The nurse asked me, "Are you afraid of tight spaces?" "No, not really", I responded. "I should be fine." Looking back, I now realize this is the moment I started getting anxious. I was disconnected from my anxiety because my Strong Shannon part of me quickly came online. The part of me which takes charge, protecting me from feeling scared and fearful. I know this part all too well. This part has convinced me of many things:
- I am strong. I don't need to feel scared.
- Being weak will just make things fall apart.
- Others have faced worse so "toughen up buttercup".
Strong Shannon has definitely served a role and purpose, getting me through many past challenges. I needed her. I still need her. She is an important part of me. However, when she automatically takes over, as she did in this moment, another part of me is ignored; FEAR. Fear does not like being dismissed so easily. Fear started acting out, demanding validation, attention and understanding.
We all have a variety of parts designed to protect us from painful and uncomfortable feelings. Our parts may vary based on past experiences and ways we have learned to adapt. But, we all have them. Some typical ones that show up are:
- People Pleaser
- Busy Bee
- The Fixer
- The Aggressor/Anger
How does Anger protect us? Well, if we hurt or feel rejected, Anger takes over and gives us a sense of control. Anger may give us space or sets a boundary, which makes us feel safe and protected from further hurt or rejection. Sometimes Anger surfaces to gain connection. Wait a minute? What?? Let me explain...If we are feeling disconnected from someone, we might lash out, hoping the other person feels bad and tries to apologize or make up for whatever they did or didn't do.
In the face of hurt, fear, and pain, Humor can also take over to distract us from uncomfortable feelings. What better way to take over feeling hurt other than using humor? If we are laughing and joking, we present to others and convince ourselves that 'everything is fine'. Your attempts at making me feel insecure or rejected are unsuccessful. If I can laugh at you, I prove; you can't hurt me. Humor can sometimes be a mask used to bury our insecurities and hurt.
After I answered the nurse, I started making jokes and chatting about our professions. While she prepped me for my MRI, I continued with the jokes and commented on the weather (Why do we always default to the weather in small talk?) As you can probably tell, Hijack Humor was also present with Strong Shannon, working over-time, to prevent fear from introducing itself. Laying on the table, face down, with an IV recently inserted, Frantic Fear started getting louder. When I go back to that moment, I imagine Frantic Fear jumping up and down, screaming, "I'm here, my dear! It's me, Frantic Fear". Let me be honest with you, Frantic Fear had been around even before this MRI took place. I had been ignoring her for some time. Busy Bee sprang into action as soon as I received my diagnosis. I had appointments to schedule. Tests to take. Labs to be drawn. Kids to care for. Lifestyle changes to make.
With each click of the machine, I was put further and further, into what appeared to be a 'torture tunnel'. My breath sped up, ears started ringing and my thoughts became louder and less helpful. "I can see why so many people complain about MRIs". "It really does feel like I am in a casket". "I really can't move". "There is no escape". And, at that very last click, the click that signified the torture tunnel had me completely surrounded, Frantic Fear finally received my attention. Strong Shannon and Hijack Humor had been working hard. They were exhausted and couldn't push back Frantic Fear any more. I started banging on the tunnel, repeating, "Get me out of here!" "Get me out of here!"
As I was exiting the tunnel, I began to breath slower and deeper. I asked the nurses, "What do I do? I need to complete this test". They mentioned a couple of options. Then, the nurse, who I had been chatting with earlier said, "I hate to tell a therapist what to do in this situation but some people think of their safe place." Oh my goodness!! YES!!, my safe place. I have one! I can go there! I told her to put me back in that 'tranquil tunnel' -see how that changed? For the next 45 minutes, I imagined lush green vegetation, birds chirping and feeling the soft texture of grass beneath me. My body relaxed. My thoughts changed. I was grateful I had time to visit my safe place. I missed it.
I still had the IV in my arm. The table beneath me was still hard and cold. The MRI machine was still very loud. Nothing about the situation changed, within those couple of minutes, except my thoughts and focus.
Once the sympathetic nervous system is turned on, it is difficult to access all of our inner strengths and healing resources. We are on automatic pilot. We are preparing for danger and our body responds. Mindfulness, deep breathing, body sensation awareness and imagination allow for our parts to be aware of each other. Once there is awareness, those parts can work with each other in order for all of our parts' needs to be met. In this example, Strong Shannon was an automatic response. She ignored Frantic Fear. We can all use support and reminders, once our sympathetic nervous system activates. Even therapists.
If Frantic Fear had been able to communicate, "I am scared. I am feeling overwhelmed. I need help", all the parts could have decided, who would be best to validate, acknowledge and support Frantic Fear? Maybe Mrs. Mindfulness or Self-compassion Sloth (For some reason, I think of sloths for self compassion. They must have tons of self-compassion for sleeping and laying around all day) might have been better choices. The important distinction is choosing versus reacting in stressful situations. We need to be calm, present and aware in order to choose. We need not bully or ignore parts of ourselves that are uncomfortable, painful or difficult. Those parts also have needs, messages and feelings. When we use curiosity, exploration, and investigation to explore our parts, we won't be hijacked by them.
I know this may seem odd or unfamiliar to look at ourselves, as all these different parts. It does not mean we 'black out' and lose sight of who we are. It means me have learned to adapt, needing different parts of ourselves, in different situations. (The movie, Inside Out , does a beautiful job at explaining our different parts and feelings) Often, especially when we are experiencing anxiety, we have parts in conflict with each other.
- One part of me wants to go to this party and make new friends. One part of me wants to stay on the couch, Netflixing it all night.
- One part of me is really excited about this new opportunity. Another part of me is terrified.
- One part of me is angry with you. Another part of me understands why you are upset.
- One part of me wants to move on. Another part of me wants everything to stay the same.
- One part of me is sad. Another part of me is grateful.
Next time you are under stress or in a new or unfamiliar situation, notice what part of you comes online and is in charge? Explore that part.
- How does it talk/act?
- What is it possibly protecting?
- What does that part need?
- What would it like to say?
- What is its purpose?
- How would you describe that part?
- What are the beliefs of that part?
- What body sensations do you notice as you connect to this part?
- What is this part's roles and responsibilities?
Just as you would take time to get to know a new, potential friend. Sit down and get to know yourself a little better. Have fun with this exercise. Don't take it to seriously. Explore and be curious!