This month's newsletter is the first of a series focusing on the needs of the parent or care-giver of someone with special needs.
Do you ever feel overwhelmed "being the parent" and want someone to just understand on a cellular level exactly what your on-going experience is? Does your window of tolerance get stretched so far you feel you will either burst in frustration or faint from despair?
That's where I repeatedly find myself in relationship with my child when his nervous system is heightened, and the energy feels really big. My nervous system alerts me that my cup is nearing empty and I'm in dire need of some empathy! And while being heard by others with care and empathy can be immensely calming, sometimes we must find ways to give ourselves some compassion when we are alone.
I recognize that in the heat of my experience, a part of me believed the pain of disconnection will last forever. Nothing will ever change, no one will ever want to hang out with us, we're too much, we're too different, it's just too hard to be around us. Lost in the ever present past, I felt shame spread across my cheeks and I hung my head, weary to the bone, utterly hopeless. I remember sitting with the question, "How can I keep my cup full enough to stay present with unconditional love and acceptance, especially in the midst of perceiving hard, forceful energy coming at me?"
Ah, I now see with clarity that I needed to be present to myself with unconditional love and acceptance first.
When I felt a sense of urgency to find some way out of my empathy deficit and was not able in the moment to reach out to others for support, I got out my deck of GROK* "Needs/Values" cards. As I sat down at the table I began to sort them, one at a time, into two piles; one pile of needs/values that resonated with me (meaning I noticed a sensation in my body while I focused on the card) and another pile of needs/values cards that had virtually no effect on me. Out of 54 cards, 33 of them resonated with me. Wow - that symbolized a lot of needs/values. I noticed as I named that, my body shifted and relaxed every so slightly.
I took the 33 cards and placed them into clusters of needs/values, under the seven basic human needs (connection, integrity, play, peace, well-being, meaning and choice). I saw that the cluster under the need for connection was really big - 16 cards in that cluster; connection, consideration, compassion and empathy, to matter and belong, predictability, to be heard, help & support, trust, understanding, respect, dependability, shared reality, reassurance, to have my intentions seen, and friendship. As I went over them a second time, I let out a long sigh and felt my abdomen released. The simplicity of seeing myself, hearing myself, and mattering to myself by this very act of taking time for myself - was such an unexpected gift.
I focused on the second largest cluster of needs/values and counted seven cards; peace, harmony, ease and comfort, hope, balance, order, and efficiency. Ahh...the tension in my shoulders let go and I took a deep breath. I realized how deeply I longed to live my dream of peace and harmony on earth, and for the experience to offer ease and comfort, especially in relationship with my child. With a renewed sense of hope I picked up a smaller cluster; self-expression, appreciation, meaning and purpose, and mourning. Oh, mourning was a biggie. Mourning the lack of integration and self-connection to be able to express with contingent communication. Longing for enough-ness no matter what the environment holds!
Next, as I focused on the remaining cards, I noticed a couple of them stood out brighter than any others in the stack - safety and choice. Oh yeah, when I perceived my neuroception of safety was threatened, my prefrontal cortex (where my ability to be present and make conscious choice resides) becomes dim and inhibited. Simultaneously, my amygdala (my emotional alarm system) will light up prioritizing safety above all else! This automatic response has been conditioned into my nervous system by my previous life experiences. I could see now that in those moments, unless I consciously tap into resonant empathy fast, I may quickly perceive myself as a victim of my environment.
A few days later I experienced another crisis of imagination and my window of tolerance was stretched beyond belief with strong, forceful energy. Fortunately, I remembered to grab my deck of cards again, and guess what? Nearly all the very same needs/values resonated with me again.
"Amazing," I thought. Only this time, as I sorted them into clusters and sat with each cluster to tune into my core needs/values, I discovered my longing for safety and choice had shifted subtly. The distinction was now, "How can I experience staying clear with my own intention, in order to offer myself and others unconditional love and presence? How do I keep myself and others safe while engaging with the big energy that comes up in life?"
What I learned on this journey was how vital it is as a parent, to have empathy support. Especially when feeling overwhelmed with the emotions of anger or fear. When you experience being held with care and compassion by another being, while processing your experience (including bodily sensations) the pathways between the prefrontal cortex and amygdala are strengthened. With repeated experiences of being accompanied, you may begin to experience the ability to remain present in environments where you previously felt overwhelmed. In these moments of clarity; the practice of seeing yourself with compassion and making empathy guesses around what your needs/values are (self-empathy) will broaden the neural pathway while strengthening your resilience. Taking the time to journal our self-empathy experiences can support our capacity to further integrate new information as we make meaning from our narrative.
When I am empowered to slow down, to hold my inner experience with compassionate understanding, a shift deep within my being is felt. My eyes are opened to perceive the beauty of conscious living from this radically different paradigm. In this space, a playfulness emerges that reminds me of carefree, warm sunny days, and the delight I experienced as a child awakens within me once more.