Individuals in recovery have generally spent a lot of time avoiding their painful, shameful, or fearful reality. Using chemicals, relationships, busyness, spending, eating, not eating, fantasy, gambling, sex, etc. to escape reality.
What is your reality anyway?
As a baby, your brain was in a receptive mode and you downloaded and duplicated everything around you. As you grew up, you kept imprinting within you, all of the thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and things that happened and you became you.
From Pia Mellody’s Model of Developmental Immaturity, we learn that this programming creates a belief system. You interpret everything that you perceive through your own belief system, particularly as you interact with others. That’s why people frequently disagree about a shared experience. For example, let’s say that Jason had a disagreement with his sister while they were at a social event and shared about it with several friends. Sara identifies with Jason’s sister, feels empathy, and defends her. Jennifer is reminded of being embarrassed by her mother in public and feels pain and shame. Mark feels annoyed about the very topic of conversation and thinks about something else. Everyone has his or her own reality.
In emotional recovery work, it is extremely helpful to understand your reality and how to work with it. First, your reality is your experience in the present moment and includes your body, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Think of a recent time when you felt reactive in an interaction with someone and experienced some strong feelings come up. Now, breathe, take a moment, and fully experience the sensations in your body. Those sensations inform you about your feelings. Identify what the feelings are. Is it pain, hurt or sadness, or is it fear or anger? If you are not used to identifying your feelings, it can take some practice. Truthfully, your feelings are generated by the thought you had. When you are reactive, it’s hard to think straight and it can take some time to identify what the actual thought was, or where in your history it originated.
The most helpful way to think about this is with curiosity and owning it rather than judging yourself or blaming someone else. You are in a disempowered victim mode when you blame someone else for your reaction and that keeps you stuck. When you own that your reaction came from your own programming, then you are empowered to understand yourself better and can change.
So how do we do that? How do we change our reactivity, our thoughts, and feelings, and why go through the trouble?
Scott Peck wrote, “Mental health is staying in REALITY at all costs.” You’ve had those experiences when you are fully present, connected with yourself, aware of your senses, and feeling alive. Joy, passion, love, and the sense of connection with yourself are present moment experiences. You miss out on life when you are not present. Everyone checks/spaces-out at times; it is the human condition. However, the more present you are, the happier and healthier you will be.
Here are the steps to working with your reality when you are triggered or become reactive:
- Take slow deep breaths and be curious about what you are experiencing and why it is coming up.
- Notice and describe to yourself the sensations you are feeling in your body and identify the emotional feeling word or words that fit. (Hurt, fear, anger, irritation, shame, guilt, for example.)
- Stay present and curious about the feelings or issues that are underneath the surface feelings. It could be abandonment, feeling threatened or unsafe, used or manipulated, blamed, shame, guilt, or a memory of an incident from your past. You could discuss this with a therapist.
- When appropriate, you can own your own experience in the present moment and share it with that person you were reactive to by using your talking boundary. For example, in the previous story, Jennifer becomes very quiet and moody. She might share with Jason, “When I heard you say that your sister made a scene at the family dinner, what came up for me was a time when my mother was embarrassingly loud and rude in public and I’m feeling some shame and pain.” In sharing her reality in this manner, Jennifer’s friends will understand her better and she will likely have a sense of relief from the pain and shame.
Only do this when you feel like a functional adult. Listen to the other person’s reality. Be open to getting to know them and to learn about yourself.
Practicing this will likely bring insight as to how the programming in your brain hijacked the situation and gave you a distorted reality. That insight creates a new reality, even a new neuropathway in your brain. This practice begins to create a new, healthier, happier reality, which makes it easier for you to be present. So who needs reality? We all do.
By Nancy Minister, MA, Workshop Facilitator for Rio Retreat Center at The Meadows