Hi, my name is Justin Sunseri, I’m a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist obsessed with the Polyvagal Theory. This is a reading of an open letter to my Listeners.
As we like to say on the podcast - put yourself first. I think this open letter is safe, but if you need to take a break from it, please do so. My hope is that you hear this and can become more compassionate toward yourself.
I think you’re normal.
You’ve heard me say that a number of times by now: here on the podcast or in an Instagram video. Someone wisely asked me in response - “What does it mean to be normal?” That question of course made me stop and think... The truth is, I don’t know what it means. But I know it’s true. You are normal.
I think when I say you’re “normal,” I’m not exactly making a statement of fact. Like, it’s not as if I understand what the boundaries are of “normal.”
It’s more of a response to what I know you’re thinking about yourself. And what you feel about yourself. That you’re different. Weird, defective, a burden, unlovable. Broken and irreparable. A failure or loser.
These are the things that I hear from my clients about themselves, whether they say them explicitly or not. Often disguised in a throw away statement or tucked into something positive they achieved. The positivity being different and uncomfortable, so they sprinkle in a negative comment or two.
So my response to you, is this - you’re normal. I say that as a response to what you say to yourself. I have no idea what normal means. That’s not up to me to define. But I know you’re a human being, just like me. We’re both mammals.
That doesn’t discount that you’re in pain. You might be sad or depressed. Numb or in a fog. Angry or rageful. Scared, panicked, anxious or afraid. So hearing that you’re “normal,” might not do a whole lot for you. Especially since I can’t define it.
So I’ll take this one step further. If you’re a trauma survivor, your reaction to whatever it was is normal. In polyvagal terms, this means that you neurocepted danger -which triggered your flight response. You needed to run away and escape, to get to safety. If you were not able to run away, this triggered your body’s fight response, to use its inner power to force the danger away, which would allow you to run to safety. And if that didn’t work, your body may have shut down, collapsed and gone numb. Or its possible your body was in a flight/fight state, but it was overpowered and immobilized and went into a more rigid freeze sort of state.
And while none of these reactions are desired… they’re normal. They are supposed to happen. This is how mammals respond to danger. All of us. When we’re in danger, we run. If we can’t run, we fight. If our life is at imminent risk of death, we shutdown. This is the natural sequence of events that mammals go through in order to increase chances of survival. It’s normal.
It’s also possible to be in a defensive state from other experiences: being immobilized for surgery while in a high sympathetic arousal. Or being abandoned by a parent and left with no loving and healthy attachment. The passing of a loved one. Major life changes like divorce or the stress of operating your own business. There are an endless number of paths to being in a defensive state of flight, fight or shut down.
And I don’t blame you. Every single child, teen or adult I have worked with over the past decade has a history. Every one of them has an underlying reason for the state that they are in. They aren’t simply anxious or angry or depressed. I haven’t met that person yet who is born that way. Maybe that exists, but I haven’t met them. When the amazing people I have worked with begin to talk about their lives, it becomes extremely clear the reason why they feel the way they feel and think the way they think and make the choices that they make.
But also, just like everyone else, there’s basic needs of connection you have. Life becomes extremely lonely when you don’t have someone you feel safe with. And that’s the key, I think. Feeling safe with someone else. Maybe it’s a pet, that’s fine too. But really, feeling safe with another human being allows your nervous system to come out of its defensive state.
That’s really the essence of therapy - a safe person in a safe environment. This allows us the environment and the safety to look inward. Without that, the internal world becomes a lot scarier. Your memories, feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations are much more difficult to navigate.
But what you may have ended up with and are living now is a life where you’re not connected safely with someone else AND you’re wrestling with some really painful stuff internally. Lots of people live like this, actually. Lots of people. I know that doesn’t fix anything, but I think it’s important to know. So many of us are living in a perpetual state of being defensive while also being alone. And that aloneness makes things worse.
So what we do then is we do the best we can to cope. This can look so many different ways. Some people cope by turning to drugs or alcohol. Some people cope by restricting the amount that they eat. Other cope by hiding, going inward and rejecting others. Others cope by becoming more aggressive and ready to fight anyone they can. Some will attach to people who aren’t safe for them just so long as they feel protected, needed or seen. Some will become the entertainer, making everyone in the room laugh despite their own internal pain. Someone may watch TV all night in preparation for the next day, binging on a show so they don’t have to think or remember or feel.
The list is endless. None of these are right or wrong. Sure, some could actually cause more harm or more pain. Some might be more helpful. But all of these can be ways of coping, not necessarily becoming unstuck. All of these can be seen as ways of attempting to simply get through the moment or the day. You’re not better off exactly, but you might be worse off eventually. But what matters is, for that moment, there might be some relief from the pain you’re in.
But then the problem gets worse. Because if the way you cope is actually making your life worse, you’re going to be piling problem on top of problem. So there was the original state shift which you got stuck in. Then the way you cope with it. Then the problems that might come from the way you cope.
And then, if that’s not enough - the judgment piles on too. Because you’re not going to go through all this without some self-judgment, right? So that’s what you do. We do. We all do. You evaluate yourself, your self worth and what others think of you. Somehow you know what others are assuming or judging you about. And it’s always negative, right? These aren’t positive assessments of your value or character. They’re harsh criticisms. That others think of you and that you think of yourself.
But what if those aren’t accurate? Is it possible your judgments are wrong? I won’t even ask you to stop judging yourself, though I wish you would, but that’s for another time. For now, answer me this - is it possible your judgments are wrong? Of course it is. Let’s leave that where it is for now. Let’s agree it’s possible your self judgments are wrong. And the blame you place on yourself. And the criticism and your negative projections of the future. Let’s agree these could all be wrong.
But we also have to agree and acknolwedge that you’re not the only one. We have to agree and acknowledge that everyone does this. Every. One. Myself included. By why? Why do we do this? Well, if you followed the steps I’ve laid out, it stems back to the state shift. There’s this beautiful little saying from Deb Dana that sums it up - “Story follows state.”
This means the stories we have in our heads, including the thoughts, images, beliefs and all of it. They are there because of the state that we are in. So the judgments you have are simply a result of the state you’re in. The thoughts you have, all of them, are tied to your state. That’s why it’s so hard to simply erase or correct those thoughts. Because the defensive state doesn’t necessarily change along with it. The issue is the defensive state, not the stories you have.
The way to become unstuck then, is to focus on your body in the here and now. To bring genuine curiosity to what your body tells you. That means you also need to be mindful. It’s the mindful curiousity with your body that will allow the stuck energy to become unstuck.
You can do this little by little, just check in and notice how your body is doing throughout the day. Get to know it like you would a potential new friend. Someone like a coworker, student in class or another parent at your kids’ recital or game. Like, you’re not quite sure about the person, but they seem okay enough to do some chit chat with. With a new friend or acquaintance, you’re not going to start by disclosing all your stuff, right? No. You get to know them little by little.
Same thing for your mind and body. Bring your awareness to your body little by little. How are your toes doing? How about your left pinky? Or your right hip? How about the area behind your ears? How about the very tip of your head? Bring some curiosity to yourself and I think you’ll learn a lot. This is how change is going to happen, in little doses when it’s safe. If you can handle more and are ready for more intensive meditation, do your thing. But start small if you need to.
Point being - I do think you’re normal. And that’s really just my response to what I know you’re thinking and feeling about yourself. I could just as easily say that I think you’re amazing. Or that you’re a survivor. Or that the amount of strength and resiliency you have is at absurd levels.
I could also respond to your thoughts and feelings by expressing how much belief I have in you. That I have no doubt that you’re capable of more. It’s in there. You might not feel it, but there’s something within you that wants to come out. Something that is loving, accepting, trusting, fun and ready to be connected to others. You might not even feel it. Let’s call it “hope” for now.
That hope is going to grow little by little. It might be a seed right now, buried under dark brown dirt in a ceramic pot. But it will grow, it just needs you to give it a little love and attention when you can. Before you know it, there will be a beautiful green seedling poking out of the soil, ready for more nourishment.
For now, recognize there is some hope within you. Please. You are admired. You are respected. Even if you can’t give that to yourself, trust that I can. I believe in you without hesitation and I have zero judgment toward you. You’re probably doubting that, but it’s true. And this is simply based on the amazing people I’ve worked with in therapy. No matter what they’ve been through, there’s hope. I do admire them. I do respect them. I do believe in them. And I know I’m not your therapist, but the same applies to you.
For now, know that there is hope. And that you’re normal.
Thanks for reading! You can download and listen to all 10 Open Letters from Stack 1 with a purchase of $20. You will also get a PDF download that you can read and print whenever.