The pain of our childhood experiences informs our coping mechanisms. Often these coping mechanisms show up in our adult relationships in ways that are painful or damaging to the goodwill in the relationship. It can feel vulnerable to shift away from these coping mechanisms and actually even feel like things are moving in the wrong direction. When I experienced an internal shift within myself and felt more inner freedom I found myself less inclined to use my coping mechanism of self-management that took the form of self-judgment and criticism. I thought I needed to treat myself in that way in order to be lovable. If I didn’t use these punitive strategies I didn’t know how I would behave, and I didn't know if I would be loved. Funnily enough, as in the funny peculiar not the funny ha ha, Angus would tell me that he would often feel me smoldering. My self-judgment and criticism didn't just extend to myself. It also encompassed those around me. My anger would seep out of me in ways I was blind to.
My arrogance, my condescension, my contempt were often invisible to me and very much felt by him. And, of course, the emotional pressure would build up inside of me, and I would eventually lose my perceived cool and have an angry outburst. These outbursts often seemed outsized for the circumstances and confirmed my beliefs that I needed to monitor myself to keep myself in check.
Fortunately, I can see my psychological innocence now and realize I was just very tightly wound. I put so much pressure on myself to be good and to excel because that is how I learned to cope with my feelings of unworthiness. This was not good for my physical, mental, and emotional health and wellbeing, but it also took its toll on my marriage. I expected Angus to put the same kind of pressure on himself to excel and to live by the same standards and expectations. I thought hard work was the answer to most troubles and had little empathy for those who had different coping mechanisms that didn’t include workaholism. Angus has in fact always been healthier at work-life balance than I have, and I have learned a lot from him over the years. So much so that now there are many days where he works longer hours than I do.
But when I took the pressure off and realized I am good enough as I am. I saw I don’t need to get anywhere or change myself in any way to be worthy, the resulting inner freedom had some uncomfortable surprises. Given that my innate nature is love and wellbeing, I didn’t expect that I would find myself expressing anger more directly and messily. I joked with Angus that having a spiritual awakening resulted in me becoming more of a bitch. This didn't last; but initially, as I found myself being more transparent and honest I did need to learn how to navigate being more open and vulnerable with my experience so I could communicate it effectively.
Not that I am perfect regarding my communication of anger and upset now, but I am no longer living like a powder keg waiting to blow up. Nor do I ooze judgment and criticism the way I used to. I am grateful to live with this greater internal freedom to be myself and grateful for being able to be open to my emotional experience.
Being able to consciously feel the feedback of my emotions was unusual at first. I was used to overriding my emotional experience and pushing through. But with feeling more it made sense to be gentle and kind with myself. This often involves slowing down and taking the time I need to settle my mind or take care of my body. I am better able to use pleasure as my compass and trust the wisdom of my body to guide me.
I understand I will always be on a learning curve of navigating this human experience with understanding and expressing the love that is my true nature. And part of that learning curve is being in what can feel like the messiness of the human experience. It can feel vulnerable and unattractive. I don’t always like how I express myself or how I show up, but it is in the living and the risking that the learning unfolds.
Before I wasn’t in the living. I was in the containing and holding myself back. This helped me to feel like I was being a good person, but I wasn’t being honest with myself and I wasn’t showing up honestly in life, especially in my marriage. Without that, there was no learning and there was less intimacy.
It was humbling to realize my huge blindspot regarding the negative way I contributed to the challenges in our marriage, but it has been worth it to see that I am allowed to be human too. I don’t need to try and be perfect. I can allow myself to let go, open up, and be myself even when sometimes I don’t show up as my best, and my relationships, especially my marriage, thrive from this.
My relationship with Angus got better as a result of me not being miss goody two shoes and showing up more authentically. We are closer than ever even with my mishaps and shortcomings. I am lovable as I am, and you are too.
This is an invitation to relax and let yourself be yourself. Take the pressure off of yourself and see what emerges. See what room this allows inside of you for the aliveness of who you are to emerge more fully. You are love even if it doesn't always look that way.
The human experience is a beautiful learning curve of waking up to our true nature of love and experientially finding our way to express this.
There is no way to get this wrong. There is just your way and your journey. The journey will require you to let go of misunderstandings and will show you your lovability by revealing all aspects of yourself to you so you have the opportunity of keeping your heart open and saying, “Yes, I can accept this part of me too.”
Self-acceptance is opening your heart to all of you and seeing your psychological innocence as you awaken fully to who you are.
You are love in motion. You are love in expression. You are love in form. Nothing you do or say can change this. Criticism arrives and shame creeps in. Black tentacles of judgment grow like vines squeezing my heart, strangling my stomach, trying to swallow me whole. I have done something wrong. I am bad. I am not good enough. I am unworthy.
The visceral experience of shame is hard not to notice. The urgency to respond and fix it is right there.
Angus calls this the impulse to solve and resolve.
How do I change how I feel?
How do I stop feeling bad?
How do I make it right?
This only feeds the narrative. Responding to the internal feeling of urgency adds fuel to the shame. It validates it. It reinforces it. It colludes with it.
