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Pandemic to Possibility-Creating Community

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This week’s strategy for success is looking at the importance of community. The word community comes from French, old English, and Latin words meaning ‘to share with others.’ Your drive for social connectedness and belonging is the essential ‘old friend’ that has been with you your entire life. It is that innate seeking to be with others and is tied to our sense of survival. Alfred Adler, a famous psychologist and student of Freud, viewed relationships with social curiosity of our fellow humans as one of the main priorities of existence and, as he termed it, our main task in life. Adler expressed that all individuals have the basic desire: “to belong and feel significant.”

Turn On Your Inner ‘Social-Light’

Lights are off, and no one’s home is how life has felt lately. If you are like me, your social well-being has been restricted over the past couple of years with the pandemic. For some, depending on your personality type, being secluded at home might have felt comfortable and cozy. It may have seemed like being grounded and sent to your room for others. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, the reality is that we need deep engagement with others around us to survive and regulate our nervous systems. It is in our basic genetics and part of our evolution as mammals. We need nurturing, connection, and play as part of our daily diet and everything else. 

The pandemic shutdown has moved many of us into a habitual comfort space engaging the primitive reptilian brain on the lookout for threats, prefering to navigate alone. But, did you know that some reptilian species actually flee their families to avoid being eaten? That danger searching mechanism is built into our early brains. You may relate to that in your current family. Either way, evolution has taught us that we need others to support our survival.

Joseph Chilton Pearce, the renowned author, and professor, studied how our brains can get stuck in patterns leaving us sleepwalking through life. He saw our capacity to create new possibilities by tapping into our innate need for independence and interdependence with others.

As babies, we learn to depend on others for food, shelter, brain development, and protection. These requirements carry over through adulthood with the desire for connection, to be seen, understood, matter, be loved, and accepted. As infants, we coordinate our nervous systems with our primary caregivers, setting our tuning like an instrument with our caregiver’s wiring. In adulthood, we are still regulating ourselves with those around us. When we are disconnected from our inner-emotional selves and others, we can be like that out-of-tune guitar that hangs around in the corner of your room. It is time to tune in and reignite those wants for connection by turning our lights on concerning others around us!

Rise and Shine

In these last two years, we have gained a heightened fear of exposure with new waves of social anxiety as we negotiate to be in our communities again. Many of us have been creatively attending community events over zoom, like churches, political events, weddings, birthdays, etc. While they are alternatives for connectedness, they have led to zoom fatigue and don’t ignite the deep resonance we crave and get being with others. We may have gained a new hermit-like habit, where we are less likely to want to engage in person as the opportunity arises. With the increased patterns of being connected online with email, text, zoom, slack, insta-everything, we have become less connected to ourselves and less present to others when we are with them. It is time to wake up, shake ourselves up, and start feeling what is going on in our insides. When we can be aware of ourselves, we have more energy available to be present with others. 

Hide and Seek

We often feel sensitive and want to hide away the discomfort of our desires for contact. These avoidance strategies might have dulled the pain of the deeper hunger for needing others, but they come at a cost. Our neurobiology begs us to seek connection, and when it is repeatedly unmet, we can fall into patterns of isolation, chronic loneliness, and a sense of powerlessness. Leading social psychologist, Barbara Frederickson, PhD., explains that they shield us from the possibilities of genuine contact, making us out of touch with our bodies and ability to have resonance and positivity. The resonance we build by being ‘in tune’ with others supports emotional agility and resilience when life rises and falls with the tides. 

Find Your North Star

When connected emotionally with ourselves and others, we can calibrate out of our darker thinking patterns toward hope and possibilities. We have more access to our higher-level thinking and prefrontal cortex, leading to understanding the big picture and deeper life contexts. We literally can lift each other. With engaged communities of others, we are aimed at the north star of positivity and buoyed through the storms of life, facing the elements together and rising above the tides. 

