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 www.unkindgifts.com.