Feeling safe

Lying in bed last night, doing a body scan (progressive relaxation), trying to unclench my body that was tight with pain, I had an insight. I hope I can articulate the thought. It felt like one of those epiphanies that is simple but hard to express.

As I was doing the relaxation practice, I began to add a loving-kindness practice to it. While I relaxed my eyes I told them I  loved them and thanked them for all these years of sight, the miracle of seeing my children as babies and watching them grow, the beauty of nature they had allowed me to take in, the thousands of books I’ve read that have enriched and transformed my life. And on to other parts of the body. When I got to my gut, I spoke to the Crohn’s as I never had before. I thanked it for trying to help me, unguided as the help might be. I endeavored to have a friendly feeling, to let go of resistance to it, resentment of it, and fear towards it. It was uncanny how quickly and almost completely the pain abated.

Then came the insight. I recognized the soothing of my sympathetic nervous system, that lizard brain that houses the fight or flight and the negativity bias. That part that is kept on alert by our crazy lives full of a constant buzz of low key stress. When I turned towards the Crohn’s with an open heart and affection, this part of my brain was soothed and the parasympathetic nervous system took over, calming me, comforting me, helping me to feel safe. I’ve noticed this response in my body when doing a practice to deal with intense pain.

Suddenly, I considered how important it is for us to feel safe, to keep the lizard feeling cozy and drowsy. I thought about how we are more open to our experience when we feel safe. Then I thought about how feeling safe plays into relationships. I turned it over in my head, how feeling safe may be the most important element in a close relationship. When you feel safe, your walls go down, your heart opens and intimacy is possible.

Then it struck me how impactful this thought trail was to the practice of befriending oneself. One of the obstacles to becoming a friend to ourselves is the critical self-talk we all struggle with. The way we feel devalued by our own inner conversation, the negative and limiting beliefs we develop about ourselves. Our critical inner voice can become quite abusive. Consider living with an abusive person, one who belittles you, diminishes and humiliates you. Would you feel safe? Wouldn’t you hide your heart behind impenetrable armor, would there be any real intimacy?

And so it is with our efforts to befriend ourselves. We need to feel safe. When we feel safe, we can let down our inner walls and come to a friendly and non-judgmental intimacy with all we are. How miraculous and marvelous and also how wrong-headed and stunted we can be. We can come to know and appreciate all of our own quirks and become patient when there is a misstep, past or present. We begin to treat ourselves as we would the most precious person in our heart, like our child or dear mother. When we feel safe, the process of self-knowledge, self-understanding, and self-appreciation becomes so much easier.

And how to feel safe with ourselves? Noticing our limiting beliefs and harsh inner critic is the first step. Recognizing that this is brought on by years of incidents with family members and society and reinforced by our desire to be good, to be acceptable. To be safe. So, soothe the voice when you hear it. When the blaming/shaming/catastrophizing begins, let it know that you are okay, that you are safe. That all is well. That the catastrophe isn’t happening, that the end isn’t near, that you aren’t hopeless. Soothe the inner turmoil and the lizard brain will fall asleep and your mammalian brain, that nurturing part of our brains, will awaken. The parasympathetic nervous system will also take over from the sympathetic. Rather than feeling on high alert, your heartbeat will slow, your breath will deepen, you will feel safe.

I don’t know how clear I’ve made this. It is hard for me to put it into words. The best visual for me is to imagine my inner voice as a child who is trying and who needs to feel safe. Handling ourselves with tenderness will accomplish this and quiet the lizard. To me, this makes more sense than trying to shut it up or feel guilty about the critical voice. I did this for years with little progress. This type of practice, soothing and reassuring the inner voice that all is well, that I am safe, brings a quick quieting of the noise and intensity so that I have space to remember that these are just thoughts, not who I am. And it seems that each time I reassure myself it gets easier and more effective. My friendship with myself has grown by leaps and bounds as well as my compassion and tenderness towards others.

child with flowers