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How to face your fears of being seen and being visible

Being seen or being visible is something that a lot of us struggle with, myself included. As some of you may be aware, at We are Vega, we recently launched our YouTube channel, talking about lots of issues to do with mental health and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. Both my daughter and I had our own issues with being seen and we had many discussions around this. Being seen or visible is also something that comes up a lot in my therapy sessions with different clients.

To begin with I had to really confront my own issues, which often sounded like,’I look rubbish’,  ‘my hair is all wrong’, ‘I’m too old’, ‘people might not like this’, ‘I’m boring’. The list went on and on as I thought about it. I also realised that I could have replaced any of these with other concerns that I had twenty years ago, and they weren’t in fact the underlying reasons. I was afraid of being harshly judged, criticised, ridiculed, or shamed. When I looked at the likelihood of this actually happening, I realised the chances were minimal as most people I interact with are kind and respectful. I also considered how much I don’t judge people on these things, I admire people for stepping up and putting themselves out there, so why was I concerned that others would be doing the opposite to me? I admire people who can just be themselves and be comfortable in their own natural way, therefore, I concluded that I was probably typical of most people, and that my fears were unfounded.

Why do other people struggle with being visible or seen?

This process isn’t so simple for a lot of my clients however, who have been traumatised and left with deep wounds around being humiliated. For many of these people and their past experiences, the consequences of being noticed or seen was catastrophic and their best defence was to be as quiet and as invisible as possible. For anyone who was bullied at school, their experience of being seen was terrible, as they were often picked on and laughed at. Going unnoticed was usually the best defence in this case.

When people have had experiences like this, it’s not just simply an exercise of reassurance to change it. Being seen can be triggering and it sets off the fight, flight or freeze responses. The work to heal and repair these traumas has to be safe, gentle, and in no way a replication of the initial trauma. When we understand how these things play out and that they are just a part of our survival response, then we also know that it’s going to take some work to repair and change things. For some people, it can feel threatening or uncomfortable to try and notice themselves. Their head may tell them that it’s because they don’t like themselves, or that they can’t stand the way they look. This tells us that we need to begin repairing this relationship to ourselves.

How can we start learning to be okay with being seen?

We can start this process really simply. For example, using what I do in Sensorimotor work, we can try moving our feet in a pattern, and just observing them and feeling them as they move. We can then try creating a different narrative in our head. So, instead of criticism, we say something a little bit softer and more accepting like, ‘I can see my feet moving, and it’s ok’. I also get clients to try and notice how tight their shoulders are, making sure they are wary of any voice that might pop up to say that they are wrong. If it does pop up, then they can just let it pass, and try to just notice how tight their shoulders are and what might help to relieve some of the tension. Sometimes, they might like a supportive hand resting there, they might like to feel a bit of pressure from the hand, or feel like their shoulder is being held. Our shoulders will soon let you know what is working and what isn’t.

When we can start to observe ourselves and not criticise ourselves so much, it enables us to hear the information that we get from our body about what starts to happen when we are seen. Some people will feel themselves disconnect from their environment, their vision might become blurry, or they may start to shrink or go very still, which is the beginning of a freeze response. The key to finding resources which will help us get out of these responses, are going to be things that we do, but no one can see us doing them.

How our body can help us

When we start to disappear in our own unique way, we will have likely become disconnected from our body, therefore, the most effective thing we can do is to stay connected to our body and help it to function and move. We can get connected back to our body using small, simple resources, thing like tensing the muscles in your arms and releasing them can help. Another could be, keeping your toes moving inside your shoes, or tensing and releasing your stomach muscles. Another thing to try could be to gently rub your arms, to try to get the feeling back in them. If you can find something to lean on, you can try pushing yourself against it to help you feel more solid.

It’s just about finding an access point through your body and through your senses. Once you can change that initial response, your body will spontaneously move and work again. This way, instead of it being something that you have no control over, you can actually manage it and stay present. Being noticed isn’t then so terrifying, because you are managing it. It will automatically make you feel less vulnerable and more able to stand your ground. You don’t have to be locked into the shadows of your past, once we understand what’s happening and why, we can do something really positive about it.

I still feel nervous when a video is going out on We are Vega, but also excited. The more we do and the more we put out, the easier it feels and the more confident I feel about doing different things.

The kinder we can be too ourselves and others around us, the easier this process of being seen and being visible will be for everyone.

