August 1, 2014
As my mother continues to move toward the end of her life at an accelerated rate (these formal words bring tears to my eyes), I have been thinking a lot about the role of everyday overwhelm in creating disconnection, and how to respond to it. The grief is too large for me to hold on my own, and so I have increased my requests for empathy to my friends, and I welcome the tears that I find so hard to shed, as I feel my body come back to life when I am held with resonance by others. As I imagine you reading this and understanding something of my grief in this moment, I am finding my way back to my body.
Just like acute trauma, everyday overwhelm can splinter the brain, creating disconnected neural networks which have not been successfully integrated. We have two memory storage systems in our brain – one for everything we understand and have integrated, and one for moments of danger or overwhelm. In a best case scenario, after a moment of danger or overwhelm, we are held with care and emotional resonance, and we get to process what has happened and reclaim that moment for understanding and integration. (For a great book about how to hold these moments with children, please read Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes: Awakening the Ordinary Miracle of Healing by Peter A. Levine Ph.D. and Maggie Kline – the approach also applies for adults).
When the trauma is not acute, but is ongoing, we may even move into a kind of suspended animation, a shift into left-hemisphere coping without reference to our emotions or our body. We become a half-person in defense against the flooding in our emotional world.
No matter what kind of trauma we’re dealing with (remember the interesting working definition of trauma as “anything that we cannot integrate”), be it single-incident trauma, on-going overwhelm, or attachment trauma, it is most effective to work along the edges of the experience, rather than plunging into the flooding. When our system is flooded, we are lost within our right hemisphere and the helpful solid ground of words and naming is less available to us.
For everyday overwhelm, working along the edges means getting empathy support as often as necessary to be able to remain self-connected.
And how do we find this elusive empathy support in this world? I worry about this world, and have some heartbreak for how close and yet so far support is for most of us. To meet my own needs for reassurance and hope, I have some solid, left-brain strategies to offer here.
At every opportunity, pay attention to who is making empathy guesses that make your body relax, whether they are guessing for you, or for others in your presence. Take whatever opportunity you can to work more with this person. If they are in leadership, take classes and workshops and practice groups from them. If they are in the circle, ask them if they are willing to do mutual support empathy calls outside the circle. (Give yourself empathy for feeling shy and longing for privacy and ease. Find out if you are willing to persist despite your reservations.)
Join NVC programs that have empathy buddies as part of the program. Then, take advantage of every opportunity you have to try out new people. If you love the resonance you feel with them, ask if they are willing to make more empathy dates. What programs are there that offer this opportunity? Most long-term offerings. For example, the year-long programs I co-teach with Gloria Lybecker and Susan Skye, and most longer-term programs offered by Bay NVC, including the Parent Peer Leadership Program and the Leadership Program.
Who do you love to be with? Bring your needs sheet along (you can print one off the cnvc.org website). Ask this person to guess what needs might be alive for you as you tell them what is happening for you.
Join NVC practice groups. If there are folks you really find yourself attuned to in the circle, ask them if they would be willing to meet in person or on the phone outside of the practice group for mutual support and connection.
Work on your own resonance. After you have an opportunity to offer support to someone who is familiar with NVC, ask them if you stayed in empathy. Ask for observations of what contributed to them, and observations of moments when you strayed from empathy. In the moment when you strayed into fixing or advising or sympathizing, what was happening in your body? You most likely needed some self-empathy for a trigger or a small flood that was happening within you. Hold yourself with care and compassion as you stretch your empathy wings.
If you have the financial resources, get one-on-one empathy support from an NVC trainer or facilitator you enjoy and feel relaxed and safe with. This builds your self-compassion neural fibers, especially when your compassionate self-witness is invited into the conversation, too.
We’re really changing our brains by attending to the way we spend our time. The more empathy we receive, the more empathy will strengthen and support us.
I feel a bit vulnerable, offering advice, when I so value empathy and connection. If this newsletter has contributed in any way, would you be willing to let me know?