Saturday, November 26, 2016

Flowing to Wellbeing, (Part 4)
W - Witness

Within the FLOWING model described in Unkind Gifts: An Insider’s Guide to Recovery from Trauma and Loss, the fourth letter holds the balance in recovery and wellness efforts.  As we look at the word FLOWING, the shape and placement of the letter W models a balance between alternatives.  Lines are interconnected at the bottom and rise-up in multiple directions, teetering on twin points, arms out like the scales of justice.  Taking a position of Witnessing requires that we attend to the specifics of meaning and the hierarchy of needs in any given situation.  It is not enough just to look, then turn away – to do so in any relationship is to demonstrate disinterest, wearing away trust and triggering natural fears of being left behind.

Having worked through earlier elements of the acronym – Feel, Listen and Open-heart – we are already familiar with the twin tasks of engagement and expression of physical and emotional processes as essential to wellbeing.  It is important to add that without the deeper meaning of those expressions being grasped and truly acknowledged, any mindbody release may be fleeting or restricted by an expected dismissal, a return to “normal” avoidance and to the overriding of pain cues.  Without a depth of continued attention, it can never be safe enough for us to approach change.  Recovery means actively exploring one’s own forward path, “one step at a time.”  This can only happen in the presence of trust, the natural response to compassionate witnessing.  Notice that the word compassion contains “compass” suggesting a tool for orientation and guidance.  Compassionate witnessing allows the Self to be our guide.

Witnessing is the point at which general mindfulness practice may shift into something more purposefully therapeutic.  Emotional access in a safe, calm context, will yield to deeper exploration and the opportunity for representation.  When received by a witness, old or disorganized ‘scripts’ for life can be released and space made to take in soothing corrective updates.  The same is true of internal, Self-led witnessing; Parts carrying the story of who you are - based on how you have been treated by life and circumstance - need consistency of attention and genuine presence to risk the journey of change.

When we broaden our attention to a range of options for Witnessing, including monitoring our body’s felt responses to cues in the environment, we will discover access to intuition as a reliable guide for assessing safety.  Instead of pushing past unease or discomfort, we can note the things that need attention or action, rather than being guided by reactive responses to outdated emotional cues or ‘triggers.’

If the letter W is our visual example of open expression of shared experience – the “we’ in FLOWING” then its opposite, the letter M can be a model of a closed, “walled-in” system, as in “me” and “mine.”  There is an illusion of security within the protected space of the solid wall, but by cutting-off contact with the normal cycles and frequent shifts in our relationships, our communities and our culture, suddenly the “protective space” is nothing more than a hiding place, a place of isolation, vulnerable to surprise “invasion” by unknown or misunderstood forces.  In the case of trauma, those surprises can take the form of “flashbacks,” where un-witnessed experiences and emotions emerge unexpectedly.  With no opportunity for validation by a witness, we may find ourselves confused and reacting to this displaced information as if it were a present moment crisis.  Such a response can lead to negative repercussions since the reaction is out-of-synch with our real-time situation.  In this way, our ‘protective’ wall becomes a prison of isolation – Me, alone, instead of We, witnessed.

There are many ways to witness: artwork, music, story and other shared experiences are among them.  Representations of our shared humanity is essential to wellness.  In more profound experiences of trauma, we might do well to seek professional supports to help us witness the internal sense of isolation, perhaps with the inclusion of physical release options for mind-body healing.  From this release comes opportunity for Integration, tearing down the walls to make space for gardens where all Parts of our Self-system, and our larger community, can be tended and allowed to flourish.  We will turn to the topic of Integration, the I in FLOWING, in or next entry.  Until that time, offer yourself and those around you the gift of Witnessing. 

