Embodying your truth is not a passive thing. In fact, it demands a great deal of active imagination and audacity.
On a nervous system level, asserting who you are with confidence literally requires sympathetic (“fight-or-flight”) activation.
The Importance of Fight-or-Flight
Now, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Fight-or-flight is how the sympathetic nervous mobilizes the body in times of distress. But we also need sympathetic activation to do things like get up in the morning, play with our pets and kids, and keep our homes clean.
Sympathetic activation is a natural and normal part of being human. There’s just a significant difference between the sympathetic energy activated to sustain us and the sympathetic energy activated to protect us in a critical moment.
Ideally, the sympathetic and parasympathetic (“rest-and-digest”) nervous systems work to keep the body in a state of equilibrium. In distress, the sympathetic nervous system will dominate. In a resourced state, the parasympathetic nervous system is also active, namely the ventral vagal component of the parasympathetic nervous system (which has been referred to as “safe-and-social” mode).
Connection is Protection
This ventral vagus state is innate, and ideally something that is enriched early on in our lives through connection with our caregivers, who soothe and protect us. While western psychology tends to focus on the strength of this child-caregiver dynamic, our ventral vagal tone (strength) is also influenced by things outside of our caregivers control. This includes things like the level of health or illness in our families, the degree of community violence, or on the flip side the degree of community cohesiveness, the impact of local and federal policies, and more.
This all impacts how our bodies experience and manage sympathetic activation and whether we have access to this ventral vagus/”safe-and-social” mode. In other words, whether we can harness and shape our sympathetic activation, or whether we are hijacked by it.
While this is sometimes a conscious process, somatic-emotional mechanisms of Self-protection also work to streamline our responses. So for some circumstances in which our bodies are overwhelmed by sympathetic activation, we might feel all the alarm systems in our body going off, while in other circumstances, our bodies are so adept at protecting us that they may skip the activation stage all together and just shut the fuck down. This is the dorsal vagal response, where we essentially protect ourselves by doing the very least. Keep the heart pumping, keep breathing. Stay out of the way.
The Impact Across the Lifespan
When we lack protected/sacred space (whether in our families, in our communities, or in our schools, etc.) to explore sympathetic activation (this includes play, expression, creativity, as well as anxiety, fear, etc.) in a safe way, we will struggle to discern discomfort from danger. We might learn that we cannot trust ourselves. That we cannot be ourselves. We might internalize what’s wrong in our environments as what’s wrong with us.
Especially as children, we don’t have the capacity to automatically understand the context of our environments. This includes the emotional reactions of others, for whom we might be simultaneously overwhelmed by and reliant on. There is much less space for us to imagine, play, and create, because it becomes necessary for us to anticipate and manage our environmental circumstances.
As we develop, the effort we have to put into blending in or appeasing others might cause us to (consciously or unconsciously) withhold how much of ourSelves we share with others. This can manifest in shame, avoidance, and shrinking ourselves, but it might also drive us to overcompensate, pretend, or control.
Although there is a lot of effort involved in not being ourselves, it can also be deep-rooted and habitualized. So when we decide (or at least try) to be ourselves, our full selves, and nothing but ourselves, it somehow feels like way more work. Although we are working to own our essence, we also have to imagine that it is possible. We have to actively create what we want. We have to accept the fact that not everyone will support us unconditionally. And we have to stay present with it until it feels more natural.
The Audacity to Be Yourself
We deserve support in this. We need community, peers who are on the same journey. We might need mentorship from others who are farther along on the path. We really need policies, community practices, and educational spaces that encourage Self expression. And - I’m biased here - we can also benefit from professional support.
What I love so much about Somatics and Parts Work is how helpful it is in uncovering the parts who have been exiled - shamed, hidden, deemed unhelpful - and understanding the parts who protect and manage our lives. When we can do these things we can feel less shame and subsequently less need to split or hide aspects of our Self.
Healing is not about fixing. It is about integrating all the parts of you under the umbrella of Self. It is about making space for those exiled parts to have the life they always dreamed of in childhood. It is about locating clarity in who you are so that you can navigate the world from that place.