Safety First (In the Cards)

Today’s card draw from my In an Open Hand deck invited a reflection on the safeguards needed in order to foster deep connection. I’ve become intimately familiar with what feels unsafe in relationships, so I’m hoping I can extrapolate from that into what would allow for a sense of security (as well as consider moments where it’s gone right). I believe the same principles apply inwardly in my inner work as well as outwardly as I relate to other people.

Respect for vulnerability and boundaries

The interaction that has destroyed most of my close relationships is my perception that the other person does not care about the vulnerable parts of who I am, that they are pressing past my boundaries I’ve clearly established to get to my strength, my trauma be damned. I also struggle when someone reacts to me as though I’ve crossed their boundaries, even though they either never communicated them to me or have changed them without telling me. I grow especially weary when people take and take in terms of emotional support, but then push me away when someone else (usually the person they were in conflict with that I’ve been helping them process) gets closer to them and they don’t need me anymore. Basically, I can tell when I’m being used and I refuse to tolerate it.

I want relationships where vulnerability is treated with the care and honor it deserves and where the emotional care-taking is evenly balanced over the course of the relationship. I want to be comfortable setting boundaries and having them be set with me. Most of all, I want to feel that there are more than enough resources between the other person and I so that we can both benefit from our interactions, rather than holding a sense of scarcity that makes every kindness I give feel like a kindness withheld from me (and vice versa).

capacity to own flaws and limitations

I’ve received very few heart-felt apologies about the “big” stuff in my life. I can think of several that I’ve doled out, as I know I am capable of self-examination and can take responsibility for my part in interactions. In order to be able to do this, a person must first know themselves well and accept themselves, otherwise, any feedback from others that they’ve been acting in a harmful way will only trigger their defenses.

The capacity for self-reflection is only part of the equation, as a recent relationship proved to me, as a person also has to be conscientious and able to feel guilt. I feel remorse when I know I’ve hurt someone, intentionally or accidentally, so I apologize. People who cannot feel guilt don’t and those of us on the other side of it may feel tempted to internalize their guilt. It’s as if there is a free-floating amount of remorse generated when one party harms another, and someone has to absorb it. As a result, I feel so guilty when I end relationships with people who have harmed me and have failed to apologize or change after doing so.

When someone knows themself and holds themself to a set of moral standards, they can then view mistakes and flaws as opportunities for growth. There might even be a place of gratitude for the chance to learn more fully how to be kind and caring. This is an impersonal example, but I read this article and, because I support death with dignity so strongly and because the patriarchy is so insidious, I completely missed the misogynistic murder aspect to the story until I read Twitter discourse on it. I felt immensely appreciative to be able to re-examine my thoughts and reactions before I caused direct harm to anyone by sharing my flawed viewpoint. I would be lying if I said I handled in-person confrontations as well, but I want to be a person and to know people capable of this non-defensive response to situations where we miss the mark.

support and honesty

I’ve met people who seem intent on criticizing my every flaw to make themselves feel better. I’ve also met people who flatter me as a way to get what they want from me. Neither approach is sustainable over time in terms of building trust. What I want from others and from myself is the ability to find and uplift the good, while judiciously sharing concerns when asked.

My issues with anxiety are so severe that I can lean into “well, but have you considered…doom and gloom prediction…” an approach which inevitably feels unsupportive even when my intention is to help the person avoid harm. I try now to at least ask permission before launching into such an analysis. I want the people with whom I’m close to be honest with me in their assessment of issues I discuss with them, but to couch that honesty within the context of their own biases.

In conclusion, I think I’ve managed to create a narrative to which I can return from time to time in order to assess the health of my relationships. The attributes I’ve described are not only qualities I want to find in others, they are also capacities I want to more fully develop in myself. It feels rather odd to crave guilty people, but, when I think through the relational landmines of the prior decade, pretty much all of them, whether the other person invaded my space or abandoned me when I needed support, was held in the frame of “I don’t own/accept responsibility for/feel guilty on any level” for pain I experienced as a result of interactions with the person. In some cases, I wasn’t brave enough to fully articulate what I believed the person should accept as their mess to clean up, but this was usually because their general approach to the world told me there was zero chance of them responding non-defensively. I can’t expect others to treat me in a way I cannot act, so it is my responsibility to continue to grow into the person I want in my life.

