Saturday, June 25, 2016

Know Thyself?

At midlife I met my devils. Much of what I had counted as blessing became curse. The wide road narrowed, the light grew dark. And in the darkness, the saint in me, so well nurtured and well-coiffed, met the sinner. Connie Zweig, Prologue, Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature (Zweig & Abrams -- Eds.)
When I was in college I wrote our dorm's script for the annual skit competition. The theme was "Know Thyself," drawing from the many sources for which that concept is key. Right now I can only remember biblical and ancient Greek references, and that we lost to a much livelier and less heady skit.

I was, of course, onto something that would lure me toward self-realization my whole life. But it wasn't until I was well into midlife, with only glimpses of my shadow self, that I began to truly engage with "the great burden of self-knowledge, the disruptive element that does not want to be known" (Meeting the Shadow, p. xxi, Introduction).

For the past few years I've been intrigued by Peter A. Levine's somatic experiencing approach to resolving trauma. Trauma is most obvious in severe cases such as the PTSD we've read about in war vets and victims of sexual abuse. Practitioners are now finding a similar freeze response in any situation of thwarted survival energy, such as the "normal" events of childhood that require tamping down our natural responses because of real or perceived threat, where we don't feel safe unless we hide from or conform to childhood situations.
The SE approach facilitates the completion of self-protective motor responses and the release of thwarted survival energy bound in the body, thus addressing the root cause of trauma symptoms.This is approached by gentle guiding clients to develop increasing tolerance for difficult bodily sensations and suppressed emotions.
I've recently found someone to help me deepen access to those most unknown parts. I'll give one example, noting that we don't have to understand any of this. No need to analyze, to know how or why certain aspects have been hidden. In my case, I had often expressed surprise that I'd never felt shame. I could be present to clients who experienced shame but, with one exception, I had no felt sense of it. I didn't particularly want to experience shame, and I don't know what triggered it for me this time, but two days after a session with my SE therapist, I awoke swimming in shame. She had given me the resources to stay present to any unfreezing and, though it was pretty awful, there was a difference this time from the earlier occasion linked above: I was also feeling excited, because I know all children are shamed to some degree ("How rude," "You're embarrassing me," "What a trouble-maker!") and I'd felt guilt ("my actions were bad") but now finally was finding shame ("I'm bad") more accessible.

The somatic experiencing approach is not one, I believe, that we can do fully on our own. I had tried to do so for several years after first reading Levine's In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. Any self-work vs. engaging with an SE-trained therapist is similar to the difference between rubbing your own neck and shoulders and having professional deep tissue massage.

What we can do on our own are some of the exercises suggested in Meeting the Shadow. These self-initiated actions can take you a long way toward knowing yourself:

Solicit Feedback from Others: This is one of the most effective ways to gain insight into your personal shadow, though it can be threatening. Learn how to listen and take in feedback that surprises or hurts you. When more than one person describes the same trait, especially, explore their observations more deeply.

Examine Your Projections: Whenever you have a strong like or dislike of someone else, examine them closely enough to identify the trait that pushes your button. The qualities you especially like or dislike are likely to be projection, a fairly accurate picture of your personal shadow.

Examine Your "Slips": Slips of tongue show aspects of shadow we wouldn't dare express consciously. Slips of behavior can be even more revealing. Think of a time when you said or did something that later dumbfounded you. A more subtle "slip" is discovering that others perceive you in a completely different way than you see yourself (see #1 above). This is information about an unknown part of yourself.

Consider Your Humor and Identification: What's said in humor is often a manifestation of shadow truth. Behavior that might otherwise result in fines or imprisonment can bring hearty laughter. People who deny or repress shadow may find few things funny. Notice when a joke or cartoon makes you laugh.

Study Your Dreams, Daydreams, Fantasies: Shadow may appear in your dreams as a figure of your gender or some opposite aspect of yourself, even in a form you fear and want to escape. Observe closely its actions, and attitudes, and words. When you're awake, where does your mind go, what images invade your thoughts? In these fantasies and daydreams are opportunities to know yourself, especially in ways that are difficult to accept consciously.