I’m fourteen years old. I’m performing on stage at The Centre In The Square, the big, fancy concert hall in my hometown of Kitchener Ontario. This is where the symphony plays, and sometimes rock bands play here. My dad once took me to The Centre In The Square to see Bruce Cockburn. Now I’m performing here along with about 30 other teenagers. We’ve just been through a two-week performing-arts summer program. Our performance is a series of vignettes, and I have a starring role in one of them. I have roller skates on and I’m about to wow the audience with a solo piece of roller skating artistry amidst clouds of dry ice pouring across the stage. Backwards, sideways, spins, tipping my wheels, I can really roller skate and I’ve been counting the days until this moment where I can let my talent shine. The crowd is smaller than I’d hoped for, maybe a quarter of the hall is filled, but it’s still the largest crowd I’ve ever performed in front of and the largest hall I’ve ever performed in. I’m determined to dazzle.
When we open to others to share precious parts of ourselves, we are most vulnerable to feeling shame and going into a freeze or dissociated state. When we take the risk to open or expand and shine brighter, we need a heartfelt presence that reaches back and knows how to help us integrate our expansion, whether or not it goes well. We need to lean into a trusted person who can resonate with us and reflect our experience back to us, particularly our emotions and needs. When we receive this response to our opening or expanded expressions, we build neuropathways of self-compassion and self-regulation for the more intense feelings that come with success or from disappointment. And, when things don’t go as we’d hoped, we integrate and learn from our experiences rather than beat ourselves up, go into shame, or dissociate and become depressed or numb.
When we don’t receive resonant reflection (resonant meaning that the responder can stay present and attuned to our level of emotion, responding with tenderness when we are sad and disappointed or with more energy when we are excited or angry), we don’t fully integrate our experience and may be left with fears of opening more fully and fears of expressing our talents. We will likely form limiting beliefs about ourselves, especially if the sharing was big and/or if the response was judgemental or neglected or if it’s a recurring experience. Without a resonant, empathic response, the stress of these experiences can be great enough to shut down the hippocampus-the part of the brain that connects the different pieces of our experience and makes explicit memories of them. If we don’t store an explicit memory of an experience, then we will continue having implicit responses each time we find ourselves in a similar situation: without any conscious recall we will have the emotions and the bodily actions and sensations we had during the original stressful or traumatic experience.
I skate out onto the stage, go into my first move, and almost fall. What is happening? Instead of doing a graceful, athletic, very cool move, I flail with my arms to keep from landing flat on my back. I regain my balance and try to continue but again I slip and almost crash. I don’t understand what’s happening until I look down at the laces on my roller skates. The laces on one of my skates have come undone and are getting caught in the wheels. I’m coming undone on stage in front of my community and getting caught in a flood of building emotion. I finish as best I can. I know I didn’t wow a single person and I’m devastated. I’m sure that everyone in the audience is wondering why I was chosen for this part. I want to disappear into a cave under the stage.
I don’t remember much of what happened after my performance (or during my performance, for that matter) except a vague sense of trying to hold back my huge feelings of devastation because I didn’t want to be laughed at for crying, especially because there were at least three girls in the program that I liked. There is a vague memory of someone trying to console me, most likely with me trying to not to take it in because I would burst open crying if I did. Too much stress. So long hippocampus.
I didn’t think much about this event or other flops I’d experienced for a long time. When I did think about them, I didn’t consider them to be that important and probably laughed about them, until I began learning about the brain and nervous system and started paying closer attention to my body while in front of groups. I can still see the humour, but I have much more appreciation now for how intense those experiences were and how much they have affected who I’ve become.
These days I find myself in front of groups on a regular basis, either facilitating workshops, or playing my music, or, once in a blue moon, reading my poetry. Slowly, but slowly, I’m getting more relaxed in front of groups. I used to get what felt like an electric shock through my chest just thinking about being in front of a group. Now the muscles around my mouth will often quiver at the beginning of a workshop and my chest will be a little tense, maybe my throat will be tight too. These are signs that I am likely still having an implicit response because the context is similar enough to the Centre in the Square event and others like it. I’ve done some deep empathy work on these experiences and I give myself empathy in the moment or ask for it from the group, and I believe that is why the implicit response is getting less and less intense.
Yes, by putting one foot of our attention in the past, in the implicit, and keeping one foot of our attention in the present, in the middle prefrontal cortex, it is never too late to give ourselves the empathy we didn’t get during traumatic events and allow the hippocampus to finally file the memory in its proper place in time.
Heart Sculptor, where is the mold
For the parts that got left behind
The parts that don’t know
That we’re time travelers
Rescuing these parts from the past is the work I’m passionate about and love to do for myself and with others. My dear friend Sarah Peyton, who has taught me so much about the science and the process of this work, will be co-facilitating a 9-month program-Expanding Our Windows-with me beginning next fall. We are also co-facilitating a Five Day Retreat on Bowen Island in August-Restoring the Soul (although there are only a couple of spots left for that retreat), and we are offering a weekend workshop specifically for healing our creative selves (there are several spaces still available for that workshop, no one will be turned away from that workshop due to lack of funds).