Just came across this on FaceBook. I do not know the writer.
Someone explain higher power to me. I just don’t get it. I’m supposed to surrender to something I cant see or touch.
I seriously don’t get it.
I can’t hug my higher power. I don’t have a clue what it means.
I don’t know if I believe in God and I sure as hell don’t believe in a MAN in the sky watching and judging me. I’m so fricken brainwashed by my catholic upbringing that every time I hear or say the word God I immediately think of a judgmental prick in a beard telling me I’m going to hell.
In a dark place.
What I’d say to her if I could:
Welcome to the ranks of spiritual seekers.
I suspect many of us will be joining you shortly.
We’ll have to.
Life has taken away not just our sense of control, but of safety and agency and freedom.
We’ll need something else to lean on, something bigger than ego, or logic, or (certainly) politics or organized religion, bigger even than science.
This, I think, is a good thing in disguise.
There is ecstasy in paying attention.
~ Anne Lamott
One way to start is by looking at the faith you already have.
Do you roll out of bed and trust there will be a floor under your feet? I mean, without checking to make sure?
That’s a kind of faith.
Can you drive the highway and trust you won’t get crushed by a semi?
Can you eat storebought groceries and trust they’re not poisoned?
When you cut your finger, can you trust it will heal itself with just a band aid and a few days?
Do you expect flowers and grass to start growing again in spring?
Do you expect babies to grow into adults without being taught how to do it?
Do you expect the person who loved you yesterday to still love you today?
You’re a musician, I see. Do you expect that playing music and singing will heal something in you?
Those are all sorts of faith.
And obviously essential.
We need them to function day to day, hour to hour.
We’d go crazy otherwise.
I say to those I supervise: “Find out your
patients’ religions even if they say
they don’t have any.”
~ Scott Peck
You mentioned your Catholic brainwashing.
I’m not Catholic myself, but I’ve worked with many clients who were.
Also with victims of other denominations.
It’s the main reason I distrust organized religion.
For many of them religion was like an abusive parent who taught them to hate or distrust themselves and, in so doing, robbed them of God.
The ultimate sin, I think.
Ultimate, but not necessarily fatal.
You can grow past your religious conditioning.
You can bypass dogma and proselytizers and religious hucksters.
You can even grow past your antireligious bias.
You can take your spiritual life back.
It’s work worth doing.
Compared to what we ought to be,
we are half awake.
~ William James
I once wrote a post for survivors of alcoholic families which included this:
Have faith. Develop your spiritual life. No, you don’t need a church. You don’t even need to believe in God. You do need to believe in something bigger than you, something you trust even when you don’t understand it. Call it Nature. Call it The Force. Al-Anon calls it Higher Power, but you can call it what you like. I used to reject the idea of God, but I always believed in psychology. Then I heard Scott Peck suggest that it’s not unreasonable to replace the word God with the word unconscious. That permanently reframed the idea of God for me. I realized there was some intelligence inside I could listen for, and which would guide me if I let it. (I might doubt the existence of God, but who can doubt the existence of that voice? That part that Knows Better?) So that gave me something to trust. Hey, we all need some invisible support.
Best of luck with your seeking. I’ll be thinking of you.
The person in the grip of an old distress says things that aren’t pertinent, does things that don’t work, fails to cope with the situation, and endures terrible feelings that have nothing to do with the present.
I can only guess, of course, whether someone with whom I am working received inadequate attunement from their mothers.
But occasionally I meet people who make me suspect that might have been the case.
They tend to be people who seem forever at war with their feelings.
Like Alan, a quiet man whose marriage is failing because he’s so disconnected emotionally, who works all day and then goes home to pore over paperwork at his kitchen table, so turned inward that he can barely sustain a conversation in session, and whose frustrated wife complains that “even when he’s there he’s not there.”
Or Bonnie, a chronic people pleaser who always looks tired, seems surrounded by people who discount or abuse her, and who worries constantly about falling back into the suicidal depression which overwhelmed her twenty years ago.
Or Cate, an attractive educated woman who keeps drifting into relationships with emotionally unavailable men, spends months trying to get them to love her, then blames each failure not on the man but on her own unworthiness.
And Dustin, a recovering alcoholic stuck in a ten-year affair with a married woman who gives him less and less time and attention, but whom he refuses to leave because “she’s the only woman who’s ever made me feel like someone loved me.”
Harvey Jackins’ phrase —
endures terrible feelings that have nothing to do with the present
— is a perfect description of each of these people.
Each is trapped in what I’ve called the Kid Trance: an emotional life dominated by how they felt when they were helpless children.
The Trance is an agonizing place to live.
Its defining characteristic is a tendency to perceive and treat ourselves as we were perceived and treated by our parents. If they abused or neglected or judged us, we abuse or neglect or judge ourselves.
And if our parents had no clue about how to deal with difficult feelings, we too are left essentially clueless.
What we do, then, is retreat into the ways of coping we discovered as children.
We may disconnect and distract ourselves from feelings, like Alan. Or exhaust ourselves trying to win love and emotional feeding, like Bonnie and Cate. Or cling desperately to someone we think capable of meeting our emotional needs, like Dustin.
There’s another reason the Trance is agonizing: shame.
Psychologist Russell Carr writes,
In the absence of a sustaining relational home where feelings can be verbalized, understood and held, emotional pain can become a source of unbearable shame and self-loathing.
Whether it comes from being actively discouraged from identifying and expressing feelings (Big boys don’t cry) or from lacking a model for even noticing them, the inability to process feelings cannot help but leave us feeling flawed, broken, inadequate, and cut off from other human beings.
