Leaving an Old Identity Behind

What else is left to us but to drown the past to save the future?
— Hassan, an Egyptian construction supervisor on the Abu Simbel project*

In the 1960’s the two temples built by King Ramses II during the 12th century BC at Abu Simbel had to be moved out of reach of the rising waters of Lake Nasser. The temples were carefully deconstructed, moving the most important and most precious parts of the temples to higher ground, and then flooding the rest of the site. And so it is with our own identities. There are parts of us, that should come with us in to the future. And there are parts we must leave behind.

I have been thinking a lot this week about identities. Partly because a young friend of mine is having a hard time and part of her struggle, as it often is, is about leaving an old identity behind. And the reason I could see her struggle so clearly is because I too am in the same place: struggling to leave an old identity behind.  Even identities that have helped us, or maybe even especially the identities that have helped us: my identity as a ‘survivor’, or my identity as a ‘fighter’, or my identity as the ‘good girl.’ These identities helped us get here, but often they hold us back from getting to where we want or need to go. They stop us from our continued growth.

Sometimes the identity was created in reaction to trauma or to struggle or loss. Or sometimes it’s just the identity that went with the time of life. Parenting is a great example of this. Your identity shifts when you become a parent, and then as a parent you are asked to shift identity all the way along the process: the identity of a parent of a toddler isn’t the same as the identity of a parent of a ten year old, or seventeen year old, much less the parent of an adult. Sometimes a new circumstance or role catapults us in to a new identity: manager, widow, retiree. We are aware of aspects of ourselves because of what others expect from us, or what we have expected from people in a similar role.

It seems simple when you see it. Of course I need to grow in to that new thing, that new aspect of myself. And even if I want the new skills, the new experiences that this identity is allowing me it can be hard to make the shift, let alone in those times when we didn’t choose the moment of growth.  The old identity is such a security blanket. In my better moments I feel strong enough to walk away from it. But when any darkness comes in, any stress, any fear, I instinctively reach for the familiar, for what feels comfortable, even if it really no longer fits. I seek to lean on the self I know, rather than the self I am getting to know.

It’s so hard to let go of that part of us that helped us survive. And it seems that no matter how many times I learn this lesson, and no matter in how many ways, the learning feels brand new every time I have to learn it again.

We talk a lot about the fact that growth requires learning new things, but we don’t talk as much about how growth also requires us to let go of old things. And how hard this process is, and how many iterations it takes. We see it in kids: how they can march forward into a new developmental stage and then slide back in rough moments. But they don’t yet have a concept of themselves in the same way adults do, so they are constantly and excitedly reaching forward. There are a few kids who can feel the loss of their growth—kids who realize that learning to read themselves might mean less time sitting on their parent’s lap being read to. But most don’t. Most forge ahead.

But adolescence and adulthood are different. We begin to really understand that a move forward is a loss of some kind. We can’t always express it. Or name it. But we can often feel it—and it can feel out of place. And it can make us feel out of sorts with out a way to say where we are.

The me-that-I-was needs to give way to the-me-I-am-becoming. This is the trajectory of growth. This is true of very young children and it remains true for all of us until our last breath. But it requires stronger and stronger muscles as we get older. Growth, I am learning, doesn’t get easier with age—in fact it may be the opposite. When we are older we have more invested in the people we believe we are. Children have a particular identity for a couple of years, we have that particular identity often for a decade at least. Its not that old dogs can’t learn new tricks. It just turns out that it takes an enormous amount of strength and patience and compassion to let go of the old tricks.  

And why is it so hard? Well there are a few reasons, but one of the biggest is some fear of living in this in-between space, no man’s land, the land of the lost. This place is hard because it isn’t familiar. You don’t know the rules. It feels awkward. It feels messy. But most of all, we anticipate this space as lonely. We imagine exile.

Our identities don’t exist in isolation. We are not so much individual selves as we are, as Jean Baker Miller described it: Selves-in-relation. We believe who are are is connected to how people connect to us, and we fear that if we change we will lose people. They like me because of who I was, and they will never like who I am becoming. And honestly, there is some truth to this fear. When we grow and change, people do have to get used to our new selves and our new views, as we do when they change and grow.

