Balancing Resistance: Yin and Yang

I’ve been becoming more conscious of the fact that I organize much of my thinking along the lines of yin and yang and the concept of balancing duality. As I explore my own developing concept of counseling, human nature, etc., I find myself continuously walking the line “between.”

When I cringe at positive psychology, it’s not because I think it’s wrong or ineffective to focus on resiliency, what’s going well, strengths, etc.

People need positive goals towards which to work. Whether in personal growth, activism, or career development, if all one ever does is fight against what isn’t desired, burnout is inevitable. There will always be more to fight against, to change, to reject.

Merely pushing away from what isn’t wanted leaves a person directionless, often flying from one unwanted to another without direction or purpose.

Thus, defining where one wants to end up is essential. Have uplifting goals is necessary for renewing energy and fostering hope.

That being said, I find it equally unhealthy to eschew the negative. Resiliency doesn’t exist as a concept without its shadow side. Personal growth is more often the result of grappling with the shit life throws out.

And of course, ignoring the shadow doesn’t make them go away. More often than not, suppressing the shadow forces it to fester and grow stronger. Eventually it will demand attention one way or another.

So often, positive and negative seem to be pitted against each other, as though one has to win over the other, but such a dichotomy always leaves something lacking.

The yin needs the yang in order to be complete.

Of course, I’ve heard the yin yang symbol explained in terms of embattlement—that the dark and light are warring against each other, with the implication that one or the other wants to win. However, I find it far more intriguing to consider that the light and dark battle each other in an attempt to achieve balance.

Rather than the symbol being a representation of some cosmic arm-wrestling match, I think of it as a cosmic acrobatic performance. The resistance of each helps the other.

Rumpelstiltskin: A Fairy Tale Analysis

Ever since reading Women Who Run with the Wolves, I’ve been fascinated by the depth of meaning I often find in fairy tales. Recently, Rumpelstiltskin has really come alive for me as a metaphor.

On some levels, it’s a coming of age story. The main character doesn’t have an identity of her own at first. She is the miller’s daughter. She is known by her relationship to her father. Her tasks are assigned to her by the miller’s boasting and the king’s greed, which both land her with an impossible task—spinning straw into gold.

We all start out being the “daughter” or “son” of someone else, struggling to forge our own identities. And whether it be in a relationship, job, or school, we eventually face something over which it feels impossible to succeed.

We don’t live in a society that prepares us to say “no” to unreasonable demands. We don’t live in a society that respects those who do. Like the miller’s daughter, we often feel trapped in trying to meet other’s expectations…but not just other’s expectations. We internalize those same expectations until they become our own.

And the consequences aren’t negligible. In the story, the miller’s daughter is threatened with death if she fails. In life, when an employer exhibits the same greedy attitude as the king, a job can be at stake. Or maybe it’s a grade for school…or a relationship. And with those on the line, it can often feel like being threatened with death. If we fail, we might lose our ability to provide for ourselves or our career options or our love—in short, the future.

At some point, Rumpelstiltskin shows up. He can spin straw into gold. He can save the miller’s daughter…for a price. The miller’s daughter doesn’t think twice before giving up her necklace. Sure it’s valuable. It might even be an heirloom. But it’s seems like a small sacrifice in the moment.

How many of us get sucked into a similar deal? It might be sleep, time with friends, a principle, a boundary, but it’s something that seems small at the time. Sacrificing it gets us through. Makes us successful. Puts off that dreaded something that we would lose.

But it’s a setup.

In the morning, when the king comes and sees the impossible accomplished, he wants more.  The miller’s daughter is given more straw to spin into gold and locked up for another night. Again, Rumpelstiltskin shows up offering to help, and the miller’s daughter is quick to hand over her ring now too.

In the story, the miller’s daughter does this twice before Rumpelstiltskin ups the ante. But in life, this could go on any number of times. Some of us have more little valuables to bargain with than others. However, the specific number of times isn’t as important as the fact that it becomes habitual—so habitual that the sacrifice no longer even crosses our mind as such. It’s just what we do.

The third time, the miller’s daughter is promised not just the oh-so-appealing promise of keeping her life but also of becoming the queen. She’s promised an identity—and power! Even if that power might be in service to the king that had been making the unreasonable demands in the first place.

