Honoring the vulnerable parts of our selves by committing to listening to, comforting and providing for them whatever they need in order feel safe to move forward when they're fearful.
Not Pushing Our Selves
It's never okay to "push through" your fear…
Instead, listen to what the frightened part needs
from you in order to feel safe to go ahead,
act on that information!
My dear friend Faith and I found our selves simultaneously at turning points in our lives, moments that we each felt the need to mark with some meaningful ceremony or ritual. We'd opened our selves to whatever possibilities Spirit might bring to us. We both were listening inward while looking around for something that would feel right. A flyer on the local health food store bulletin board announcing a Women's Vision Quest caught my attention.
The Quest was to be led, under the auspices of The Ojai Foundation, by two local women who'd been trained as Vision Quest guides. There would be four days of camping out in the Ojai wilderness. In the middle of those days, we would each spend a 30-hour period of camping by our selves. During this solo time – in separate spaces that we'd each have a chance to scout for – we would fast, meditate and offer prayers to Spirit for the blessing of a vision to take back into our ordinary lives. We would move into this time from, and return out of it into, a base camp community. The days before and after our solo would be spent learning about wilderness safety, doing ceremony and building community with the dozen or so women going on the trip.
Though Faith was more drawn to the communal ceremony part and I more to the solo part, the mix sounded promising to both of us. So in April of 1986, several months past my 45th birthday, I was planning to be in the wilderness, camping both alone and with a group of women I'd (except for Faith) yet to meet.
As we prepared for the trip, Faith was feeling anticipatory anxiety about the physical challenges of camping alone. We agreed that she had permission to bail – at any point up to the very last moment – if she decided it was more than she felt up to handling.
Eager for the opportunity experienced guides in the background would provide for me to be alone in a wild place, I was unconcerned about physical challenges. Instead, I was feeling irritable about the amount of time we'd be spending with the other women building community. So much was moving and shifting inside of me during those early days of re-mothering my self, I felt skinless and frequently too permeable to be around other people's energies. More often I was into being reclusive.
When the departure day came, I felt crazed: slamming and raging around the house, alternately cursing or crying. The morning was filled with a series of minor but aggravating mishaps: spilling things; not being able to find things that I'd suddenly decide I had to have with me; having to repack my backpack again and again as I tried to fit in these last minute things and still leave room for a share of the cooking utensils and food that would be distributed among us when we gathered. There was cleaning up cat vomit; having a really bad hair day; insane interactions with my new, intrusive landlord and worries about an injured knee that had only recently stopped getting swollen whenever I walked more than a little ways.
Faith arrived at my door excited with her courage and readiness for the adventure she had thought might be too much for her. She found me in emotional disarray: ranting and in tears. She reminded me that I had the same permission she had had: even at this last moment, I didn't have to go if it didn't feel right to me. Of course, in my state, I got irritated with her for thinking I needed her permission in order to give my self permission not to go. Yet, the truth was that her reminding me actually did help me give my self more space in which to make my choice. It released me from concern that I'd be letting her down if I decided I couldn't go.
Because she knows and loves me so well, she stopped trying to be helpful and quietly sat down to see where I'd get to on my own. I raved on and on about the miseries of my morning and my worst-case scenarios about how it might be for me around the women with whom we'd be Questing. Faith was her gentle and generous self, patiently sitting in witness to my process.
In the end, I decided to try going. We took two cars to the meeting place (some six miles from my house) so that I could keep my options open until after I'd had a chance to feel out the group. I groused my way up the hill to the Ojai Foundation then sat through the opening circle ceremonies feeling crabby and sour. In the end, the lure of the alone time outweighed my reluctance to be in this community so I chose to risk staying for the whole adventure.
We wagon-trained (in three vans) out to a canyon I know and love. We hiked in – further than I'd ever gone on my own – to a wilderness campground on the river. There were some wonderful moments those first hours as we cleaned up the trashed campsites, built a stone altar, dug latrine trenches, learned about low-impact wilderness camping and then prepared a communal dinner. I got as hilariously excited as any potty-training two-year old when I pooped outdoors for the first time in my grown-up life.
After dinner we sat in a formal circle with the intention to tell the stories of what had brought each of us to the Quest. We were also to name the greatest uneasinesses/fears we were bringing with us and to speak to what our plans were for caring for our selves in the face of these uneasinesses/fears. Attending to everyone's heartful self-revelations was agitating.
My cranky thoughts: "I spend my work time listening to the details of the lives of the women who are my clients and about whom I care deeply. In my private time I listen to the details of the lives of my intimate women friends whom I love dearly. That's all the listening and caring I have room for. I can't bear to listen to you. I don't care or want to care about you. I have no room for this. I just want to wrap my self in the stillness of this wild place, alone."
