Episode 85 (Season 2: Ep 5)
Welcome to the Freedom from Empty Podcast: Building Strong, Effective, Resilient Leaders, Entrepreneurs, and Humans. My name is Booth Andrews, and I am your host. Thank you so much for joining me for this episode.
In the last episode, I talked about both the conscious and unconscious beliefs that kept me stuck for decades and ultimately propelled me down the path to burnout and chronic, severe mental illness.
Today I want to talk about some of the origins of my superhero syndrome. What it ultimately cost me. The benefits of what I will call the “first phase” of my recovery journey. And what is so beautiful about how healing is emerging for me now.
This episode is a little longer, maybe five minutes longer than most of my episodes and a little windy, but I hope you will hang in there with me because I do bring it all together at the end.
For a very long time, I thought I just didn’t have needs like “regular” people. Or if I did, there wasn’t any oxygen available for those needs so it didn’t really matter what they were.
I grew up in one of those households where, unless you were throwing up or bleeding out or visibly injured, there was no such thing as staying home sick.
Who I was, was also a problem. What I understand now is that “who I was” pushed all of my caregivers’ buttons. Particularly, my “will.”
Performance was expected. If I brought home a 98 grade on a test, my father asked me where the other 2 points were.
Another time, my father had me out on the driving range on a weekend. I couldn’t go swimming with my friends until I had hit a certain number of golf balls into a circle.
Birthdays might be a reprieve. They might be a day when I felt celebrated, but it was just as likely that my celebration (and my gifts) would have been taken away from me for being “bad.”
I remember being in a toy store with my caregiver and she pointed out a toy, and then told me that she had bought it for me but given it to someone else instead.
I learned that my best chance of survival was to strive for perfection but be invisible at the same time. Because the truth is, the days were filled with Hobson’s Choices.
I learned that if the people around me weren’t okay–or were angry or violent–it was my job to fix it.
I learned that if I wasn’t getting what I needed–food, love, or safety–it was my fault.
And I better be grateful for what I had and never complain.
I learned that other people–particularly grown-ups–got to experience grace.
They had permission to be human. But I didn’t. In fact, my literal role model was a Vulcan (not a human).
I learned to persist despite the obstacles.
I learned to pick up the pieces, over and over and over again, and make the best of every situation.
I developed an extraordinary capacity for chaos and uncertainty.
I learned that it wasn’t safe to be me.
Maybe my experience is extreme and extraordinary. But maybe it isn’t.
Every day, we face choices. The choice to stay in community even if we are in community with people who are hurting us . . . or the choice to face the world alone, which we are not actually biologically and energetically designed to do.
We are wired for survival. And if we have to choose between survival and being seen, known and loved for who we really are, we will choose survival–even if it means fracturing ourselves, splintering our souls and denying our own basic needs for love, nourishment, connection and rest. Yet another Hobson’s Choice.
Because as I learned the hard way, we can only ignore or dissociate from our own biological, emotional and psychological needs for so long before our body, mind and soul crack under the weight of it all.
Yes, our nervous system is incredible in its capacity to splinter us off from any parts of ourselves that are deemed dangerous enough that they might separate us from the rest of the group.
And also, if we stay there, not only will it keep us from fully realizing the full potential of this life, it will destroy us from the inside.
I used to think I didn’t have needs like other people.
I didn’t need help.
I didn’t need support.
I could run circles around most everyone in terms of persistence, effort, and logical, rational and critical thinking.
Sleep, water, and food? Meh.
Rest? Only when I am sick or dead.
Play? My therapist told me to Google it.
Vulnerability that leads to true connection? No thank you.
Mutuality in relationship? I don’t think that’s a thing.
Being held? I am pretty sure there is no one who has the capacity to do that. I have been told I am “too hard or not enough” too many times.
How was I able to function for decades?
By staying perpetually dysregulated. Adrenaline and nervous system dissociation have incredible palliative powers.
Shutting down neurological communication systems can be done, at least for a while.
I have had multiple stress injuries in my right leg including two stress fractures …
I stress-fractured my pelvis from running cross country when I was 15 years old.
I stress-fractured my femur right below the ball joint, when I was 21 from a combination of running and aerobics.
And I stressed, but managed to actually go to the doctor before I fractured, my right femur again in my 30s.
Those wounds you could see on an x-ray.
But the fractures in my emotional body, my heart, my soul, and even in my immune, digestive, hormonal systems and brain. . . those were invisible.
What happens when we put everyone else’s needs first all of the time?
