, ready to pop out like jacks-in-the-box and throw us into fight, flight, freeze, appease and dissociate survival responses.

RELATIONSHIPS ARE TRIGGERING CONTEXTS FOR COMPLEX TRAUMA SURVIVORS

Most trauma survivors were traumatized within relationships. This means that any relationship can be a triggering context.

Complex childhood traumas disrupt not only our individual development, but our future relationships. We cannot avoid bringing our traumatic pasts into our romantic relationships.

A PERSONAL EXAMPLE

A former partner of mine and I had horrible fights about her friends dropping by unannounced. She would “go with the flow” in these situations and drop whatever she was doing.

Decisions about how long her friends stayed, or whether we shared a meal or the rest of the evening with them, were dependent on what our guests wanted. My partner rarely consulted me or set a boundary with her friends.

When I questioned her about it, I discovered she didn’t have a sense of choice in these situations. Sometimes even she was annoyed by the imposition of her friends! But she would shrug as if to say, “What can I do?” As for me, I was livid.

This conflict arose from personal and cultural differences. I am an introvert who grew up in a small WASP family; I need regular quiet and alone time at home, so I prefer to structure my time with others.

My partner was a go-with-the-flow extrovert from a large Irish Catholic family. Since we lived in a tiny house, the drop-in friends issue would inevitably be an area of potential compromise and conflict.

However, our fights about unscheduled guests were “over the top,” partly because my implicit trauma memories were hijacking me. As an intimate abuse survivor with PTSD, it felt like life and death to me when my partner welcomed drop-ins.

I would feel invisible and violated. Hindsight suggests that these situations reminded me of childhood experiences of invasion.

This past trauma was evoked by the random drop-ins plus my partner’s passive decisions about who was in my space, and when.

My reactions were disproportionate, because my implicit memory identified these current situations as urgent. My body memories also categorized my partner as yet another “family member” like my mother, who had casually exposed me to danger and violation.

At this point my reptile brain would take over. Out of the reptile brain’s survival repertoire of fight, flight, freeze, appease, and dissociate, I would unobtrusively withdraw (freeze; flight) as much as I could from our visitors, or I would find an excuse to leave the house. Internally I was furious (fight), with my heart pounding and adrenaline running.

TWO (OR MORE) TRAUMA SURVIVORS IN LOVE

Now let’s add in my partner’s side of it, because it was not just my amygdala flipping out. My partner was also a relational trauma survivor.

In the anecdote I just told, I don’t know which of my partner’s implicit memories were called up by my reactive behaviors.

I only know that as my distress increased (and was registered by her body, since our animal bodies are constantly reading each other), she would increasingly attend to her guests needs but remain unaware of mine.

It was a perfect storm of mutual triggering.

My partner’s reptile brain reverted to an appease strategy with her guests, and a dissociate strategy in general, by pretending that everything was pleasant and okay, and by relating to me very one-dimensionally.

I in turn would hide my feelings as best as I could (freeze), which reinforced her reason to tune me out. After the guests were gone, I would physically return but remain remote, and she would continue to pretend that all was well.

Sooner or later we would have a terrible fight fueled by mutual resentment and blame.

The sort of dynamic I just described is to be expected for trauma survivors in love, except during the “honeymoon” phase of a relationship.

It can come as a rude shock when, three to six month into a romantic relationship when biochemical rose-colored glasses effect http://www.alternet.org/sex-amp-relationships/chemical-romance-how-hormones-influence-sex-love-and-relationships starts to fade.

After the honeymoon, that magical sense of mutual safety and understanding can vanish.

RELATIONSHIPS ARE EXTREME SPORTS FOR TRAUMA SURVIVORS

For a survivor of complex trauma, romantic love (or friendship, for that matter) is an extreme sport. Let me say that again: relationships are extreme sports for complex trauma survivors!

We could compare the complex trauma survivor embarking on a relationship to a novice mountain climber. If you decide to start mountain climbing with a partner, the following steps are essential:

  1. Understand what you are embarking on, including the risks and rewards;
  2. Practice resilience and strength-building routines;
  3. Build trust. Practice being each other’s allies;
  4. Gather safety equipment, safety protocols and a First Aid Kit;
  5. Gather support teams; don’t try to be each other’s only support!