But the sacrifice this time is different. It’s not the one time sacrifice of giving up a trinket (symbolically, giving up a night of sleep or ignoring the violation of a boundary). No, this time, it’s big. Rumpelstiltskin has taken all of the little sacrifices already, now he feels the right to demand the future, to demand her first-born child. Habituated to the sacrifices and her own dependence on Rumpelstiltskin, she agrees.

After the third night, the miller’s daughter becomes her own person. She is referred to as the queen now. Does she love the king? Can she love the person who threatened to kill her if she failed to fill his coffers? Presumably, he doesn’t ask her to spin more straw because she doesn’t have any contact with Rumpelstiltskin until she gives birth to her child.

Children are symbolic of our hard work and our creativity. Her child is a product of her union with the king just as our creative enterprises will draw from our previous experiences, but it is genuine to her. Rumpelstiltskin helped her “fake it ‘til she made it.” But her child—that’s her own genuine creation. Her genius, so to speak.

It’s the one thing that Rumpelstiltskin can’t create. He’s good at parlor tricks, doing what others want, scheming his way through life. But he cannot germinate and gestate something of his own within him. He can’t give birth to life. He can’t create; he can only manipulate.

But Rumpelstiltskin comes back to demand the sacrifice of before. This time, though, instead of helping to succeed, he threatens to destroy what has come naturally from the queen. That habit of sacrificing boundaries, well-being, or principles comes back to haunt.

The three days that the queen has to guess Rumpelstiltskin’s name are significant. A perfect mirror of how long it took her to enslave her future to this creature. But the naming part is also significant. Within a psychodynamic perspective, bringing the unconscious to light is the majority of the “cure” of talk therapy.

It’s not that once we understand what is driving us to behave a certain way that we automatically change. We do have to work at it. But it’s far easier to change when we know what we’re up against.

Naming is powerful magic.

It’s only when the queen is able to name Rumpelstiltskin for what he is that she truly comes into her own power, the power to protect her creation and hold her own boundaries.

Spiritual Crisis in a Psychological World

Our society is fairly young in its abandonment of spiritual journeys and rites of passage. What once would have been the territory of the sacred has become the territory of the psychologist.

We’ve tried to sterilize, medicalize, and materialize human existence after centuries (or millenniums) of spirituality. We’ve buried our guides, forsaken our ceremonies, and detached ourselves from our process in exchange for diagnoses and medications.

Carl Jung believed that myth was

the primordial language natural to these psychic processes, and no intellectual formulation comes anywhere near the richness and expressiveness of mythical imagery.

In other words, the psyche speaks in myth, and science and psychology alone cannot begin to even touch the depth that mythology reaches for the soul.

I once thought that reclaiming my spiritual life was something I had to do for my healing because of my history within a cult, where so much of my abuse has been at the hands of religion; however, I don’t think I believe that anymore.

At an herbal conference a couple weeks ago, I attended a class about sacred herbs in spirituality. The teacher started the class by talking about tobacco and its use in various Native American spiritualties as a purifying herb. I was struck when she mused about the high rate of cigarette addiction in the United States, wondering whether it indicated that people were seeking a cleansing without realizing it.

The comment stuck out to me not because it was a light-bulb comment on its own, but because it came on the heels of several similar thoughts I’ve encountered in a wide variety of settings.

At another conference I attended, the speaker (Ron Coleman) was talking about how mental health crises sometimes resemble spiritual awakenings. In this instance, he was talking about the experience of hearing voices, which in mainstream society is seen as a sure sign of psychosis but which has often been a signal of spiritual encounters in other cultures.

By every indication, he himself was atheist, yet he was arguing against labeling spiritual experiences as mental illness…

Few in today’s society would try to argue that exorcisms, witch hunts, and tortures that developed in response to unacceptable experiences were good; however, what options do we, as a society, offer people for their modern “unacceptable” experiences? Illness labels and medicinally exorcising fictional demons?

On some levels, I think we might offer even fewer opportunities for people to confront their experiences and find a way to work through them to a positive end, perhaps not because we think they are demonic, but because we can’t handle the discomfort of not being able to control their process.

Maybe we’re not meant to.

joseph campbell cave

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure that you seek.” -Joseph Campbell. Found over at quoteswave.com

Ron Coleman described the “proper” role of psychotherapists as midwives of the soul. It’s a radical perspective, but not a new one. Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, and so many others have proposed many times over that the psyche doesn’t necessarily need fixing. It needs to find itself again. It needs to take its mythic journey, delve into its spiritual encounters…go into the dark cave.

