One of the unexpected things about the nervous system approach to healing is how is affects our family.
Despite meditating for years before I found the nervous system approach… despite gratitude lists, journaling, life coaching, breath work and even therapy…
…I never really had issues with my family.
I mean, the issues were always there… but they were unexamined. Unackowledged. Unconscious.
I didn’t yet have the awareness to see the dysfunctional and abusive patterns of behaviour.
Then I discovered the nervous system work and started feeling the ground. I learned to orient to the safety in my environment and track my breath without changing it. I finally discovered what means to be IN my body.
Simple techniques, right?
How could something as basic as looking around and feeling the ground affect our family?
As I’ve said before, these techniques are very easy to underestimate and misunderstand… but if you really commit yourself to this process, not simply to practicing once or twice but going all in, you might be surprised by what happens as a result.
That brings me to the topic of today’s Weekly Growl:
Sometimes We Have To Break Up With Our Family 😳
It took almost 2 years from when I started the nervous system work with myself before I realized that I needed to break contact with one of my parents.
When I first started the nervous system work, I felt great (for the most part).
It was easier to get out of my head.
I slept better.
I was more motivated, especially with things that I cared about.
I made better choices with the food I ate… and I had a newfound FELT sense of what I wanted to do with my life.
But I paid for all of these benefits with increased awareness.
Increased awareness of myself. My body and mind. My emotions and sensations. And of course, an increased awareness of the dynamics at play in all of my relationships.
Sometimes, these dynamics were beautiful, healthy and desired…
…but other times, these dynamics were toxic and abusive.
To give you one example:
In 2020, I got caught up with some very abusive coaches who manipulated and gaslit the f out of me. It took me a few months to work what had happened. When I did, I was stunned.
I considered myself a fairly rational and reasonable guy. I thought I could spot bullshit from a mile off.
But I couldn’t.
I eventually extracted myself out of that situation with the coaches (and I even wrote an article about the experience)… but for a long time afterwards, I wondered:
How the hell did THAT happen? How did I fall for that bullshit?
It was so obvious looking back…
…but I completely missed it at the time.
I threw myself into the nervous system work, hoping for answers as my awareness grew.
I read books about mind control and cults (affiliate link) and how spiritual gurus manipulate and abuse their followers.
I talked it over and over (and OVER) with close friends.
I binged watched videos on YouTube about narcisstistic abuse.
I even took a Udemy course on how to block and repel a manipulator’s tactics.
But while all that helped me understand some of the dynamics that I’d missed, it still didn’t feel like the ultimate answer.
I felt more empowered to detect this kind of bullshit in the future… but I didn’t yet feel like I’d gotten to the bottom of it.
Later, due to Covid-19 lockdowns and whatnot, I ended up spending time at my Dad’s place… and that’s when it all clicked into place.
I fell for the gaslighting and manipulation with those coaches in Thailand because my Dad deployed similar strategies with me… both in my childhood (when my nervous system wiring was being formed) AND in his dealings with me today.
He was more subtle about it than the coaches from Thailand and possibly less aware that he was doing it, but if I paid attention, it was there.
It wasn’t just that I could see it after reading all those books.
As a result of the nervous system work, I could feel it in my body.
Yes. When you’re in your body, you will FEEL it when someone tries to manipulate you. There might be a pit in your stomach. Maybe some fear. Often some shame. And as your fight response comes online, definitely some aggression (in response to a crossed boundary).
If you’ve never been through this type of thing before, one of the typical things for a manipulator to say (in response to being called out on something)…
It’s not that big of a deal. I don’t get what you’re so upset about.
Why are you being so fussy or nitpicky? I’m not THAT bad.
But I’ve done so much for you. You’re so ungrateful.
I bring this up in case those thoughts come into your mind right now.
Emotional abuse is perhaps less severe than physical or sexual abuse but it’s still toxic and it still creates enormous problems in people who get abused in this way.
When we point something out to our parents (or someone in our life) that we’re unhappy about and they reply with one of these lines, the hidden message is:
You’re wrong to feel that way.
Your authenticity is wrong (and not wanted). I only want/love you if you hide those parts of yourself that make me uncomfortable.
If you’re unhappy with something I said or did, that’s YOUR fault. Not mine. I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m blameless. You’re the one with the blame. You fucked up. Something’s wrong with YOU for thinking or feeling that way.
On the surface level, this might seem like it’s no big deal…
…but to a child who NEEDS their parent or caregiver for survival, it’s disastrous.
“… so the child gets the message that ‘little kids who get angry aren’t good, they are unacceptable to the parent”, well guess what? If that message is driven home powerfully enough, the child will repress the anger in order to maintain the attachment relationship. Pure adaptation. But in the long term that repression of the authentic self is what leads to disease. The child, when it comes to attachment vs authenticity has absolutely no choice in the
matter. It will choose attachment.”
Faced with a choice between love and authenticity, children automatically choose love/attachment even if it means shutting down their authenticity.