This is the end of Part One of Trauma Survivors in Love (TSIL). So far I have partially covered Step 1.

In TSIL Parts Two, Three and Four I will identify some of the rewards of being a trauma survivor couple (or triad, etc.) in love.

I will also break down Steps 2) to 5) of the extreme sports metaphor by offering specific examples of self-care and self-healing practices, emotional first aid, somatic safety and collaboration practices for partners, and tips for creating trauma healing support teams.

Thanks for reading. Please be gentle with you and your loved ones.

Thanks to Babette Rothschild, Denise Benson, Dan Siegel, Peter Levine for their trauma savvy wisdom.

Next Month: Trauma Survivors In Love Part II
If you would like to book a somatic coaching appointment with Dr. Vanissar Tarakali, you can find out more here.

BEFRIEND ANGER & RAGE PART II: ANGER-ANIMAL PRACTICES

Last month we looked at some embodied practices for befriending anger so that it can flow and be safely expressed.

Here are two more practices that incorporate somatic and intuitive awareness. If you like animals, you might find these practices appealing.

Befriend Your Anger-Animal: Method One
First, think of an animal that embodies ferociousness. Is it a shark, a scorpion, a panther,

or a hawk? Pick an animal that you feel affinity and respect for.

Is it a mama bear? A badger? It doesn’t have to be a big animal; any animal that fights or hunts will do.

Let’s say you have chosen a lynx. Your first task is to study the lynx thoroughly. Try to find a photograph of a lynx, and put it where you can look at it every day.

Research its habitat and habits. Find out how it gets food, how it mates and raises its young.

Now reflect on situations where lynx behave ferociously or violently. Usually these situations are of vital importance to that lynx’s life, such as needing to hunt for food, compete for a mate, or protect itself or its children.

Does it make sense to you that sometimes a lynx needs to be aggressive? What do you admire about lynx aggression?

Now think of that same lynx at rest or play. Even big cats groom one another; even bears sleep. In the same way, the fiercest lynx is only fierce when necessary.

The rest of the time it eats, sleeps, plays, mates, nurtures its young, basks in the sun or grooms.

If you are still feeling affinity with lynx, start imagining that the angry feelings in your body, your anger, are a lynx. Notice where your lynx resides.

Pay attention to its mood or posture. Is it curled up at the base of your spine? Is it stretching its paws out within your arms or legs?

Offer some appreciative attention to your anger-lynx. Assume that it has its own lynx-integrity and lynx-purpose.

Notice that your lynx’s ferocity is aroused when it perceives a threat*to you or someone you care about. Your anger-lynx is practical. Its behavior makes sense.

Just as a lynx’s menace is part of its wild beauty, in the same way, youranger is beautifully wild. Anger is not rational—it is not supposed to be! It is raw aliveness, pure lifeforce.

Let your wise anger-animal (lynx or otherwise) teach you. The wisdom of your anger-animal is your innate willingness to fight for yourself and protect others from harm.

Make a habit of checking in with your anger-animal. For example, when you feel angry you can say to yourself, “My anger-bear is growling! She is taking care of my loved ones, including me!” Or, “My anger-shark is alerting me that something is off.”

When you appreciate your self-protective anger on a regular basis, your body’s internal sense of safety increases.

You don’t need to wait until you are enraged to befriend your anger-animal. You can work with her subtler manifestations, such as mild irritation or impatience.

At this stage of practice, don’t worry about how you are expressing anger. For now, practice appreciating your anger-animal each day.

Steady practice will gradually shift your anger-animal’s state from tamped down to fully available.

Once your anger-animal feels more acknowledged and less neglected, at that point you will be ready to expand your repertoire of anger options.

Befriend Your Anger-Animal: Method Two
Here is another way to discover and work with the anger-animal metaphor. Pretend you are a

zoologist researching a fierce animal species.

Think about how many weeks or months you might sit quietly, patiently observing wildlife in the forest, desert or ocean.

Now pretend your body is the forest or ocean habitat, and that your body sensations are that fierce animal.

