When I am feeling wobbly and am struggling, the most powerful thing that can help me is the feeling of being connected to someone who cares. It is something I have struggled with a lot of my life and so when it happens, it feels pretty magical and special. I have found it a bit easier to find that connection in nature, with animals and birds than with people on the whole.
It is one of the main things I learned about in Compassion Focused Therapy which I wrote about a while back. Connection links us to a soothing mechanism in our brains that helps with turning down our threat system – the “smoke alarm” that is usually what cause so much trouble for me.
The problem with interpersonal trauma and that caused by people you trust especially, is that this soothing system is also linked to more threat and danger. So soothing starts to feel impossible. Especially in the presence of other human beings. And so begins a great deal of isolation and difficulty connecting with other people.
But with compassion focused therapy I learned to gently begin exploring connection in a safe way. I started by practicing, using imagery to try to imagine what a feeling of safe connection with a “perfect safe space” would be like and later on to what connection to a “perfect compassionate companion” would be like.
This very quickly gave me lots to work with in terms of working out what I didn’t like about this feeling and why I didn’t trust even this imaginary creature! But as I practice, I learn to more easily identify and feel more comfortable with that feeling. I have learned to treasure these magical moments of soothing connection as they become more available to me. Not only for what they are, but also because they show me how things can change for me.
One of the most memorable such magical moments for me was realising I really trusted my then-therapist. Realising I could tell her the most difficult thing I could think of using my words, and face to face – a way I rarely communicate actual feelings, nevermind ones this overwhelming. I don’t think I had ever been that vulnerable or shown my whole self to someone like that before. And to my extraordinary relief, she responded in the most compassionate and understanding way possible. I know therapy isn’t all about “breakthrough moments” but this moment felt exactly like that – though I know that if we hadn’t then maintained a trusting a relationship for months afterwards, I doubt I’d still feel anything had shifted.
It was a moment when trust had just pushed through the surface of the soil where it had been nurtured and poked its little leaves out. It was still very fragile and needed to be made stronger but that was the moment it suddenly became visible.
I formed a trusting connection whilst truly vulnerable and the power of that still remains. There are times when I try to use compassion focused therapy meditations or imagery exercises and I cannot. There are times when I feel entirely unreachable. But there are also times I feel almost unreachable. During those times, the recordings I have of imagery exercises read aloud by my therapist are more able to reach me than anything else. I feel able to let her voice in when noone elses’ will be allowed. I am able to listen at first and then when I feel a bit more ready, able to listen and follow the “safe space” exercise. But only with this recording, of this person, from this time in my life.
Moments of connection do not just happen in therapy, but also in my real life relationships – and more so, now I practice these exercises – a photo, a card or a little trinket given to me by someone who cares for me can also do a similar thing. As can photos of those special moments in nature when I suddenly felt safe, free and soothed by the beauty in front of me.
When we talk about trauma, we often talk about triggers – things that connect us again with a difficult or dangerous time, that throw our brains into that threat-focused state. I like to think of reminders of these magical moments as “positive triggers”. And like the other kind, they can be smells, sounds, sights or tastes. I use smells (lavender) when using my “safe space” imagery to try to link that feeling of safeness to a smell I can take with me wherever I go in everyday life. And I know that the light shining through the leaves of various trees in my safe space imagery, is something that feels extra special when I encounter the same light and trees in real life. We do have to nurture these positive triggers a lot more than we do the other kind that seem so easy to form and so difficult to shed, but we can do and they can make a difference in dark times.
I’ve created these little cards specifically to try and start the seeds of some positive triggers for people who are struggling. Instead of sending a card-sized card, these little designs are credit-card sized to fit easily in a wallet. They can be carried with them wherever they go and remind them of the person who cares for them and sent them the card.
They are made from recycled cotton t-shirts – so you could add some drops of your favourite smelly to them (maybe on the back so as not to discolour the design), they look pretty (I hope!), they feel nice and they have a little space on the back for a crisis number, a personal message from a friend or other reminder. You can get matching stickers as an extra reminder to place on a phone cover, at your work desk or somewhere else helpful.
If you are are currently committed to, or on a journey of developing self-compassion and able to handle such a gesture, you could even buy one for yourself!