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How past experiences can still affect us today

It’s been an established fact by a lot of therapeutic modalities that our past experiences can have a profound effect on the way that we behave, react and relate to others, in relationships. A lot of talking therapies require clients to dig deep into their past to try and explain their present day symptoms or behaviours. This can be helpful for a lot of people and can also assist with making sense of things happening to them right now. However, it’s not always that simple, and it isn’t a good option for people who have no memory of their experiences. A lot of Catriona’s clients have little to no memory of their childhood, their recall can be sketchy or even non-existent. All they are aware of is their repeating patterns of behaviour, or that their reactions to things or people seem to make no sense. They usually find that these behaviours are really hard to change. They aren’t aware of how their past experiences are affecting their lives today.

When Catriona is working with clients, whatever behaviours they are exploring, whether it’s eating patterns, obsessive traits, anxiety about certain things, she always views them with an acceptance. Accepting that at some point in the clients lives, this behaviour was a solution to a problem and it made sense back then. Therefore, if that was a solution, we can then be curious about what it was a solution for. If you have grown up in an environment which was unpredictable or volatile, then a good solution will have been to shrink yourself and be as quiet, still, and invisible as possible. It may have even been the best solution to freeze and be completely still, or to dissociate. These responses don’t then simply disappear when you change your environment or when you grow up, as our coping mechanisms can follow us and play out wherever we go. If it feels like these coping mechanisms or behaviours are no longer needed but still keep happening, they change from being a solution, to something that actually gets in the way or causes problems.

The freeze response might show up again in the present day at any sign of potential conflict, or in a situation that you would have perceived as threatening when you were much younger. Clients will notice that their breathing gets tight and shallow, or they may be unable to move or think about what to do, or even speak to ask for help. They may be completely oblivious to the trigger that’s just come up and just come to the conclusion that there’s something wrong with them. These responses can then very easily get misdiagnosed, or treated with the wrong medication, resulting in no understanding about what’s happening to them and no improvement in their condition.

It’s very hard to just stop behaviours if they are hard-wired into our survival system, even if we can have some success, it usually takes a huge amount of effort. It feels like an ongoing, never-ending battle, which can be exhausting and demoralising.

However, sometimes when we grow up, go to uni, get a job, meet new friends, or get into relationships, these behaviours and coping mechanisms can start to fade and sometimes even stop. But if we then have a new traumatic experience or something happens in our life that reduces our resilience, or triggers any past events, then these behaviours can suddenly reappear. When this happens to us, we always blame it on what’s going in the present and we often don’t recognise that something from our past might have been triggered, as there isn’t always an obvious connection between the two.

A light bulb in hands representing energy levels

The great thing about working with the body, is that your body will tell your story. When you can learn to notice and track what your body is doing, you can then question why a certain behaviour might have been a really good response in the past. You can then begin to make links to the present and try to make sense of what’s happening to you. Once you can do that, you can explore different resources to find a new solution which allows the body to have a new present-moment experience. If you are in a freeze response, then you can find something that will help you to unfreeze, in a new, safe way. That way, when the past triggers you again, you will recognise the early signs of the trigger, as they will be consistent, and you can then resource yourself so you don’t freeze or shut down. This allows you to be in control and not let past events take over what is happening right now.

Just because you don’t know why you might react in certain ways, we can always assume that there was once a good reason for this, and it was a solution at the time. If you tend to get overly anxious, or you have panic attacks, then you can find some resources to help your breathing and then use them before the anxiety gets a chance to build. This way you can heal from the past without having to go over all the details of what happened to you.

Our past will always be there but the influence it has over us can be massively reduced and we can heal from the past experiences that have happened to us.

Our Body Work Course is a really way to start understanding your body and connections to your past experiences, we put it together to help you learn to understand the different behaviours and messages from your body, to help put you back in control of yourself. You can check out the course here, or send us any questions you may have here.

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How to successfully manage your extreme behaviours

I realised recently how much I work on ‘extremes’ with people, managing their extreme behaviours in multiple areas of their lives, a real ‘all or nothing’. One of the areas of extreme behaviours they struggle with is eating. This looks like them either trying to eat a totally clean, organic, healthy diet or finding themselves in a loop of fast food, ready meals and snacks. This can then ramp up to fluctuating between eating practically nothing or binge eating.

Another extreme is exercising, where they really go for it, fitting in as many sessions as possible, or they do the opposite, doing nothing, maybe just thinking about exercising, then watching Netflix instead. Alcohol is another extreme they struggle with, either drinking way more in the week than they were planning to, or going for abstinence. Smoking and any form of drug use also falls into this subject, either doing loads or trying to abstain totally.

There will be all sorts of places in our lives that we can see the same kinds of patterns. If we name the clean abstinence and highly motivated phase as ‘Phase 1’ and the other end of the spectrum as ‘Phase 2’, we can look at how they play out.

The problem with extreme behaviours, is that we end up swinging between the two phases, sometimes slowly but sometimes rapidly. It’s then easy to feel defeated, unmotivated and negative, as we don’t feel like we’re making any progress, or if we do make any progress, we can’t maintain it.