As a zoologist, you are committed to watch curiously for flashes of annoyance, sarcasm, anger or rage that show up in the body habitat.

When you notice these feelings, give them your attention: “There it is! I have sighted the animal I want to study!”

Now observe carefully: what are those feelings and sensations doing? Is there a sense of heat, lukewarmth, or a deep chill? Is there vibration or some other movement? What parts of your body are involved?

Can you detect the origin of the irritation or anger? Does it start in the throat, and then reach up into your jaw? Is it a sudden or gradual? Subtle or startling? Mischievous?

Stay curious and keep studying this fascinating anger-animal. When you feel angry or rageful, or when you are trying hard to not feel angry, where in the body do you feel the most sensation?

Are you clenching your butt? Are your teeth grinding? As you observe, you might want to take “field notes,” such as:

“I notice a fight pattern between the stomach and the throat: the stomach tries to push an angry roar up and out the throat, but the throat tightens up and pushes it down.”

Observe what is happening in your eyes, in your breath. Continue to watch yourself with scientific curiosity.

Eventually you will start to identify familiar patterns of posture and sensation that accompany the arising of irritation or anger.

Let your sensations take on a personality, a species. What animal species does this remind you of?

Discover what your anger-animal excels at. Hiding? Dodging? Pausing before striking a deadly blow?

Does it move like a scorpion? A rattlesnake? Or is it a fleeing octopus, leaving behind an inky, stinky cloud?

As you observe these behaviors, appreciate how sophisticated they are. How effective. If self-judgment comes up, remind yourself, “I am a zoologist studying this anger-animal.

I recommend doing this practice every day for a week or two and adding your observations to your “field notes.”

Then go back and read over your notes, looking for patterns.

The more familiar you are with this interesting anger-animal, the more awareness and choice you can access when you need to express your feelings or correct boundary violations.

Befriending Anger is a Process

 

Undoing your habitual anger patterns and developing new ones requires patience, playfulness and imagination.

The good news is that repeated practice WILL shift things.

Repeated practice over time is how we grow and change; indeed it is how we developed our original anger patterns in the first place.

Once you have befriended your anger; once you feel a sense of agency and dignity about your own anger, then you will be in good position to decide your next steps.

You can plan ahead and rehearse (using repeated practice over time) how you want to respond to people who cross your boundaries.

You can practice re-negotiating old boundaries, or making new choices.

These next steps will propel a new virtuous cycle of anger-agency:

As you witness yourself setting clear, firm boundaries with others, your body will increasingly trust its ability to stand up for itself. This embodied confidence will reduce your need to get angry.

Appropriate anger is the birthright of every animal, and every human animal. Wishing you well on your journey of anger reclamation!

*Your body-mind’s perception of threat may be a mis-perception, especially if your past trauma reactions are triggered by the current situation. However, for the purpose of building your anger options repertoire, you do not need to “prove” whether or not the danger you perceive is real or a projection;  right now your task is to practice claiming and working with your anger.

Special note: If you are currently struggling to manage violent outbursts, please consult with a
therapist, clinician or clergy before trying the practices I have shared.

While I hope this article will increase your insight and self-compassion, neither this article nor the practices I have shared are meant to replace therapy, anger management programs or community-based transformative justice support.

For the sake of you and your loved ones, don’t go it alone. Get some community support.

BEFRIEND ANGER & RAGE PART I

What Is Anger?

Anger is the emotion we feel when a boundary has been crossed. Once the violation is corrected and respect restored, anger is no longer necessary.

Like every emotion, anger has a beginning, middle and end. We can observe this cycle in babies or animals. They feel anger, express it and move on to another feeling.

Physiologically, each cycle of anger arousal lasts about 20 minutes. We are not rational in this fight-or-flight state; our pre-frontal cortex is shut down.

So it’s not a good time to make decisions or come to an understanding with someone. It isa good time to vent and be empathized with.

Anger is an integral part of our life force energy. As is the case with all of our emotions, we are meant to feel angry, acknowledge our anger, and either express it or take action to restore our boundary.

If no action is necessary, we can simply watch anger arise and dissolve.