Belong or Longing to Be

When we think of the word to belong, the sensation we get is right in the word itself. We long for others to see us as we are and to be fully ourselves. Researcher, author, and esteemed professor, Brene Brown, found in her studies on belonging that we must belong to ourselves first and as much as to others. She explains that “True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness.” This means that when we can fully love and accept who we are, we can bravely share ourselves in the face of possible rejection. We must be who we are to be seen. Too often, this desire to have love and acceptance can cheapen the experience when presenting only what we think others want. This is not what quenches that deep primal thirst for connection. Instead, we create further separation and disconnection when we manage what others know about us and try to ‘fit in.’ The deepest sense of connection must always start at home. The more we can learn to love and accept ourselves with all the messy parts, the deeper connection we can allow in from others. In her grounded research studies on connection, Brown revealed an “energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from that relationship.” 

I May Be A Reptile…Now What?

We have established that we have a deep need for others. What do we do about it? You may fall in the space of the more reptilian self who has been overly comfortable hiding out and potentially numb to needing others. No shame. There is a way out of the hole and into the light. It begins with turning your lights on. Your inner light, that is. When we can be aware of what we feel on the inside, we can develop a greater presence in our emotions and basic needs. We can understand the deeper longings underneath the lure of sweetness in the candy or the romantic comedy. By understanding ourselves through feeling our emotions, we can do something about it. Research has shown that disconnection is felt in our bodies as physical pain. It is essential to feel it. Our bodies remind us somatically to do something about it. So get to it! And if you find yourself wanting deeper support, our community of therapists are here to help!

Activities for Connection:

Over the next couple of weeks, try on some basic activities for connection.

  • Be aware of what you feel inside. See if you can notice that desire to be known, understood, matter, and be heard by others. Acknowledge that part of you as necessary and seek out those needs. 
  • Love yourself. Be kind and gentle with yourself even if you are not at your best. Try on some acceptance for where you are right now, even if it is in sweatpants covered in Cheetos. Let that be alright. 
  • If you can connect with another human in person, do it. Try being vulnerable. It may be something that you share that is real and raw. It can also look like just gazing into someone’s eyes for a minute with no words. Let yourself BE with your Longing.
  • Get a hug! Hugs can release many positive feelings, and chemicals wash all over our bodies. It can help both individuals coregulate together and reset. It’s a good thing!
  • Play with others. Remember that you are a mammal, just like a puppy or kitty cat. So let that inner animal out and be silly with another human being. We need it.

As I mentioned in my last article, I am kicking off a series in time for summer on the shadow or darkside. So, I thought that it would be appropriate in the time of longest light of the year to take a look examining our shadows while outside our days are being filled with sunlight. I hope this is a process of compassion and lightness rather than shame or guilt. So, let’s remove the villainy and cast some illumination on the parts we have historically hidden away. 

The Darkside is not just a Pink Floyd album or the luring space that creates Darth Vader. However, music and mythology have quite a bit to offer on this subject. 

As a Star Wars fan, like many others, I have always been drawn to the infamous character of Darth Vader. His story shows parallels to our human form. It is a story of grief, loneliness, passion, and anger, where we feel overwhelmed and out of control with life. However, his character was also seen as the fated one to restore the balance in the force, as a being born of light, who moved through darkness and back to the light. 

Many of us have had our dark times. They might have shown up as mental health struggles, grief, shame, guilt, addiction, suicidal ideation or attempts, depression, and despair. In these challenging mental gauntlets, we cross where a new hope lies ahead in integrating these spaces with a compass toward greater possibility. In the movies, we see this cinematically. Enter Luke & Leia Skywalker and the community of support as they save the galaxy. In our real lives, it’s not so different; we need a community of others to band with us to help us navigate our darkest times and move us toward our most authentic selves. If you prefer another movie analogy, Lord of the Rings gives us this lesson also. Our community of allies, or in this case, the Fellowship of the Ring, helps our character, Frodo, journey to the edge of darkness and serve as the beacon to come back to. 

These are the concepts of all mythology and what famous American mythologist, lecturer, and author Joseph Campbell wrote about when outlining a hero or heroines’ journey. In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he outlines how a hero leaves a familiar world into one of mystery and uncharted courses where they encounter some superpower and force, and they achieve a victory both within and external: the hero returns with new knowledge and power to bring back to their community.