Perhaps it’s time to start paying attention to the soul again. Perhaps the mind and soul aren’t so different. Perhaps healing “mental illness” isn’t about finding the mental equivalent to antibiotics and surgery. Maybe it’s about finding the mental equivalent of: “It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this.”

A scene from Zelda that has become a meme. Found at zeldauniverse.net

Zelda, that is all. Found at zeldauniverse.net

 

Wellness vs. Wholeness: Breaking Out of the Mental Illness Paradigm

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the terms that we use to describe our various states of mental health, and some brain vomit got into the computer. 😉 Have fun with this one!

“Mental Illness” has both lost and gained popularity in the last few years. Those who like it do so because they want to legitimize mental health challenges as real challenges people face just like any other health problems. I understand their motivations, but I tend to be on the side of hating the term. It feels clinical, sterile, othering, and disempowering when I think about applying the label to myself. It makes me feel like I need to be fixed, which is not something I believe, despite my strong identification with my PTSD (and let’s face it, I probably have an anxiety diagnosis as well…or could if I don’t). I might be wounded, but I’m not someone’s lab project.

The other popular phrase I’ve encountered in the peer movement is “mental wellness.” On the surface it sounds better. It attempts to emphasize strength over weakness and de-stigmatize mental health. For some reason, though, it still leaves me with the an emotional gag reflex (ooh, remember this post?). I want to smack anyone who asks me what my wellness plan is.

Perhaps by itself, mental wellness wouldn’t irritate me so much if it weren’t for the language surrounding the wellness idea. Questions like, “what do I look like and act like when I’m well?”

I know the answer they’re looking for is “cheerful, happy, good, upbeat, calm, peaceful” and other such saccharine words, but I don’t think that’s wellness. My mental wellness plan doesn’t involve trying to maintain happy or taking emergency action because I feel sad.

Ultimately, though, I think my aversion to “mental wellness” comes from the fact that it’s still working within the dichotomy of wellness/illness. It’s a paradigm within which I don’t even want to operate for my mental health because it sets up certain experiences as inherently “unwell.”

I prefer to think of my mental state as being somewhere on the spectrum of wholeness or fragmentation.

When I’m fragmented, I’m not connected or engaged with parts of myself. I’m suppressing emotions, thoughts, memories, desires, maybe even experiences. I disconnect from my psyche, either entirely ignoring valid emotions or becoming stuck in them. Fragmentation interrupts my daily functioning and interferes with my relationships.

Maybe that sounds like what most people think of as “illness” or “unwellness,” yet I have found that fragmentation can involve happiness. If I’m stuck in happiness, refusing to move through my process by maniacally inducing a feeling of “good,” then my happiness is as detrimental to my wellbeing and wholeness as depression or anger can be.

On the flip side, when I’m moving towards wholeness, I’m integrating all of the parts of myself and actively engaging in my process. Sometimes that means that I’ll be joyous and upbeat. Sometimes it means I’ll be balling my eyes out or screaming into a pillow. The difference isn’t what I’m feeling in that moment. The difference is in whether I’m engaging informatively.

No emotion is inherently unhealthy, negative, dangerous, or bad. All of them have a place in being a whole person. The only thing that can be unhealthy, negative, dangerous, or bad are the scripts we apply to our emotions…and one of those scripts, I’m starting to think, might be the script of mental wellness.

If I am moving in my process, no matter what emotion I’m experiencing, I can be well if I am connected to myself. Healing isn’t about moving towards good feelings. It’s not always about “getting better” or “recovering.”  It’s about moving towards integration of all our aspects.

 

Trauma Addiction: Freud Would Be Proud

There’s a certain trauma theory that I’ve come across a few times in the last few years that disturbs me—trauma addiction. That’s not trauma and addiction. That’s addiction to trauma.

I’ve mostly seen it come from people uncomfortable with the pain of trauma when they make statements like, “Why do you insist on reliving it?” or “You need to just let go.” I’ve only encountered in in one professional therapist that I went to briefly.

Several days ago, though, I came across the theory of trauma addiction in Psycholotical Trauma by Dr. Bessel A. van der Kolk. I guess I had just assumed it was the expression of ignorance, but to find that it’s supported in some psychological circles was truly shocking.

As both a survivor and someone who is studying trauma, I feel very uncomfortable with this theory for a number of reasons.