But the biggest support to this trajectory of growth from me-that-I-was to the-me-I-am-becoming is the ability to be held, witnessed and supported in the place in between them. Not only is growth not about isolation, growth requires relationship. We are designed to grow in relationship. It was a a multi-country, multi-agency partnership that worked together to take the temples of Abu Simbel apart block by block with precision and care. It took years as the temple was neither rooted in its past location, nor safe in its new one. Growth requires us to be in a space that is neither here nor there—it a space where you often don’t know—where you need the conversation—where you need to contradict yourself, in order to find out what you do know, what you need to learn. You need to be able to held both parts of yourself at once, and in order to do that, someone needs to hold you. It is one of the most important jobs of a parent, or a therapist, or spouse or friend, this work of being with someone in the space between. When you have let go of one shore and are not quite at the other.  So change is not just about moving forward, it is also about what you need to leave behind. What parts of your temple do you want to move to higher ground? What parts of your temple do you no longer need and need to let go of? 

© 2015 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD

*Gerster, G. (1963). Threatened treasures of the Nile. National Geographic 124 (4), 587-623.

Women's Growth In Connection: Writings from the Stone Center
By Judith V. Jordan PhD, Alexandra G. Kaplan, Irene P. Stiver, Janet L. Surrey PhD, Jean Baker Miller

Healing from Trauma? Use Training Wheels!

Yellow brick road 300ppi.jpg

I have decided that the only thing more difficult than having training wheels is not having training wheels. Feeling tippy is better than being stuck, or afraid to move. In my current place of growth I am in a ‘tippy place’ where I wobble precariously from one side to the other side trying to find my balance: I am moving forward, and I can feel my own hard work, and every once in a while I get the sensation of what it might be like to not have the training wheels at all, where I can feel open space, where I can glide. And then moments later, I reach towards something new and I feel the wobbliness again.

New learning in adulthood is awkward. And learning or re-learning any of the skills of relationship or attachment is really hard. It’s not easy to find your center from the wild swings to the edges. Training wheels can be perfect for learning because you can actually start with them right on the ground—as if you had a perfect third wheel. You get to feel what it is like to sit and steer with the bike completely balanced. Having training wheels lets you incrementally decrease your need to rely on an old source of support so that you can rely gradually on your new skills and sources of support.

What is the psychological equivalent to training wheels?  The stepwise and incremental progressions of mending a heart and repairing trust?  How do you shift a worldview from one that is always vigilant—to one that can relax and lean in to safety and in to relationship?

We always want the solution to look more complicated or exciting than it really is. We don’t like to admit how even a small adjustment can make us feel wobbly. So how do we begin? The starting place for creating your metaphorical training wheels is a sense of solid ground. But what feels solid and comfortable?  In my book, Journey Through Trauma, I talk about the first phase of healing from repeated trauma as the Preparation Phase. The Preparation Phase is where you work on all of your resources for healing and you find some solid ground for yourself: where you make things more predictable or more routine or more supported than you have ever had, or than you will eventually need.

And then as you begin to take in the experience of safety and predictability that you have put in place—not unlike the training wheels set to the ground—you may begin to try to find some new edges of learning. You feel safe enough in a relationship to ask for a need to be met. You risk saying, “No.” You admit how you are feeling. Finding your learning edge in the  psychological world than they are in the physical world can more difficult than it is in the physical world because in the physical world you can see clearly what you are using or not using. One of the best examples of this kind of learning comes from Norman Doidge’s book The Brain that Changes Itself, where researchers figured out what it took to bring back full functioning to a person who had experienced a stroke, where the stroke makes impairs functioning on one side of their body. The prevailing treatment had been to work with the side that was not functioning with physical therapy—to teach it to work again. But that treatment had slow and intermittent success—most people reverted to using their ‘good hand’ to do most of the things that they needed to do, and the less functioning hand rarely gained functioning again. Instead, the new treatment intervened by strapping down the good arm or leg with an ace bandage, or putting an oven mitt on it—making it impossible to use the good side at all.  In the absence of being able to use the functioning limb, the brain appears to rewire the weaker side and eventually allow a person to gain complete functioning. So learning and healing is not just about what makes you feel more solid or helping you lean in to new learning—it is also about knowing what needs to be unlearned, or unused so new learning can take place.  And psychologically, what are those things you need to put your oven mitt on so that you have no choice but to lean in to the new learning?

