Finding Safety Amidst the Fear
By Melissa Zehner, LPC, Professional Psychotherapist, and Mindful-Meditation Practitioner
“Fundamentally, knowing and accepting another person actually means being able to tolerate your own reactions, with a mindful attitude, without believing you have the final truth or the inside knowledge about the other person. This is why loving always entails a measure of modesty- a not knowing or uncertainty-about your perceptions of both yourself and your partner.”
Think of someone in your life whom you love and get along with reasonably well but then there’s this side, this abrasive side of the person that annoys you, angers you, repels you. Perhaps you find yourself repeatedly taking breaks from this relationship because something (usually obtuse) has unnerved you, and since you can’t exactly speak to it, you must move away, be free of it. You sense that this other person feels the same ambiguous and unspoken resentment and is also avoiding the relationship. Of course, you can’t be sure of this since it’s an argument that never actually happened, at least not outwardly. Inevitably time passes, these abstract and unpleasant feelings settle as you remember the parts of this person you love and appreciate, so you move on as if nothing ever happened. Because remember there was no real argument, there was no specific offense- just a tone- an ambivalent relational space where hurt feelings and judgment went swirling around- all unnamed. How do you even begin to explain to one another what transpired, now that so much time has passed? Of course, you cannot so you begin again… until the next time.
Now dial that up about a gazillion notches, after a year (plus) of living through a Pandemic- the social withdrawal, the isolation, and the enormously difficult dilemmas that we have been faced concerning our relationships and the numerous opportunities to feel misaligned with one another. How are those relationships (like the one above) faring now? The problem, when we don’t talk about what’s going on inside ourselves and between one other, is that we start to fill in the blanks with our own narrative. And that narrative comes with a particular motive, which is, to craft the story- through whatever means necessary- in a way that rids ourselves of the blame. It’s not me who has a problem, it is she. What I’m describing here, of course, is a psychological defense called projection, which gets deployed when an unconscious feeling, thought, or impulse (usually of the guilt, shame, disappointment, humiliation, jealousy, insecurity variety) gets casted off onto another. I don’t like the discomfort I feel around you, so let me craft a story that paints you as the villain and me the heroine who rises above that offense or me the victim who is subjugated by your domination. Let’s face it, it’s easier to get upset with another than to deal with the difficult emotion within. Anger ignites us and blame frees us from having to deal with our own pitfalls.
Projection is commonly employed to ward off fear, especially fear of the unknown. Fear ignites our autonomic nervous system, preparing us to shut down, freeze, or fight for our lives. Take careful notice of the term I used here: the “autonomic” nervous system, meaning it is automatic- the body primes itself for this physiological defense outside of conscious awareness. When the environment (or a person) is perceived as safe then the body opens towards this experience; literally opens, the muscle tone in the face softens, breath and heart rate are modulated, speech pattern is rich with intonation and the gut is nice and relaxed. With a perceived sense of safety, we feel connected to others, we are able to trust, willing to try new things, able to feel loved, and to be at ease. When instead threat is detected the body then primes for defense; the breath shortens, heart rate quickens, the gaze is lowered, tension is held in the face, and tone of voice drops and becomes more monotone. When a threat is detected, we detach from others (and in some instances, from the world), we are unable to trust, and we remain in a heightened stance of vigilance. Strong emotions naturally accompany both stances of safety and defense. We then interpret these emotions through a story we tell ourselves about the way we are feeling. This narrative is not necessarily logical nor reliable, just as our psychological projections are not.
The social constraints imposed on us from this pandemic have pushed people farther inward and that which is disowned and unknown to self grows, like the monster under the bed in a child's room at night. It grows and grows and grows. Inside our minds festering in rationalizing thought, burning rage in our chests and fear in the pith of our stomachs. Rather than deal with the terror that lies within, more commonly people choose to find someone other to blame and to unleash their fear-spawned emotions onto. I get it, rage is mobilizing. It’s a good thing in some respects. It’s what helps to ignite that autonomic nervous system so that we act against the threat. So, it feels good to get angry, naturally. Makes us feel like we have agency, like we are doing something, and unburdens us from some of these charged emotions that we unleash onto another. But what we, in turn, end up doing, when we can’t harbor our own emotions inside and when we by necessity have to distance ourselves from our emotions by labeling them as right/wrong, good/bad, your fault/not mine, then we end up making the world that much more unsafe. When we don’t have the emotional capacity to deal with our own fear, then we continue to perpetuate threats in our social environment as opposed to fostering safety.
