Do you struggle to express your emotions, instead holding back to not impact others?
Do you feel numbness or emptiness when it comes to your mental and emotional health?
Is it hard to find a sense of gratitude, even though you have so much to be thankful for?
How easy is it for you to articulate your emotions as you experience them?
Can you simply allow yourself to feel the feels or do you hold back?
Human beings are emotional creatures. Yes, we have a super powerful brain that likes to analyse, criticise, catastrophise, and think to make sense of our reality and protect us. Most people are pretty good at using this brilliant mind tool, yet, many people find it difficult to connect into their body and to fully acknowledge the feelings that lie within. All they get is crickets…
As humans, we inhabit a feeling body, so why do so many of us struggle to access these emotions and feelings?
Many of you are aware that I have undertaken a yearlong program with the acclaimed Dr Gabor Maté, MD, from Canada. To say this program is mind blowing is an understatement. In the context of my professional career, this program, by far, is the most profound teaching I have come across. I have studied the health sciences for the last 13 plus years; I’ve gone to countless professional and personal development programs and spent tens of thousands of dollars; I’ve been deep into the Amazon rainforest and spent time with some of the most revered Shamans on the planet communing with the sacred plant medicines seeking truth. Much of this has also been profound, insightful, mind blowing and life changing, but Gabor Maté’s Compassionate Inquiry program has brought ALL of this full circle and into a holistic perspective.
This program is also highly triggering and led to much self-inquiry and a deeper understanding of others. You just know when you hear the Truth. There’s something about it that hits the core of your essence. You know what you are receiving is real, honest and suddenly so much makes sense in a whole new way. I get this every week working with Gabor.
In this article, I would like to share with you one of the main teachings from Gabor that has really hit home for me, and how I interpret this in relation to something I see daily in my work and personal life – why people cannot connect to their emotional self, feel empty inside, lost and disconnected from who they truly are.
Authenticity Versus Attachment
Gabor talk’s a lot about how much of our relational life, whether that be in a relationship with others such as a spouse, a girlfriend or boyfriend, a colleague, customer or, most importantly, our Self, lies balancing on a fulcrum. At one end is Authenticity, the other, Attachment.
Authenticity means to know, understand and appreciate who we are, and to be connected to our bodies and our feelings, and to express our feelings in our words and actions. This means trusting the guidance and intuition our bodies offer through our gut feelings, and being able to express them and act on them when necessary.
On the other end of the fulcrum is attachment. Gabor states “Attachment is the closeness and proximity of another human being, for the purpose of being protected and cared for and nurtured, or, for protecting and nurturing the other. We are biologically wired for attachment because the human infant or a mammalian infant is so utterly helpless, so vulnerable, so underdeveloped, that they would not survive without an attachment relationship. Attachment relationship is actually a vital indispensable biological necessity for survival.”
Gabor’s work is heavily based around trauma, in particular early childhood experiences, the meaning ascribed to that experience and the coping strategies and behaviours that are adopted from what they went through. Gabor’s catch cry is “Trauma is NOT what happens to you…. It’s what happens INSIDE of you in response to that experience.” The point is to consider what adaptive responses were created due to that experience, and see how that is influencing your life in the present.
But how does this relate to feeling our feelings?
In a perfect world, you would be able to beautifully and fully express yourself in all your glory and still maintain a strong, nourishing, deeply satisfying connection, or attachment, to your partner, your parents, your friends…. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, this is a rarity. But why is this so rare?
To trace the origin of why we feel we cannot fully express our Self, we need to travel back in time…. To our childhood.
The modern world we find ourselves growing up in can be a very stressful place. It is a very different place to what our ancestors grew up in. Human beings split from our ape ancestors around 6 million years ago and have been in civilisation as the modern humans we recognise for only around 10,000 years. Before this, our lives were deeply connected to nature for millions of years. Genetically, our body is an ancient body and it wants us to live in an ancient way.
What did this life look like? Well, we had small clans or tribes of 20-50 people. We had a “working” day of 2-3 hours, we had extremely close interpersonal relationships with everybody in the tribe. The tribe raised our children. The amount of support children had growing up was unparalleled. No child’s needs for affection, attention and attachment went unmet. Genetically we haven’t changed from our ancestors, and we still have the same core needs, yet our social structure doesn’t often support these needs.
Now, contrast to modern day. We live insular lives, usually one generation under one roof, we’re lucky if we see our family members once a week, we don’t know our neighbours, many people barely have a literal handful of people they could call a close confidant, we work 8-12 hours a day and our children spend 7 hours a day at school away from their main source of attachment, nourishment and survival, their parents. Slightly different, isn’t it? Is it any wonder why we are suffering?
The stressors of modern life, and in particular parenting, means that unfortunately we are not fully present for our children. We are not fully attuned to our children’s needs and wants – physically and emotionally. We do the best we can in the situations we find ourselves in, with the skillsets we have, often with parenting styles that have been passed down from our parents, and unfortunately, our children suffer for it.