How can we bring these ideas to healing from trauma? For learning or re-learning attachment? We need to remember that repeated trauma, and really, any relational trauma, is really three forms of trauma— what did happen (the trauma that occurred), what you did to survive--the protections you used to survive the trauma, and what didn’t happen— the growth and development you missed. And the work of creating training wheels is twofold—one wheel is like the oven mitt used for stroke patients— it is a set of behaviors that will keep you from using your old protections, and will keep you from following the old rules of survival. By putting a metaphorical oven mitt on your old protections—you will have to lean in to new behaviors and new attitudes. And these new behaviors and attitudes are the other training wheel—the things you may never have tried before.

So now you get to practice with the training wheels. You head to one side thinking you can use your old protections but you can’t because you have covered them with an ‘oven mitt’, so you wobble to the other side looking for refuge, and instead you find a new behavior that feels like a risky new behavior—which you try and feel anxious so you lean back toward your protections which you are bravely giving up and you go back and forth –sometimes gloriously finding the center—finding something brand new.

I call these moments new beginnings, they are ‘what didn’t happen.’ But how can these moments become woven in, become the new default? I have another example from Norman Doidge’s book, where a woman has severe vertigo from a reaction to antibiotics and is unable to stand or walk. As treatment she uses a helmet that serves as an external vestibular function for her inner ear that has been damaged. When she puts on the helmet she can stand up and stay balanced and doesn’t feel nauseous. That the helmet can support her this way is amazing, but what is really amazing is that wearing the helmet gives residual benefits that increase over time. The longer she wears the helmet, the longer she can feel the benefits even when she takes the helmet off: the helmet re-teaches her brain how to experience and manage balance. And this residual learning mirrors my own experience of psychological training wheels: you get a benefit in the moment of the new learning experience—but if you can stay in it with some constant repetition—you can begin to feel a residual benefit long past the actual practice time.

These moments of new beginning give you the brand new experience of growth—and the more they happen, the more of these moments that can get strung together, the more they have residual effects where you can pedal for a while without the wobbliness. Where you carry your center with you.

In healing the relational aspects of trauma what I have noticed is that these new moments of growth give me a sturdiness, I can feel my own two feet.  They give me a feeling of elasticity— I can feel like relationships have an elastic quality that will allow some give and take, and they give me a feeling of openness and expansiveness where I can look up and around. For me and many people with a history of trauma there is a hyper vigilance that is the constant background noise—the constant operating system running in the background all the time. Finding the tippy place between the two training wheels means living in a place where that operating system isn’t in the background: its acknowledged and worked with. In the tippy place you have owned the protections that keep you from learning a new way, and you have identified the new behaviors that are your learning edge. In the training wheels model you aren’t denying your problem or wishing it away—you are living with it—and working not to use your old protections so that you can try something new.

© 2018 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD

Trust your timing.

Procrastination does not stop a project from coming to fruition, what stops us is giving up on an original idea because we have not got to the heart of the reason we are delaying, nor let the true form of our reluctance instruct us in the way ahead. To procrastinate is to be involved with larger entities than our own ideas, to refuse to settle for an early underachieving outcome and wrestle like Job with his angel, finding as Rilke said, ‘Winning does not tempt that man, This is how he grows, by being defeated decisively, by greater and greater beings.’
— David Whyte

I have been juggling a number of projects lately, some better than others, and I was reminded of my constant wrestling match with procrastination and timing. I am a perfect mix of impatient and driven combined with task averse which makes me really good at being anxious about what I haven’t completed. The problem is that all tasks aren’t the same. There are tasks, like mailing packages, or doing paperwork that really need a pro-active stance, and not a pro-crastination stance. But much of the creative world—writing, creating, healing, helping—is served by a more fluid style where the active and pensive are comingled and you can’t always tell them apart. And you can’t always see the progress you are making until it leaps ahead. But there can be so many days of self-doubt before that.

