My life is like my yoga practice

I’m resting after a busy (for me) morning of an intense yoga session and jumping back into sewing. Yesterday, I decided to end my recent foray into doing as little as possible. I haven’t played guitar or sewed or cleaned anything other than the dishes or checked my email or pretty much any of the basic tasks that need doing for weeks. I’ve been pondering motivation and being curious about what feels good and what my values are. I made a conscious decision to stop doing almost everything because it felt like every task, even fun things, were motivated by something toxic, old ways of being that no longer serve.

Tired and sore and feeling pretty good about myself, I sat down to watch some Adventure Time (one of my happy, feel good shows) and less than 5 minutes in, I started to feel a sense of panic. I felt my mind starting to zone out. I noticed I was no longer breathing normally. My heart began to flutter and my thoughts were all judgments about me sitting down to take a break.

I’m feeling pretty proud that I noticed this happening in the moment. Rather than letting myself spiral into my sympathetic system and have a panic attack (or falling into the dorsal vagal and dissociating), I took some deep inhales and released the breaths in long, slow exhales. I still felt panicky so I decided to write. And here I am: noticing and exploring. Being curious. What sparked that moment of panic? I think it’s because I decided to take a break rather than complete the masks I was working on. Why do I feel it’s not ok to take breaks? Maybe that’s part of why I decided to do as little as possible for a while. I felt less panic during that period of time because I was avoiding engaging in the push and pull of life. While doing nothing, I didn’t have to worry about judgment because I’d made a conscious decision not to do anything. I’d given myself permission set a hard boundary. Actively deciding to do things again introduces the potential for judgment from outdated automatic negative beliefs.

Those include:
I must do all the things.
I must keep a clean house.
I must be the perfect mother and meet all of my kids’ needs.

I must be perfect because anything less than that opens up the reality that I have no control over the fact that the abuse I experienced has impacted every aspect of my life. If I am not perfect then I have to accept that those terrible things happened and that I have to live with the effects.

I can see now why I gave myself permission to do as little as possible for a while. I’ve become more aware of the reality of the abuse and how impossible it felt to live with it. I wanted a break from dealing with it. And I probably needed a break to process it. And I think I can honor that.

Now I’m choosing to reenter my life a bit. With intention and curiosity. And here is yet another benefit of the yoga I’ve been practicing for the past several months. When it’s time for me to do yoga, I often dread getting on the mat. I hold that feeling of dread, unroll the mat and start the video. Occasionally, the whole practice feels like a chore but most of the time I feel calm, strong, capable, mindful and connected to myself. Stuff comes up and I’m able to notice it, honor it and allow myself to gently move on and into a different space. Maybe living my life can be like that too. Right now, I feel resistant to doing a chore a day and getting back into things I enjoy. Today, I unrolled the mat of life and practiced. Feelings are coming up, judgments arise and I’m not moving away or shutting down. I’m noticing, honoring and letting myself gently move into a different space.

Being curious

How do you know what’s right for you? What’s true? What will provide the most care and support in each moment? Maybe we’re born knowing and that’s either nourished or neglected. Certainly, that was not nourished in me as a child. My mom set the intention to nurture that but there were so many things she didn’t have control over. She was 19 when I was born, naive and married to an addict who abused her and her children. She may have wanted us to grow up being in touch with our feelings and honoring our intuition but that was sabatoged.

I spent my life living disconnected from my body and driven by a nervous system that was on high alert all the time. Most of the time I was too overwhelmed to check in with myself about what felt good and true. Being unable to know what felt right or trust my intuition led me down many a dangerous path, which in turn made the system of trauma in my body and mind more and more complex.

The work I’ve done in therapy this past year has been about commitment to live in my body, notice what I’m experiencing, tolerating or shifting that experience and for a while I felt flooded with information. Now that I’m a little more comfortable my work is to learn to continuously check in with my body, mind and nervous system and discern what I need in each moment. That never felt safe so it was never habitual. I have to create that habit, set the intention my mom couldn’t follow through on and reinforce it on a daily basis. I have to build a relationship with my nervous system, one that is based on mutual trust. I’ll check in with myself and do the best I can to do what’s needed and, in return, my nervous system will stay more regulated. I can begin the practice this week while my children are with their dad and then work to continue it when they return to me at the end of the week. I expect it to be harder when they’re here because I tend to put their care above my own but my therapist assures me that I’ll be better able to care for them if I’m practicing good self-care.

Crafting new ways of being

I’ve done a lot of work, navigated a thousand dark places inside myself and I know I’ve come a long way from where I was even one year ago. And yet, sometimes this work of moving through and beyond trauma feels endless. Lately, I’ve been having a running inner dialogue about motivation and values. Trauma that begins in early childhood obviously impacts every aspect of development. For me, survival was dependent on appearing as competent as possible, in part because it kept me from suffering my father’s chaotic wrath but also because it helped me believe everything was really ok. I could go on living if I could convince myself that I was like every other kid.

Completing chores and excelling in school became obsessions because they gave me the illusion of control over my well being. Going to graduate school, keeping a spotless house and taking care of the needs of others eventually evolved into coping mechanisms. And for a long time it worked; I struggled with agoraphobia, dissociation, anxiety and depression but I believed I was really ok because I was well educated, kept a clean house and was a good enough mother.

The thing about trauma is that it doesn’t stay dormant under the surface forever; eventually there’s a reckoning. For me, that began when I entered into a relationship with the man I married and had children with. He was safe enough that I began to feel deep connection. That connection and becoming a mother for the second and third times caused cracks to open in my psyche and my complex PTSD was no longer held back by my old coping mechanisms. It was like a tsunami of trauma symptoms slowly overwhelmed my system over the next several years.

As I participated in Cognitive Processing Therapy, I learned that my old coping skills were driven by negative core beliefs and I began the work of tearing down the ways I had learned to be in the world. They no longer served me and they were driven by self-doubt, shame and fear so they had to go. Now I stand amidst the ruins of all my old ways of being; I’ve stripped myself bare and I’m beginning the work of building new ways of being in the world, ways that will nurture me and be a foundation that will support me in engaging with life.

I want this foundation to be crafted with values that motivate me from self-love, connection and honoring my needs. I’ve begun the process of being curious because I feel like I don’t know the person I am without my old coping mechanisms and negative beliefs. I’m trying to be actively curious, to check in with what feels true, what fills me up. Like all the trauma work I’ve done, it feels achingly slow. My therapist keeps reminding me to notice the glimmers, the moments when I feel grounded in my ventral vagal system, and to check in with myself and ask “what do I need right now?”.