It’s too terrifying to a young one’s nervous system to think that their parents are wrong so it defaults to believing itself is wrong.
That something is broken with itself.
Are you starting to see why this is such a big deal?
As children, we internalise the messages our parents and caregivers give us… and emotional abuse sends the message that something is wrong with us. Something is broken. To use one of my teacher’s phrases, we come to believe that we are “bad meat”.
This behaviour from our parents and caregivers starts to feel normal. Instead of it feeling dangerous and unsafe, it feels normal and safe.
Then later in life, we wonder why we keep ending up in relationships with abusive people.
Why do we miss the signs?
Why do we keep falling for the same bullshit, over and over again?
Why do we feel so stupid?
But here’s the thing:
We’re not stupid.
We just have a faulty map of what’s dangerous and what’s safe… most often due to the people who raised us (parents or caregivers).
We also have a bunch of bullshit beliefs about ourselves, internalised messages from our parents and caregivers, all tied in with feelings that were suppressed during our childhood to maintain attachment with our parents.
Is this making sense?
That brings me back to my Dad.
As I started to see these dysfunctional patterns of behaviour in our relationship (including how toxic and unhelpful they were), I started to speak up and point them out.
He did NOT like that.
Because parents and caregivers don’t enact these strategies for no reason. They don’t manipulate and abuse simply for shits and giggles.
They do it because their afraid to feel their own shit.
For example, if we call someone out on something, the natural response is for them to feel some healthy shame and a sense of “oh I fucked up, I’m sorry”.
But some people (parents, caregivers and anyone really) are terrified of feeling even a drop of healthy shame because it triggers their own unresolved sense of toxic shame from their own childhood.
So in a desperate attempt to avoid feeling their own unresolved feelings, they guilt trip and gaslight their kids and the people around them.
Remember what I said earlier.
They say or mean something like this:
If you’re unhappy with something I said or did, that’s YOUR fault. Not mine. I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m blameless. You’re the one with the blame. You fucked up.
In other words…
They shift the blame… from themselves to the child / other person.
Lacking awareness, the kid ends up feeling the shame and guilt instead of the parent.
It’s all unconscious of course.
I don’t think most parents are aware they’re even doing this. They believe their own bullshit because of course, if they didn’t believe it, it wouldn’t be an effective strategy to suppress their own emotions.
This is why parents and caregivers don’t take so kindly to these things being point out to them. Because when we point them out, the strategies lose their effectiveness at suppressing negative emotions… and the last thing people who behave like this want is to feel their emotions.
It’s why, when I started pointing these things out to my Dad, instead of understanding, he told me to…
Grow up, be a man and FUCK OFF.
That’s why sometimes we have to break up with our parents.
Because they’re not usually ready to let go of their abusive patterns of behaviour.
They want to continue their guilt tripping and gaslighting and manipulation because they’re not ready to face and feel all their unresolved shit from the past.
But if they don’t change and they continue to deploy the same bullshit, it makes it difficult for us to change too, especially if we see them regularly.
But if we don’t change and do the hard work of feeling and healing, we’ll enact the same strategies with our kids and with the people around us.
On and on it goes, down the generations, until someone says “ENOUGH!”
Healing all comes back to safety.
Our nervous system needs to relax and open up if we are to truly heal from our past… but it generally won’t open up until it feels safe… and it won’t feel safe until we get the manipulative, abusive people out of our lives.
Otherwise, the old patterns just keep getting triggered, repeated and programmed.
The moral of the story?
First, this work is NOT for the faint of heart.
Like I said at the beginning of this email, I meditated for 10 years before I found the nervous system approach to healing. I did all the things. Gratitude lists, journaling, life coaching, breath work and even therapy.
But it wasn’t until I went all in on the nervous system work that I was brought face-to-face with the dysfunction and abusive behaviours in my family.
Once you see the dysfunction and abuse, it’s hard to unsee it.
And once you see it, it becomes far costlier to simply put up with it… because now you can’t just suppress it (thanks to your newfound ability to be IN your body).
So it might seem like a simple thing – this feeling the ground and looking the ground and working with your nervous system – but the changes it can lead to in one’s life (especially with our relationships) can be huge and heartbreaking.
Second, a deep sense of FELT safety is critical to this process of healing.
That doesn’t mean you have to cut people out of your life (whether your parents or an abusive partner)… but it does mean you need to start prioritising safety.
If you don’t – if you continue to put yourself in situations where you feel unsafe – you may find it difficult to do the work of nervous system healing.
If you want to know about this topic, read this article by my friend Seth Lyon:
P.S. As always, consider this email your weekly reminder to rage.
If you’re a member of The Rageheart Academy and you’re feeling an impulse, do another rage today.
If you’re not a member yet, take the ideas in this email and implement. Look around, feel the ground and notice your breath. It sounds simple and it’s easy to underestimate it… but if you practice it and get good it at this simple practice, it will open up worlds in you that you didn’t know existed.
As always, be safe… and take as many breaks as needed.
Every drop counts… even the tiny ones 💪