However, if we have been taught that anger is wrong or dangerous, or that we will be punished if we express it, then our natural flow of anger is disrupted. We may start habitually stifling our anger.

Unacknowledged, stored up anger can cause health problems, or lead to abrupt explosions of rage that damage our relationships.

If we want to access choice when we feel anger, then we can make friends with it. Befriending our anger opens up more emotional ease and options.

I will soon share some befriending anger practices, but first, let’s look at what we are up against.

Obstacles to Letting Anger Flow
Early Trauma

Fighting comes naturally to us mammals. It is one of the brain stem’s five survival strategies. But when we are hurt by people with more physical or social power than us, fighting is not an option.

Instead we resort to freezing, fleeing, placating or dissociating. We learn to push down our anger to avoid punishment or escalation of abuse.

Our physical bodies learn muscular patterns that suppress our anger and hold back angry words, growls or yells.

With repeated practice, stuffing down anger becomes an automatic way of holding our jaws, clenching our stomachs, tightening our throats, and unclenching our fists.

We may learn to drop our eyes, and suppress tantrums (stopping our feet from stamping, our arms from waving) and make ourselves small. We may take shallow breaths so that we feel less anger, less urgency to express it.

At this point we have developed a reliable trauma survival strategy to fit our particular situation. Once these muscular holding patterns are deeply embodied, they are difficult to change.

Later in life, when we try to practice new ways of being with anger, we may meet with fear and reluctance. Our body is still terrified of the consequences we faced in the past.

Structural Oppression

Of course, in the case of the collective trauma we call “oppression,” the consequences we fear s are not in the past—they are current. For example, it is common knowledge that Black, Latino and First Nations people are disproportionately vulnerable to police violence, because of the implicit and explicit racism.

For many people of color, even using assertive body language– much less angry body language–in the presence of police officers can be deadly. So the ability to tightly control body language and conceal feelings of anger or rage is an essential racism survival strategy.

A key part of the trauma healing process involves creating safe contexts to express our long-held-back anger in new ways.

On a somatic level, reclaiming the anger stored in our bodies means getting our dignity back, and taking a stand for ourselves and our community.

Violence in Your History

Another obstacle to letting anger flow in our bodies is a history of physical or emotional violence. Maybe we have been a victim of or a witness to violence. Maybe we have harmed others with violent outbursts.*

Because of these dangerous associations, our feelings of anger may trigger a swift self-censoring fear. “I don’t want to get angry the way my parents/abuser did. The way I used to do.”

If we haven’t had appropriate, non-violent ways of expressing anger modeled for us (the media rarely offers such models!), we may believe our only choice is to contract our muscles, or use food, drugs or busyness to anesthetize it.

Despite these obstacles, it is entirely possible to expand our anger repertoire.

However, we need to work gently and patiently with any embodied obstacles or current limitations if we want to change our relationship to anger.

These obstacles, founded in real lived experiences, deserve our respect.

Building Your Anger Options Repertoire
The following practices can “prime the pump” and convince us that it is safe to feel anger.
These practices can also help give our animal body the satisfaction of correcting a boundary
violation.

 

Satisfaction does not require confronting the people who have crossed our boundaries (although this is one option). Certainly somatic satisfaction can involve feeling “heard” and respected by others.

But even feeling “heard” and taken seriously by yourself can convince your body that it has done its job.

Fingerholds

Finger holds can help us to welcome and regulate anger and other difficult emotions. The method is simple: wrap the fingers of one hand around the middle finger of the other hand, hugging it gently.

Relax, breathe, and feel your sensations.  Notice if this practice is a yes, no or maybe for your body. You can do this for as long or short as you like.

An explanation of fingerholds can be found here:  http://www.capacitar.org/emergency_kits.html

Anger Sing-Along

Do you have a favorite angry song you like to listen to? How about a sing-along? Play the song, and sing (or yell) along with it as intensely as you can. Then see how you feel.

Once when I was grieving a terrible loss (rage being one component of grief), I found myself playing the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Give It Away” over and over, singing and stomp-dancing along.

Sometimes I felt energized; sometimes I ended up crying hard and then finding stillness. Somehow this song matched the anger and sadness I was feeling; it helped me survive those first difficult days and weeks.