What happens when we cannot rest until everyone and everything else is taken care of?
What happens when we feel responsible for everyone else’s experience?
What happens when we believe (with good reason) that our safety (or lack thereof) is solely in our purview and control.
What happens when we believe if we could just do enough, be enough, get “there”, earn all of the awards and promotions and titles and money and accumulate all of the things, that somehow we will no longer be afraid. Or desperately lonely?
What happens when we have to choose–whether consciously or unconsciously–between being known and being safe?
We could lose our capacity to feel.
We could lose our health.
We could lose our lives.
We could lose our chance to experience the fullness of being human . . . we only get one trip in this body after all.
We could be afraid to even acknowledge that we might want something for our birthday or Christmas.
And if we actually receive a gift we gave ourselves permission to want, we might no longer have the capacity to feel the ripples of excitement flow through our bodies.
We might be surrounded by love and still feel lonely.
We might cuddle with our child, our pet, or our partner and still be numb.
I have spent the last 8 years rebuilding my nervous system capacity to move in and out of dysregulation as opposed to operating only from the states of fight, flight, freeze or fawn.
To stay in a regulated nervous system state for long enough periods of time to allow my body to repair itself.
To begin to trust that if I do get dysregulated, it doesn’t automatically mean that I will be stuck there forever. That I have tools and resources I can access and use to support myself through it and to bring my system back online.
I have expanded my capacity to engage with the stimulus that is the world, while still staying connected to my own basic needs in the process.
I have expanded my capacity to ask for and receive support, though I will admit it is not my default setting.
I shared in my newsletter earlier this year, and then in the first episode of this new season of the podcast, that I was in and out of a trauma freeze response last December and January.
In January, I began Ana Kinkela’s Nectar program (something I had felt pulled to sign up for the previous October).
The Nectar program is specifically targeted toward rebuilding the nervous system’s capacity to receive and expand.
It turns out that when your body has been locked in trauma response around a certain thing for a long time, it takes a minute to thaw and move all of that energy.
I remember back when I was severely depressed, I couldn't feel my legs. As in, if you asked me to feel the sensation of my pants touching my legs, I wouldn't have been able to identify any sensation at all.
And, though I don't recall the timeline, I remember that, as my body and mind began to heal, I got the feeling back in my right leg first. And then my left.
A couple of months into Nectar, I realized I was having the oddest sensation in my chest. Like I was over-caffeinated. Except I wasn't. I just felt . . . buzzy.
It didn't feel like anxiety, but it was unsettling. Unfamiliar.
I got on the group coaching call asked--wtf is happening in my body?!?! I said it more eloquently than that at first, but that was what I really wanted to know.
And after encouraging me to check in with a doctor if I had any concerns at all, Ana said, "what if it's life force?"
My eyes welled up, and I knew it was true. Part of me was lighting up, feeling energy and sensation in a way I hadn't in a very long time, maybe ever.
I continue to be amazed at all of the ways that the body works hard to keep us safe. And how, with the right tools and support, we can reopen pathways that have long since been dormant.
I have reopened the pathways in my body that allow me to cry.
I can feel my legs.
I can feel pain in my body.
I can feel fatigue.
I can feel when my heart aches.
I can feel when I am approaching the end of my capacity or approaching illness or injury sometimes even before I get there.
I can feel when I am dysregulated though it might take me a minute.
And this year, I have been rebuilding my capacity to FEEL joy, desire, excitement and pleasure through Ana’s Nectar program and Soma Soul Certification.
If you had run into me earlier this year, you might have heard me talk about being so excited to actually FEEL biofeedback in my body indicating desire, happiness, or excitement.
Because, after much admiring on NoBull’s website, I had given myself permission to buy a pair of workout shoes back in May. And when the box of shoes arrived, and I opened them up, I felt excitement in my body.
Ya’ll. This might not sound like a big deal to some.
But if you have ever walked around in the world feeling numb, and then had the experience of having the numbness dissipate and feeling return . . . you may appreciate the quality of this experience–shocking, hopeful, thrilling?!?!
In fact, I bet some of you lost your taste and smell as a result of COVID. I did. In October 2021.
My taste has returned on the tip of my tongue. And the back. But the middle is still a little bit of a dead zone.
My smell isn’t back either. Sometimes I smell things that aren’t there . . . for days. But the other day, I smelled garlic. And a few weeks ago, I smelled lemon zest. If only for a moment.
