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Procedural Overrides, Embodying Truth, and Measuring Health

Updated: Jun 15, 2022

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” ― J. Krishnamurti

This is a quote my best friend sent me last week. As many of us continue to grapple with grief, fear, and rage about the state of the world, we are also expected to work as though business is as usual.

But it’s not. And it never has been (especially for those of us who experience systemic oppression and marginalization directly). The past few years have just made more obvious how the undercurrents of capitalism and white supremacy shape our perception of our Selves; of our self-worth and our agency.

Trauma is Sneaky

Trauma is, by nature, fragmenting. And often sneakily so. Resmaa Menakem, somatic therapist and educator specializing in racialized trauma, explains that,

“Trauma decontextualized in a person looks like personality. Trauma decontextualized in a family looks like family traits. Trauma in a people looks like culture.”

Trauma masquerades as the air we breathe, the water we drink, the music we sing and dance to. This is true on all levels: decontextualized, our thoughts, behaviors, ways of communicating and relating, and more often reflect a great deal about how we’ve experienced the world and how we’ve learned to keep ourselves safe, physically, emotionally, or otherwise.

Procedural Learning & Overrides

We learn how to navigate the world much like we learn to tie our shoes. You make the bunny ears, one chases the other, and what have you. We might consciously repeat the instructions at first, but eventually tying our shoes becomes second nature. We can do it while we’re thinking about other things or talking to other people.

This is called procedural learning and it’s one of the beautiful ways our brains help us stay present to new information in our environment; by automating, in a sense, the things that we’re already familiar with.

So what happens when your environment is persistently unsafe (or not safe enough)? Well, if you are in touch with your need to feel safer and you feel you have the resources to change your environment or remove yourself from your environment you may very well do that.

But, if you feel less capable of protecting yourself in that manner, less capable of meeting your safety needs or getting them met, you might develop procedural patterns that override those needs.

These patterns can show up in a lot of different ways: behavioral, emotional, somatic, or otherwise. Some examples include:

  • Staying with emotions that feel safer, such as sadness instead of anger at someone or something that hurt you

  • Using substances to cope with family events

  • Overeating in isolation rather than reaching out for support

  • Overly concerned with other people's needs before your own

  • Saying yes to responsibilities you don’t have time for

  • Measuring yourself against societal expectations of success

  • Fixating on romantic relationships rather than enjoying your friend community

  • Expecting speed and quantity over quality of work from your employees

These procedural overrides often work quickly, before we’ve consciously had enough time to notice our initial feelings and impulses. Again, this is adaptive, and this can be challenging for us because we don’t have any clarity on our body’s wisdom. We might feel frustrated with our drinking habit or resentful towards others for not respecting our needs and boundaries.

In turn, I see a lot of people try to force change. However, this can result in an increase of distress and what we might perceive as a failure to do or be “better.”

Moving Slower

Somatic work is all about slowing down the frame. Like a movie on half-time or even paused so that we can investigate, curiously and compassionately. For many of us, COVID forced us to slow down and begin to notice how we have unconsciously attempted to adapt, adjust, and conform to our sick society.

I’ve seen in my own clients and friends the tension that arises when you are more clear on what you do and do not want as a part of your experience. We all want to belong; belonging is a basic safety need for us as human beings. So when we fear that what we want will strain what makes us belong it’s not uncommon to want to shrink right back up.

That’s why the context of trauma (and even the context of non-traumatic factors) is so important. If we can remember, truly, that our impulse to contract and override our authentic desires and needs is our bodies way of trying to keep us safe, we can support our bodies in learning that belonging and being ourselves are not mutually exclusive experiences. That we have our backs. That in embodying our truth, we are actively resisting the forces in society (or even in our families) that rely on our conformity. And that, to me, is a measure of health.

If you want to embody your truth and feel more confident in who you are, reach out. I've got availability for therapy and coaching. You can schedule your consultation right here.

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