Ani DiFranco’s “I Could Be the Million (That You Never Made)” has also worked for me. What about you? What songs meet your anger where it is?

Breathing Out Sounds

Breathe in deeply. As you breathe out, let the exhalation turn into a long growl, snarl or hissing sound. Repeat this at least 3 times.

Find out which sound satisfies your body. Check in after you have hissed or roared a few times—is your body a bit more relaxed?

Silent Scream

Take a deep breath in, and then, engaging your whole body (ie. eyes bulging, arms flung wide, fists clenched, etc) open your mouth and scream silently. Make it a huge scream–imagine you are filling the room (or the building, or block, or planet!) with your rage.

After you have done one scream, check in with your sensations—are you a bit more present in your body? Do you feel some relief? Is this practice a yes, no or maybe for you? If your body feels safe, try doing one or two more screams, and then rest.

Controlled Tantrum

Many of us had to stifle rage when we were toddlers. This practice allows your body to have a safe, contained tantrum. Start by lying down on a bed or wide, well padded mat. Start this practice in “slo mo.”

Slowly clench your fist, lift your forearm and then drop it, letting your fist hit the pad–slowly! Repeat this with your other fist, alternately pounding the mat (gently), one fist at a time.

Now, still in “slow mo,” bend one knee and, keeping your heel on the mat the whole time, straighten your leg while pushing your heel forward. Feel the friction of your heel against the mat.

Once your leg is fully extended, pull your knee back up and repeat with the other heel and leg. Now put it all together: pound the floor with alternate fists as you thrust forward with alternate heels.

Pay close attention to your sensations, so that you are truly “in” your experience. Once you know how to do this practice without hurting yourself, feel free to speed it up or slow it down.

It Takes Time
Restoring a natural flow of anger takes time: time to build a sense of safety; time for our bodies
to re-learn how to “do” anger. If you are just starting out on your anger expression journey, a
whispered “no” may be all your body can handle.

 

If punching the floor makes you worry you will lose control, then slow it down or turn it down. For example, try punching the floor just once or twice, and then taking a break. Or punch the floor several times, but gently.

You can modify the intensity of any anger practice by doing it for shorter periods of time or reducing the number of repetitions. And remember, less is always more: it is best to start out with modest expressions of anger, and check in frequently, asking yourself: “Am I still okay?” “Have I harmed anyone?”

Then, use your senses to find out the answer: “Am I still breathing?” “Are my limbs intact?” Next, you can look around the room: and find out: “Is anyone hurt? Is anyone mad at me?”

Once your body is reassured that all is well, try to express a little more anger.

Respect your animal body’s pace. If you start where you are and do what you can, you will gradually build your body’s capacity to tolerate feeling and expressing anger. Your confidence and self-trust will increase.

*If you are currently struggling to manage violent outbursts, please consult with a therapist, clinician or clergy before trying the practices I have shared.

While I hope this article will increase your insight and self-compassion, neither this article nor the practices I have shared are meant to replace therapy, anger management programs or community-based transformative justice support.

For the sake of you and your loved ones, don’t go it alone. Get some community support.

Next Month: Befriending Anger & Rage Part II: Discovering Your Anger Animal

Party With the Parrots & Heal With the Hawks

scritch oo

Would you like to host a Taken Under Wing House Party?

It’s like a Tupperware party, but with Bird Essences. 

You and your guests will sample the 17 Bird Essences while Dr. Tarakali and the Advisory Birds share intuitive insights and wise, silly stories.

bottles

Bird Essences are potent tinctures (made with channeled bird energy, brandy and spring water) designed to enhance your wellness routines and spiritual practices.

Each Bird Essence activates subtle, steady shifts in your energy body. Our irreverent bird allies are eager to teach us new ways to play and transform. You can read the essence descriptions here.

Find out more at vanissar@cs.com or (510) five-nine-four-6812.

Doorways to Liberation

I love liberation.
I have sought out liberation in all its forms for as long as I can remember.

I love relative liberation. Earthly liberation. Oh, I have not actually met it. Nor has anyone I know.

