“It is a joy to be hidden but disaster not to be found.” ― D.W. Winnicott
The first time I experienced what Brené Brown so aptly calls “a vulnerability hangover”, I was on one of my earliest meditation retreats. I’d temporarily broken the week of silence to have a check-in with a meditation teacher and emerging friend, opening up about my hope that the practice might help in my struggles to form intimate relationships. Afterwards, back in the tomb-like silence of the meditation hall, intense panic set in. I didn’t understand what was happening, just that I really wanted to disappear. I cinched the hood of my hoodie tightly over my face, and decided I probably shouldn’t ever talk to that teacher friend again. Or anyone else. Maybe I’d just stay in silence forever.
Vulnerability was a new experience for me. I’d spent my life avoiding it, trying my very best not to need anything from anyone. To show no weakness, no fear, nothing too human that would make others uncomfortable. To be helpful and nice and make people like me without really having to know me. It seemed easier that way for everyone involved. Except, of course, it wasn’t.
I came to seek out meditation and talk therapy at the same time in my life, after the demise of a disastrous relationship that upended my life. I was “so distant from the hope of myself”, as Mary Oliver beautifully writes. I wanted to understand how I got there and if I could ever feel okay again. They felt like complementary processes, approaching the same material from different directions. Meditation was teaching me how to unearth and discern my inner experience and therapy was helping me articulate that experience and let myself be heard.
I gradually learned that my strategy of self-sufficiency and attuning to the needs of others was a necessary coping tool of an early childhood spent in a household that was unsafe and unpredictable. It served a purpose for sure, offering that hurt child some semblance of protection and control. But it also eventually led me astray – towards a self-imposed exile from intimacy, and a host of other unhealthy behaviours that had brought me to this breaking point.
So how do we heal from lifelong habits forged in times we can hardly remember? What can we realistically expect when it comes to healing and addressing the deep traumas and challenges of our lives? And how does this healing relate to the larger social and intergenerational trauma all around us? Because none of this happens in isolation. My struggles have emerged out of my own unique circumstances of nature and nurture, but also from the cumulative trauma of the families that made my parents, and theirs, and so on, as well as the societies that informed all of them. Including this one. There’s so much healing needed, individually and collectively, as a species and as a planet, it can be hard to even know where to start.
For me, it began with learning how to nurture and soothe myself. The trauma that was trapped in my nervous system, locked away for decades, had me on high alert most of the time, feeling anxious and unsafe even in seemingly benign situations. I started repeating the reassuring mantra “you’re safe, you’re safe, you’re safe, you’re safe…”, many times a day. I sought grounding and peace in the external world, the sights and sounds of nature, the tactile comfort of soft pillows and solid rocks. I practiced loving kindness and self- compassion meditation techniques, trying to get some felt experience of that “self-love” thing everyone kept talking about .
Acknowledging, understanding and soothing that hurt inner child was a crucial healing step. Then came an even more uncomfortable part! Growth. Change. Taking risks to venture out of the comfort zone that I unknowingly spent my life crafting to keep myself from getting hurt. Totally terrifying.
And worth it. Because vulnerability hangovers were not the end of the story. Something beautiful and interesting lay on the other side of them. That teacher from the meditation retreat, the one my shame and fear told me to never talk to again? He’s become one of my closest friends. Turns out, the more I could be honest about who I was, the more all of my relationships deepened. That vulnerability, difficult as it was, gave permission for people around me to also be openly themselves. All those imperfect pieces I’d kept hidden for so long, for fear of judgement and rejection, were actually bridges to authentic connections. Each time I could stretch myself through the panic and come out the other side, this truth was fortified and I moved closer to integrating all those neglected messy bits into a healthier whole.
Healing is a process. It can feel painstakingly slow and not at all straightforward, taking different shapes at different times.. This past year when difficult external circumstances (hello global pandemic!) colluded with ongoing mental health struggles (hello depression!), my healing looked like reinforcing a sense of safety, offering myself comfort and compassion and permission to retreat. As I began to feel more resourced, healing looked like taking small steps (or huge leaps) into the terror and promise of vulnerability, allowing my whole self to be in relationship with the world, and not just the parts I’ve imagined are useful and palatable to others.
This maps on well with a skillful way to work with challenges in meditation practice, be they physical, emotional, spiritual or some combination. When you’re overwhelmed or in crisis, you can cultivate a sense of safety through practice by focusing on aspects of your experience that feel grounding or neutral, far away from the origin of your suffering. Then when you are able, you can choose to turn towards the challenge, observing its contours and properties, accepting its presence in your current experience. The discomfort might initially seem to grow under your gaze, but as you bring mindful awareness to the subject, you can notice how the pain moves and changes and sometimes even dissipates.
Moving between comfort and discomfort in meditation is a key aspect of “trauma sensitive mindfulness”, which you can learn more about in David Treleaven’s highly recommended book. Embracing that principle, and learning how to recognize in myself when which strategy is needed, has been immensely helpful in my ongoing healing journey.
But to nurture an internal sense of safety, one needs to actually be safe. For Black, Indigenous and People of Colour, Trans and Queer folks and others, a lack of safety can be an inescapable fact of existence and a source of ongoing trauma. Practices and spaces that centre the voices, experience, and wisdom of these communities are essential. Our individual healing will never be complete without an acknowledgement of the systemic barriers to healing and a commitment to bringing those barriers down. In this work, I’m inspired by the contemplative approach of Resmaa Menaken’s “My Grandmother’s Hands”and Rhonda V. Magee’s “The Inner Work of Racial Justice”.These books offer powerful practices for building capacity through self-care, and doing the hard, necessary work of sitting with ourselves and getting real about both the pain we experience and the pain we inflict – knowingly or unknowingly – upon others.
I’d venture to guess that unhealed trauma is at the root of most conflicts, from individual to interpersonal to international. “Hurt people hurt people”, as the saying goes. We have to face our shit, for everyone’s betterment.
I’ve been writing my story here in the past tense, but all of this is far from in the past for me. I know when I hit send on this newsletter and it gets beamed to thousands of people around the world, that vulnerability hangover will undoubtedly kick in. I’ll hide under the covers for a while, holding myself gently through the terror of being seen. Then slowly I’ll emerge to see that I haven’t ruined everything, but in fact my place in the world feels more secure and I’m one step closer to the hope of myself.