Ellen C. Ranney, PhD. Is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice. She specializes in work with trauma survivors and their families.  Dr. Ranney is the author of Unkind Gifts: An Insider’s Guide to Recovery from Trauma and Loss, (c)2016, available at

Sunday, October 16, 2016

FLOWING to Recovery - O for Open Heart

In this third essay about the FLOWING recovery Model which is at the heart of my recently published book, Unkind Gifts: An Insider’s Guide to Recovery from Trauma and Loss, we will explore the letter O for Open Heart.  Having described the need to Feel our bodies and emotions, and to Listen mindfully for information about the meanings they contain, we now turn our attention to offering the non-judgement of an Open Heart.
              The defining element of an open-heartedness is compassion.  While many of us may strive to held compassion for others with varying degrees of success, it is when we try to direct that compassion toward ourselves that we often “hit a wall.” Yet it is only possible to truly practice compassion from the center, from our own open-heart.  Such openness implies accessibility and to many, may suggest a level of vulnerability that feels dangerous.  But it is possible to maintain a position of acceptance of oneself and others without becoming defenseless.  Remember that the heart is at the center of this practice and is a finely tuned receptor in our interpersonal environment.
While our true nature as human beings is open and receptive, those receptors tend to respond more acutely – for reasons of survival – to negative events that to positives.  This biological predisposition leaves us watchful for potential threats in our environment and in cases where there is unprocessed trauma, creates a “negative filter” through which we view our world.  If we are to access recovery from loss it becomes necessary to challenge those old filters and to modify them for a more open view.
Compassion toward the self is the most problematic aspect of open-heartedness, and because we must begin there to have true compassion for others, it is the most crucial.  Although every faith teaches some variation of “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” there is generally more emphasis placed on self-sacrifice and less on self-care.  In practical terms, such an imbalance is doomed to a choice between burn-out and “selfishness” since the necessary flow of energy between the input and output is unavailable, so energy inevitable runs out.
The other main problem with compassion (for self or other) is a fear of attending to the inevitability of suffering. We spend billions of dollars in the country trying to distract ourselves from the realities of pain and loss.  But as we’ve all heard in the Disney movie “It’s the circle of life,” and those very elements of suffering are what makes the joyful moments so precious. 
A powerful way to explore self-compassion is to focus calm awareness on the area known as the heart chakra.  Chakras are energy centers located along the midline of the torso and head.  The seven major chakras identified is ancient times each pertain to different aspects of physical and emotional energies and like most structural systems, build upward from the base such that weakness at the lower levels create instability at upper levels.  While this essay is about the compassionate energies of the heart chakra, all chakras need attention to support essential functions and balance.  In addition, cutting edge work in neurobiology supports the overall validity of energy and information transmission along the midline of the body, in studies of the endocrine and nervous systems, most significantly the poly-vagal theory of interpersonal social response. (Porges, 2016)
If we are to access and maintain compassion, we must first connect with those parts of ourselves that may have suffered confusion and loss in the past.  To ignore this important step is to work from an incomplete “script” leading to inevitable miscues.  Our own story is the single most powerful source of information about the effects of similar loss on others.  If we keep our story a secret from our own awareness, we risk inserting misinformation into the experience of the other. (This is especially problematic for those of us in professional healing fields.)  If instead, we are clear about what happened to us along the way, we can sort through that information to clearly access what is like or unlike the situation being experienced by the other.  For instance, if my own story included complicating factors like someone manipulating my experience of loss to push blame on me for my own suffering, it is likely to be quite different than the friend’s situation where the loss is more clear cut, and while they are in pain, the level of bitterness or resentment I may have felt, may not fit their story.  To misjudge the circumstances of their loss, is to lose track of the very aspect of hurt they most need my support with.
So before reaching out to try to help the other, first breath and check in with how you feel about the friend’s situation, notice if you have had a loss of your own that still feels raw or easily triggered.  Of if you find yourself reacting strongly to an event that seems less activating to others, take the time to explore your own heart-space to see whether something is unfinished or otherwise blocking your vision about the situation.  If there is a feeling of loss of safety or increased anxiety about this task, perhaps it is time to seek the support of a helping professional to help structure your exploration.  Noticing where in your body the tension is held, or where the feeling of distance is strongest, may lead to important information about this potential threat.  From there you can explore and express your concerns in a compassionate manner, offering unconditional support for your own recovery.  Using creative expression, mindfulness and body awareness, there is opportunity for release and re-balancing your system, bringing new flexibility and new resources to yourself and to those you care for.
In the next essay of this series, we will pick up the W in FLOWING to discuss the importance of truly witnessing to validate and release the bonds of held trauma.  In the meantime, may you have a powerful sense of abundance and Open-heartedness in the weeks ahead.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