I am very much aware that I am missing my taste and smell. Because being able to have the full experience of taste and smell resides in my memory. Even if it isn’t my current experience.
Consider that losing access to your full experience of being human (through nervous system survival patterning) is just like this. Except that sometimes we don’t realize it is gone.
Or maybe the trade off seems reasonable or necessary. Such as . . if I can completely compartmentalize and rationalize my human experience I won’t have to feel the big, overwhelming emotions that I don’t have any support to process and repair.
And sometimes it is gone for so long, we don’t remember a time when things were any different.
Before starting Nectar, I had a sneaking suspicion that something was still missing for me. But if you had asked me, I am not sure I would have been able to put my finger on it.
And I am not gonna lie, the reweaving and repair process can be really inconvenient. In the short term. Particularly when everyone around us is caught in the boiling water with us but they don’t yet realize it.
When the demands of the world and the expectations of others and the commitments we have made or want to make are outpacing our capacity in the moment.
When cultural role models–particularly women and moms–are venerated for being selfless superheroes who wouldn’t dare put themselves first in anything.
When we feel like we are being “left behind.” Or cannot figure out how everyone else seems to “have it all together” when we are struggling.
And it takes significant bandwidth to reprocess and re-integrate our nervous systems although I want to make a really important point here that healing trauma does not have to be and should not be re-traumatizing.
I had a text exchange with a friend and client earlier this week:
“I would just like to say for the record all of this shit was a lot easier when I was blissfully unaware of how much it was bothering me lol”.
And in the short term, that is 100% true. But here is where it gets better . . .
For as long as I can remember, I have struggled to answer the question (with any consistency) . . . what do you want for your birthday (or Christmas)?
It seems like a simple question on its face.
But not when “what you want” wasn’t ever relevant.
Or when you have asked for what you wanted or needed in the past but were told why you didn’t need it or deserve it or why you just needed to work harder for it or why you should find a cheaper option.
Part of me honestly couldn’t connect with the part of myself who wanted anything.
And even if I could, it felt too scary and painful to give myself permission to want something, only to have that desire not met.
My sister or my daughter would ask me and honestly, I would just blank. Even if I had had some ideas at some point.
In more recent years, I have kept a list of ideas when they came to me so I could remember, but still, when my sister or my daughter would ask what I wanted, I would struggle to get the words out. To say it out loud. Or even allow myself to type it into an email or a text message.
But guess what?! I wrote a Christmas list today! And I sent it! And I was happy and excited and didn’t have a boa constrictor wrapped around my throat (figuratively of course) while I did it.
It makes me wonder how much energy my body has expended throttling my own needs, wants and desires.
The people who live with me have likely noticed that I have more recently found the capacity to vocalize (or at least communicate in some form) the things that I want, or need, or that just aren’t okay with me. And I have already apologized to my children for the shift in their experience of their mother. Not because I am sorry that I am finding this part of my voice, but that I didn’t find it sooner.
Advocating for and protecting others is a skill I developed a long time ago. For me? Not so much.
Are you experiencing chronic dysregulation?
Are you exhausted, chronically stressed and burned out?
Are you numb? Just going through the motions?
Are you unable to name and acknowledge that you have needs?
Can you remember the last time you felt your body? Like really felt it?
Have you accomplished all of the things and you don’t understand why you don’t feel happy?
If the way you are living and experiencing life is no longer serving you, I want you to know that you get to write the story from here.
I 100% understand why it seems like it may be easier to stay numb. Or to just keep rolling the boulder up the hill.
Yes, the path of healing can be really inconvenient and scary.
And so is chronic illness that stems from the effects of prolonged nervous system dysregulation. Both on the individual level and also as evidenced by the state of our interactions with other humans in the world today.
I believe in the restorative power of our potential not only to rewrite the story for ourselves, but for our families, our communities, and our world.
And still, if you do it for no one else but you, you are worthy of all of the good things that this life has to offer.
And guess what? Healing also builds your capacity and resilience in the face of the hard that is an inevitable part of being human.
Just because I have been on a healing journey for the last eight years doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel overwhelming to turn and face what my body has to say. To honor my stories and repair the fractures.
And also, I know without a doubt that the alternative . . . going back to living the way that I lived for so long . . . missing the things I missed . . . and pushing my body to the point of failure . . . is no longer a tenable option.
I choose life. I choose wholeness. I choose all of it. You can too.
For access to even more resources, stories and my offerings that might support you on your own path, you can subscribe to my newsletter at boothandrews.com/newsletter.
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