What are the behaviors and characteristics that create safety in relationships for you? What role, if any, does the capacity for guilt play? Who would you like to become relationally?

Time Enough (In the Cards)

Today’s card invited reflection of how the pace of my life is going. I decided to focus on how I hold my sense of presence and time in situations where others are present. I believe that my experiences here will guide me in finding places where I connect with a felt sense of safety.

I went out to a restaurant with a group of friends last night and noticed a moment pass where I would normally feel like time was “up,” where I’d become impatient and want to leave. After my reflection on having PTSD, I believe this surge of anxiety occurs when, as a result of either internal or external stimuli, I come to view the experience as containing threats from which I want to flee. At dinner, in the moment this would have happened, my internal system instead read “you are safe” and I was enveloped with a wonderful sensation of calm and a near-hallucination of a clock shutting off. What time it was and how much time there was left in the encounter weren’t my most pressing concerns.

In almost every other social setting, I feel as though I am in a race where the goal is to survive until time runs out. Maybe I’m trapped on a level of the simulation or my programming is broken! In all seriousness, the intensity of needing to rush through and have whatever is happening end is overwhelming. I look forward to events much more than I enjoy attending or remembering them.

I do not believe I am able to engage in mindfulness or present-moment awareness in the presence of others for any length of time. As soon as at least one other person is in the same room as me, I lose my connection to my body and my sense of time becomes at least slightly distorted. Every day when I leave my job, I find myself waiting for myself as I leave the building, crawling back into my skin and inhabiting my breath and my rhythm for the first time in hours. Who I am around others is often only a shadow-shell of my true self.

My experience of time is less affected in outdoor spaces, where the elements help me reconnect with my body and remind me of shifts outside of my own reactions to stimuli. If waiting rooms were parks and grocery stores outdoor venues, I would perhaps respond with less rage. Small, confined rooms such as medical offices are especially taxing. I recall a few moments where I felt highly connected to friends; most of them occurred in green spaces with people far and few between.

This reflection has enabled me to note a direct connection between where I am and how intact my perception of time remains. People are not the only variable; fresh air and a luxurious amount of room in which to rest or walk about also play major roles. What factors affect how you perceive time? To what extent is your connection to your body impacted by the presence of other people? In which spaces do you feel safest, where a sense of more than enough time and place are pervasive?

Potential for Thriving (In the Cards)

Today’s card centers on naming inner passions and contemplating how to ignite them into flames of creative power. In giving voice to my desires, what rises up is a wish for living a life that is founded on the possible rather than the absent. What I mean by this that I want to welcome into my life love, beauty and sacred connection, not simply to banish hatred, distrust and suffering.

If I’m honest with myself, most days I wake up thinking “when will the shit I have to deal with today be over?” It is as if the innocent, caring and hopeful parts of me stay in slumber until any potentially threatening situations have ended. I can go weeks or even months without feeling like the red alarm blaring danger stops trilling.

I am thrown totally off-kilter by events like the one I had today, where I woke up in joy, believing that I had nothing stressful with which I was going to have to deal (an extremely rare occasion), and could therefore touch with my fingertips the edges of the positive and the happy. I soon discovered my dog was having an allergic reaction to the heartworm preventative injection he got yesterday, and had to rush him, covered in hives and itching, to the vet. My day now feels like it is lying in ruins, my mind reiterating “threat is likely over…threat is likely over” in an attempt to coax from hiding the scared parts of self I possess.

I so desperately desire a life in which I can stay connected to all the parts of myself, including the upbeat and positive ones, even in the face of hardship and difficulty. I have occasionally spent time notating the events of each day for which I am grateful, but this has often turned into “at least this horrible thing that happened wasn’t even more horrible.” I wonder what a question like “what magic will the world hold for me today?” would do to my psyche if it was the first and truest note playing in my mind as I awoke.

The image I see in my mind to represent my dilemma is that of a person wearing every conceivable bad-weather gear every day, with little regard for the forecast. I am like someone who is convinced that a storm could be lurking or ice could be built up at any spot on their travels. Sure, this person has everything needed the moment bad weather strikes, but they also lug around heavy, hot and uncomfortable material through every other situation. What I also know to be true is that umbrellas and raincoats aren’t the only ways to stay dry; I could and do improvise if something unexpected happened.

