Thursday, October 23, 2008

Becoming Like Little Children Part III

Snake in freeze defense position.

Sometimes I come across something that is just so good, it fits so well in what I've been thinking and writing that I have to take some time to just savor it. This short extract from a longer comment on another Catholic blog is one of those somethings:

"It seems to me that the message that Gays and Lesbians etc have for us all is that we must be true to ourselves."I AM WHAT I AM" is their motto. Would that I could take a searching and fearless look at my true self and get past the facade I erect to ingratiate myself with my upward socially mobile set."

This is what these posts are all about. How to get past the facade we erect in order to survive and prosper in our various cultures. To do exactly what Christ asked us to do, which is die to the facade and find our true Divine self within.

One of the starting points for this process is to pick something which causes you palpable anxiety and to be open to tracing that anxiety back to it's roots. I've watched people literally freeze up when it comes to certain cultural issues. Freezing up is a flight reaction to anxiety and points to repressed emotions centered on the fear/anger complex. It's opposite reaction is to fight or attack and this can certainly manifest as a verbal as well as physical attack.

When I made it a conscious point in my life to notice the anxiety bubbling up I began to make real headway in understanding some of my maladaptive behavior. I'll use a personal rather than a hypothetical example to illustrate how this works.

About a decade ago I was called into my supervisors office and out of the blue was given a very negative evaluation of a situation which I thought I handled effectively and appropriately. I was so stunned I literally froze. My mind didn't function, my vision blurred, and I couldn't hear effectively. I actually could not separate his voice from the background noise.

I began to slowly realize that some part of me is screaming at me to get control of myself, that my current response was ineffective. With a major effort I shifted from frozen incomprehension and was able to hear the last part of what my supervisor was saying. He had moved on to a personal attack, generalizing about me as a person.

In an instant I shifted from a frozen flight response, to out right anger. This anger was so pervasive that this other part of me realized if I didn't get control of this state, I would literally come unglued. Unable to reconcile such a ramped up emotional and anxious state I started to shudder and felt hot tears coming down my cheeks. That was a signal to me to remove myself from the situation because I was one small step away from cleaning his clock. My fists were clenched so tight my nails were driving into the flesh of my palms. I didn't even excuse myself, I just left his office.

His reaction to my reaction was interesting. Rather than seeing any of the rage my body was expressing, he took my leaving as a sign of weakness and submission and felt totally vindicated. From that point on my work life became pretty unbearable and I quit the first chance I got.

From my perspective, I was obsessed with trying to figure out what precipitated such a charged emotional response---to freeze on one hand, and then flip into an almost uncontrollable rage. What I found precipitated a lot of AHA! moments and many, many long sighs.

Long sighs are a very good thing because they represent the body releasing anxiety. They also indicate that the anxiety is of a low enough level that one can proceed with whatever one is thinking about because the anxiety is being released through the voluntary muscles and not stored in the sympathetic nervous system, where it can do a lot of damage.

The frozen state I described above is an example of one's anxiety level getting so high, that it interferes with cognitive functioning and the brain is disassociating, which is why my vision blurred and my hearing deteriorated. This is a level of anxiety well beyond what shunting anxiety to the sympathetic nervous system can dissipate. Anxiety is so pervasive the brain resorts to frozen disassociation. Essentially this means a person is experiencing an almost pure state of R/Limbic state functioning devoid of much higher level cognitive influence.

Picture a snake frozen in the face of danger, hoping it won't be noticed. This is the reptilian brain were talking about here, so it makes sense we might emulate a reptilian defensive strategy.

If you think back about traumatic events when you were a young child, you will undoubtedly remember similar states. These early experiences are key to them manifesting in adulthood.

The voice I described telling me this response is ineffective is what I would call the observer ego. The observer ego is not impacted by emotional states. Once my focus shifted to listening to the observer ego, I was able to refocus on the moment, which as things went, only triggered another extreme reaction, but this was not the disassociation of flight, but the soon to be active anger of rage. Again the observer ego made a decision. The physical release for this rage was not actively pummeling my supervisor but hot tears and long long shudders which seemed to involve my entire body. At this point me and my observer ego leave.

The question I had, is what was I projecting on this supervisor? I knew that in reality this situation did not call for this kind of response from me. It was a sign pointing to something else.

What I found as I allowed myself to go back through memories is that this kind of out of the blue seemingly unjust attack had happened more than once. In fact more times than I cared to admit, but they had never precipitated this level of rage. In retrospect though, I could trace the rage rising from one situation to the next to the next. AHA long sigh.

What was the initial situation? It turns out there were two, and they both happened before I reached the age of eight. The second of the two happened when I was in catechism classes at the age of seven. We were preparing for first Communion and First Confession. We had been reading the Baltimore Catechism and were memorizing the whole litany of God is this, God is that section. I dawned on me that it said that God is all powerful and God can do all things, and I wondered if God could create someone more powerful than Himself. If He couldn't He wasn't all powerful, but if He did then He wouldn't be all powerful anymore. So I raised my hand and in all innocent curiosity asked the nun about this.

KABOOM! Amongst other things I was called a blasphemer and threatened with never making my first communion. She was pissed. I don't know what button of hers I pushed, but whatever it was, the anger she expressed at me triggered a state of disassociation exactly as I described above. Once I was able to refocus, my emotional state quickly turned to hysterical tears as I fantasized the question: "What if she tells my parents? Oh God, please God don't let her do that." Turns out God answered that prayer, although it took me a good week to believe my parents non action meant she hadn't called my parents.

However, my first confession was a nightmare of anxiety. (Remember the superego stuff from yesterday) The day it came upon me is the day I puked in class and was sent home. Classic example of shunting anxiety to the sympathetic nervous system. I did make my first confession the following weekend with my dad along as a before and after security blanket. To this day the thought of going to confession in a little black box is anxiety provoking, so I don't do it. (This would be a classic case of indulging in avoidance behavior.)

