Adaptations to stress are what allow living things to thrive in a hostile world. Many people have suffered some insult to their existence from which they needed to adapt. The changes to a person’s character from childhood trauma, moments of failure and embarrassment, and seemingly immovable obstacles can become ingrained in one’s personality. Many times these are invisible to the carrier of these reactive, protective traits. In fact, this philosophical theme has been echoed from Nietzsche to Star Wars.
“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.” – Friedrich W. Nietzsche
“You have allowed this dark lord to twist your mind until now… Until now, you have become the very thing you swore to destroy.” – Obi-Wan Kenobi to Anakin Skywalker.
Recently I was listening to Tim Ferris, an expert in world class performance, discuss the childhood abuse that haunted his personal and professional life – the impetus to this post. It occurred to me that no matter what station a person achieves, our humanity is what matters most. There’s also a story from Moby, a Grammy award winning recording artist from the 90’s, feeling suicidal at the apex of his career. If we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs we might expect that once we have security, a few friends, professional success, and prestige… fulfilment will naturally follow. Unfortunately this is not so. Seemingly insurmountable problems are more common than you might think.
“We all have shit on our shoes. We’ve just got to realize it so we don’t track it into the house.” – Karl Marlantes
To be the best you can be you will need to deal with that baggage in therapy, your spiritual path, and in other ways. Beyond the often prescribed treatments for trauma, I will describe some concepts that have been helpful to me personally. Most importantly I wish to share with you the reality that no matter the outward appearance, you are not alone in your struggle.
A person’s “shadow” can be thought of as that which unconsciously interferes with their ability to attain the highest and most venerable state. The hidden components of the psyche can hijack one’s life as in the cautionary tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Maladaptive behaviors are not something we can just willpower away. No matter what your concerns and goals, something inside of your mind (both conscious & unconscious neural activity) decides what is and what is not going to work in solving the problems confronting you. Whether you are aware of the impulses or not, your mind has circuitry that determines how you interact with the world. In order to achieve that which you desire, choices are made in how to get there. There is a concept of “waking up, growing up, cleaning up, & showing up” by Ken Wilber in which those who fail to confront the echoes of the past, and recognize their place in the “now” may drive contrary values without realizing such folly. Recognizing the shadow and confronting that which does and does not serve you takes work!
Gabor Mate is a physician that takes this concept further and explores the impact that trauma can have, specifically in addiction behaviors. Despite his personal success as a physician, Dr. Mate struggled personally and professionally to find satisfaction, eventually looking deeper into his own development and the scars from escaping the holocaust that haunted his adult life. Through meditation and medication treatments he was able to transcend inappropriate adjustments to his wife, his children, and his career.
Additionally there is a concept of “physical memory.” The idea that you are physiologically programmed with the experiences of the past. This is not always palpable, but has evidence in the way in which a person’s automated responses impact their character. Some call this the “Lizard Brain” or “Monkey Brain.” Conceptually this is the archaic and unaware, animal-like response to stress that can negatively impact your performance, relationships, and self-worth. De-programming the physiological patterns might require breath work, such as meditation, box-breathing, or reprogramming with exercises such as biofeedback or neurofeedback. My friend, Leah Lagos, PhD, helped train me in this exercise and I hope to share this with the department in a current initiative to explore the impact of daily HRV measurement and resonant breathing exercises on performance and wellbeing (email me for more information, the concept is also reviewed in the link to Tim Ferriss podcast above).
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