We also must pass through the edges of Mordor in our lives. We become more whole when we acknowledge that we can feel rage, anger, hate, powerlessness, helplessness, sadness, loneliness, and lost. It is not a place to stay but rather experience and move through. When we can be with the most overwhelming experiences, emotions, and sensations, we expand our capacity to hold, notice and savor the small and beautiful moments of life. We can slow time and delight in a flower blooming, a sun rising or setting, or children’s unabashed laughter. 

There are many schools of thought surrounding our inner child work and what Stephen Wolinsky, Ph.D., author, teacher, and collective founder of Quantum Psychology, coined as the “Dark Side of the Inner Child.” He states that in our wounded spaces of childhood trauma, we become stuck in a repeated state of reacting to upsetting situations with the developmental mind space of a child. That might look like adult tantrums, name-calling, hiding, avoiding, procrastinating, and much more. Wolinsky shows that we all operate with many underdeveloped parts of ourselves, inner children stuck in these hypnotized states running on cruise control, reacting to the world. He calls them “schemas.” Alfred Adler, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, calls this natural response safeguarding or creating a safe space for ourselves. Both theories aim to protect oneself from feelings of helplessness, inferiority, and trauma. Unfortunately, these responses often keep us mired in the traumatic physical experience and unaware of the internal war inside. Frequently what happens in these childish states, our darkest parts come forward. We can quickly get stuck in a parenting trap to these little children of overindulging, spoiling, and catering to the little tyrants inside. This shows up in relationships, friendships, and authority figures at work.

Richard Schwartz, the founder of Internal Family Systems, offers one approach to this dilemma. He looked at the relationships and patterns among our inner child parts. He would have us see these children for what they are, engage our wise adult selves, and have us come to them with Compassion, Creativity, Curiosity, Confidence, Courage, Calm, Connectedness, Clarity, Presence, Persistence, Perspective, Playfulness, Patience (8 C’s & 5 P’s.) He observed that when the little kid parts felt secure and relaxed, the clients could engage in more spontaneity, openness, and compassion and exude greater confidence. This more integrated, matured space he called the self. Adler would likely have agreed to develop more appropriate adaptations and support these ”little selves” to mature into healthier spaces. 

What does this mean? We are called to see ourselves even in these less mature states and nurture them the way an ideal parent would. From this space, we can re-experience our most upsetting times with a different level of comfort and compassion than our caregivers could afford us at the time. As adults, we have the opportunity and task to love and nurture our most wounded parts and bring them to a more positive and whole experience. 

Now let us take a lens back to our character Darth Vader for a moment. Imagine if he could have been acknowledged in his anger, pain, and grief rather than operating out of a tantrum where he helps obliterates nearly all the Jedi. For those who aren’t fans, he lost his mother, from whom he was separated as a young child, and later lost his only love in a spit of rage. Instead of being with the pain, he turned it outward and hurt many others in both situations. What if he had the experience of being held tightly, loved, and nurtured in his deepest pain and had the opportunity to feel connected to his higher values of love. He could have still had an extreme sob while raging with anger and despair, but the feelings may have come to a place of completion. In this space, he could have had more creativity and presence, seeing more hope, light, love, and a sense of purpose to create different experiences for himself and future Jedi. The powerful rage he felt could have been healthily harnessed with intentions of greater social interest and creating a better galaxy for all. That would be an exciting conclusion, in my opinion. What will your conclusion look like?

So, for those who want to stand in the beam of the sun or beacon of the lighthouse, READ ON:

Should you want to take on an assignment, come to the Darkside:

The next time you notice you are feeling highly reactive to something… 

  • Stop and take a breath. 
  • Tune into your little kid part. 
  • Imagine you are holding a little you and listening with love and compassion. 
  • How can you get that little one’s needs met? 
  • Is it by creating some safety, security, or comfort? 
  • What is this little one fighting for? 
  • Be more mindful this week and see if you can see the little kids at play throughout your day inside yourself. 
  • Love them. 
  • Delight in them. 
  • Help them to soothe and relax so that you can be more present and integrated as the brilliant human you are!

For support in your heroic journey through the dark side, we are here to help! Let us be among your community of support!

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