Over the past year, we have become more attached to our words and ideologies than to one another and this is a biophysiological problem for our species. As a result of this person-to-person detachment, many have found trap doors to stumble through in the dark atmospheres of social media. Let’s be clear, there is nothing social about this form of media; it is the root of so much illness, so much disconnection, so much derealization (A mental state where one feels detached from one’s surroundings and other people seem unreal). It’s a mental state that presents across many different mental illnesses, one, in particular, is PTSD. We are living in a culture of rampant PTSD caused by direct and indirect violence along with the perpetual fear that danger could be lurking around any corner. Why do people need guns? Because they feel unsafe. Worse yet, when this internal state of fear goes unrecognized and projected outward onto another or a group of otherness, then we’ve got a real problem on our hands. With every mass shooter, the conclusion drawn is he had a mental illness but the more accurate conclusion is that we have a mental illness and it’s this very lack of safety and sense of belonging, this derealization that is permeating our society. We may have different responses to this perceived threat (i.e., the loss of connection) but none the less we all feel it and in some way, we’re all responding to the extreme disconnection we’ve been experiencing this past year of Pandemic life. Many have taken to social media as a way to unload their pent-up anger and frustration. The opposing sides of almost every topic go at it, debating their intellectualized arguments, forming iron-casted judgments about the other, reaffirming their biases, and exiting the screen feeling more frustrated, more isolated, and fuller of rage than before. You may think you’re putting in the good fight here by arguing for your side but what you’re actually doing is further alienating the vulnerable and making us all the more unsafe.
If we want to create a world around us that fosters safety, if we want to be less defended and more open and connected to one another, (and I believe we all do, even if we have different ideas on what safety looks like), then we need to do our part in extending our compassionate care to others. We can add to the wellbeing of our society or we can add to its decay. Which side do you want to be on here? Forget your lawn signs for a moment, forget your deeply held beliefs and get deep down in your gut, and tell me, which side do you really want to be on here. We all want to be rid of COVID and these unhealthy restraints its imposed, we all want to go to the grocery store or send our kids off to school without the fear that we or they could be gunned down, we all want less hate in our hearts, we all want more safety in this vulnerable human landscape. I believe this fervently. We just disagree on how to get there. There is a practice in family therapy called externalizing the problem. It’s used to help the family members unite around the problem. The problem isn’t you; it isn’t me, it’s “communication,” it’s “money problems,” it’s “too much stress…” In the case of our society, it’s biased media, it’s coronavirus, it’s a broken economy, it’s an outdated story of good vs evil, it’s fear, it’s the unknown, it’s the fundamental lack of safety in this country. The denial of this vulnerability, the shutting down, the keeping out, and the casting off onto others gets in the way of our mending these wounds and loving one another most freely. For within these defenses, we are shackled down, limiting the full range of lived experience that is possible in this life.
In many ways, we have lost control in our lives as a result of the Pandemic and the safety protocols to manage the spread. Loss of control naturally provokes fear. When someone is grappling with the fear of losing control you don’t puncture that carefully guarded vulnerability with angry intellectual arguments. Instead, you help to establish safety. Like a mama comforting her child; you soften your voice, slowing it down, using prosody while holding gentle but firming eye contact. You offer a warming hand to hold or a steady rub of concentric circles on the back. You help to steady their breath by demonstrating slow and steady breaths of our own. You say, “I’m here,” “I’ve got you.” This is called *coregulation. You see, we synchronize our bodies’ autonomic nervous systems in this way. Or we synchronize them with threat, arming ourselves with weapons and hateful words. Causing our shoulders to rise, our voices to drop low and monotone, our eyes to disengage, as our breath quickens and our hearts race and we drop down to lower functioning limbic brain operation where there is no compassion, only rage full emotions that prime us for war.
So, I ask you, how might everything change if we roamed through this life looking through the shared lens of vulnerability- like seeing the Emperor without his clothes- this vulnerable nakedness in every human? What if we came to know ourselves as all so simply vulnerable? Might we feel just a little bit safer, a bit more seen and understood, and how about more sincere and honest, and ever more capable of love. When you feel this kind of spaciousness inside, you will know you have found that place of safety within yourself and between you and the outer world. It’s not a place where words have much resonance, rather it's a deeply felt physiological experience. When we feel safe, we move outward, non-violently. And instead of hate, we see in others, their fear. What follows with this softening is the ability to shift from a position of blame and judgment to one of shared vulnerability. COVID can teach us to be gentler with one another. This experience, this global tragedy can make us all tune in rather than shut down, becoming deeply aware and present with what is most important. Turn toward the pain, know it’s there and honor it. Be patient with your suffering. Know that we are all suffering in some way here. Drop the labels, own your fear and let’s begin to get deeply curious about what lies beneath one another’s defense, seeing into this primordial fear… we are all connected here.
*In his Polyvagal Theory (1995), Stephen Porges proposes that through a process of social engagement (using social cues like tone of voice and eye contact) we can attune the body’s autonomic nervous system between people (coregulation) and together move from a state of threat and defense towards a shared state of safety.