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Overcoming Division, Disdain, Despite and Defensiveness
How Understanding Our Own Nervous System Can Help
In a previous article, we explored the institutionalized levels that trauma has reached in our society. Basically, I made the case that our institutions (political, news media, corporate, academic and medical systems) have become self-selecting and amplifying of certain trauma survival styles, or coping strategies. The upshot of this is that the way these institutions are interfacing with, and trying to control, the very people they are supposed to be serving, is traumatizing and chronically stressing us in turn. The ways in which this can happen includes divide and control mechanisms, fomenting polarization, and causing in-fighting, through triggering our own developmental trauma issues.
I believe it is vital, for the sake of our own health and wellbeing, and that of our families and loved ones too, that we resist these influences which push us towards dehumanizing, othering and scapegoating. Harbouring resentment for each other makes us ill.
The best way we can resist is to cultivate a deeper understanding of ourselves and the human condition. In particular, by learning to recognize what happens to us when we are ourselves cornered or driven into defensive states, and, especially, by learning about our own Nervous System responses. This is like seeing how a magic trick is done, and thus helps us not to be so easily fooled or manipulated.
It seems to me that the key to resistance is not only to try to avoid getting caught up in our own survival instincts, but also to avoid driving others into defensive physiological and psychological states, or recognizing when we have done so, and repairing the rupture.
Here, I am thinking about folks working and living together in good faith, and I have nothing much to say or recommend about interactions with the traumatizing institutional systems themselves, apart from providing insights into the ways we can be manipulated by these systems, especially through fear mongering.
In this article, I seek to apply all I’ve learned about Nervous System states, towards developing toolkits which can strengthen our ability to resist falling into the resentment traps. The following is heavily influenced by the works of Drs Iain McGilchrist, Stephen Porges and Laurence Heller.
What Happens to us when we are in States of Chronic Stress
How we show up in the world is significantly affected by our current Nervous System state. We are very different people when we are caught in defensive nervous system states of fight or flight, or freeze, than who we are when we are calm, relaxed and sociable.
In defensive Nervous System/left brain hemisphere overactivated states, we:
can't easily listen to or heed what other people are saying;
find it hard to take responsibility - even for our own pain - which we then blame on others... "she made me feel", "you made me do"... [and the projected source of pain becomes something to fear, to resent...];
find it harder to admit we are wrong, either to ourselves to others, we can come up with arguments and a narrative of self-justification, no matter how atrocious our words or behaviours;
become paranoid, prone to reading negative intent, criticism, mockery or rudeness in the words of others which isn't really there or wasn't intended;
believe our own lies and go into complete denial [I always remember Dr McGilchrist’s real world example of the person with right hemisphere stroke who is utterly convinced that their left arm belongs to another person];
rationalize [attempt to explain or justify behaviour or an attitude with logical reasons, even if these are not appropriate], but are not rational;
cherry pick, and self-re-enforce;
are humourless, and literal minded, can’t take jokes, and misunderstand metaphors;
can't incorporate new information or knowledge.
Learning from Experience
By thinking about our own past mistakes, we can become more forgiving of others. While in defensive states, we have all :
said something in the heat of the moment, which we later regretted;
been absolutely certain about something, only to discover later that we were quite wrong, but then we found it very hard able to admit it, even to ourselves;
misjudged or misinterpreted what someone was saying, their intent, or their character.
The Main Drivers of Defensive States
Social factors which are most likely to result in us getting caught in defensive Nervous System states include being on the receiving end of:
fear, pain, stress;
being shamed, blamed, criticized, evaluated;
feeling unheard and unseen;
being belittled, mocked or laughed at;
being lied to or gas lighted.
What we can we do to Improve Discourse
Ways in which we can improve our ability to listen to one another, and hence to be able to synthesize our knowledge and ideas, include:
being aware of how we come to the party influences what we get from it, and that other folks will tend to mirror our own internal states;
being self-aware of our own states, and cognizant that once we ourselves have become cornered into a defensive state, we are unlikely to be operating in entirely good faith anymore;
being prepared to ask for, and willing to grant, time outs, change of subject, thinking time, clarifications or to sleep on it;
speaking softly, with prosody of voice, using metaphor and humour, being poetic, as these all encourage the connected, embodied, right brain hemisphere’s way of attending to stay active;
using "Yes, and..." instead of "No, but..." whenever possible, agree as far we are able and as far as we can;
responding not reacting, actually listening to what is being said and addressing that, try not to use the next opportunity to speak to make a point we have already been sharpening;
never lying, but not overwhelming with our own truth and knowledge either, because new information takes time to integrate, and a radical shift in world view can be traumatic in of itself, so we may need to provide new information several times, from different angles, on different occasions, before someone can take it on board;
not using "just being authentic" as an excuse to be horrible or nasty - both authenticity and attunement are required for healthy discourse;
being prepared to agree to disagree or to walk away.
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