But I have longed for and ardently pursued social justice all my life; I believe in liberation for all oppressed beings.

That all may live in safety and sufficiency, free to express, create and contribute, each according to their nature.

Captured by Fanny Lou Hamer’s words, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

Captured by Green Tara’s outstretched foot, ready to leap into the relative world to end the suffering of beings.

I love absolute liberation. Liberation from duality. To be free from hope and fear.

Unfettered by the constricted vantage point of “me,” the star of my ongoing soap opera.

Captured by the Bodhisattva vow to remain on the earthly wheel of rebirth until all beings are free.

Captured by the Heart Sutra, which declares, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form, form is none other than emptiness, emptiness is none other than form.”

And, “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond, oh great awakening!”

When I recite the Heart Sutra, I tear up. Just the title of Franklin Merrell-Wolff’s book, The Philosophy of Consciousness Without an Object makes me happy.

Absolute liberation is what I intuited at age seventeen, when I wrote, “Deep screams of hearts breaking, sorrow of generations compel me—I must not drown, I must find a way.”

Relative and absolute liberation are intertwined. Today I reflect upon absolute liberation.

Although absolute liberation is ineffable and unknowable, sometimes we get glimpses.

I have been blessed with glimpses now and again. When I stumble upon the absolute and lose myself in it, it spits me out again like Pacific waves that suck you in and toss you out.

Liberation is sublime and fleeting.
“I” keep forgetting about it.

Or I remember and wait hungrily for the next doorway to liberation. I grope for a doorknob for days, weeks, months, years, decades…

Suddenly the door opens, and I am swept through it. Small me absorbed into vastness. Identities temporarily (or permanently) melt.

INFINITE DOORWAYS TO THE ABSOLUTE

The third of Zen Buddhism’s Four Great Vows declares: “The Dharma gates are boundless—I vow to open them.”

Those boundless doors to liberation include the natural world; contemplative practices, love—romantic and otherwise; loss, death; and suffering. And many more.

Places of natural beauty can open the door. Desert skies, lakes, oceans, snowy mountains, and lush forests.

Prayer, contemplation or meditation can open the door.

THE DOORWAY OF LOVE

Sometimes love opens the door.

Agenda-less love. Romantic love. New parent love. Critter love.

I was 29 when I fell in forbidden, impossible love. Prophetic dreams and unlikely events threw us together. Loss was certain, imminent. Yet I gave myself utterly, drunk on our summer rain: each time we made love, the skies opened and drenched the earth with heaven’s music. We felt our flesh radiate blessings to all beings in every dimension.

Love can be a little death; great love can be a great death. When my lover left me, my life disintegrated: my home, job, friendships, name and identity fell away. I was propelled thousands of miles into a new life.

 

THE DOORWAY OF LOSS

Sometimes loss opens the door. Or a series of losses.

In 2011, my mother died and my dearest friend broke up with me.

In 2012, I lost Tigger, my bird-friend of nine years, and my home of twelve years.

In 2013, Tigger’s mate also passed. I was birdless for the first time in fourteen years. Gone all those sweet call and response whistles that are integral to life with birds.

No more trills of reassurance and belonging: “Are you there? I am here.” “Is all well? All is well.” 

 

2014 was loss on steroids.

In February I brought a special needs baby bird home; he died soon after we bonded.

An April bike accident stole my health and motivation for months.

In summer, my certain refuge–the lake I swam at daily–was closed by toxic algae.

By September I had let another baby parrot crawl into my heart. She died in October.  [Thank goodness for her sister Zee, who chose to live, to live with me.]

And in 2015, sleep became elusive, hard-won.

 

So much loss, year after year.

The friction of loss can bring glimpses of non-duality. We rub up against fundamental questions like:

How do I go on when the one I love is gone?

Who am I without my narcissistic mom? So much of what I am is the daughter who resented her, who defended against her.

Who am I without my bird-friends? So much of what I am is the woman who shares her life with birds.

Who am I without a lake to swim in?  So much of what I am is the one immersed in the lake, who flies beside ducks and turtles.

Who am I without the certainty of sleep? So much of what I used to be was rested.

What happens to identities stripped of their physical objects?

