Our sense of “I” is profoundly influenced by how we belong to a “We.” Dr. Dan Siegal.
When you read this quote what do you think of? What does it mean to you? How is your sense of self influenced by the “we” that you belong to. In a society that rewards independence, fortitude, and resilience it can sometimes get overlooked the importance of turning to others around us; the importance of community.
The network of relationships we belong to not only influences our interests, thoughts, and behaviors but actually neuro-biologically changes our brain in a chemical and physical way. We rely on others to help us “co-regulate” our emotions and thoughts, whether we want to or not. When we try to split off from our struggles, disown them, or “deal” with them on our own, they do not go away. I always say trying to split off from our pain, sensitivities, or emotions, is like stuffing your arm in your shirt and pretending it’s not there anymore. It is still very much there. They are stored in us as energy and can affect not only our mental health but can take a physical toll on our nervous system and result in chronic health issues. We can no longer seperate the mind, brain, body connection. They are all very much connected. Having quality relationships, which does not always mean quantity, that are safe and we can turn to and feel understood is a powerful tool for battling our inner struggles. The foundation of these quality relationships depends greatly on our ability to be open, vulnerable, and authentic. of course this is easier said than done. It means taking risks, exposing our insecurities, pressures, and day to day hurdles that we may carry our own shame or guilt around. When we carry shame for who we are then our instinct tells us hide and not show that to others out of fear of more shame and criticism.
I compare shame to mold found in houses. Mold likes dark damp places where it can continue to grow and destroy, much like shame. When we have shame we want to hide that part of us, and it is always there, telling us that we are not good enough or cannot show this to others. It eats away at us and beats down on our sense of Self. In 12 step communities they know this and have a motto: “our secrets keep us sick.” A fascinating fact about mold is direct exposure to sunlight over a period of time will kill it. Sunlight and its UV rays have a natural bleaching process that can kill most forms of mold. Much like mold being exposed to the sun, when we can push through our fear and expose the parts of ourselves we hide from others, we can truly be seen and our shame will begin it’s own bleaching process. If we do this with healthy individuals we will find that those closest to us will not only accept us but they will relate. This will result in them feeling closer to us, and we will feel closer to them, resulting in our shame starting to slip away making us feel better about ourselves. That’s not even the most powerful part of it.
When we are in this open and vulnerable space of authenticity and experience this feeling of being understood and accepted, we are flooded with natural neurotransmitters that can alter our mood and even alter the structure of our brain in a positive way. Specifically Opiate Endorphins, Dopamine, and Oxytocin are flooded into our brain and body resulting in a warmth and sometimes natural high. Opiate Endorphins are our natural pain killer. So if we can access this chemical through relationships how powerful is that? This is especially important for people in recovery; these are the very chemicals that are released when they seek intoxication; EVERY drug releases these main chemicals. So the very effects that addicts and alcoholics crave and sacrifice food, family, and safety to experience can be cultivated through our relationships.
We all struggle with this in different ways but we are not unique; if you open up and start practicing this you will find you are not alone. When we find that we are not alone, how we go through our day and feel about our self changes. We begin to view ourselves and the world we live in differently; and the world begins to view us differently. This will bring us closer together and help form a community. A We. And after all, a We is a power greater than You.
The quote from Dr. Dan Siegal at the beginning would be easy to read and nod and say, “yeah I get that,” but when we examine it at a deeper level there is much more going on. The next time you find yourself holding back, staying quiet, answering “things are fine,” or telling a lie, challenge yourself to stop and speak your truth. Show others who you are, what you’re struggling with. You will be amazed how good it feels to be genuine and truly be seen and feel felt. I would also add that often we may need to be “verbal instruction manuals” for those around us. Because our society and 12 step programs can be so solution focused we can often feel dismissed when we open up and we are told solutions to our struggles too soon. When at first we are seeking validation. So let other know what you need. And practice being a resource for others by not jumping to the solution and first just trying to understand them.
Curtis Buzanski, LMFT. LAADC