If we are in Phase 1 and we’re really keeping on track with our plan, but then something comes along to interrupt it, it can throw us off course completely. Sometimes one little slip or diversion can send us back into Phase 2. Internally, this might sound like, ‘well I messed up yesterday so I might as well just start again next week’. The more often this happens, the more time we tend to spend in Phase 2. We plan to get out of it but will find various reasons to delay the big shift it takes to move all the way over to Phase 1 again. During this time we’ll be very negative about ourselves. We might be making plausible excuses to tell ourselves and others why it’s too difficult, but we end up just berating ourselves.

So how can we make a change?

Deep down we know that this process isn’t really working, that we’re just going in constant cycles, yet we keep doing it anyway. Most of us have heard things like ‘diets don’t work’, ‘it’s about making changes in our lifestyle’ but it can be really hard to do things differently.

I can relate all these things to regulation issues. Our nervous system doesn’t operate well when we’re in extremes, we work best when we are balanced and in control. Sometimes we know when we need to be more activated and energetic, and then when we need to be more relaxed, we need to recharge our batteries and settle. It’s the same way we go about meeting our needs and managing ourselves. If we know we have a tendency to live in extremes, then we have to be prepared to start building some middle ground, a place where we stop bouncing from Phase 1 to Phase 2, and back again.

To really start to do things differently, we have to be realistic about the things we really want to abstain completely from, the things we honestly know we can’t have moderation with. This is different for each of us, but it requires being honest with ourselves, and it usually includes evidence from our past experiences. We might want to be occasional smokers or drinkers, but if we know that one slip sends us into the extreme again, then we maybe have to accept that we can’t be occasional with it.

We also have to look at what we think or feel about the idea of a middle ground. Could it be that we consider it dull or boring, or not enough? Do we think of it as too easy? That things that are worth having, have to be hard-earned? Do we believe that unless it’s extreme, it might not work? Are we too impatient to build a middle ground? Do we just want fast results?

We have gotten used to a very immediate way of life, we rarely have to wait for anything anymore and can feel quite outraged if we are expected to wait for anything. To create change, we have to know what we really think about building that middle ground, as our thoughts will creep in at any opportunity, urging us to do more or less, telling us it’s a waste of time or not working. We then have to decide what our middle ground will look like, how much flexibility we can have in it, and what signs would be there that tells us that we’re slipping into either Phase 1 or Phase 2. We also have to consider what support we might need to help us build our middle ground, and to maintain it until it feels like the normal. It will be a struggle at some points, but we need to expect that. Regulation takes work, whether it’s keeping us in a settled functional state, or making big changes in our lifestyle. Therefore, we need to know what’s going on in order to help and what isn’t. If we are trying to do less of something, then we need to know what we are going to fill the gap with. We might need to have a bit of structure planned in. If we are forcing ourselves to do something, then we have to accept that it won’t last. Relying on others doing things with us is also precarious, in case they drop out.

The more balance we can get into our lives, the more regulated all round we are going to feel. If we are constantly stressing about not doing something, or doing too much of anything, it’s going to be really hard for your nervous system to keep in balance. A holistic approach is always the most successful and actually, the easiest! Making little tweaks in several different areas can make an overall big difference over time, but we need to be patient and keep an eye on our extreme tendencies. This way we can successfully manage our extreme behaviours.

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How developmental trauma shows up in the body

Most of us understand what a traumatic event is. We often associate it with an accident, an attack, something terrible that is witnessed, etc. We know that extreme events can cause PTSD and trauma, however, we often miss or don’t fully understand developmental trauma. This is what I treat day in, day out, it is far more common and goes misdiagnosed and mistreated.

When we are little, we have very few defence mechanisms, we are far more vulnerable and we’re not able to understand complex situations. It’s much easier for us to then be terrified and overwhelmed, things that we wouldn’t normally give a second thought about can be a big event when we’re little. We usually recover from one-off events and often we don’t remember them at all. However, if we are consistently scared, if our punishment has been overly harsh, or if we are regularly shamed or humiliated, then this can result in developmental trauma.

I have many clients who actually have no clear memory of their trauma, they often have virtually no childhood memories and therefore no idea why they are struggling. Developmental trauma can have many different presentations, like feeling highly anxious for no apparent reason, they are often fearful and scared to go out amongst people, they may have panic attacks or dissociate easily. They often have body-related problems like IBS or unidentified pain, they may often have eating disorders and body image difficulties. They also may have self harmed, have substance addictions or a series of failed relationships. They all know there is something wrong but it can be difficult finding out what exactly is wrong, why it’s affecting them the way it is, and most importantly, what they need to get better.

