Updated: Dec 13, 2020
The nervous system is designed to handle stressful events and conditions. In fact, successfully navigating challenge builds resilience and improves the relaxation response (Thom Meyers). This is a kind of good stress called eustress. When an encounter with challenge isn’t successfully met, the experience is called distress.
The quality of a person’s relationship to their primary caregiver during childhood can have profound affects on the development of the stress response (Stephen Porges, Daniel Siegel).
A person raised in an environment where one or more primary caregiver provides the space to meet and complete challenges in an environment of safety and support, experiences they are capable. That person develops trust in their own abilities. They internalize the faith their parents have in them as faith in themselves.
The greatest threat to developing a sense of agency (personal power) is when a person sets boundaries that are not recognized and continually violated in an environment that they are unable to leave. This leads beyond anxiety to dissociation and the freeze response. This kind of chronic disempowerment is the pinnacle of distress.
When a child is not able to experience successfully meeting challenge, the circuitry of the nervous system to be able to regulate their own nervous response never fully develops. The Hakomi method of mindful psychotherapy developed by Ron Kurtz would call this a missing experience. This can happen to children raised in homes where abuse is a constant threat, and also with well meaning parents who are overly protective, are over achievers, or are self (or internet) absorbed, or are simply too busy or too overwhelmed to connect with their children.
It was strange to realize as a grown adult that I was so afraid of my personal power, that stepping into it caused me severe and debilitating anxiety. I had always thought of myself as a well adjusted and successful person. In my late twenties and early thirties I tried to grow into my personal power both in my career and in my relationships, and I kept getting waylaid by panic attacks so extreme I thought I was having a heart attack. I sought help and began to understand that my story of being a well adjusted and successful person was just that, a story I told to cover up the truth of how I felt and had always felt. There was nothing anywhere to lean into. I had no ground under my feet. There was no trust anywhere to be found. I had told the story of a “normal” person to survive how I felt, and as I moved into my mid thirties it became very clear that this story, though it had served me once, was now inhibiting the personal power I was doing my best to grow into.
In order to keep growing, I had to figure out why I was stuck and this led me to revisit the story of my childhood through the lens of personal power. In doing so, I’ve realized all the ways my personal power was systematically and consistently invalidated and punished. No wonder I was terrified. Not only did I not have an experience in my nervous system of successfully meeting a challenge, I had the opposite wiring. I could not meet the challenge of setting boundaries to parents not willing to recognize my feelings and to honor my autonomy, so the neural circuitry that was laid down was one of distress, of giving up. The underlying and pervasive belief that I made as a child and that still forms the basis of my personality is “I am not capable.” It’s there because at one time, it was true. I had been a small person in distress, incapable of protecting myself.
Much of the work of Hakomi psychotherapy is stirring up and staying present with core material, which includes beliefs like “I am not capable.” In doing so the client has the opportunity in the presence of a compassionate and relatable witness to have a missing experience. The idea is that when a person confronts old stressors and has the experience of what was missing, it gets wired into the nervous system and stored along with the old and painful memory. It transforms memories of distress into ones of eustress. This works on the level of experience, not ideas.
There is a very real nervous system response that tells a person on a deep level, “I did that. I’m ok. I’m capable. I could do it again.”
It’s a knowing that’s beyond words and ideas. That’s because the stress response is comprised of a much older part of the brain that isn’t under a person’s conscious control (called the autonomic nervous system).
While this approach has been very helpful for me, it has been a slow process and dependent on access to therapists and the financial wherewithal to pay them.
A yoga practice can be an integral part of healing wounds from a childhood where some kind of chronic disempowerment was present (David Emerson, Bessel van der Kolk). I’ve known about these benefits for a very long time, and I practice yoga in part to support my own healing journey. It wasn’t until my most recent yoga teacher training with Yoganand Michael Carroll that I began to experience and fully understand the power of yoga to transform experiences of powerlessness.
In the ancient yoga tradition and in many eastern mindfulness traditions the main focus is to cultivate the ability to witness one’s experience without aversion or attachment. In the yoga tradition the witness is called Buddhi.
Yoganand says, “When we can stay in Buddhi we can stay present for anything, even the deepest terror.”
Like Hakomi, the traditional yogis sought to stir up unconscious core material in order to work with it on a conscious level. From Yoganand I learned to use the breath and my yoga practice in a different way than I was used to, in a way that both brings into focus places where I am stuck and strengthens my ability to witness it from Buddhi. It’s a very intimate and internal practice of noticing, of creating challenge and then staying present to it without reacting.
As I practice, the old familiar fear arises and along with it the story that says,
“I’m not good enough. I’m not capable. Just give up. It’s easier to just give up.”
In that moment I can look away, I can acquiesce, I can give away my power, or I can choose to stay present. When I successfully stay present to my fear I affirm to myself, I have choice, I have strength, I don’t have to look away or hide.
What is happening over time is a reclamation of my internal landscape. I don't need a therapist to do this. Instead, I am providing myself with the missing experience. By finding my edge and choosing to stay in Buddhi, I am proving to myself that I am capable.
As I cultivate the ability to choose how I respond to my fear, I begin to see all the many ways that I give my personal power away. As I cultivate my Buddhi I see that my response to life experiences is where my personal power lies.
I get to choose how I feel and it’s not contingent on how others feel about me.
As I turn 43 I have so much gratitude that this understanding is unfolding and becoming real for me. I’ve struggled for a very long time, and I finally feel like I’ve found a way forward. I can’t say where this path will lead, only that it feels very reassuring to be on it. I can lean into my practice any time, anywhere.
After a lifetime of feeling dependent on outside validation, it’s nice to know I can now look to myself for the much needed nourishment, encouragement and support that was missing.