For a lot of my life I struggled with not only expressing my needs but even identifying them.
For many years I believed that I didn’t have needs. Or on the rare occasion where I could identify a need of my own everyone else’s needs seemed more important.
Many years of therapy later I can see how scared I was then, to acknowledge that I have needs identified myself as a seperate individual. This made me feel vulnerable and triggered trauma. I see similiar expressions of this trauma among my female clients all the time.
I believe that we women carry the inherited trauma of enforced submission. Fear arises when we identify our individuality by asking for something we need. This makes sense in terms of our evolutionary survival needs. After all, it wasn’t that long ago when women were legally considered to be the property of their fathers or husbands. A woman was not able to earn her own living and being alone could literally be a death sentence.
The fear of aloneness and separation which arises when acknowledging or expressing personal needs is real. It is not only psychological it is also physiological.
It is crucial to acknowledge that this is inherited trauma and our reactions are based on very real physiological process because women so often get stuck in shame, blame and self-hatred around this issue and then the possibility of change is lost.
With trauma there is often the deep frustration of feeling stuck in an unchanging pattern and the self-recrimination that arises. “Why can’t I change this? Why can’t i just say no? Why am I still craving my ex’s attention? Why can’t I speak up to my husband? Why can’t I just leave that job?” and so many more varieties of the same question. Between the lines women are asking, “What is wrong with me? Why am i so weak?” Well, we are not weak, we are conditioned to behave weakly and meekly. It is not your fault that you find it hard to put yourself first, it is not your fault that you are afraid.
How we experience trauma varies hugely. Think flight, fight and freeze. Personally, when I expressed a need or did anything which acknowledged my independence, my nervous system would kick off a chain of events that sent adrenaline soaring, heart racing, breath shortening, muscles tensing, often my mind feeling foggy then spacing out totally. In this quite unconscious spaced-out state I might then act out the “tend and befriend” response to trauma, being overly nice and helpful while raging deep down.
It is a very real fear of death that arises. My life is not actually being threatened in the here and now but the part of our brain that deals with trauma does not know this. It feels like it is now.
We can not talk our brains and body out of a trauma response. Positive thinking and lots of effort can not change this. It’s not because we are not trying hard enough. In fact, most women I know try far too hard and are far too hard on themselves.
We need to acknowledge the depth of fear we feel and rather than feeling the fear, doing it anyway. We need to slow down, find ways to feel safe enough and take baby steps that we can integrate and learn from. Slowing down allows us to be present and to notice what is going on inside. Only then we can find ways to support our emergent feelings of safety. This could be anything that helps the nervous system to move into a calm and restful mode, which makes it possible to feel strong and well before communicating our need or whatever it is that is triggering the fear.
Taking the time to list all the things that help us feel safe can be a great place to start—it might be holding a particular object, talking to a friend, going to a certain spot in the garden, singing, dancing, drawing, writing, breathing, doing maths, counting…the list of possibilities is endless.
Silence and movement have been my biggest allies for me and being present to the beauty of nature immediately settles my nervous system. Finding what works for you and giving yourself those things may be a source of great joy and nourishment and provide the resiliency needed to heal trauma.
We are changing our brains here, letting the neurons develop new pathways. It won’t happen overnight. We need to be patient with ourselves and learn to celebrate the small but crucial changes. This way lasting change is possible.
Change for ourselves, our children, our communities and beyond.
Author: Gwen Mc Hale
Editor: Katarina Tavčar
Photo: Charles Harry Mackenzie/Flickr