Trauma, triggers, and protecting your boundaries, Part 3 (final)

Last week I shared the memories that surfaced in the CI-session and today I share the insight I gained.

My colleague continued her compassionate inquiry, asking what emotions arose from that disgust. I reviewed everything and grew sad about the heartache it had so often caused, about the emotional absence due to all the addiction, and suddenly I realised how furious I also was. I raised my voice: “I’m just really angry too! Always the lying about the drinking! I don’t want to smell that smell! I don’t want you to come close to me! Stay away from me! Fuck off!” I shook my head, narrowed my eyes and grunted open-mouthed, stretched my arms out in front of me in a defensive gesture, pulled them back in with clenched fists and cried as I screamed. My colleague remained present; her face on the screen slowly calmed me down and we were silent together. She kept her eyes on me all the time and gauged how I was doing. “What must that have been like for the girl you were back then?”

Of course I also knew that question and we dived into it together, how sad it is when you have to growup like that. There is little you can do as a child in such circumstances and with her questions she led me to the insight known to both of us: that the ‘freeze’ you experience as a child can be overwhelming and can catch you again if you later find yourself in similar circumstances. That was what had happened: I had gone into a freeze when the lady approached me while she was drunk and wanted things from me that I was totally unwilling to give: attention, acknowledgment, physical closeness. I was the young girl who couldn’t turn to her mother, but could also not bear to have her mother around her in a drunk state either.

“I understand you didn’t want to make a scene, even if it wasn’t you, but that woman who was wrong, but what could you have said?” I thought in shared silence. “Uh… I could have said something like: I think you are drunk and I think it is better that we don’t have this conversation right now.” I laughed at myself: that sentence was actually very simple, very ‘cool and collected’! I could have said that; it need not have led to ‘drama states’, states that in themselves might have reminded me of the past. That sentence had also been respectful towards her. And if she had made a situation after all, I would not have been responsible for it. That, too, was interesting, of course, my attempt to keep the peace and not create ‘states’, when what was happening definitely crossed boundaries. How afraid was I of ‘states’? How many of my own limits and desires was I willing to give up to avoid ‘states’? How responsible did I feel for preventing ‘states’ and, moreover, for ensuring the well-being of those around me, bypassing my own? Since when and with what consequences had I done that as a child and continued the behaviour into adulthood?

Then I became aware that I did not quite understand how these themes had been discussed in plenary for two days and that someone then approaches another conference attendee in this way. As I spoke I realised how much trauma there is and how not even the best teacher can get the student ready to hear and take in the full magnitude of the message. If we are not ready, we cannot learn the lesson. When we are still in survival mode, our neocortex, our intellectual brain, does not work properly. Then we fall back on primary instincts and defense mechanisms. In that sense, it was interesting that she had said that she was grateful to me for mirroring her. Was she not used to encountering boundaries? Had she needed her drunken state to recognise that…? I once read: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Recently I saw a sequel that goes with it: “When the student is really ready, the teacher will disappear.” She said she had learned something from me and with the help of my CI-colleague I had now also learned something from her. Even though I definitely prefer a sober teacher for my learning process – I had gained an insight again.

An important question that Gabor always asks is whether you have ever ignored your intuition and later regretted it. I probably did that regularly as a child, ignoring my intuition, possibly even continuously. A lot of things happened in our nuclear and in the extended family circle that was not okay, but it was not talked about and I did not learn (or unlearned) to say something about it myself. When my mother said she had not been drinking when she had, despite the intuitive signals, I still started to doubt myself: “Am I so wrong? Am I such a nasty daughter that I mistrust my mother, that I don’t believe what she says? Maybe I’m wrong after all…” In fact, I’ve only recently realised how deep the impact of all these dynamics is and how they led to my estrangement from myself.

Therein lies the core of trauma: the broken connection with the true Self, the denial of your authenticity because of (your attempts to maintain) the attachment relationship. There was no bonding relationship with the drunken lady, but nevertheless an effort on my part not to cause ‘states’, something that could happen if I guarded my boundaries with strength and healthy anger. I had felt them, those boundaries, and also that she was crossing them, but I was paralysed. I let myself be caught off guard in the belief that that would be the quickest way to get rid of her and never see her again. However, wanting to get rid of something does not have to be a reason to let others cross your boundaries. These kinds of incidents can, however, be a reason to take a closer look at your own triggers. What had it done to me that she arrived late and objected emphatically to the limited space? What made me decide to arrange a chair for my colleague? Why did the restlessness in our row make me vicariously uncomfortable for the speaker? What had bothered me so much about her attempt to get ahead in line with the book signing? What pain had been touched in me by her fire-spitting eyes and her averted head? With compassionate curiosity there would be much more to discover in my experiences – as a student I am ready and a teacher I already have.

Two days later I had a beautiful closing meeting; to my surprise the lady appeared there too. Again I saw and heard extraordinary things. However, when she arrived (too late…) I had resolved not to enter into a confrontation. I wanted to enjoy the meeting and put my energy into imbibing the richness of the evening to the maximum. Moreover, I felt no need or responsibility to work on the relationship with her or to contribute to her process. A Buddhist saying I once heard: “If you cannot make it better, it is already great progress if you don’t make it worse.” That sounds compassionate enough to me: that is what I had chosen to do.

Earlier in the day, with the help of my colleague, I had discovered that simple statements are possible with which you can indicate and guard your boundaries if necessary. Through the disgust the body had said ‘no’ and from now on the head through the mouth is also allowed to say ‘no’ in a friendly way. If the other person is triggered by this, there is work to be done for the other person, which involves a compassionate investigation into their own reaction, and if I feel the space to do so, I can be supportive there. Being articulate about your own boundaries is also respectful towards the other. “Clarity is kindness”, says my dear, wise Scottish ACE-aware colleague Suzanne Zeedyk.

All in all, I learned a valuable lesson. The incident and the session have helped me to better understand the old patterns that are hidden behind apparently new circumstances. Cognitively I had known that for a long time, but I now experienced it from the language of my body. And when the body says ‘no’… then you are welcome to listen to it and act on it – the wisdom of your body is huge!

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