For one, the theory seems to make some huge assumptive leaps. In the book, van der Kolk lists the following examples of trauma addiction to support his point:

“Voluntary reexposure to trauma is very common. Veterans may enlist as mercenaries or seek other dangerous occumpations; incest survivors may become prostitutes; abused children may expose themselves to dangerous situations or engage in physically self-destructive behaviors.” (van der Kolk, 73).

He later even refers to a study that he himself did (but didn’t publish) that found a significant number of war vets who watch war movies.

The problem is that he goes from describing behavior to determining motivation without any supporting evidence to show that the behavior stems from that particular motivation (an unaccepted enthymeme fallacy). How could he possibly know why all war vets enlist as mercenaries? Or why they watch war movies for that matter?

It seems that these vets are caught in a double bind. If they voluntarily continue with the occupation they’re trained in, then they’re “addicted.” However if they do something that countless other people are able to do without being pathologized (watch movies), they’re still “addicted.”

The second example bothers me even more though. It takes the assumptions a step further and assumes that prostitution is necessarily the same as rape. But a voluntary prostitute (let’s assume he’s talking about voluntary because the implications of him talking about sex slaves is even more disturbing) has complete control over the sexual encounter. She is the one who chooses her clients. She is the one who sets the boundaries. If she’s not, then she’s not really voluntary and I would consider the sexual “encounter” to be rape.

Contrarily, incest involves the violation of boundaries and non-consentual sexual violence. The only connection between rape and voluntary sex work is the involvement of sexual organs. If prostitution is seeking out and reliving trauma, then so is having sex with a spouse.

Lastly, the cutting.  Ugh! I’ve listened to so many psychologists try to explain cutting in a way that makes them happy. It’s always the one thing that seems to play into and prove whatever their pet theory is around depression, anxiety, or PTSD. However, it rarely holds much accuracy to those who actually do cut.

Although there are as many reasons for why others cut as there are individuals who cut, I think it definitely has strong connections to trauma. But the connection isn’t an addiction to trauma.

It is a conditioning of trauma.

In high school, my cutting and hitting stemmed from the belief that I deserved to be punished for my mistakes. It helped to justify the punishments I received from my parents. It helped to distract from the terrifying thoughts and memories that plagued me. It helped to give me something physical to actually cry about because it was horrible living with wounds that I couldn’t see, couldn’t name. It was a coping mechanism for trauma, and if I was “addicted” to cutting, then it was because I didn’t have any other coping mechanisms to fall back on, not because I was addicted to trauma.

Which brings me to my second disagreement with the trauma addiction theory—the definition of addiction becomes too broad to hold any value.

Yes, battered partners can fall into a pattern of abusive relationships. Children can fall into a pattern of self-destruction. A broken sense of self is hard to love and hard to nurture. Old scripts are hard to unlearn. New ones are hard to learn. And to some extent, the familiarity of a negative situation is going to feel more comfortable than the unfamiliarity of a positive one.

But if that’s addiction, then addiction becomes anything from relational or social schemas and models to coping mechanisms to conditioned behavior, which means it covers pretty much every aspect of human interaction and personality and, as a result, covers nothing.

Aside from the fact that such a broad definition isn’t fair to people who are actually struggling with addictions, it does a disservice to trauma survivors. It disempowers survivors by making them feel trapped into their behaviors. It makes them their own enemy by framing the behaviors that helped them survive as “bad,” and it diminishes their ability to change through learning new coping skills and redefining their relationship models and identity.

My final objection to the trauma addiction theory (and I think the most important) is its vast capacity for victim blaming. Addiction implies the abuse of something. So addiction to trauma implies that a person is . . . what . . . abusing trauma?

It leaves the door wide open to say that the victim is the one seeking out the trauma to feed a desire/need. Technically, the victim should know better and avoid trauma, except that their need for it is so strong that they seek it out to their own detriment.

It sounds so much like the rape culture mantra “she was asking for it” that my skin crawls just to think about it, especially considering that one of the largest traumatized groups is women and girls who are sexually and physically abused. Like Freud’s theory that women make up rape fantasies because of some masochistic desire, the trauma addiction theory has far too much potential for devaluing the pain of victims and diminishing what was or is being done to them.