In this analogy, I only glance at the rainbow or the blue sky or feel the gentle breeze for a second, and then detach from my joy as I remind myself of all the times I thought it was going to be a nice day and it wasn’t. One raindrop spoils the whole picnic. And, yet, there is beauty to be found even in a ruined outing.

I am not sure how to walk with confidence knowing that, although there will be mud puddles into which I could step, fixing my eyes primarily onto the colors and shapes in the vast sky above grants me a much fuller, more healing and more marvelous view than staring at my shoes will ever provide. What is the first question on your mind most mornings? How does asking it shape the rest of your day? Where do you cast your gaze (or other senses), and how much magic does it allow you to see and experience?

Creating a Safe Place (In the Cards)

Today’s card draw focuses directly on inner work, requesting insight into how communication among parts of self can be fostered as well as reflection as to what’s been learned and what’s still unknown. What I’ve decided to spend some time describing and designing is a vision of my internal dwelling. I’m currently listening to bands like Skald which I’m sure is influencing my imagery.

When I’ve dipped my toes into Internal Family Systems (IFS) or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) theories and therapies, I’ve gotten stopped immediately because I cannot internalize an externally-derived “safe place.” I will immediately start having flashbacks when led through this type of visualization. I think it has to with the extent of my trauma history and the fact that I have Dissociative Identity Disorder but I’m not certain as to what the cause is. I’ve therefore given up on this practice until lately, where my attempts at drawing and artwork have encouraged me to consider whether I can create my own mapping of a place of security and safety.

To start, I know I need water as that is the element to which I am most fully drawn. High stone cliffs with crashing waves, separating me from possible threats feel appropriate. Atop the land, then, which isn’t an island but is connected to a place resplendent with both mountains and valleys, lies the place I make my inner home. It’s a humble country village, with the sound of sheep and the hustle-and-bustle of daily life lived close to the land carrying through the corridors. Smells of freshly-baked bread and locally-grown fruit permeate the air.

Each part of me has its own dwelling which reflects their needs and skill sets. Some parts are scientists, using the latest technology to deduce the best ways to proceed in any situation. Some are defenders, constantly scanning for threats from high towers and in dark alleys. Others are engaged in healing, helping wounded parts recover from their injuries. The littlest ones are the ones who hold the trauma; they have soft beds and delicious foods and gardens and trees to explore as they grow. There are teenagers who have also been through trauma. They are the source of my creativity and are provided with a studio and art supplies to make manifest their inner gifts. They also slip into the woods and forests that surround the village to draw inspiration from the animals and plants that live there. In addition, there are the nurturers, the kind parental figures that sit with those who have been traumatized and provide comfort and space to process their tortures.

This inner world would be incomplete without villains. I have parts of who represent those who have abused, neglected and betrayed me. Those who wish death upon all of us to stop the pain. Those who want to hurt us as we’ve been hurt, believing it will somehow undo the past. Parts who criticize without mercy as a way of keeping us safe from external critics. Those who desire revenge and who hate others with the same level of hatred which I’ve experienced.

I don’t think, underneath it all, that I am a bad or evil person, despite all these in-dwellers who would seem monstrous or dangerous. They are my inner mercenaries, policing both my internal and external relationships and administering “justice” to their satisfaction. They have mostly come to an armistice with the other villagers and instead are deployed in response and reaction to those in the external world who wish us harm. The image that keeps popping into my head is that of an immune system; they treat others as invaders who must be repelled at all costs.

My inner world does not take kindly to strangers and does not welcome visitors to the village. Almost all who we’ve tried to allow in only want to interact with the healers, the scientists and the nurturers, depriving us of the healthiest parts of self for their own benefit without meeting us in kind.

My inner world is good at exiling people; we cast them outside the farthest reaches of the village and act as though they no longer exist in our presence if they harm one of us. This may feel like the “silent treatment” to those on the receiving end, but, given the type of hatred of which we are capable, it is the safest method of defense we have. There is very little forgiveness between us and those who spoil their visit because they do not admit their behavior or attempt to make amends. Instead, they protest the whole journey to the wasteland, expecting us to act like one of us wasn’t harmed or that it was our fault that it occurred. We prefer to keep any who come to see us now only at the outskirts, trading wares without revealing much else. This doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that all parts are content to be entertained by each other only, so the dilemma is not yet resolved. This is the unknown.

