I’ve done a lot of growing and healing this year. Things I’ve been struggling with for decades I have finally been able to work through and I’ve begun implementing healthier habits in my life.
A really important one has been standing up for myself and enforcing boundaries.
I’ve always had a peacekeeper personality and I’ve always been able to see pretty much every point of view in a conflict. And though it usually gets me in trouble, I also usually defend or validate different points of view in the hopes of nurturing some empathy and finding common ground.
This is all well enough until I realized I had validated way too much in other people and instead of holding space for them I was holding their disrespectful behavior and attitudes. And they were more than happy to keep handing it over instead of using the support I was offering to work on themselves.
Something had to change. Of course, the change was very complicated with lots of different factors including my having to acknowledge that I often hid behind my peacekeeper ways and used my peacekeeper personality to justify not working on the areas within myself that needed help (I’m just trying to help so obviously everything I do is right!)
Well anyway, along with that internal work I had to also begin standing up for myself and enforcing boundaries.
Problem is whenever I tried to do that I would freeze, stumble over my words, and literally shake.
It’s not like I can’t handle conflict. I actually see conflict and change as good things that bring about needed action. I fiercely need authenticity in my life and conflict is usually at least honest and gets people talking. In several past jobs I’ve been given the feedback that I am skilled in conflict management so it’s not just my ego talking, here.
So, yes, I can handle conflict if I am mediating between two people or the group. But when someone confronts me one on one or I allow myself to feel the fact I am saying something to stand up for myself (not the group or another person) then I literally start shaking. Like. Badly.
My hands will visibly shake, my knees will tremble, and my teeth will chatter.
It’s probably no surprise that people notice when that happens. And if they’re trying to bully me or win an argument they don’t just step back and hold space for my shaking. They get even more confident and dictate the conversation.
I despised this. I knew what I wanted to say but I couldn’t get the words out. Once I even bit my tongue trying to talk because I was chattering so much. Sometimes because I couldn’t get words out I’d end up getting frustrated and just spouting some loud, basic, defensive something that I didn’t even mean to say.
Unfortunately, I was finding myself in this situation more often because I was trying hard to enforce boundaries that were long overdue. And my issue with shaking and freezing was causing a lot of destruction and making already bad relationships worse.
I needed to do something.
I went to my husband and we talked about it a lot. I knew I was capable of standing up for myself— I did it all the time in my marriage. In fact my husband has told me many times that my assertiveness and standing up for myself is one of the reasons he married me. I’ve never had a shaking episode talking (or arguing) with him. But our relationship is safe. We don’t lie to each other or try to get our way over the other person’s wants or needs. We are on the same page and respect each other.
But not everyone else in the world is going to be that way and I really needed to work through this shaking issue.
After talking about it, my husband thought maybe I should look into assertiveness training. He found some resources and good books for me. I talked with a counselor.
Turns out I was already doing a lot of the things outlined in assertiveness training. I could identify when my boundaries were not being respected. I did not avoid conflicts or difficult conversations. I often scripted what I wanted to say. There were a lot of times in which I could effectively say “no.” I used “I” statements and did my best to take accountability for my role in the situation.
I learned a few new things but when I tried to test them out I ended up shaking or just defensively exploding. It was miserable knowing what and how to communicate but not being able to make my body cooperate.
So then I decided I just needed to calm down. I turned to my spiritual principles like I often do in trying times.
I’ve been practicing Buddhist ideas since high school so I dove into my toolbox of meditation and mindfulness. I knew I could self soothe and find my center and be calm and be mindful. So I tried to purposefully do that as much as possible, hoping this calm would follow me into these shake-inducing situations.
I found I could be calm in my kitchen or my car or even when dealing with difficult patrons or arguments at work.
But then as soon as I was confronted with the triggering situation of actually standing up for myself, no amount of past practice or deep breathing/mindfulness on the spot stopped me from shaking.
And in my head I would just make it worse. I would try to resist the shaking. Be assertive! Be calm! my brain would plead. You know how to do both of those things! But I would shake anyway and immediately feel like a failure. And once again I would find myself ruminating over a disastrous conversation where I had been a shaking doormat who hadn’t said anything I meant to say.
