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For the past year my blog series has been exploring a path toward healing our personal trauma through relationship with self, others and the natural world. Restoring Our Wellbeing Through Relationships reminded us that while most of our trauma originates in relationships with others, the path toward healing must continue by developing safe and trusting relationships with others. Developing an Awareness of the Relationship between Shame and Anger explored healthy ways to express intense feelings of anger and shame that arise when our needs and boundaries are neglected. The Power of Sharing our Story with an Empathetic Witness invited us to meet our need for human connection by seeking out the support, acceptance and safety of a trusted friend, therapist or family member. This month, I invite you to listen closely to the internal narration of your life story.  

When sifting through trauma, we can unconsciously attach ourselves to a familiar identity that makes us feel safe because it’s what we know. Sometimes the meaning we shape from our experiences, although very logical, can keep us stuck in the same familiar feeling states of the past, which, in turn, perpetuates a similar trauma pattern with others.

Here are a couple examples of internal narratives that might sound familiar to you:

I’m alone and no one cares. You learn to be tough and take care of things on your own. You learn not to need anything from others because they’re not going to be there to support you. Others, in turn, neglect or don’t see you because you don’t tend to communicate your needs or seek out connection from others. This winds up confirming your internal narrative, I’m alone and no one cares.

I need to keep everyone else happy or I will be punished. If no one is upset, then I’m safe. If they see me as a good caretaker they won’t reject me. You unknowingly guide others into a dynamic pattern of expectation where it literally becomes your job to help care for EVERYONE. This fuels the internal narrative, I need to keep everyone else happy.

To break free from these cycles, I invite you to get curious about and listen for specific “go to” identity forming patterns, which you may have unknowingly crafted for your sense of safety. Some key questions to ask are: 

  • What are some of the maladaptive values and personal traits that might actually be keeping you stuck in a limiting identity role?
  • What are some of the identities and characteristics you cling to in order to gain the attention, respect and perceived safety from other people? 

In future articles, we’ll explore ways to engage with these internal characteristics to further understand the motives, feelings and emotions that drive them. For now, I invite you to notice if any of them might be holding you back from expressing your true nature. 

My clients often arrive in the midst of self-guided efforts to make meaning or sense of current or past traumas. Together, we discover they are caught in a vicious circle in which they’re recreating, and re-experiencing many of the same familiar feeling states. These internal feeling states sustain some of the following adaptive identities and roles we play in our relationships with others.

Identity Characteristic: The strong, independent one
Internal Narrative: No one cares for my needs.
The Self Fulfilling Loop: You never show up to ask for anything in a relationship. In turn, the other person can’t feel you and eventually leaves. This validates the belief that no one cares for your needs and enshrines an identity in which you’re alone.

Identity Characteristic: The smart, cautious one
Internal Narrative: The world is a dangerous place.
The Self Fulfilling Loop: When your nervous system is stuck in a state of hyper-vigilance and overdrive, it causes you to miss the actual cues of danger and sets you up for being blindsided by the next dangerous encounter. This validates that it’s important to always stay on high alert.

Identity Characteristic: The one who is a unique outcast
Internal Narrative: No one gets me.
The Self Fulfilling Loop: You become depressed and isolated, which limits your communications with others. In turn, people in your life can’t begin to understand how to connect with you, which validates the feeling that no one gets you.

Identity Characteristic: The responsible one
Internal Narrative: I have to know what to do.
The Self Fulfilling Loop: Again, without seeking support, remaining curious and/or asking for help, you isolate yourself from others and continue to assume you have to figure it all out on your own.

Identity Characteristic: The one who is inadequate
Internal Narrative: I’m not worthy of love and attention.
The Self Fulfilling Loop: You bury your feelings, mask your emotions and hide your true presence, which causes you to become overlooked. This validates your identity as someone not worthy of love and attention.

Identity Characteristic: The entertainer
Internal Narrative: People always need or expect something from me.
The Self Fulfilling Loop: You create the role of the charismatic performer who entertains everyone in the room. You push yourself to engage with others beyond your natural desire. Then your body and conscience force you to retreat in order to recover. When you go from all to nothing, in terms of engagement, people wonder what happened and where you went. People will seek some level of connection with you, which, in turn, reinforces a feeling that people always want something from you.

Though your mind can shape any narrative or story from your experience, your body will always seek the truth. We must learn to restore trust in our own animal body, which will give us clear feedback for our deeper truths and genuine personal experience.

For example, see if you can tune in to your internal sensations when your inner voice says something like, “I’m not worthy of love and attention.” Your innate animal body senses this perspective isn’t true, so you’re likely to receive a physical signal, such as tight shoulders, a heavy chest and maybe even a nauseous stomach. Our bodies uniquely respond with uncomfortable sensations when we try to run an internal narrative that contradicts our true nature. Humans often believe we are thinking animals that feel, but the truth is, we are feeling animals that think. The fact that our companion friends, such dogs, cats, and horses, don’t wrestle with false narratives, is evidence that this is a uniquely human problem and your animal body knows it.

If, on the other hand, your internal narrative invokes sensations of relief, relaxation, more room to breathe, an inner smile, or a softening in your belly – this is your body’s way of letting you know you’re connecting with an internal story that your animal body knows to be true.

To begin breaking free from these maladaptive roles and identities, I invite you to adopt an attitude of self compassion and become curious about understanding the value of your coping behaviors. 

Can you become aware of any identity roles you might be attached to for yourself?
(ie: being the strong one, the quiet one, the funny one, the smart one, the sensitive nurturing caretaker, the hyper organized or responsible one, the charming free spirit, the distant and aloof one etc.)

It’s very common for self-judgments to arise when we reflect on our adaptive behaviors. Draw on your empathetic witnesses and grounding practices to release judgments of wrong and right as it relates to your subconscious strategies. They were vital and they worked! They gave you a clear role in your relationships with others and your temporary identities served as effective strategies for keeping you safe.

It’s important to cultivate self compassion and simply witness that when you get triggered you are inclined to re-activate these patterned behaviors whenever you’re not feeling safe. Again, I invite you to seek out an empathetic witness when processing feelings of shame, anger or fear that may arise.

It can be helpful to develop a compassion and acceptance practice for the various characters and identity roles you express: I see you, I hear you, I wholeheartedly accept you, you’re welcome to stay with me as long as you need.

Listening to our internal narrative will help us gain access to the roles and identities we’ve formed in response to traumatic events in our lives. As this series continues throughout the year, we will discover that when we liberate ourselves from extreme identities, we can shift our behavior toward more preferred roles to help restore self-trust and leadership. 

In next month’s blog, we’ll begin to decipher the language of the body and the extraordinary capacity for healing that we all possess.