Pausing and not responding allows for space and presence. The feelings are still there, but there is no fanning of the flames of the narrative, and eventually, perspective is regained. Feeling unworthy doesn’t mean I am unworthy. Feeling bad doesn’t mean I am bad. Making a mistake doesn’t justify my banishment or silencing. That is the legacy of trauma, not truth.
I think back to the times in my life when that was no perspective. I just lived with the belief that the narrative of my unworthiness was true.
I responded with urgency swallowing the narrative whole and at face value, not challenging it.
You are bad.
Yes, I am bad.
How do I fix that?
How do I make up for being bad?
How do I prove my worth?
There was no questioning of the judgment that I am bad in the first place.
I didn’t realize this was a trauma response. I didn’t realize my acceptance of my badness and trying to make up for it was how I learned to survive.
And I judged myself as weak for colluding with the narrative. I saw myself as cowardly and spineless. I didn’t understand my silence was involuntary and my desire to please was rooted in survival.
One of the most painful experiences of this happened when I was 18. I called a family member to see them when I was visiting near where they lived. When one of the family members picked up the phone they told me I wasn’t welcome. The shame burned through my body. I felt sick to my stomach. I have no recollection of what I did or said next. I don’t even remember now how I found out why they were so upset with me. I do know that I acquiesced without a word of protest.
I did eventually learn their upset was based on a misunderstanding. They thought I had lied to them. I had visited their family when they were on holiday earlier in the year. When I arrived I realized it had been a polite invitation to spend time with them. I felt like I was imposing on their family vacation. Out of my fear of conflict, I acted as if everything was fine and spent as little time with them as possible. I’m sure this came across as rude and ungrateful.
I ended up meeting someone while I was visiting and having a holiday romance. When I left it was apparent they were happy to see the back end of me, but to my dismay when I got to the train station I had misunderstood the kind of ticket I had and even though there was a train leaving for my destination, my ticket didn’t qualify for the train. I was in Spain and didn’t speak Spanish at the time, but I found out that I needed to come back the next day. So I took a taxi back to my family. In my experience, they were disappointed that they hadn’t actually seen the back end of me. But fortunately, it was just one more day.
I went to the train station the next day relieved to leave, but to my chagrin, it was the same situation. I wasn’t allowed on that train either. I could not face going back to my relatives again. So this time I called my holiday beau and told him the situation. He spoke Spanish and was kind enough to meet me at the train station and get everything straightened out. When I told him I could not face going back to my family he found a women’s pension for me to stay at overnight. He might have even paid for it, and then he told me he would meet me the next day and take me to the train to make sure I left safely.
When he picked me up the next day, we had a final romantic lunch together before he took me to the train and I made my way back from the South of Spain to the South of France where I was studying for my gap year. That time I was allowed on the train and made it back safely to Aix-en-Provence where I resumed my French studies. But unbeknownst to me, friends of my family saw me having lunch with my beau and told them. That is why I was not welcome in their home. They thought I lied to them about leaving so I could spend time with Tony. And this compounded me not being a good guest because I avoided them during the time I was supposed to be staying with them.
But I was told I wasn’t welcome in their home, I had no access to my rational mind. It didn’t occur for me to ask them why. I was in a freeze response. And without that information, I couldn’t clarify the misunderstanding and apologize for avoiding them when I was visiting. Instead, I shut down and felt engulfed by my shame. Even though I didn’t even know what I was meant to be ashamed of, I didn’t question it. I felt true, therefore, I trusted it.
I was being rejected and it was just further proof that fit with my unloveable narrative that I had pieced together in my mind based on the evidence of my father disappearing from my life with no explanation as a child. It would be another six years before I got the courage up to ask for more details about my father, and I did eventually risk reopening communication with my estranged family in my thirties.
My freeze response was misunderstood by me to mean I was a coward. There must be something fundamentally wrong with me that I was too afraid to speak up, too afraid to ask questions, too afraid to share my side.
I didn’t know at the time how that response is a healthy part of the human design for survival and not voluntary. I learned to survive and keep myself safe by being non-confrontational and not asking questions that seemed dangerous to me.
It is hard for me to feel compassion for the level of sensitivity that I still feel in this area.There is no shame in the freeze response. It is easy to judge it as a weakness, but it is not a choice. The nervous system shuts down for protection. The cognitive brain goes offline and the fawn response kicks in for safety. The fawn response is a trauma response that is not within conscious control. The “fawning” is trying to appease someone in order to stop or minimize the painful behavior. It can be unlearned as the nervous system settles and finds a new level of equilibrium so that it doesn’t shut down so easily, but when it does happen it is not a reflection of character or weakness. It is an involuntary response designed for survival.
Rohini Ross is co-founder of “The Rewilders.” Listen to her podcast, with her partner Angus Ross, Rewilding Love. They believe too many good relationships fall apart because couples give up thinking their relationship problems can’t be solved. In the first season of the Rewilding Love Podcast, Rohini and Angus help a couple on the brink of divorce due to conflict. Angus and Rohini also co-facilitate private couple's intensive retreat programs that rewild relationships back to their natural state of love. Rohini is also the author of the ebook Marriage, and she and Angus are co-founders of The 29-Day Rewilding Experience and The Rewilding Community. You can follow Rohini on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. To learn more about her work and subscribe to her blog visit: TheRewilders.org.