The Body Knows What the Body Knows

The Body Knows What the Body Knows

I wonder how Pavlov’s dogs felt? Did they know he was messing with them? Did they know the limitations of their own brains? While I think we often underestimate the capacities of canines, it is safe to say Pavlov’s dogs did not spend much time examining their motives. They just loved Pavlov and their keepers, as dogs are inclined to do.

When animals in the wild are traumatized, their responses are predictable. They enter a state of hyperarousal, followed by constriction, or hypervigilance, followed by either fight, flight or freeze, depending on their instinctual response. If the response is to freeze, there will be dissociation and helplessness. When the entire threat has dissipated, there is a visible discharge of energy, as the animal will shiver and shake, literally shaking off the trauma. Life goes on, and the animal is not in need of therapy.

Not so we humans. Because we have a reptilian brain (instinct), a mammalian brain (emotions,) and a neo-cortex (rational thought,) our responses to trauma are far more complex. If we experience trauma and are able to go through all of the animal stages of response, life goes on and we are relatively unscathed. But if we are not able to discharge that energy, trouble brews. The energy stays in our bodies and our bodies conclude we are still in danger.

During the summer months I often encounter rattlesnakes when I am out mountain biking. It is always fascinating how quickly my body responds to the danger. I stop the bike on a dime, or swerve around the snake, or lift my feet and ride right over top of the snake, whatever is called for. But after it is all done, I frequently tremble and shake. I get off the bike and shake my arms and legs, ridding myself of all that adrenaline.

I wish it was that easy when it comes to the weeks and months after I came out as transgender. When I learned I was being virtually expelled from the religious fellowship in which I served, I cried and paced and went for long runs. But I couldn’t risk fighting back, for reasons that do not need to be rehashed in this post.  My response had to be measured, which was not helpful in discharging the energy that had built up. That was not good for what Mary Oliver would call, “the soft animal of your body.”

My post-transition trauma came back last week in the form of post-traumatic stress.  Since my TEDx talk began increasing in views (it’s at about 180k now) there have been a lot of positive and negative comments on YouTube. No one likes to read negative comments about themselves, but all in all, it hasn’t been too bad. But here’s the thing. I have no unresolved trauma with those people.  Therefore the negative comments have little effect on me.

On the other hand, a number of people from my former world had comments about last week’s post. I posted and answered one thoughtful question from a kind and gentle man I greatly respect. But the other comments triggered me. You do not see them in the comments section because I do not publish comments that are not respectfully presented.

I was surprised I was triggered by the comments, but there was no denying the truth. I began shaking. Our bodies tell us when there is unresolved trauma. I realized these were people who can still wound me because I was never able to fully discharge the energy generated by my trauma when I was expelled from my religious tribe. So what did I do?

First, I acknowledged I was triggered. The level of my response was not connected to any current reality. It was rooted in the past. Second, I named the reality. I was responding to a time when that community had my wellbeing in its hands. That is not my current reality. Third, I allowed myself to feel all the emotions my body was feeling. I let the feelings run through me, not frightened of them. When they had run their course, I did something compassionate for myself. I called my two co-pastors at Left Hand Church and talked about the good work we are doing together.

All of us have experienced trauma. Life dishes it out to a greater or lesser degree to every last one of us. Allowing our bodies to work through that trauma is a critically important part of emotional and physical healing. Stuffing your feelings does not work. We do not get to consciously choose the moments in which we are triggered, or what it is that triggers us. But we do get to choose how we will respond.

( By the way, this blog has not only had comments coming from my former tribe. I am getting an inordinate number from the alt right in reaction to my TEDx talk being included in a media occurrence back east. So for the moment I am not allowing comments on any pages of my blog. Phone numbers have also been removed from the website.  Sorry. Things should get back to normal soon.)


Knowing What You Know

Knowing What You Know

Far too often the American conservative church has not been very helpful when it comes to teaching people how to be adults. Let me explain.

When you are a child you do not have an internal locus of control. Your primary caretaker, most often your mother, is God, and is in control of your entire universe. Her face reflects what it means to be human. Her touch brings safety and assurance. Eventually she brings self-assurance to you, as you begin to discern you are a separate being. That self-assurance is tenuous without three basic elements in place.