I started this post attempting to discuss what a safe place might look like for me. It may seem that I’ve strayed from this goal but in fact an inner world without defenses is anything but safe from those who violate our boundaries. It is not possible to bond with everyone we meet or to form deep connections without a respect for each other’s inner experiences. Someone without access to or who is in denial of all parts of self is also unsafe as they will ignore their own “villagers” running rampant and causing havoc and will only focus on the defenses the other person is deploying in response. I own my shit and people keep using that as a way to avoid their share of the problem instead of taking advantage of that space to reflect on their own role in situations.

The imagery of my inner world that I’ve created is helpful to me in understanding why I can be very brave at times as well as extremely reticent and avoidant in others. To what extent do you have insight into the parts of self you possess that influence your thoughts, feelings and behaviors? How much communication exist among your parts? How do you hold space for parts with different agendas and views of the world?

Tend to Your Own House First (In the Cards)

Today’s card draw focuses on closeness and intimacy. This topic is highly charged for me right now, but I want to give it attention. One of the queries associated with the card is to consider what needs to be healed in relation to connection.

As I sit with it, what comes to mind is a desire, both inwardly and in relationship, to be taken seriously not only for my strengths as a person, but also for my limitations, scars and disabilities. I have had so many people in the last decade clamor to me because I am organized, dedicated and empathetic. They have no qualms about seeking my advice or assistance when they are struggling. However, when it comes to my weaknesses showing through, they act like spoiled children who didn’t get the extra toy they wanted, failing to give me the space and grace I need to work through my reactions on my own timetable when I feel betrayed and misused, and instead pressuring me to take care of their feelings at the cost of my own integrity.

I want to start by offering myself as much time and energy as it takes to come back whole after I’ve been treated in a faithless and harmful way, without having to justify to myself why I deserve to be treated with more care and consideration. I want people in my life who are mature enough to hold space for me–to send me the message I’m here when you are ready to talk–instead of treating me like they have an unassailable right to my friendship and loyalty. These hypothetical people look after their own internal world rather than thrusting the disemboweled contents of their inner wreckage on me the minute they are told they’ve violated my trust.

One of the most powerful stands I ever took was to tell someone who wouldn’t respect my boundaries “I know you need a friend to help you through this, I’m just not that friend.” The message I want to send in these situations is: Don’t harm me and then expect me to help you through my reaction of distancing myself from you due to your harm. Take responsibility to get yourself right just like I’m doing.

I can work with people who see me for what I am, someone who has experienced a tremendous amount of childhood trauma, who has few social resources on which they can rely, and who is doing their best with the limitations they have. I am uncompromising in my loyalty to myself; I made the choice when I was about 25 that, come hell or high water, I would never again make myself subservient to anyone, no matter the cost. I won’t ever forget the terrifying feeling of freedom that rushed through me after that decision–the self-ownership I suddenly possessed has been worth the price.

There is nothing I can do to prevent myself from feeling mistreated and betrayed; it is baked into my brain as what happens in close relationships. All I can hope for it is to continue to prove myself trustworthy to myself in treating myself with kindness when it happens, to being honest with others about my limitations, and to holding out the slightest of hopes that some people will enter my life in this new decade who are more mature and capable of meeting me where I am. What do you feel you need for healing? What is most important to you in developing closeness? Where does connection happen?

The Right Distance (In the Cards)

Today’s draw from my In an Open Hand deck invited reflection on taking a risk and considering next steps. In coming to a place of being much more deliberate in how I spend time with others, I realize that the social situations that I would most like to experience would be those that somehow combine present-moment awareness and self-contemplation alongside sturdy boundaries that lower the chances of me feeling unsafe in regards to PTSD triggers. I would say that I have one recurring group in which I participate in which I mostly experience this, but I would like more.

I spent several minutes in contemplation while writing this and what came to me is how hard I have to work to manage my interactions with others. My threat-detection system is so tightly-calibrated that it is set off by the slightest boundary incursion. Whenever it isn’t being activated, my “oh shit I said the wrong thing now they won’t be my friend anymore” self-criticism script starts running.