Perhaps in Freud’s day it was unfortunate but understandable that the theories around trauma would be both rudimentary and subservient to the status quo (men who didn’t like women talking about their rapes); however, I would hope that we’ve come far enough in our understanding of trauma to no longer need the manipulations that Freud resorted to with his patients/trauma victims. There are other theories that do a better job of describing the behaviors, thoughts, reactions, motivations, and wounds of trauma survivors that don’t resort to unaccepted enthymemes, broad generalizations of specific conditions, and victim blaming.

Authentic Movement: A Lesson in Following my Heart

This past weekend, I went to my first herbal conference, though hopefully not my last because it was a ton of fun. While I was there I decided to attend a class about working with plant allies. I’d developed an unusual bond with catnip over the last year, and I wanted to see if I could find a way to understand what made it particularly special to me.

I didn’t pay attention to the class title until I got there: “Authentic movement.”

For those who are equally unfamiliar with this type of movement, the best way I can describe it is movement meditation that involves going into a trance-like state in order to listen to your body’s urges (hence the “authentic part”…you only move when your body wants to). Since this class was focused on plant allies, it started with inviting the plant of your choice to accompany you on this mental journey.

I’m definitely not opposed to meditation or trances, and I’ve had my fair share of “visions” and revelations during meditation. But when I heard what was about to happen, my first thought was, “Oh hell no!”

I couldn’t imagine doing that in front of people, not just because it sounded potentially embarrassing but also because my experience with spiritual vulnerability has taught me to never let my guard down around others. When it came to spiritual groups, I lived by the motto: Never let anyone get you into a state of anything less than guarded.

However, I allowed myself to linger when the teacher explained that we’d all have our eyes closed during the exercise (no one would know I looked like a fool) and that her job was to create and hold safe space for us in our process.

I was still thinking I wouldn’t be comfortable doing anything, but at the very least, I figured I could learn what it was about and take it home with me if I really needed to be alone to feel safe.

To my utter surprise, I didn’t sit in the grass, hugging my knees to my chest the whole time. Not too long after she rang the meditation bells signaling the start of the exercise, I found myself releasing into my traditional meditative safe space. Part of me prowled the perimeter of my mind like a tiger, ready to pounce if I felt even the slightest hint of invasion or danger, but I slowly surrendered the rest of me to the movement.

Since visions are intensely personal, I won’t share what came to light in my soul here. However, I did want to talk about some of the secondary lessons I learned from participating in this class and stepping out of my comfort zone.

The first, and perhaps most obvious lesson, was the importance of listening to my body. As awkward as the idea of authentic movement sounded when I started, I realized later that it was nothing more than an exercise in intuition.

There will always be a cognitive, logical side to decision-making, and we hear about how to strengthen that aspect of our mind all the time. But there is also an intuitive side to decision making that we rarely talk about as a society. How do you know that you just applied for the right job? How do you know that this particular car or house is the one for you? How do you determine when it’s time to re-enter school? Or when it’s time to leave?

Sometimes, the logical side and the intuitive side coincide well, and the decision is easy. Other times, they clash, and what might seem like the best move to outsiders feels like the wrong move to you. Do you listen to your mind or your heart at those times?

Can you even tell the difference between your heart and your mind during those times?

Intuition was distrusted in the IFB. I was taught to fear and suppress it, yet I often found it to be my most accurate guide. Looking back with the awareness that comes not only with time but also with healing and distance from the brainwashing, I can see how my intuition protected me and led me, first in the small ways that informed me when people couldn’t be trusted with my truth, then in bigger ways when it led me out of the IFB even before I fully realized the magnitude of what I had left. Right now, I’m just beginning to grasp the depth of my intuition in protecting myself from my own truth until I could handle it.

However, my skill in listening and recognizing my intuition has been sketchy. I don’t always understand the subtle cues or hear the early warning signs. I can talk myself out of my feelings or deliberately ignore them in the effort to follow another’s expectations.

But the authentic movement showed me what it could be like to practice actually listening to myself. Rather than following someone else’s guided meditation or sitting still trying to empty my mind of useless thoughts, I can block out the outside world and go deep, deep into myself until my own impulse is all I can hear, see, feel, and understand.

The implications of this for my personal practice and life are exciting, to say the least, but I can’t help but also think about the implications for healing within a psychological setting. For anyone who has ever had their autonomy violated or their personhood crushed, I see tremendous possibilities for empowerment and reclamation through authentic movement.

Of course, in order for authentic movement to work, safe space is absolutely essential, but I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until next week for that part of my revelation. My body is telling me it needs to repay the sleep debt it acquired over this magical weekend!