ACEs as Life & Death
We tend to think about life as the basic functioning of our body. Am I breathing? Is my heart beating? Can I see and hear? But there’s another measure to life. Am I fully alive? Am I living my dream? Am I following my heart? Not my physical heart. My emotional heart. Do I let myself do something for at least a little while everyday that I truly love, that makes my heart sing with joy. Something that’s all mine. For me more and more the answer to this last question is yes. I intend to do something everyday that makes my heart sing. My life certainly wasn’t always this way. Until I was in my forties, I had no idea what an intention even was. I lived by the seat of my pants, living the opposite of being fully alive, living in daily crisis and anxiety and feeling very dead on the inside.
The Living Dead
What’s the opposite of being fully alive? Being among the countless numbers of living dead. Those of us who learned through Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) to shut down our hearts, stuff our feelings, stop following that brilliant orange butterfly, and instead swallow our words and desires. ACEs lead us to grow up as a shell of our true selves. Why? Because in order to stay alive back then, in order to survive, we had to mold ourselves to our caregivers’ desires in order to minimize rejection. We developed a variety of survival strategies, ways we have of playing small and invisible in order to minimize harm and maximize connection with our caregivers.
Fast forward and we carry these survival strategies into adulthood. Many of us procrastinate, self-sabotage, and relentlessly criticize ourselves. Ask me how long I put off writing this blog post and how much I shamed myself for it. Some of us over-commit, work until we drop, and overachieve. It cuts both ways: we shut down and/or overdo it. Many of us very much prefer to take care of other people before we even acknowledge, never mind attend to our own needs. Sound familiar.
Isn’t that ironic? The strategies that we developed to keep us alive in those difficult environments are killing us now. We need to be visible and to speak up confidently in order to live authentically.
Death By Double Bind
ACEs create what I call death by the double bind. There’s how to be and how not to be rather than who we truly are. We become living dead when survival strategies dominate and when as adults we continue to live as if we are still in those old environments. This creates an internal conflict, a pull between how we learned to be to survive and who we truly are. Here are some examples of these double binds. This first one I struggle with constantly: a) I learned not to speak up for myself back then and b) I love to write and I want to share my work with the world. Or how about a) I learned to help other people first and b) I really need help in order to grow my business. Or a) I learned to tolerate what other people did to me as a child and b) I need to speak up and have healthy boundaries in order to have healthy relationships.
These strategies are extremely persistent. Why? Because inside us they are tied to our biological survival. They literally kept us alive. Think lizard brain. Consequently, they don’t shift easily. This is why it’s very unusual for those of us with ACEs to be able to just shift our mindset or use a behavioral strategy to truly overcome these double binds. We might feel better briefly and I am all for that. I have my own very full toolbox of cognitive and somatic tools that I can pull out even in the grocery store line.
You Can Change
However, what if I told you there’s a way to really work with these old strategies, a way to get at the root of what’s driving them so that you can turn down their volume substantially? I want to introduce you to the NeuroAffective Relational ModelTM (NARMTM), a top-down, cognitive and bottom-up, somatic approach to helping people recover from ACEs. What I love about NARM is that it truly gets to the heart of the matter by helping us uncover what’s keeping us stuck right now in our lives, usually a type of double bind like I mentioned above. We focus on the specifics of the internal conflict going on inside us rather than telling our ACEs stories yet again. We can’t change the past but we can change our relationship to the past, see what’s unfinished and why on some level we are still caught in survival mode.
I am here to tell you that whatever it was that happened to you, you already survived that. I know because you are reading this blog post. You are no longer trapped in that house, in that family and in that situation. What do you notice right now as you consider what I just said? Differentiating the past from the present is a significant part of healing from ACEs.
Dr. Laurence Heller, the creator of NARM frequently reminds us that what we fear most has already happened. What many of us fear most is being rejected. Consider for a moment that those of us with ACEs were rejected over and over in big and small ways by our family of origin, often on a daily basis. We already survived that. Can you let that reality in? There might be some emotion that comes along with this experience. See if you can let it be here.
You can do the work necessary to live fully alive in spite of ACEs. It takes persistence, a constant connection to the part of you that knows without a doubt that you can heal, that you no longer want to just survive among the living dead. Sometimes it’s messy and even painful to resolve but from my perspective it’s totally worth it. Feel that primal urge inside you to come alive and live authentically whatever that means to you. Back then you had to compromise to survive. Now it’s time to fully live.
Want help with this? Let’s talk.
I originally published this piece as a guest post on Teri Wellbrock’s wonderful blog Unicorn Shadows.