The entire experience feels like being boxed in on a field with lines set to buzz if crossed on all sides (into the next person’s space), and the other people and I are constantly tripping them, startling me and sending all my mental efforts towards resetting the playing field whilst everyone else seems oblivious to what is afoot.

Where I feel safest is when everyone is (figuratively) sitting in their own spot, calmly engaging from a safe distance that does not conjure feelings of abandonment or attack. Something in being fully present allows for this, but I have no idea how to create or locate this type of encounter in a setting that includes casual conversation. It likely isn’t a realistic desire either–people move about relationally and “healthy” people are able to negotiate their boundaries.

I got so angry internally at a coworker recently when I tried to explain to him why a leadership position wouldn’t work for me. He kept insisting I would be good at it, as if too much self-doubt was the reason for my resistance. My PTSD is the whole way debilitating; I feel like no one except my therapist has any g-d clue that I even have it at all no matter what I say or do.

Basically, in casual settings, I have to sacrifice any internal semblance of calmness and safety in order to make it through. I find myself fantasizing about having a group of friends where I could literally scream “trigger” whenever they set off the buzzer, and they would act in an apologetic and reassuring way and “back off” in the moment. I physically isolate myself because of how suffocated I feel in most social encounters. People aren’t pawns and I can’t move them to the distance I need, so I cast them out entirely when there are too many hits to my system.

I trigger others’ abandonment fears much more than their “you’re too close” issues because of the way I’m calibrated.* I respect their boundaries and tend to tip-toe up to any possible touch-points and (sometimes) apologize if I feel I’ve overstepped. I don’t feel badly for leaving people because I would much rather be left than invaded.

This is the inner world I know I have. I explain it to friends. I warn them about how I work. I do everything I can to educate them as to my triggers. And it is nearly always for naught as they lack either capacity or care to work with my system as it stands.

I think shifting my focus off of trying to resolve these dilemmas onto finding places where there is a natural distance held within the setting (to whatever extent these spots exist) and onto what I can offer myself is the only rational response. I cannot keep resetting the field and believing that this play will be the one that leads to perfect balance and no lines crossed. I get that exposure helps reduce the intensity of triggers for most people, but my triggers aren’t primarily fear-based so, in my case, it only makes it worse. I owe no one a g-d explanation for why my steps look side-ways or off-track when I’m simply trying to find a quiet place to sit and contemplate in peace. I think the next time I’m pressed, “I’ve explained my mental health issues to you as much as I’m willing to” is going to be my go-to. How do you hold boundaries with others? Is it harder for you when others get too close or too far? How do you find your peace?

*If you are finding yourself relating to this on one side or the other but aren’t sure what to call it, I would describe it as representing attachment styles. Complex PTSD can be related to attachment trauma. I would describe myself as having moved from a disorganized/unresolved attachment style towards an insecure-avoidant/dismissive one. I tend to attract insecure-ambivalent/preoccupied people as friends which only compounds my problems.

To Become (In the Cards)

Today’s card draw involves focusing on hopes and dreams, from a place of tender care for their fragility. As I sat with this invitation, what came to mind is a desire to create opportunities for self-reflection and self-compassion that encompass present-moment awareness. Ideally I would like these spaces to extend beyond myself, but I think experiencing them inwardly first is an initial step.

I’ve concluded in recent weeks that relationship drama pulls me away from the central source of my joy, which is my connection to the universe through my inner world. In trying to work from the outside in, I end up in situations that are unsafe for my parts, and which then force some of who I am into hiding or which cause me to feel isolated from other people. My healing has to flow from my Source, from the inner well of Spirit that I believe is available to everyone. Other people cannot reassemble me; I am my own unity.

To form and extend this indwelling of connection and clarity, I believe compassion for self as well as energy directed inward is necessary. My inner being needs its own workspace for creativity and spirituality in order to flourish, as well as a cozy den in which relaxation and downtime can occur. How much of my life have I wasted in social situations that were unfulfilling, trying to meet the needs of my parts without listening to them? How unloving and unconscious have I been in relating to others by coming from a place of scarcity and drudgery?