Gabor refers to children as narcissists. Not in a negative way, but as a developmental phase that is essential, but, we grow out of (most of us!). An infant in this way is a total narcissist – they are the centre of the universe. They let out a little cry, they get attended to. They soil their nappy, it’s changed, they’re hungry, and they get fed. Now this is amazing for the child and for survival, but what if the parent, due to their own circumstances, can’t be there for the child? Maybe because they themselves are dealing with trauma, or life at that stage is hard, with little support, working a lot, their marriage is breaking down…there are so many potential scenarios. That child coming from its narcissistic developmental phase, makes it all about them. They are the source of their parent’s pain – they come to believe that they are the issue. So they adapt their behaviour, unconsciously, because being authentic threatens their attachment relationship and therefore their survival.
If you are a baby, toddler, or five years old, and your authenticity – your expression of emotions or your needs – could threaten your attachment to a primary caregiver, then one of them has to go. Which do you think is going to be forfeited? Authenticity or attachment? You got it, survival trumps authenticity, 100% of the time.
This choice is instinctual, subconscious and, for a child reliant on another human, it is critical for their survival. It might mean adopting a strategy of being quiet, not expressing anger, always being “good”, or nice, or funny, essentially being what the child perceives they need to be in order to maintain the attachment. And, so we survive, and so do our coping strategies, even when we no longer actually need them for our survival.
It’s important to understand that this is not a conscious choice the infant or child makes, it’s simply an adaptive mechanism, which is a valid adaptive mechanism, and a brilliant one at that!
Gabor goes on to say, “The reason we have such difficulty giving up once we get programmed into seeking attachment at all costs, and attachment doesn’t just mean being in personal relationships with people, it also means what other people think of you, how the world sees you, is you start defining yourself by how you are perceived, not by who you actually are. Once that shift occurs where we sacrifice authenticity for attachment, and we did that to survive, then the very thought of giving up attachment, however we get that, through serving other people or being nice or being good-looking or being likeable, or never being angry, threatens attachments and we’re scared to death of it because in our childhood minds it’s associated with survival. These are not bad habits that people have, these personality traits are not mistakes, they serve a real deep purpose. To give them up is really scary. Not only that, once you develop the personality, you identify with it and then you think you are that person. e.g. (“I’m this person who…” or “I’m not a yoga person”), even something as trivial as that. You start having a certain view of yourself and then you make yourself the same as that view. And then we become the personality that we identify with rather than our authentic selves.”
At some point, most of you reading this learned that you must not be authentic, you must not connect to your gut feelings, to trust your heart because it threatens your attachment relationship. This is how we get cut off from our feelings and the feeling body. We have feelings, but we can’t connect to them and act on them because if we do, it threatens our survival.
This is how deep it is, and how far it goes back.
At some point in your life, you had to decide that even if your gut feelings were available to you, you shouldn’t pay attention to them. This isn’t a rational choice on the child’s behalf, there is no option here, and even if there was, the child isn’t capable of making that decision cognitively. The way in which we then see it play out in our lives is that for the rest of your life, as soon as you want to be authentic, you’re going to feel threatened, and anxious. This is how we live our lives. This is how we enter relationships, this is how we do our jobs and this is how we work – Constantly being afraid of being authentic because we want the attachment from the world from the outside.
This is deep. This can be triggering. But this is important if we want to live a more authentic life.
This isn’t about blame. If this has tugged on a heart string for you and you recognise some truth for yourself in these words then I encourage you to take a step back and observe your life – your biography, your family of origin stories. Stress and trauma are multi-generational. Give yourself a break. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Can you perhaps consider the reasons for your inability to sense or feel your feelings? Can you see how this was an essential adaptive coping strategy for you, adopted to ensure your survival? It worked brilliantly back then when you were incapable of caring for yourself didn’t it?
You’re probably thinking, ‘I’m an adult now, and I can take care of myself, so why would I keep doing this?” This coping strategy may now be obsolete for you, but, unfortunately, it’s been running in the background impacting your life, like the app running in the background of your phone or computer that you are unaware of. Yet that app is draining your battery, integrated into multiple systems and functions, and is impacting the quality of the service your device is offering… Now that you can see it there, and appreciate why it’s there, maybe it’s time to let it go, to close the app, and to reconnect to your authentic Self.
Reconnecting to your authentic Self and your feelings isn’t just a simple decision. It’s a process. It’s a process of reconnecting to your heart, your emotions, learning how to sense them again and then to react and respond to them in an appropriate way from this point forward.
Starting from this point of understanding WHY you’ve developed these behaviours is a key piece in successfully making changes to your life, such as developing new habits and ways of responding to situations.
So where do you start?
In my next blog article, I will be sharing some tips and strategies to help you acknowledge the origins of these behaviours and begin to reconnect to your feelings.
In the meantime, if this article has brought up anything for you and you need support, please reach out. You are not alone.
You can contact me for support:
Book a FREE 30-minute call with me – CLICK HERE
Book an appointment with me – CLICK HERE
To explore the work of Dr Gabor Maté, you may like to check these videos out:
When the body says no – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c6IL8WVyMMs&t=18s
The power of addiction and the addiction of power – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=66cYcSak6nE
The consequences of stressed parenting – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UGmADfU5HGU&t=4s
Alternatively, for free mental health support:
Beyond Blue Support Service – Support. Advice. Action
Phone: 1300 22 46 36