Some of the women talked on at length, the circle being one of the few places where a woman, trusting that she will be witnessed from the heart, can feel free take all the time she needs. Despite wanting to scream and run away, I made my self honor my commitment to the sacredness of the circle. I stayed and listened as best I could, struggling to open my heart as I was meant to do. I felt intense emotional claustrophobia. I felt like vomiting.
When my turn came, I did speak my truth – in more graceful words than I was experiencing it, but only barely. I acknowledged that to take better care of my currently skinless self, I would keep to the fringes of the group much of the time. Giving voice to what was so inside me helped quell some of the noxious feelings I was having. (Giving voice to what's going on inside of me usually does that.)
When the circle ended for the evening, the social, get-to-know-each-other-better chat began. I thought I'd go out of my mind. I started having an anxiety attack. After checking in with Faith for a hug, I went off to sit alone on the bank of the river. Listening to the wind in the trees and the rush of the water over the rocks, I sat breathing slowly into my belly.
As my anxiety loosened, I could listen to the frightened parts of me. They let me know how betrayed they'd felt by my forcing my self to sit in circle opening to the women and their stories when I was so desperate for stillness and solitude. They let me know it was upsetting and scary for them to have me overriding what they/my belly feelings were trying to tell me. They helped me to see that once again in my life I had been violating my vulnerable self: pushing to do what was expected of me so that I could get to what I really needed.
By going along with the conventions of the Vision Quest and honoring what I had implicitly agreed to do when I signed on for it, I was dishonoring my own distress in the moment. That betrayal of my inner self had moved me from edgy discomfort into an anxiety attack.
I promised my big and little overwhelmed selves that I would listen in and do whatever they needed me to do (or not do) so that they could feel safe on the Quest (and anywhere else). I promised that I wouldn't again make us do anything that felt emotionally claustrophobic or too much for us to bear. I promised that I would commit to putting what they needed ahead of the demands of any external agendas, rules or expectations; that I would do this regardless of any agreements I – explicitly or implicitly – might have made with others beforehand.
With this powerful reassurance that I would listen to and act on what I heard from them, the distressed parts of me were willing to return to where the group was gathered. Over the rest of the time bookending the solo journey, I wove in and out of the circle. Knowing that I would have my own support to withdraw immediately whenever things felt too much for us allowed me to stay in contact more of the time than I would have imagined possible. Refusing to force my self to stay in the circle gave me the freedom to more often choose to stay connected and connecting. This was the most empowering gift of the Quest, the vision that I brought back with me into my ordinary life.
Later that same year, I chose to go on a longer Quest with older, more experienced women leaders in order to have four days of solo time in Death Valley (see Our Slowest Parts for more about that journey). On this second trip, I spoke with the leaders in advance to explain what I'd learned about making it safe for my self to travel with a group, I advocated successfully for the freedom, as needed, to move in and out of the circle.
Much of current self-help rhetoric promotes the path of feel-the-fear-and-do-it-anyway. The sub-text: that giving in to one's fears leads to an escalation of those fears and increased incapacitation. I find this approach harsh and the sub-text an outright distortion of what's so.
When we listen compassionately and protectively to our fearful selves, they can let us know what they need from us in order to feel safe to move forward into and through what feels frightening to them. When those parts of us experience the steadfastness of our sympathetic concern and our willingness to attend immediately to their needs for safety, they become more trusting of our caring.
When we can promise to instantly remove our selves from any circumstance that feels too scary or overwhelming, these parts can then tolerate pushing the edges of their envelope. When they have to put up with argument and negotiation from us, they start working to get us to leave long before the moment beyond which they'd not feel safe to go.
New Age and recovery talk frequently focuses on the importance of honoring commitments and keeping promises. Yet, most often the focus is on the commitments or promises we make to others rather than on those we make to our selves. As I continue my dedication to lovingly re-parenting my self, I understand that whenever conflict emerges between promises I've made to others and those I've made to my self (in order to take the best possible care of me), the ones made to my self have priority.
I've learned to be more gentle with and responsive to others' feelings when I need to break my commitments to them because of this priority. And, I've learned to be more careful about the ways in which I initially commit my self to others. I let people know, up front, that keeping any agreement with them will be conditional on it continuing to be okay with my inner self.
Acknowledging and acting from the awareness that we are constantly growing and changing allows us to be more realistic and considerate in how we commit to each other. We can act in ways that violate neither our selves nor the others about whom we care.
Consider being more tender, protective and attentive to the frightened parts of you.