A Bombshell Too Close to Home
Whether you recently watched the impeachment hearings or the Super Bowl or the Academy Awards or simply took a hike to get away from it all, we are constantly asked by life to make choices about when and how we will engage with (or ignore) the larger issues of our larger world.
I saw the film Bombshell with Oscar nominees Charlize Theron and Margot Robbie because a former workshop participant emailed me two weeks ago, struggling over whether to remain in a spiritual community where women have come forward with allegations of sexually inappropriate conduct by leaders of that community.
The film Bombshell focused on allegations of sexual misconduct at Fox News by its CEO Roger Ailes. Whether in a large media corporation or a large spiritual community, the issues of betrayal of trust and struggles of whether to jeopardize careers and standing in the community by standing up and speaking out were very similar. And the pain and heartbreak of betrayals of trust and blaming the victim were much the same.
Not sure where to start, I did contact some colleagues I know in the leadership of that spiritual community, other teachers in that community, to learn what actions were being taken, what investigations were discovering, when a compassionate and ethical response was to be expected to be forthcoming. (Still in progress)
Doing my own work to regulate my own nervous system, oscillating between the revving up of rage, the numbing out of powerlessness, dancing between belief and disbelief. [See last week’s post about I Just Didn’t Know What to Do at First]
I consulted with three friends who I knew had lived through the upheavals in their own spiritual communities (Zen Buddhist, Catholic, Unitarian Universalist) from betrayals of trust through sexual misconduct on the part of their leaders/teachers. What had led to transparency, accountability, repair? (Or didn’t.)
I mentioned the unease I was experiencing to five different women friends, none of whom I suspected had experienced betrayals of trust through sexually inappropriate behavior from colleagues, bosses, mentors. All of them had. Years before the #MeToo movement gave public support and encouragement to women needing to speak out about heretofore fairly culturally minimized if not accepted behaviors.
I do firmly believe that conscious, compassionate connection will lead to conscious, compassionate action. That’s the basis of staying engaged with our own clarity and courage; with encouraging clarity and courage in anyone else.
So I began by suggesting to that participant some of the mindful self-compassion practices she had learned in the workshop last summer. [See three exercises below]
Will that be enough?
A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life. – Christopher Germer
It’s a start.
Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase. – Martin Luther King, Jr
When I teach practices from the Mindful Self-Compassion protocol, I do teach that because compassion practice shifts the functioning of the brain out of reactivity, contraction, negativity, into more receptivity, openness, optimism, we practice self-compassion not just to FEEL better but to DO better.
There’s a lot of reactivity when there’s betrayal of trust, exponential reactivity if that betrayal is not acknowledged and repaired. I start with practices of self-compassion because the direct measurable cause and effect outcome of self-compassion practice is resilience. That’s the science, and that’s what’s true.
Betrayals of trust are a triple whammy when they take place in the leadership of a spiritual community – teachers supposed to be a living embodiment of the divine or at least a trustworthy guide on the path to the divine. I’m working through more suggestions for this participant, for anyone, because self-compassion in the face of betrayal is the beginning of conscious, compassionate connection, and that is the beginning of conscious, compassionate action.
HAND ON THE HEART
The hand on the heart exercise is one of the first tools I teach clients or workshop participants to return a revved up or shut down nervous system to the physiological equilibrium that creates a sense of safety that primes the brain to discern and take wise action. It is powerful enough to calm down a panic attack in less than a minute. It’s powerful enough to prevent the stress response from even happening in the first place.
1. Place your hand on your heart. Breathe gently, softly, and deeply into the area of your heart. If you wish, breathe in a sense of ease or safety or goodness into this heart center.
2. Remember one moment, just one moment when you felt safe, loved, and cherished by another human being. Don’t try to recall the entire relationship, just one moment. This could be a partner, a child, a friend, a therapist, or a teacher; it could be a spiritual figure. Remembering a loving moment with a pet can work very well, too.
3. As you remember this moment of feeling safe, loved, and cherished, let yourself experience the feelings of that moment. Let the sensations wash through your body. Let yourself stay with these feelings for twenty to thirty seconds. Notice any deepening in a visceral sense of ease and safety.
The science: When you breathe deeply into the heart center, you’re activating the calming parasympathetic branch of the nervous system. When you breathe in a sense of ease or safety or goodness, you’re restoring a coherent heart rate variability which allows your heart to respond more flexibly to stress. When you remember a moment of feeling safe and loved and cherished with someone, you’re activating the release of oxytocin, the brain’s direct antidote to the stress hormone cortisol. You may actually feel the warm glow of the oxytocin as it washes through your body, coming to a sense of safety, trust, and calm.
4. Repeat this practice many times a day at first to strengthen the neural circuitry that remembers this pattern. If you practice five times a day for a full week, you will train your brain in this new response to any difficult moment. Then you can repeat it any time you need to, any time at all. Use it in moments of stress or distress. It’s portable equilibrium.
This is an exercise to shift the reactivity of the moment in the moment. It helps to practice this self-compassion break in moments when any emotional upset or distress is still reasonably manageable – to create and strengthen the neural circuits that can do this re-conditioning when things are really tough.
1. Any moment you notice a surge of a difficult emotion – boredom, contempt, remorse, shame – pause, put your hand on your heart (activate the release of oxytocin, the hormone of safety and trust).
2. Empathize with your experience – recognize the suffering – and say to yourself, “this is upsetting” or “this is hard!” or “this is scary!” or “this is painful” or “ouch! This hurts” or something similar, to acknowledge and care about yourself as the experiencer of something distressing.
3. Repeat these phrases to yourself (or some variation of words that work better for you.)
May I be kind to myself in this moment.
May I accept this moment exactly as it is.
May I accept myself exactly as I am in this moment.
May I give myself all the compassion I need.
4. Continue repeating the phrases until you can feel the internal shift – the compassion and kindness and care for yourself becoming stronger than the original negative emotion.
5. Pause and reflect on your experience. Notice if any possibilities of wise action arise.
6. I often practice an expanded variation of the traditional mindful self-compassion phrases:
May I be kind to myself in this moment, in any moment, in every moment.
May I accept this moment exactly as it is, any moment, every moment.
May I accept myself exactly as I am in this moment, in any moment, in every moment.
May I give myself all the compassion and courageous action that I need.
This variation, like the traditional self-compassion break, is completely portable and effective anywhere, anytime. And this variation helps deepen the practice of mindful self-compassion into an ongoing way of being.
SHARING YOUR STORY WITH PEOPLE WHO CAN UNDERSTAND AND RESONATE
When a person is struggling to sort out confusion and mess, it’s very important that they are held in a safety net of support of people who believe in their story and can know their pain.
There are several different phases to this.
1) Finding the people who can act as a refuge of safety and protection. People who love us, care about us, believe our story without the need for explanation or justification. But who don’t need anything from us, don’t need us to be a certain way or move at a certain pace. They allow us and support us in being with whatever we need to be aware of, be with, and accept. Compassionate companions.
2) Then sharing your story and hearing other peoples’ stories. Telling other people what has happened without having to explain or defend or justify anything can be very normalizing and regulating. The experience of common humanity can be very healing and create hope.
When sharing how you are coping and feeling received, understood, supported in other people listening, you get actual tangible support in moving from a victim stance to an empowered agentic stance.
Resourcing with people can include participating in a community of shared trauma, receiving help and support from people who have experienced the same trauma or similar trauma. Focusing not so much on the trauma but on the coping, on taking wise action.
In the context of the sage advice of Brene Brown, author of Rising Strong and Daring Greatly. “Share your story with people who have earned the right to hear it.”