This weekend I attended an illuminating workshop taught by Sarah Thomas of Clarity Acupuncture. She described, from a Chinese Medical perspective, what happens to our bodies when we experience trauma.
Trauma, she explained, is so overwhelming that we simply cannot experience all of it in the moment. As a result, the un-felt feelings get buried or frozen in the body. How does this happen? Listen to this heartbreaking story:
The pericardium is the guardian of the heart. Its job is to protect the spirit, the center of our ability to communicate and bring our light to the world. The pericardium’s ability to open and close the gates of the heart is what allows us to love a friend deeply, yet take it in stride when she has a bad day and snaps at us. It allows us to feel empathy for another’s tragedy, yet not cry at every cat food commercial.
But when there is trauma, something or someone attacks the pericardium with such might that it collapses and can no longer guard the heart.
The pericardium experiences such a deep sense of shame and failure for its inability to protect the heart that it journeys down to the kidneys (the seat of wisdom and life experience) and tells them that it has failed, that it didn’t do its job and the only way to redeem the situation is to start over with a whole new lifetime.
Hence the self-hatred, the self-blaming and shame, the internalization that goes so deep we might not even remember the moment of trauma; the way we might dissociate from the person we were when the trauma occurred.
Oftentimes these buried traumas pop up in repeated patterns of relating to others. With each renewed experience we attempt to access that frozen memory, to fully feel the original moment of trauma and release it from the body.
A few weeks ago I had a blazing Road-to-Damascus moment. I’d had a difficult conversation with a friend that left me feeling rejected. This perception was totally out of proportion to our actual conversation, yet that terrible, overwhelming weight in my belly and heart persisted. I have noticed this pattern lately, a pattern of growing very close with someone, allowing something they say or do to activate a deep sense of rejection, and then closing myself off completely. It is almost as though I create situations in which I will feel rejected so that I can protect myself from ever getting too close to anyone.
I was riding the bus to Boone, preparing for a presentation I was to give on Gestalt theory. One of the exercises I had decided to do with the class involved projection, the way that, as Anais Nin so elegantly put it,
we don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.
This exercise instructs us to make two lists. The first is a description of the traits of a person you cannot stand–their most repugnant and unforgivable qualities. The second is a list of what someone with all of the dirt on you, someone who does not like you, would say about your weaknesses. My two lists matched perfectly.
Sometimes the world is a white screen onto which we project our own shadows. As I thought and wrote about projection, it came to me with precise clarity: it was not rejection I was feeling from my friend. It was my longing for the part of me that is allowed to reject, the long-lost capacity to claim clearly what I do and do not want. I was experiencing the longing for my own rejection.
All the pain fell away instantly. This was mine. I saw over the span of years how many times I had failed to stand up for the things I most wanted, not wishing to reject other people, other ways. I saw how I had accepted situations that I knew were utterly wrong so as not to subject others to feelings of rejection. I saw how my refusal to claim the power of rejection had hurt me and those I love. I made so many interesting noises of discovery that the bus driver stopped the bus to walk back and check on me!
So what is this energetic of rejection? For me it is the heaviest emotion—a deep, gray, clawing-out of the heart, a solid weight burying any sense of joy or self-worth, coloring not only each interaction in the present but also seeping unpleasantly into the past and future and infecting those moments too with miserable new interpretations. That’s how I feel it, certainly, when I experience someone’s rejection of me.
But, separate from that, what is rejection? It is, at the most basic level, a choice. It is a choice for one thing and against another. It is a decision not to involve oneself further in something. It is, sometimes, a personal judgment about what one does and does not value.
What an empowering tool to wield in life! To be able to discern, with clear eyes and heart, what to nourish and what not to nourish with your precious energy and time. To say, as the crow taught me, NO. To stand firm on definitive values and beliefs and know when to draw the line. To choose, firmly and without looking back. No wonder I missed this part of me so, longed for it when my friend’s words reminded me how completely I had excised this power from my life.
I had the chance to test my new theory again this week, when yet another interaction with yet another friend set off that familiar grey experience of rejection. Thankfully I’d been writing quite a bit about what I’d learned, and so this time I was able to recognize quickly what I was doing. The fact that I fall into this particular pattern so often suggests to me that there is something of worth to be resolved here.
So I dove in. I noticed the way I wanted to universalize this one painful interaction, the way I wanted to shut down and bury myself in the comfortable defensive reaction of running away and smoothing over the hurt. But this time I caught myself. I saw what was going on. I was rejecting myself, shutting down my own experience and reactions, freezing the trauma once again into my body.
So, very gently, I asked myself what it was that would feel best. And the answer was to go ahead and let myself feel, this time.
I did. It was terrible. It ripped through my whole body and it went on and on. I lay on the floor of the forest and covered myself with leaves. I sipped tulsi and lemon balm. I held tight to centering stones. I wrote, and walked, and communicated, and hurt. This time I was feeling the very old, the very frozen, and I did not stop.
And then it ended, with the clear clean feeling that perhaps this pattern can change now. I wondered, with this new clarity, if perhaps I have sought out experiences of rejection so that I can externalize the deep rejections of self that I perpetrate every day. What a big, awful, wonderful mirror this world is!
I love these friends for telling the truth and showing me how to tell my own. I love them for their firm clarity in rejecting what does not serve, and I love myself for it too.
The more I learn, the more exciting and daunting this journey of becoming a therapist grows. Giacometti wrote:
The more I work, the more I see things differently. That is, everything gains in grandeur every day, becomes more and more known, more and more beautiful. The closer I come, the grander it is, the more remote it is.