I think it's obvious that the original triggering event must have involved my parents, and because my dad functioned as my security blanket in the second event, the first event must have involved my mother.

The thing that's kind of funny to me now is that although the situation was devastating to my ill equipped young brain, to my mother who was raising five kids, this kind of thing must have happened all the time. What this thing was, is that mom blamed me out of the blue for something my brother had done---break a dish. My mother was truly pissed and for some reason I picked that time to wander into the kitchen and became her target. I think I was about four at the time.

I can still see her shaking the broken dish in my face, her face all red and angry, and I can feel myself freezing. I can't compute this anger at all, because I didn't do it. I'm firmly in that stage where I'm separating me and my acts from those of others. So I knew my lousy brother did it.

Unable to reconcile this reality my little brain opts for a new reality. It's called disassociation. In this reality my mother becomes all blurry and I can't hear her well at all, and therefor it's safer and all that icky anxious feeling seems to go away. I get sent to my room, except.... I've found a much better room, one I would frequently go to from then on out when things got really anxiety provoking. Plus, by the time I reached the age of reason, I had also found my own little secret room under the basement stairs and it was here I would frequently go when things needed sorting out. You could say it was my first office.

Now for all the good things about all this. I no longer disassociate around authority figures and can deal with unjust behavior from a strictly logical cognitive basis without all the anxiety getting in the way. I'll focus on it, make sure it stays in my voluntary muscle system, frequently taking deep breaths is one way I make sure of this, and let my little four year old self come to the forefront of my memory where I can recognized the source of the anxiety and let it pass. It's sort of me telling my R/limbic system "It's OK kid, I got this under control, I don't need your solutions at this time but thanks anyway." Slowly but surely, I'm telling my hyper vigilant older brain parts, that I can handle these things from higher more developed parts, and it's listening and it's trusting me.

The other good thing is that disassociation is a critical skill in developing psychic spiritual talent, but it's used as a skill, not a defense mechanism. Well, that's a topic for another day.


  1. I am so familiar with what you have brought up here Colleen. I've been stunned and frozen more times than I'd care to remember and with tears rolling down my cheeks over the years in countless situations. For some odd reason though, I could not get angry. It was cause for many years of self-doubt and a feeling of worthlessness that brought on later in life periods of depression. Rather than look at what my reaction was I was obsessed with figuring out what was wrong with me and vindicating the attacks on me personally. I put everyone else above me in a way and this just brought on undeserved guilt.

    I had a similar situation in an eighth grade class and I said something that the nun took totally the wrong way and I was so embarrassed in front of the whole class and just froze. What's really interesting is that it was rare for me to raise my hand and say anything the entire time in school. The one time I did I got chewed out for it. I was lucky in that my best friend at the time who sat behind me in class said she knew what I meant and that the nun was wrong. She's the same nun that just came from South America and had a low opinion of us "wealthy" North American kids and strapped two brothers in front of the entire class of over 80 students.

    What I've learned, thank God, is to discern where people are coming from in personal attacks. They seem to be coming from the standpoint of attacking for the sake of attacking, and because they are in a position of authority. Being God centered now, He is always the real authority.

    I've left many jobs due to the freeze and flight response and most of the time I looked like a spineless jellyfish unable to defend myself to those who seemed to love to attack me. This was in the corporate environment of brown-nosers who loved to make themselves look good, and I would often come out on the short end of things. Some jobs I should have left sooner rather than later. The cost has been very high to me and it took me so long to work this through. In interviews sometimes I still freeze up, but I have found if I freeze up there is a good reason to not want to work there. It seems a signpost of danger - do not go there for it will only bring you trouble or despair.

    Sometimes I think it is best to flee, like Jesus did so many times especially since he knew those in authority positions were going to do him physical harm for healing on the Sabbath. He also knew when it was time to face them because he could no longer flee and his work was done.

    I had a job last year and I knew they wanted to find a way for me to either be fired or to make it unbearable enough for me to quit. I stuck it out and made sure I did nothing for them to fire me on any righteous terms. But they fired me anyway, devising a lie. Even unemployment understood they had no real reason to let me go. A job after that was rather interesting in that she for some reason didn't like me so she refused to make me part of the team working with her. She started giving me menial tasks and started outsourcing some of the work at undoubtedly a much higher rate than she was paying me. Then one day I heard her mumble something negative about me and I took a deep breath and got up out of my desk and told her off and slammed the door behind me. I finally stood up for myself.

    I don't recommend that in every situation one should tell their boss off and leave. In my situation though, it was the answer and I was paid too low for it to make a real difference and it was part time work.

  2. The synchronicity of todays post is amazing.

    On Monday after work, I was biking in the outback and stopped to take a picture of a lake. After I set up the camera I looked down and there was a ring-neck snake about the same size as the one in the picture. I has almost stepped on it when I dismounted. I was surprised that it was just coiled there, not trying to get away. I don’t know why I looked down at that moment. Another instant and I would have been walking to the place where I was going to take the picture and missed it completely.

    It was interesting that it didn’t move until I picked it up. At that point, it did all the squirmy snake things to get away, but after a couple of minutes, it must have figured out I wasn’t interested in eating it, it settled down, and coiled around my finger. It stayed there the entire time I was taking pictures.

    When I was done, I had trouble getting it to let go. Every time I would try to uncoiled it, it was slither back and recoil itself around my finger. It was the same finger too … the ring finger on my left hand. A ring neck snake coiled around the ring finger of my left hand and not wanting to let go. There has to be a message in there somewhere.

    I had forgotten about it until I saw the picture and read the post. The parallels between the picture and what was written in the post, and the experience of that moment are amazing.