In one advice book I read about having tough conversations it said something like: “think about what triggers of yours might come up in the conversation beforehand so you’ll be ready for them.”
But isn’t that what a trigger does? Triggers you? At least I now had identified I was being triggered and I needed to deal with that.
I finally found my answer in the book Moving Beyond Trauma by Ilene Smith. The book explores healing trauma using Somatic Experiencing (SE).
The whole book really helped me, but a couple passages in the book that are pertinent now:
“When trauma energy becomes trapped, the body interprets it as a survival mechanism. For example, if your nervous system freezes in response to trauma, you can get locked into a freeze state, which will re-emerge every time something triggers a sense of danger. Same with fight and flight. Energy becomes trapped when we are unable to see a traumatic event through to completion. In other words, trauma occurs when we lose our sense of safety and it is only resolved when the body is restored to safety.” Pages 74-75
“No matter how much we try to detach or cognitively override a feeling, our emotions and embodied sensations can’t be rationalized away. All this accomplishes is blocking us from moving through the experience and expunging the energy.” Page 94
The idea struck me like lightning. My mind was saying “You’ve got this” but my body did not agree.
No matter how assertive or calm I could be, when confronted with my trigger of standing up for myself, I wasn’t healed and my body was not going to act like everything was safe, even if it was. I was still going to shake.
Now I’ve been into SE for a bit though not in any therapeutic sense. Mostly as a companion to meditation and mindfulness and the Buddhist ideals I had been weaving into my life. But as I have explored more deeply, I’ve started to really understand the mind-body connection. It finally clicked.
Another piece of this is that I also started thinking about my trigger in a serious way. I realized I had always downplayed my need to speak up for myself and how not being heard in my past had impacted me. I kept telling myself: you’ve survived kidney failure and had dead body bone chips fused to your spine and live with nerve damage… feeling unheard is not a serious problem, get over it. I spoke with a therapist friend who gently encouraged me to begin thinking more about this downplaying and that was very helpful.
Thus, I finally acknowledged that feeling unheard was a serious problem and leaving it unresolved was interfering with my well-being.
Once I took my problem seriously, I could see that my shaking was a defense mechanism. My body was intervening to protect me from feeling unsafe.
That’s when it really clicked. Instead of resisting or feeling like a failure because I was shaking, I wondered what would happen if I acknowledged my body was trying to help me… and I let it. What if I just let myself shake instead of fighting it?
Soon enough, I was confronted with a “stand up for yourself” moment and the shaking began. And I said out loud, “Just a second. I know I’m shaking… just let me and then I’ll continue.” I leaned into the shake and it subsided. And for the first time I got my words out. (The person was so surprised it ended the conversation.)
This was where healing started. I took all this new perspective and information and started practicing. It wasn’t perfect. But slowly, it started working.
Indeed, another passage from Moving Beyond Trauma says:
“This work shouldn’t feel hard, because as we continue to practice these new behaviors on a consistent basis, our nervous system begins to learn something new. It starts to learn what it feels like to settle, and settling is soothing. It is your nervous system’s natural state, so it wants to go there, and can teach itself to go there naturally when it is provided some space and a little bit of instruction along the way.” Page 140
Things have improved a lot. When I need to enforce a boundary I’ll still get a little shaky but it will soon subside and I can get my words out. I’ve stood up for myself in ways that would have been impossible before. I’m not as afraid of what people will say or how they will behave when I stand up for myself.
Which isn’t to say people are behaving nicely. They are indeed being mean or offended or argumentative. But now I can hold my own and afterwards I am proud with how I handled my end of the situation. I feel peace with the things I said or did not say. Fear doesn’t control me as much and I can make better decisions.
Of course, the information I learned from exploring assertiveness and the stability I’ve gained from mindfulness and meditation are important and helpful tools that I have added to my life. But they did not take the place of deep healing.
There are many more ways SE has helped me recently and ways that healing has helped me change unhealthy or unhelpful habits in my life. I hope sharing this one way might help someone else out there.
Til next time: Be sharp, be delicate.