This summer I read the biography of Einstein by Isaacson and I was struck by the weight that Einstein put on thought—on daydreaming—and how productive it was. The time for creative thought was the soil that helped grow his ideas. The problem with our driven and productivity-oriented world is that creation is rarely linear. Much of it is an organic growth process that has its own trajectory, its own wisdom. At best you can distract yourself with things that look like tasks that keep you out of the way while the real creation happens. At worst, you can interfere or give up because ‘nothing is happening.’

Some of the best things I have created happened much later than I planned. I had planned to be ready to go, ready to be finished much, much earlier. Yet, if I had finished the project too quickly they would never have become what they needed to become, or I wouldn’t have been able to shepherd them the way I needed to. The whole project—the idea, and who I was needed time to grow in to the project. It’s those moments I need to hang on to when I find myself frustrated that I am not moving fast enough—when I am not ‘getting things done.’

And don’t mistake my message. I am not opposed to productivity. The world is filled with false dichotomies—and this is one of them—this creativity vs. productivity split. I aspire to David Allen’s Getting Things Done as much as the next person. But clearing your desk is a means to an end. Not the end. And once it is clear, if you are engaged in a creative process, then the next phase is slower, is organic, it isn’t the same as getting through your to-do list. And of course you need the flexibility to be able to do some of both. Even on your creative days you need to ‘show up’ in some way—be engaged, follow your instincts, your interests. Minimally, you often need to get your butt in the chair--ready to work.

I suppose I wanted to write all of this to say that in the process of healing, in the process of bringing fragmented parts together, in the process of building whatever you want—there are times of progress and there are times of slowness and it is so important to trust your own timing. To believe in an inner wisdom that knows better than you do what you need to do now, what you need to do next. To believe and trust that there is growth happening even when you can’t see it. And sometimes in order for growth and healing to happen there must be slow times. It is required.

This time of year in the northeast is the perfect reminder for that. In my garden, under the ground, are my tulips, and daffodils, crocus, snowdrops and scilla. All spring bulbs sleeping quietly in the frozen ground. It looks like nothing is happening. It would be mistaken for a waste of time. Yet without this cold winter they wouldn’t bloom. They rely on the cold of winter to trigger the biochemical process necessary to flower in the spring. Without this period of cold dormancy they would not become who they are supposed to be.

So take some time to appreciate your slow times this winter.  And take time to wrestle with your reasons for procrastinating. Both are important questions. Is it time for me to rest, to be dormant, to daydream? And is it time for me to climb back up, to push against the soil, to break through what is difficult and shine? The questions may be more important than the answers. 

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2016

Einstein: His Life and Universe
By Walter Isaacson


Gurus in Life Preservers

Maybe it’s this long New England winter, and the recent reminder of warmth that is making me long for summer and a swim in a lake. But my mind keeps going back to the lake at a camp where I taught swimming lessons. And mostly I want to tell you about four girls who have been my gurus for the past couple of weeks. It was a wonderful summer for so many reasons, but nearly thirty years later, I hang on to the lessons that those girls taught me about courage and trust and perseverance.

I had one group of African-American teenage girls from inner city Newark who had never been swimming before. And certainly never swam in a lake (“EEEEW there are fish in there! They are going to bite me!”) They stated from the outset that they were NEVER going to go in. But swim lessons were basically mandatory, so they had to come to the lake anyway, so the four of them humored me and came to the lake, but refused to wear suits and refused to get in.