FLOWING to Well-Being: L- Listen

The recovery model developed in the book, Unkind Gifts: An Insider’s Guide to Recovery from Trauma and Loss is represented by an acronym that spells out the word FLOWING.  Last time we considered the letter F for feel, so this entry will focus on the letter L for listen.  We might think that listening is merely a function of our ears, but in this case, the effort is more about our internal awareness and has to do with engaging and receiving meaning from any of a variety of sources.

The best approach to internal listening is found in the practice of mindfulness.  By settling into a calm, undistracted state we find opportunity to truly engage with the meanings and memories that tend to flit through our minds in seemingly random ways most of the time.  During mindfulness practice, rather than grasping onto or fighting to push away those emotions and sensations, we create the space to be with our experiences. From our starting place of feeling what happens with our bodies and our emotion states, we can gently hold those physical/emotional cues with curiosity to discover deeper meanings learned within the stories held there.  For instance, we may have a general sense that a childhood classmate was a bully, and we did not enjoy being around them, but if we can engage with the tightness in our gut that arises when we think about running into that person at the school reunion, and take the time to learn more about it we may be quite surprised.

The sort of listening that is suggested in the model can take any one of several forms; we might SIFT through the information available by attending to sensations, images, feelings and thoughts to discover deeper elements of meaning.  In reference to the bullying example above, the tightness in the gut might remind us of the empty feeling when our lunch money was taken, or an image of the teacher’s angry face at the missing homework assignment due to it having been dropped in a puddle when the bully dumped our backpack.  As we take in whatever initial signals arrive in response to our curiosity and engagement with the internal part to whom we are listening, we might get further information about the deep sense of vulnerability we had when we needed to take the long route to the schoolyard to avoid getting caught by the tormentor, and perhaps that it represented only one small part of the struggles going on in our life at that point.  These contextual elements of the otherwise isolated seeming loss can lead to understanding and even to the creation of connections between the neurons in our brains and bodies.  Those multiple connection points will allow experiences of loss to become absorbed and integrated, rather than remaining disconnected and pulling energy away from more balanced functioning.

The advantages of a mindfulness practice are more than just clarifying the context and meanings within old hurts.  Such practices also help to build resources for coping with past, as well as with future disruptions to our sense of safety and well-being.  Regular mindfulness practice has been found to decrease anxiety and depression, to raise the level of baseline happiness, and to improve pain management.  We so often find ourselves on a treadmill of endless tasks to be completed, and comparing ourselves to others in unflattering ways.  Mindfulness practices can take many forms but virtually always involves stepping back from those pressures to learn to tolerate discomfort, and to appreciate what we have in the moment.  Generally, there is a focus on breathing as the object of meditation, which offers increased oxygenation to the body and slows the heartbeat to a more natural rhythm.  These physical changes decrease stress levels and reset the baseline to a more receptive state.

As we listen to the deeply held burdens of our experiences of loss, we may develop a better understanding of the complexities of our lives, and be in a position to offer ourselves compassion and soothing.  Those attitudes go far toward healing the disruptions and self-doubts that may have been carried from those early days.  Our perceiving adult, Self can offer a supportive response to victimized or traumatized child parts, effectively encouraging them to release and become more in tune with present day life.  This attitude shift may bring a whole new level of energy and competence to our adult functioning, and even extend to a new sense of compassion for others. We might even begin to grasp the pain that was indicated in that schoolyard bully’s behaviors, and to see that they were only acting-out the confusion and pain of their own situation.  Perhaps we’ll even find ourselves anticipating seeing our former nemesis again at the reunion in the hope that they, too, have found a peaceful resolution to their struggles. This kind of open-hearted response can arise from listening to our own deeply held meanings, and will be the subject of the next entry in this series of essays on FLOWING to Well-being.