What is a swimmer with no lake? A motherless child?  A sleeper who cannot sleep?

What is left of me when the parent, the beloved, the lake, the certainty of sleep are gone?

What remains of this consciousness I call “me?”

THE DOORWAY OF DEATH

 

Sometimes death opens the door. Dissolution can release us from a particular form.

I have written elsewhere of how the deaths of two of my bird companions loosened my ordinary, subject-object consciousness a little.

When my mother died, I went through many changes. The most surprising change was my relief that she was beyond my protection. Nothing could hurt her anymore.

Like a hidden vault opening, I remembered as a child, silently agreeing to protect her from

my suffering. To shield her from how much she had harmed me.

Now relief flooded me; a long-held exhalation rushing out. Permission to be thoroughly angry at her. On the spot I wrote a song called “Vampire Mom.”

I sang that song over and over in the days that followed, melting a glacier of grief and rage.

That momentum carried me “beyond, completely beyond” my mother’s daughter. My mother and I were finally free from that messed up dynamic.

Much more of my aliveness became available to me after that. Including, strange to say (since I did not seek it), forgiveness for my mom. A sense of peace about her.

THE DOORWAY OF SUFFERING

Sometimes suffering opens the door.

Sometimes you suffer unbearably, endlessly from some absurd, arbitrary torment, or ridiculous injustice. Then, finally it’s over. Or maybe it continues. It doesn’t matter, because you have crossed the threshold.

Did that grit-storm sand down your soul? Somehow, you’ve let go. Horror is redeemed as you find yourself standing, relieved and grateful.

“Gone beyond, gone completely beyond” is not just an expression. Liberation is a movement beyond reactivity, the breeze that melts our resentment.

Liberation allows us, no matter why or how much we have suffered, to choose how we meet life.

Shedding that victim stance is waking from a nightmare. Our gaze widens out into spaciousness and generosity, a new way of being that is audacious and exhilarating.


Liberating.
MANY DOORS

 

You have probably noticed that most of the doorways I describe are difficult doorways.

Perhaps there is more to say about struggle than ease. Perhaps I require a lot of pressure to crack open.
🙂

But there are myriad small, subtle doorways beckoning to us in each moment. A sweet gaze. Sunlight on water. A difficult truth revealed. A baby, of any species, surrendered in sleep.

Many doors to liberation. Never the same door twice.

“No,” he said, “I don’t think it will be any good trying to go back through the wardrobe door to get the coats. You won’t get into Narnia again by that route. Nor would the coats be much use by now if you did!

Eh? What’s that? Yes, of course you’ll get back to Narnia again someday…But don’t go trying to use the same route twice. Indeed, don’t try to get there at all. It’ll happen when you’re not looking for it.”

~C.S. Lewis, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Bird Energy Medicine Playshop

Bird Medicine for Healing & Transformation

When: Tuesday, September 29: 7-9 pmscritch ooWhere: Rockridge, North Oakland

Dr. Tarakali’s lifelong relationship with birds recently took a surprising turn. She was inspired (badgered, actually) by her bird friends (the “Bird of Directors” or “Advisory Birds”) to create 16 essence tinctures called Taken Under Wing.

Like Rescue Remedy, bird essences are energy medicine, in this case the channeled energy of specific birds, including parrots, owls and raptors.

Each Taken Under Wing tincture embodies a unique aspect of avian wisdom that the birds are eager to share with humans (and other beings) to support healing and transformation.

The 16 essences include Nourishing Partnership, Slow Down, Badass Female, Agency-in-Disability, Altar Eagle, Hunter-Healer (to enhance healing insight), Liberation Beyond Form, Good Death, Preening, Adorable Owl, Taken Under Wing (for mentoring), and others.

Zee HH

In this playshop Dr. Tarakali and the Advisory Birds will share intuitive insights and anecdotes, while guests sample the essences and experience bird energy medicine.

If you like, Dr. Tarakali and the “Advisory Birds” will recommend an appropriate essence for your temperament and situation.

Space is limited
Playshop Cost: $20

To register, contact Dr. Tarakali at vanissar@cs.com
or (510) 594-6812