So I called their bluff and I brought down a giant mixing bowl from the kitchen, filled it with lake water. We had our lesson on the dock so they could learn to blow bubbles and do the rhythmic breathing required of the crawl stroke right there in the mixing bowl. They thought it was hilarious and played along. Then they practiced just dangling their legs in. When it was agreed that they could get in the water, they said they weren’t getting in the water unless they could do something. And that was, they each got two life preservers, and put both of them on. And two kickboards. And for the next couple of days they just stood in the water, brave enough to stand waist deep, wearing their life preservers and holding their kickboards. They didn’t care what they looked like. They didn’t care that they were the only ones with that much equipment at the waterfront. They just did what they needed to do. It was slow and incremental over the two weeks that they were there. Being brave enough to dunk their whole body in. Brave enough to pick their feet off the ground. And brave enough, eventually, to take the life preservers off and try swimming. And they did it. All of them passed the Red Cross Beginner’s test that session.

I have never forgotten this because I am still in awe about how brave they were to try something that they were so frightened of, and how smart they were to ask for what would allow them to feel safe enough to try. I have never forgotten their willingness to learn something that was so difficult for them and to keep at it. To be willing to be a beginner at something that all of their peers could already do. To decide that learning was more important than saving face.  And their genius at knowing themselves well enough and listening to themselves about their own incremental steps.

Maya Angelou used to say that we are never alone. That wherever we go and whatever we do we can bring others with us. We can bring ancestors, teachers, loved ones with us. Of my many inner teachers and gurus I pull on, these girls hold a particularly revered spot. I pull on them whenever I need compassion for myself or someone else who is up against a big fear. Up against something they wish they could do, but can’t. Something everyone else seems to do, but you can’t. They are the perfect visual reminder of what it takes to bravely overcome your fears—you get interested in taking on the challenge, you start as small as you possibly can, you oversupport yourself, and you stay with it day in and day out.

And this wisdom from them is especially useful when you are learning to dive in to emotions you find frightening. Almost everyone has an emotion that is more difficult for them than the others and if you have experienced trauma, the emotions can feel louder and more extreme. They can have an all-or-nothing quality not unlike how my camper girls saw the lake water: either I am safe on the dock or I will drown in the water. There is no middle ground.

The lake and swimming in it are intertwined. The girls were afraid of the lake and they hadn’t learned to swim. And I could say the same about my experience. My emotion and the way I protect myself from my emotions are also intertwined. It’s a big lake of emotion and I am still learning how to swim in them.

The key to stretching your capacity with difficult emotions is to do exactly what those girls did: Find the smallest possible increment to feel it. And stay with that until you are ready to move on.

What I have found helpful is the sheer repetition of talking about it: Sometimes even just saying the same sentence again. Even if it feels silly. Even if it is the emotional equivalent of blowing bubbles in a big bowl. Or sometimes if it gets to be too much. Stopping the conversation. Getting out of the water for a moment. And then dangling my feet in the water, heading back in to the conversation slowly. This practice of feeling something, pulling away from it, and heading back to it helps you reestablish a sense of control again.

Keeping those girls in mind helped me see what I needed to do. These past couple of weeks I have struggled with disappointment—an emotion I detest. I had the mistaken notion that ‘good disappointment’ looked like “Oh well.” As in, “Oh well, it didn’t work out.” But, in fact, this isn’t good disappointment, it’s indifference. This isn’t swimming with the emotion. This is staying on shore. What I needed to do was figure out what my life preservers were and stand knee deep in the emotion. Not drown in it. But just stand in it. Bravely. Knowing I had what I needed to be safe. And having the hope one day of freely splashing around.

The thing is you don’t have to swim perfectly to have a sense of accomplishment. The whole experience gives you pieces of that feeling. Every day those girls came to the waterfront—they tried something new, and they laughed, and they met a part of themselves they hadn’t met before. This is really what it is all about. You become bigger each time you meet a new part of yourself. You don’t make the difficult emotion smaller. You make yourself bigger. You meet parts of yourself you haven’t met before.  The lake didn’t change. The girls did. I didn’t master disappointment this week. But I ventured into deeper water than I had before without going under. I met parts of myself I hadn’t met before. And so what if I am still holding a kickboard as I stand in the water. It means I am closer to swimming than I was before.

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2018