Why cut off?
Because, in our shame, we won’t see relationship as a safe place in which to feel or reveal ourselves.
We may not even believe in the possibility of what Carr calls a sustaining relational home.
And this is one serious wound.
“Trauma is a basic fact of life,” writes Mark Epstein.
It is not just an occasional thing that happens to some people; it is there all the time. Things are always slipping away…. The healthy attachment of a baby to a “good-enough” parent facilitates a comfort with emotional experience that makes the challenges of adult life and adult intimacy less intimidating.
Relationship is the adult’s secret weapon for handling such challenges, a life jacket to keep us afloat, a safe harbor to which we can retreat from storms.
Without it we can’t help but feel adrift, vulnerable to emotional waves that threaten to drown us, “traumatizing us again and again as we find ourselves enacting a pain we do not understand”(Epstein).
And with no life jacket or safe harbor available to us, we have no choice but to turn to the illusion of control.
Russell Carr is quoted by Epstein (see below).
Mark Epstein. The trauma of everyday life. New York: Penguin, 2013.
Harvey Jackins is quoted by John Bradshaw, in Homecoming: Reclaiming and championing your inner child. New York: Bantam, 1990.
There is no cell of our body that does not have a wounded child in it. ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
There is another kind of unfinished emotional business which predates the kind I just described (see “Shit”) and prevents us from feeling and functioning like grownups.
It is rooted in the way our mothers responded to us when we were infants.
Mark Epstein explains it in his book The trauma of everyday life (Penguin, 2013), drawing on the seminal work of British child analyst D.W. Winnicott.
Here’s a simplified version of his explanation:
One of the most important jobs a mother has is to teach her child how to identify and handle feelings. She does this by modeling a combination of empathy (Oh, you’re having a feeling) and reassurance (Everything will be fine). Anyone who spends any time observing mothers with their children sees this happen over and over.
Oh, you’re wet and uncomfortable? Here, let’s get you changed.
Oh, you’re hungry? Let’s warm up your bottle.
Oh, you hurt yourself? Here, let mama kiss it.
And so on. This ability to pay attention to and respond appropriately to the infant’s emotional experience is called attunement.
“In this state,” Winnicott writes,
mothers become able to put themselves into the infant’s shoes, so to speak. That is to say, they develop an amazing capacity for identification with the baby, and this makes them able to meet the basic needs of the infant in a way that no machine can imitate, and no teaching can reach.
Mom’s attunement is essential to the infant because it models for the child how to attune to itself.
The basic message is Here’s what you do with a feeling: You respect it. You pay attention to it. You figure out what it’s telling you, and you respond.
Attunement provides a kind of emotional container — an experience of holding, attention and safety — which the infant absorbs and, eventually, learns to provide for him/herself.
But what if the mother is unable to attune to her infant?
What if something else is occupying her attention or draining her energy? What if she is exhausted, or sick, or depressed, or frightened, or angry, or being abused, or self-medicating with some substance?
“An infant who is held well enough is quite a different thing from one who has not been held well enough,” writes Winnicott.
You see two infants: one has been held…well enough, and there is nothing to prevent a rapid emotional growth, according to inborn tendencies. The other has not had the experience of being held well and growth has had to be distorted and delayed, and some degree of primitive agony has to be carried on into life and living.
What Winnicott calls primitive agony is the experience of being left all alone to deal with incomprehensible and uncontrollable feelings.
This is not an experience that simply drains away over time.
Instead those afflicted carry it into adulthood, as I understand it, in two forms.
One form is a chronic background anxiety, which occasionally erupts as a fear of breaking down, “losing it,” going crazy.
The other form is an inability to deal healthily with their own feelings.
(To be continued.)
Mark Epstein. The trauma of everyday life. New York: Penguin, 2013.
My favorite part of The Addams Family (ABC, 1964-66) was the character named Thing.
Thing was a disembodied hand that lived in a upholstered leather box.
It scrambled across tabletops like a spider and performed small services for members of the family, like answering the phone or playing castanets.
“Thank you, Thing,” Morticia Addams would coo.
In recent years I’ve created my own version of Thing.
Mine’s not a hand.
Mine’s a whisper in my head.
There have always been whispers in my head, as I’m sure there are in yours. One is the bully Gestaltists call Top Dog, always ready to judge, prod or criticize. Another is the whiny Underdog, forever complaining (It’s too hard) or making excuses (I try my best) and promises (I’ll do it tomorrow).
For decades these guys were my constant companions, engaged in endless battles of Should vs Can’t that Fritz Perls called “the self-torture game.”
So the topdog and underdog strive for control. Like every parent and child, they strive with each other for control. The person is fragmented into controller and controlled. This inner conflict, the struggle between the topdog and the underdog, is never complete…. There is no end to the self-torture, to the self-nagging, self-castigating. It hides under the mask of “self-improvement.” It never works. (Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, 1969).
Thing’s voice is different.
Thing’s voice is soothing.
Thing forgives my mistakes, limitations and sins.
Thing reassures me, encourages me, and reframes problems in ways that let me be gentle with myself.
Thing gives me permission to listen to feelings and give myself what I need.
Thing is the voice of a parent I never had.
I began hearing it only later in life. Partly it’s the voice of my own therapist, who years ago encouraged me to stop self-torturing. Partly it echoes my wife and children, who love me as I am. And partly it’s the voice I myself use with clients when trying to teach them self-compassion, self-forgiveness and self-care.
It was nice to discover, after years of self-torture, that I could grow my own Thing.