Listening to the Body

I was on a Zoom call and suddenly realized that I was leaning forward in my chair towards the screen. I was holding my breath so my frustrated response wouldn’t just pop out of my mouth as I waited for my opening to speak. My chest was tight, and I had tensed up my shoulders around my ears. I took a deep breath to steady myself and finished the conversation more calmly, knowing that I must revisit this awful feeling to figure out the message my body was trying to send me.

After hanging up the phone, I immediately started berating myself in my head, saying things like, “How did you end up here again? This feels very familiar and not in a good way. Well, at least I was able to pause before I acted out that feeling.” I shoved it away to think about later.

The following morning, I was still unsettled and ashamed of those unloving feelings towards myself and others. I began to journal.   My instinct was to distance myself from the relationship, thinking it just wasn’t going to work out. I started writing out why pulling back was the right thing to do and listing how the person frustrated me. It was their fault for pushing my buttons.

I paused a moment in my writing, echoes of other occasions where this had happened bounced around in my head. My writing changed, and I was curious to locate the point in the conversation where the emotion had risen. What was the old pattern I had repeated? Still focused on preventing feeling the feeling, I asked myself, “What could I do differently next time to avoid this situation?”

I pulled out all the books I could find that I thought would help me figure this out. Going to seminary got me in the habit of research and reflection when I’m unsure what’s going on with me. As I read, I recalled that being human includes having reactions and feelings, and I gratefully began to write about the feelings the conversation had stirred up in me. I quickly realized that I needed to establish a plan for alleviating intense emotion in the moment and a process for asking the bigger questions that could allow for growth and change.

After several days (more than a week, actually) of journaling and reading, I returned to my guiding scripture with a new perspective on how God was calling me to live.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Mark 12: 30-31

In the Moment

In my early thirties, my therapist had introduced me to the concept of the inner child and suggested that as adults, we can re-parent ourselves. A few years ago, I even took a course in compassionate mindfulness, but it never entirely made sense to me. The only thing I knew that helped me get through challenging situations was to slow down and pay attention to my breathing. But that wasn’t enough. A residue of that high energy was left racketing around in my body.

One of the books I read was Kristen Neff’s recent release called Fierce Compassion. She talks about the need to offer ourselves the same “tender self-compassion” that caregivers provide to a crying baby. We know that crying is a child’s attempt to express an intense need. Caregivers do whatever they can to satisfy the need with food, a clean diaper, a hug, soothing rocking motions, or soft backrubs while gently speaking words of comfort.[1] It hit home. I deserved to be comforted as much as a baby does. My pain needed comfort no matter the reason I was feeling it. I could deal with why I felt that way later after the pain was acknowledged and soothed.

Neff calls these moments of self-soothing compassion breaks. You can try some of them for yourself at her website. My favorite method is putting a hand over my heart with gentle pressure, as that is where my body gathers emotion. I’ve also tried rubbing a smooth stone between my forefinger and thumb. I’m still trying out other ways I’m comfortable doing when other people are around.

Figuring Out the Why – Two Old Beliefs

Once I soothe my nervous system, my thinking brain can kick in. Kristen Neff reminded me that besides God, I’m the only person who will be with me 100% of the time for my entire life.[2] Looking back at my guiding scripture, it makes sense that Jesus included loving self, along with God and neighbor, in the greatest commandment. There’s an old saying: wherever you go, you take yourself with you.

I’ve been on a journey to loving myself for a while now, so I know I can only change myself, but I also know that beating myself up or trying to suck it up and do better just makes me more anxious. It doesn’t make a long-term positive difference in my behavior. So, taking a loving deeper look at what was going on inside was the next step.

I had a fabulous ethics professor in seminary, Dr. Marcia Riggs, who helped me explore identifying needs in myself and others. In my family, no one ever explicitly talked about what they needed. You were just supposed to figure out what the other person wanted based on the reactions you ran into at any given moment. Not a great plan as it led to lots of frustration and anger on everyone’s part. So, I pulled out my needs and feelings wheels (you can search the web and find lots of examples of these). What was it that I needed and wasn’t receiving that triggered the unpleasant feeling and reaction on that phone call?

