“It was always you I loved, not your elegant strategy. I will love you still, if you now outgrow it. I will love you more whether time moves forward or backwards. Whether ice melts or water freezes back. Whether your next move is protection, breakthrough, shift, or any combination. There are at least three ways to love you: as you were, as you are, as you will be. I love you. That means I choose all three.” Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals
Being human is hard. All of us experience our share of pain, often starting from the time we are very young. Maybe you weren’t able to safely express your anger or sadness growing up. Or perhaps your caregivers were undependable. Or maybe you were bullied as a child, leaving your authentic self feeling rejected and attacked. Grief, loss, abandonment, violence, racism, systemic oppression – as humans we encounter an infinite list of suffering.
And yet we endure. We live, we love, we participate in the world. We develop strategies – often at a very young age – to protect ourselves, make meaning of the world, and exist despite deep underlying pain. If you were bullied in school, perhaps you developed a keen ability to defend yourself – attack before getting attacked. If your parents didn’t have the capacity to understand and hold your emotions, perhaps you learned how to stuff down your anger and sadness so nobody – including yourself – could notice. If you grew up with inattentive or absent caregivers, perhaps you learned how to avoid becoming to attached in relationships to protect yourself from the pain of abandonment.
Whatever the pain, we develop strategies.
Just like any strategy, there are times when the strategy is helpful and times when the strategy feels like a trap. We often find ourselves continuing to cling on to our early strategies with a vice grip. The thought of letting go of that strategy feels terrifying. Often, we may not even know that an alternate way of being exists.
And here is just one of the reasons I love this passage from Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ book. As a therapist, strategies are the focus of many of my sessions. And as a fellow human with my own fair share of adaptive strategies, they are the focus of my own personal therapy sessions, too. (Yes, therapists go to therapy!) You might be someone who feels that you are your strategies. The idea that you have a core Self that exists beyond your adaptations to pain may sound strange. Richard Schwartz, in his book No Bad Parts, calls this the Self. He writes, “The Self is in everybody…Furthermore, the Self cannot be damaged, the Self doesn’t have to develop, and the Self possesses its own wisdom about how to heal internal as well as external relationships.”
Maybe you’re someone who is aware of your strategies, and is frustrated at them. You might say things like, “I hate this part of myself,” or, “I hate that I do this.” We recognize that this strategy isn’t our true self, but we end up attacking the strategy, abusing it, rejecting it, wishing it out of existence. When we do this, we feel it. It hurts. We turn against ourselves. We abandon our Self, with all its complexities, wisdom, and experience.
I’m going to invite you to try a little exercise.
We’re going to return to Gumbs’ passage. But before you do, take a moment to slow down. Soften your gaze, maybe cast your eyes downward. If it feels ok and you’ve done it before, close them. Take some deep belly breaths. Begin to notice how it feels inside your body. Make any adjustments to help yourself feel a little more comfortable. Begin to bring to mind a strategy. Something you learned as a child to protect yourself, to get through the world, to make things a little less scary and a little more manageable. Don’t think too hard – just notice whatever comes up. It’s ok if you don’t fully understand the strategy – you don’t have to know all the details. Notice what it’s like to hold this strategy in your mind’s eye. If you notice any judgments or criticisms coming in, that’s ok. Notice them, name them, and then try to soften once again. See if you can hold this strategy with a gentle, curious gaze. Once you feel ready, open your eyes and read Gumbs’ passage again. After you’ve read the words, close your eyes or soften your gaze. Go back to that place inside. What are you noticing? Has anything shifted? Before reading the rest of this post, take some moments to sit in quiet and reflect on this experience. Or jot it down in a journal.
The goal of this exercise is to help you and your strategies soften. After all, telling any part of ourselves to cut it out, get over it, to go away, will likely cause that part to feel even more pain and suffering. What is already gripping tightly will likely grip even tighter. By beginning to treat our strategies with honor and curiosity, we begin to make a little more space. Space for understanding the strategy. Space for learning what the strategy has to say (odds are, this strategy has a lot of experience and wisdom to share). Space for learning what the strategy is afraid of (often, strategies remain stuck in painful experiences, unaware that it’s safe to let go a little bit). And space to start to have a dialogue with that strategy – after all, there are times we may still want to use it.
It’s crucial to note that during times of active trauma, honoring our survival strategies is especially important. We need to feel some safety in our minds and bodies in order to shift and expand. Sometimes, we use a strategy and we use it for good reason. Bringing awareness to our strategies helps us notice whether the danger has passed, or whether it’s still occurring.
We are not stagnant beings. The process of healing is a process of movement and a process of love. As Gumbs so beautifully writes, healing means holding our past, present, and future parts with reverence. In honoring our strategies, we grow closer to our true Self.
To learn more about Alexis Pauline Gumbs and to purchase Undrowned, go to: