Updated: Feb 16
I. Encouraging/demanding secrets
People need to feel safe in coming forward with something they've survived or just feelings they have that need to be discussed. People need to feel like they can safely connect with another person (pets can help too). And that other person ideally is able to stay in their ventral vagal state of safety and provide co-regulation. Or maybe they can even mobilize to help the individual to get help. Both of these can help to keep a predator's victim from developing or remaining in a traumatized state.
Sadly, when maybe a parent is in their own stuck defensive state, their capacity to provide these things is hampered, to say the least (much more about parents in this blog/podcast episode). That parent or other adult might encourage their child to keep a secret, rather than provide safety for the child. They may even be the predator themselves. Either way, secrecy is encouraged. Being open about the danger in that child's life - and to the rest of the family unity - is discouraged. The child remains stuck.
On a more general level, we don't really encourage openness and honesty. We tend to shame each other for how we feel, don't we? We're instead encouraged to "be strong" or "get over it." All this does is to encourage silence about things that need to be spoken about. Maybe the secrets aren't encouraged by a specific other, like an abuser. Maybe the secret is more of a familial or cultural expectation.
Not only do we self-isolate, but we also isolate each other. "Rejection" might be a better word. But "isolate" seems to work for a more complete picture when compared to my last blog article. We cut others from our lives when we can't handle their defensive energy.
Part of the isolation/rejection process is to mentally construe the stuck individual with labels or judgments. The family member that comes forward and discloses a long-held secret of abuse can be rejected by the rest of the family. That individual might be labeled as a "liar" or questioned about their motivations for coming forward. This serves to reject the person that is coming forward; one with knowledge that the rest of the family should have.
When the family isolates/rejects that individual, the family system continues on. Nothing has to change. It probably should change. But isolation serves the larger function of ensuring that none of the family members have to make any changes within themselves or in their role as a family member. The other family members don't have to confront their role in the family system that enabled this. They don't have to confront the abuser. The family system remains in a state of perpetual denial and active isolation of the individual that disrupts the system.
Does something similar to this happen on a larger social level? Of course. Active otherizing, demonizing, blaming, questioning and isolation/rejection of entire groups of people. We see this throughout history across the globe. I think this is very active in today's cancel culture as much as it is in fundamental religious institutions. The otherizing and rejection of some group is essential to the emotional functioning of another. At least, it's essential to the current emotional functioning as it already stands. It's also essential to the powerful of these groups to retaining their power.
This one really goes hand in hand with the "behavioral adaptations" that I laid out in the previous blog about how we keep ourselves stuck on an individual level. Behavioral adaptations could potentially come with a close sibling - co-dependency.
Behavioral adaptations on their own serve to alleviate the stuck individual from the pain of their defensive energy. Behavioral adaptations can be as benign as clicking a pen in a boring meeting. There's a bit of sympathetic energy that is being directed toward the pen clicking, instead of being used in a co-regulative laugh with a safe other.
Behavioral adaptations can go to extremes as well though, like substance use. Eventually, the more severe behavioral adaptations may require and even rely on the participation of others. Like when the friend or the parent gives the addicted individual money or a place to stay. That act - which may come from wanting to help - may actually reinforce the behavioral adaptation, which reinforces the stuck defensive state. The addict does not get any closer to getting unstuck.
These types of co-dependent behaviors might be that individual's alleviation of their own stuck defensive energy. The co-dependent behavior could arguably be the co-dependent's own specific type of behavioral adaptation. Rather than working on getting unstuck themselves, they focus on the pains of another. "If they're okay, then I am okay."
On a larger level, do we engage in things that are co-dependent? I think we can see this in some public schools. I see and I hear from staff that have been around long enough that there is a constant decreasing in the standards and expectations of academic success and behavior. Teachers are flat out ordered to not fail students, even if they have earned an "F." As an individual student does worse, they may be put into a continuation school where their school days are shortened, they get less homework, do more computerized work and the general expectations for timeliness and work completion are lower.
Rather than holding everyone to the same expected outcomes, the bar is consistently lowered. Some of this is to get funding, some of this is to prevent possible legal attacks and some of this is due to whatever current political demands there might be. They don't exactly cause the poorer academic outcomes and behavior, but definitely reinforce them and arguably worsen them.
Does this describe all public schools? Of course not.
IV. Minimizing & other BS
People tend to minimize the severity of things, even in relation to traumatic events. Minimize, rationalize, excuse and other BS:
"It's not that big of a deal."
"You'll get over it."
"Sometimes it's best to just put these things behind us."
"Okay, but just don't make a big deal out of it."
When we minimize and do these other BS things, it reinforces the stuck defensive energy of the person seeking help. It tells that person that their pain is not that big of a deal. It's almost a direct denial of the severity of the person's stuck state or what they went through.
That individual is at a point where they are probably feeling the pain of their stuck state and seeking help for it. So to have that pain minimized would not align with the severity of their state. In response, they may have that state reinforced. They will stuff it all down again, now attaching the minimization with the impulse to find safety.
They might adopt that mindset and use that cognitive coping strategy to continually minimize, rationalize or otherwise dismiss the severity of their pain. This could easily become something that they in turn pass on to their own kids. This unhealthy way of coping is passed on for generations. When my clients look back on these types of cognitive coping strategies, they can see that they are passed down from their parents, and from their parents' parents.
V. We're strangers to ourselves
These polyvagal state shifts have no inherent value. They're simply the bodily organism's way of increasing the chances of survival; and thus increasing the chances of reproducing that strand of genetic material for another generation. There is no judgment or value assigned to this. It's simply the mechanics of evolution. The bodily shifts of going up and down the polyvagal ladder are a part of the process of survival.
Despite this simple and natural truth, humans seem to have lost the capacity to be with their bodily sensations. It's something we need to learn and practice. Animals don't need to do this. They're at one with their bodies.
Humans do all the things that I've listed above and a lot more. We strive to live lives that are free from actually being with these polyvagal states. We focus on what we do or do not have. We focus on what others are or are not doing. We focus on what we think needs to change in society and then evangelize in the comment sections of our social media. We seek incessant entertainment or distraction from what is happening within. We've become absolutely fixated on the external and complete strangers to the internal.
So when these shifts happen, we have no idea what is happening. We don't know how to tolerate it. Our vagal brakes are not developed enough to be able to handle it and allow the shifts to happen. Having a weaker vagal brake is a consequence of an underdeveloped social engagement system. Those biological pathways are not exercised enough. And instead, the defensive pathways are probably overused.
Overused from numerous different sources:
outright traumatic events in our lives
constant fear-mongering from media
outright oppression from one group to another
advertising that stokes our fears in order to compel a purchasing behavior
Then we live in states of defense. We're scrutinizing ourselves and each other. We're judging and labeling and otherizing and manipulating. All to fulfill some sort of selfish impulse to feel dominant or satiated. And others live in a defensive state, disconnected from themselves and feeling helpless to the world around them.
We're strangers to ourselves. To ourselves on a personal level. To ourselves on an interpersonal level. We can't handle the personal s**t inside. And then we definitely can't handle the interpersonal s**t outside. It all becomes alien to us.
But really, it's just biology. It's just our internal stuff that's trying it's damndest to self-regulate and optimize bodily resources. It's the cues of safety or danger that we give off and give to each other. It's not that complex to understand. So we can learn what's happening and what to do. But we have a very very hard time with executing all of it.
I'll leave it at that, but also want to tell you about how to increase the strength of your vagal brake. I've got a course called Building Safety Anchors that is designed to do just that. It's 30 days of learning and doing. It will help you to recognize what is happening within you. Specifically, the feelings of safety and peace that are within you. These feelings are unlocked once your safety pathways activate and this course goes through six different learning modules to help that process. Learn more by going here or tapping the image below.
I hope you've enjoyed this blog and found it useful for your life in particular. I know there's a ton more I could go into here. Leave a comment below and let me know what you would add to this list.