I exaggerate here, but right now writing this, I feel like if it takes me 99 years to come to myself whole, and I then spend my final year truly present with another, might that not show more love than expecting each other to heal our un-examined and unmet wounds without any inner work? I in no way want to make it sound like my path is everyone’s path; many people become their best selves through their relationships with others. I am harmed by attempting healing through relationship more than I am helped, and the window into myself I’ve opened has shown me another path forward. To what extent is your deepest meaning and fulfillment found in relationship with others? With your inner world? In other passions?

A Good Laugh (In the Cards)

With the start of meteorological winter, I’ve moved to the Resting and Renewal cards in my In an Open Hand deck. This suit focuses on finding softness, coziness and warmth during the chill of winter. The card I selected centered on experiences that bring laughter and joy.

Watching silly animal videos as well as humans failing at their intended actions tends to make me laugh, sometimes to the point of tears. I get frustrated that more cerebral humor only make me chuckle, but I suppose I don’t have a lot of control over what I find most humorous. A sub-genre of silly animal videos is “animals in sports stadiums” which I recently discovered; the combination of humans slipping and sliding as they attempt to wrangle the creatures who show their superior wiliness and physicality cracks me up.

I don’t consciously turn to humor as a coping mechanism or think about finding a good laugh as a way to improve a day that isn’t going well. I hope next time I’m feeling down, I will think to watch something silly. What makes you laugh the hardest? What effect does laughter have on your overall mood?

As I Am (In the Cards)

Today’s card draw was about finding my voice as well as inwardly listening. I quickly came to a truth I’ve been ignoring, which is that I am harmed when people fail to perceive my gender. Specifically, I’ve had incident after incident in recent weeks where someone who knows I’m trans uses an incorrect pronoun for me and then acts like I didn’t say anything when I spout “they” in response. I feel invisible in those situations, and the interaction brings up strong feelings related to my childhood trauma.

I feel uncertain as to which direction to go in, mostly because being more forceful will inevitability lead to me being regarded more negatively than I already am. My primary choices, if I want to possibly be heard, are to interrupt the person and tell them “please use they pronouns for me,” to try to talk to them privately afterwards, or to start wearing my pronoun pin in all social setting. None of these options appeal to me, perhaps because I want them to perceive me as I am, rather than to have to be strong-armed into “respecting” my gender.

I think what gets under my skin so badly is the fact that being trans is really hard, and, rather than my so-called friends and supporters giving a care about that fact, they are instead putting me in a position where I have to become antagonistic in order to get my needs met. I think they should be the ones putting in the effort, not me, just as I put in effort to be sensitive and conscious of how I speak to them. In ignoring my pronouns, they are in effect acting as though I’m not trans, like we can simply carry on as before.

Given that I am not likely to get very far in resolving this or any interpersonal conflict, I turn instead to what I need to offer myself to cope with environments in which, despite showing up whole, only pieces of me are welcome. My first course of action is to limit my exposure to these environments. Next, if I have to be in them, I need a recovery period in which I allow myself all the space and time I need to come back to self again, including giving voice to bitter, misanthropic and angry parts. Finally, I have to spend time reflecting on my own shadow and the areas in which I allow my privilege to silence another’s truth. If you are trans, how do you handle being misgendered by those who know better? Which types of self-care are most helpful to you?

Clearing Sky (In the Cards)

Today’s In an Open Hand card draw focuses on releasing in order to make space for self-growth and development. Sometimes, letting go requires physically discarding, donating or re-purposing items. At other times, expectations, assumptions and regrets may benefit from being mentally discharged. For today, I decided to focus on my thoughts rather than my clutter.

If I could experience my life differently, one of the main changes I would make would be in my perspective-taking. The sky of my mind zooms in to a tiny storm-cloud, ignoring the beautiful vista the rest of the view provides. When I face a stressor, I have tremendous difficulty in maintaining a stance of gratitude and acceptance. I want the threatening weather gone now, and I cannot rest until I do everything within my power to make it so. I often have the thought “what would happen if I just did nothing,” but, even for the two-raindrop clouds, I burst out the umbrella and flip the fan switch in an attempt to blow it away.

My excessive reaction is caused not because I think I’ll drown in the minuscule amount of rain, but rather because I have an incredibly hard time feeling safe and secure if there are any clouds, no matter how insignificant. The next time something bothers me, I am going to attempt to see if I can visualize it in my sky metaphor, and if perhaps that image will help me to adjust my response. What would you like to release today? How much mental energy do you waste chasing storm clouds?