Looking at the needs wheel, I started thinking about the basic need to be seen and heard. I remembered a passage from a book Kain Ramsay wrote with Cinzia Dubois, where he talks about a rule from his childhood that children should be seen and not heard. He says that teaching children to keep their thoughts and opinions to themselves often carries over into adult life as an underlying fear of not being valued.[3] This belief was a rule in my family system as well, principally because I was a girl. There was a deeply held theological belief that women are to be submissive. When I moved into the world, I struggled with not being heard as a woman in business. I could see that, over the years, I created a narrative that I had to get angry and work up the courage to demand people listen. When played out, there were often external negative consequences.

I would often berate myself about causing a scene, so I spent a lot of energy holding myself back from speaking up. Kristen Neff talks about what happens in our bodies when we turn anger inward to try to regain control of our equilibrium. The cortisol, which by design started the fight response, now causes inflammation and can lead to eating disorders, depression, and anxiety.[4] These internal consequences for living with anger were equally harmful.

But there was more to the story than just wanting to be heard and valued. What held me back from speaking up earlier, vulnerably, and clearly saying what I needed from the relationship? I began to see that I was caught in a double bind. I returned to Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown to consider how keeping sight of my internal boundaries and believing in my value might be the answer to keeping my balance.

In Chapter 2 of that book, Brené talks about the need for belonging. She defines true belonging as “happening only when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.” She goes on to say that our “sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”[5] Valuing myself is the starting point of belonging to myself. I needed to get comfortable with feeling separate from others even as I sense my deep spiritual connection with those around me. Brené was challenging me to practice the skills of trusting myself to stay grounded, vulnerable, and authentic while trusting that others can do the same for themselves.

Kristen Neff describes how anger can be helpful as a messenger if we listen to what it can tell us. [6] I heard it saying that I could parent myself by listening to the anger and actively remembering that my value does not fluctuate depending on how well I am heard and understood by someone else. I do not need to make them hear me. It doesn’t matter if they never see me clearly. I am not responsible for their actions. I am accountable for valuing myself enough to listen when my body speaks.

A Loving Relationship with Myself

So, what does it look like to value and love yourself? Our sense of self-worth, Ramsay says, is based on our understanding that we have intrinsic value. That value is not based on how we act or whether we are learning to be a better person.[7] It starts with understanding that the essential nature of God is love. (I’ve written about this in my post called God is Love.) I believe that intrinsic value comes from knowing that this loving God chose to create us. With that foundation, the value of each component, animal, vegetable, and mineral, of creation has incredible value. When I lose sight of the reality of God’s loving and creative presence being always with me and for me, I must ground myself again in this truth.

I am also working on the concept of accepting all aspects of who I am while continuing to learn new ways of being in the world. Ramsay includes “extending yourself to others, sharing your value, taking responsibility for your emotional and mental inconsistencies, and embracing imperfections[8]” as part of that journey. Kristen Neff includes an entire chapter in her book to “caring for others without losing ourselves.” She tells us to “turn inward” to the “wellspring of warmth and goodwill as the source.” Neff encourages us to experience the full range of human emotion. We will also have to honor our human limitations, including time and energy [9]. We celebrate the beauty of who God has created us to be in our complete humanity when we live in this way.

Love your neighbor as yourself. Both. For me, this is the hardest part of the Great Commandment. On this leg of the journey, I uncovered and let go of some old beliefs, practiced ways to self-soothe my inner child, and clarified my boundaries a little better. I still have some miles to go. This journey is becoming a way of life, not a destination.

[1] Kristin Neff, Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive, Kindle (New York, New York: Harper Brothers, 2021), 113.
[2] Neff, 290.
[3] Kain Ramsay and Cynthia Dubois, Responsibility Rebellion An Unconventional Approach to Personal Empowerment, Kindle (Houndstooth Press, n.d.), 88.
[4] Neff, 68.
[5] Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness, Kindle (New York: Random House, 2017), 31.
[6] Neff, 68.
[7] Ramsay, 120.
[8] Ramsay, 122.
[9] Neff, 253.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

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