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Updated: Feb 6, 2020
Whether it be alone or with significant others, the way you perceive is influenced deeply by the things you choose to pay attention to. Think that's silly? Read on.
In my last post I talked about neural pathways being like paths through a grassy field that one either wears down or lets grow wild based on how often they are used. Each time you walk the pathway it grows deeper, wider, easier to travel. So what happens when you focus on how much you hate that bump on your nose, or how incredibly inconsiderate your coworker is? You are priming your brain to notice similar things more efficiently and more intensely.
In somewhat the same vein, there is an old folktale that goes something like this: a child turns to their grandparent and says, "I feel as though there are two wolves battling inside of me, one dark and one light. Which one will win?"
The grandparent smiles and responds, "Whichever one you choose to feed".
This is how we manifest . We have heard folks talking about 'manifesting' things like relationships, job opportunities, etc., but what does that term actually mean? Well, strictly speaking, "Manifest (verb): to display or show by one's acts or appearance; demonstrate". However, if you're like me, the definition is somewhat hollow without concrete examples. Let's explore how this can show up in intimate relationships, both in beneficial and destructive ways:
Jo is terrified of infidelity and abandonment - she had a terrible experience dating someone who repeatedly violated the boundaries of their relationship and then gaslit (lied to/emotionally manipulated) her, making her feel like she was going crazy. After many harrowing months of volatile breakups and passionate reunions, unpredictability, and half-obscured betrayals Jo was finally able to successfully terminate the relationship, but her sense of self, sense of self-worth, and ability to reality-test were all shaken to their foundation. Understandably, Jo has had some difficulty trusting new partners. Although the only thing she wants from an intimate partner is to feel safe and loved, she is so focused on the fear of pain and the need to protect from further damage she actually creates more distance by creating a culture of insecurity within the relationship. For example, someone she is seeing gets held up in traffic on the way to pick her up for a date and arrives 30 minutes late. For those 30 minutes, Jo's nervous system has been ratcheting up the anxiety, recognizing the familiar feelings of panicked disappointment and confusion, and sending Jo into a state of 'fight or flight'. When Jo's new sweetie finally arrives they find her tear-streaked, trembling with anger and fear, completely convinced that either there is someone else, or that their lateness is a symptom of the impending end of their love for her, or both. Nothing the partner says or does is able to console her and eventually, when attempts at comfort and de-escalation prove inadequate, the partner feels hurt and unseen. This wounding results in them becoming defensive and then shutting down, turning away from Jo's distress. If this pattern continues without change, Jo's reactivity will likely push her partner away, as trust is the fundamental currency of any healthy relationship. The partner's needs for collaboration, respect, and acceptance will not be met, and no matter how good their intentions they will likely end the relationship in search of a place where they don't constantly feel like a perpetrator. This will reinforce Jo's idea that she cannot trust anyone because they will all find some new shiny new lover and leave her. She has manifested an echo of her trauma.
How could this have happened differently? What do you think might have happened if Jo had different tools in her toolbox? Take two:
Jo's date is late. This reminds her of her abusive ex and she feels herself starting to get activated, increased heart rate, shallow rapid respiration, wide eyes and racing thoughts. Due to the work she has done since the end of her abusive relationship (either with her therapist or using her own research) she recognizes the symptoms and knows that she is entering a trauma vortex, where the logical parts of her brain are starting to get hijacked by a survival response and that the ensuing interaction with her partner will be coming from a place of threat and danger. She knows that this experience is being generated inside her, which means she can to a certain extent control it. The priority is to reinstate a sense of safety so she can deal with what is happening in the present moment instead of having to relive her trauma. Jo texts her partner that she is having a rough time and that she will likely need to either cancel or delay the date they have planned in favor of working on reestablishing trust and connection - thankfully the two of them have already had conversations about Jo's history as well as her needs in moments like this. So even walking into the situation Jo's partner understands what is happening for Jo and, maybe most importantly, to not take it personally. While she awaits her partner's arrival Jo engages in various self-soothing techniques such as slow, deep breathing, orienting to her space, and grounding into sensations of safety in her body. There is still a substantial part inside of her that is screaming and thrashing and telling her that nothing is okay nothing has ever been okay and nothing will ever be okay and she needs to fight fight fight FIGHT until she is safe. However, she has built another part of her, a witness part, that is able to maintain some control, some trust, and some curiosity into what is happening for her right now. When her partner arrives she is able to express how scared she was and how important they are to her. Because she is not experiencing her partner as 'the threat', she is able to see their concern, to connect and co-regulate with them. Slowly but surely the social engagement, the awareness of the here and now, and the utilization of self-soothing techniques bring her frontal lobes back online and start to quiet the screaming animal part of her brain. She has proven her fear wrong. The potentially re-traumatizing episode was used as an opportunity for closeness, for repair, for something different. The partner was able to actively participate in supporting Jo's healing process, but they didn't need to 'rescue' her; instead they could both trust that given the right tools, the right intention, and the right timeline their connection would be reestablished, perhaps even deeper and stronger than it was before. This time, she has manifested a step in the resolution of her trauma.
Curiosity is the opposite of fear; they cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Fear keeps us closed to the possibility of something different. Softening into the discomfort may be terrifying, but it allows the emotions to move, to transform, and to teach us. Every time we walk the road of curiosity instead of fear, we allow ourselves to see more beauty, feel more pleasure, and experience more connection. We create our own reality every moment of every day by choosing how we engage with ourselves and with our world.
*Disclaimer: if you believe you may be in an abusive dynamic please do not use these techniques to circumnavigate a very real and perhaps necessary survival response. Reach out to people who love you that you know and trust. Ask for help. If you are unsure whether or not the dynamic is abusive you can use these trusted others, as well as professionals in the fields of health and mental health, to help you decide your level of safety and what your options are. You can talk to a professional at the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 1−800−799−7233, or use their website www.thehotline.org to educate yourself on what abuse looks like and what resources are available to you. Of course, if you ever find yourself in an emergency situation immediately call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. Your safety is the highest priority.