99% of my clients have had lots of different prescription medications over the years. Many of them have been diagnosed with BPD, bipolar, ADHD, plus many more. As the medical profession are not trained to spot and treat developmental trauma, because it doesn’t usually come with flashbacks, the symptoms are treated with medication and the most they will be offered is talking therapy. Developmental trauma affects the body, the nervous system, all the regulation systems, the way we move, our posture and certainly our behaviour. When I begin working with people, they often are totally unaware of the movements their body is making and the reactions they have to certain things. It’s my job to notice these often subtle things, to spot patterns of behaviour and feed that back to my client. This way they can start noticing too and being curious helps them observe what’s happening. Because we know everything happens for a reason, the way the body responds can give us a huge clue as to why this might have been an effective strategy.

The most frequent things that I notice are: them pulling away when they talking about something, they go really quiet and still, they lose the ability to move certain parts of their body, or one half of them trying to hide. Developmental trauma will often show up in particular parts of the body, it’s not an overall uniform response. Sometimes the left and right sides of the body do completely different things. Clients will often have a certain place they sense the trauma, if they pull away or begin glancing over to one side, this will be consistent every time a particular subject is mentioned or thought about.

We bring up small pieces of memory, or a recent triggering event, then observe what the body does and give it a different experience. If our body tries to disappear, then we have to find ways to be seen safely and use resources to help achieve this.

It’s really hard for people with developmental trauma to work out what’s happening. They are so used to the body responses they don’t notice them. Also, if we have an activated part of the body, our first instinct is to stay away from it, to not pay attention to it. It takes an experienced therapist to make sense of all of this and help to find different ways to help and heal. Once the client gets on the right path, they can do so much on their own. Additionally, sometimes the memory comes back when the body trauma is revealed, but not always.

If developmental trauma was more widely known and understood, it would save so much heartache and time for everyone, including expense. Almost everyone I see for the first time has an overwhelming sense of relief, that finally someone gets them and knows what is needed for them to get better. It shouldn’t be such a mystery, having a troubled childhood is sadly an all too common experience, we should know how to help this.

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How our attachments are formed as newborns

This is a topic that most people have some awareness of, however, what I hear from people is that they believe it’s complicated and confusing, but they also know that somehow it’s important and plays a big but unseen part in our lives.

Our ability to form an attachment is crucial for our survival. Newborn babies are completely dependent upon those looking after them to keep them alive, but they have very little means of communication. Initially, babies can only really cry, which is why they cry for everything they need. It’s the response to the crying, and how able or willing the caregiver/parent is to deal with it and to meet the babies needs, that forms the basis for attachment.

Obviously we don’t know how our own parents/caregivers responded or reacted, we only know what we’re told. However, their responses tend to be pretty consistent throughout our life. This can make it easier to work out what that experience was like when we were babies by assessing how our caregivers respond to us, even as adults.

Babies aren’t manipulative, difficult or controlling, they are very simple. It’s what happens in the relationship that can make things difficult. Having a baby to care for is totally exhausting, scary and all-consuming. It changes every aspect of life and can be a huge strain on adult relationships. None of us know how we will cope until it actually happens, but the more we can understand about the importance of attachment and what affect our actions will have in later life, the better.

The impact of the babies crying isn’t something we can prepare for and some days caregivers have more capacity to deal with it than others, that’s just normal. If we have enough support then we stand a better chance of being tolerant, kind and relaxed. If, when the baby cries the caregiver can respond quickly, acknowledge the distress, and set about trying to work out what the baby needs and get the baby settled and happy, then two things happen. Firstly, the baby learns that their crying is met with closeness and what’s distressing them is sorted out, even if it was trial and error, they get there in the end. Secondly, the carer learns that the baby’s crying is relatively quickly stopped and they are able to identify, through trial and error, what the problem was and solve it. This creates trust between baby and caregiver, and there’s more time for interaction. Then a level of understanding, empathy and love can develop between them.

The availability of the carer and ability to soothe the baby, gives the baby the experience of someone settling their nervous system and regulating them. This is crucial and allows the bond to deepen. The baby learns that proximity is a good thing and the carer also gains confidence in regulating the baby, but also their own nervous system. When the baby calms down, so does the caregiver.

If this is the experience for the majority of times, (not every time, because it’s tough going) then we form a secure attachment. This in turn means that with this confidence, the baby and caregiver can encourage independence, growth, a sense of joy in achievements, and a feeling of safety and consistency. The experience of an open, honest relationship therefore becomes familiar, and when we start to grow up, it’s honest, open relationships that we will be drawn to.

If however, there are factors that make it difficult when the baby cries, a different attachment will form. These I will explore in this series of blogs, which you can find on our website, released weekly every Thursday. Next week, I look at one of the most common attachment styles; ambivalent attachment.