First, your parents must be able to set aside their own needs to focus on yours. Second, they must make sure you feel safe. Third, they must provide you with a sense of self-worth. These are the basic building blocks of a healthy ego. But note that the locus of control remains external. Someone else is in charge of your life.

One of the main jobs of parents is to lead their children to mature adulthood. That means teaching them to accept responsibility for their own actions. It means teaching them the necessity of honesty in interactions with themselves and others. It is helping them learn to delay gratification. And good parenting demands that we help our children differentiate from us and create their own maps with which to navigate through life.

That last job means we must help our children transfer from an external locus of control (mom and dad) to an internal locus of control (the maturing child.) It is the most frightening part of parenting, because it is a process fraught with peril. In fact it is so frightening that many parents abdicate their responsibility and encourage their children to continue with an external locus of control.

In extremely unhealthy families, this means parents who try to remain the primary figure in the lives of their children. (Think the mother in Everybody Love’s Raymond.) But far more frequently it means transferring the locus of control from one external source (mom and dad) to another external source, the tribe. Often that tribe is a religion. Sometimes it is a cult. And sometimes telling the difference is difficult.

The problem is in the transfer from one external locus of control to another. The parental job is not to replace biological parents with tribal parents. It is to replace biological parents with a fully differentiated, individuated person. It is to help the child transfer from an external locus of control to an internal locus of control.

An internal locus of control does not negate the desire for a tribe. We are a tribal species. It is baked into our DNA to want to be a part of something larger than ourselves. But when we begin to violate a healthy conscience by adherence to the strictures of an external locus of control, it is not a sign of health.

Let me use an example that is not uncommon in our current environment. Suppose you have friends or family who are gay, and in your everyday interaction it is fairly clear that these are normal humans, roughly as healthy as you. With a healthy internal locus of control, you are empowered to decide that this is a safe person.  You have within yourself the capacity to make these determinations. An internal locus of control means you have learned to trust your instincts, and your internal common sense.

If, on the other hand, you have an external locus of control that tells you homosexuality is an abomination to God, you reject your instincts and internal common sense. Even though you do not find any other reason to reject this person, you nevertheless reject them because you have given away the power to make those determinations. You have maintained an external locus of control, in this case, a religious body.

There was a time when I believed women should not preach, nor should Christians be in gay relationships. Nothing in my personal experience said these were bad things. In fact, to the contrary, I found women preached with a perspective not available to men. And I had gay friends who were extraordinary humans, far more Christ-like than I was. But my adherence to an external locus of control caused me to reject what my heart, mind and soul was telling me.

I have since realized when my understanding of Scripture causes me to reject what my heart, mind and soul are telling me, the problem is not with my heart, mind and soul. It is with my understanding of Scripture.  The problem is that I have made my heart, mind and soul subservient to my tribe.  When your tribe’s interpretation of Scripture violates your own conscience, the question you should ask yourself is why you have opted for an external locus of control.

For religious people, the answer is often that we have been taught that our bodies are evil and not to be trusted. Our sin causes us to deceive ourselves. Since we cannot trust ourselves, we must submit to an external power. Of course, this is great news for the tribe. It guarantees its ongoing existence. If the tribe can make us afraid of our own conscience and common sense, it can maintain the control necessary to remain in power.

It is interesting that when people talk about our sinful proclivities, they often quote the writings of the Apostle Paul. But when I look at the writings of Paul, particularly in his letter to the church at Rome, I find Paul more concerned about the sin that encompasses us when tribal rule takes over than the sin zipped up inside our own beings.

It seems to me that the greatest evil done in the world is done when we are confidently acting within our tribe. Only then do we throw away personal conscience and common sense. That is how we got the Holocaust, or for that matter, Charlottesville. That is what happens when one maintains an external, instead of an internal, locus of control.

It is frightening to have to trust your own soul. It means you are free, and freedom is terrifying. But here is the thing.  We are made in the image of God.  We can trust our basic construction. We all need the guidance of a tribe from time to time, but when you are constructed in God’s image, your internal locus of control, if you are willing to trust it, will reliably lead you in the direction of the truth.  The question is whether or not you will trust it.