Caring for ourselves includes the capacity to connect with others who are willing and able to help us find solutions to problems and steps to achieving goals. Collaboration is a sign of independence and secure attachment. Within loving, trusting relationships we neurologically build models of what is happening to us in the world and use these representations to support collaboration.
We rely on accurate appraisals of our inner and outer experience to guide us toward solutions and next steps. Interpersonal connectivity provides ongoing evaluation of what is going on and updates to models of ourselves and the world. While we experience the pull of our biopsychosocial system toward connection, tolerating disconnection becomes an important self capacity that enables collaboration and therefore, self care.
While it may seem trivial to speak of a “capacity for connection with others”, the process of establishing and maintaining relationships capable of reliably solving problems and achieving goals can be fraught with obstacles. Of the most pernicious of these are the fear of shame and panic. A healthy tolerance of these emotions is crucial to sustaining connectivity on the inside and outside. Shame and panic at high intensities have the tendency to break our concentration, cause us to lose our focus, and therefore shut down information processing. When we add fear of these emotions our nervous system becomes imbalanced.
So how is it that shame and panic come to loom so large in our consciousness that we fear them?
Let’s start with Aslan and a principle of biopsychosocial adaptive information processing. Aslan in C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia” has a way of making an impression on those who meet him. My experience of his character is contrasted between images of Lucy’s unabashed hurling of herself into his mane for a hug and the fright and even terror others feel when they first lay eyes on him.
If you haven’t read the book series, I recommend you do and you’ll see what I mean.
Aslan is undoubtedly portrayed as a god like character who is unconditionally loving and omniscient. One of the main characters in the series, Lucy, is a young precocious girl who finds comfort in Aslan’s loving presence. But what is the terror all about?
I can only imagine that being in the presence of one who “knows all” might bring up some shame and panic inside. When we are interpersonally attuned, loving social interactions stir the brain and engage processing of our autobiographical memory. Shame is likely to emerge because there are things that have happened that we might imagine would put us at odds with others or our desired view of ourselves with others. Panic emerges because being at odds with others may cause separation between us. The combination creates a nasty unconscious fear of abandonment.
Being in the presence of someone who will love you “no matter what” allows you to freely associate throughout the history you carry with you. Regardless of the shame and panic we feel we remain comforted by Aslan’s willingness to repair any disconnection that might arise while he lovingly listens to our stories. This illustrates the principle, “connection begets connection”. The interpersonal connectivity on the outside supports the self and the brain in making connections on the inside.
In the best of world’s where repairing disconnection is part of the culture and punishment for being “off” or “separate” is the exception, we would just reconnect when we feel ashamed and panicky. These feelings are our signal that we need to collaborate with others to make sense of how we got away from solving our problem or achieving our goal. We would all grow up to experience healthy shame and healthy panic. In the real world though it is not uncommon for us to experience toxic shame and panic which thrive in punishing cultures.
What makes these most basic of emotions toxic? Ah, well here is where the “feeling about a feeling” comes in. Leigh McCullough Vaillant is a master psychotherapist and professor who developed “Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy” and made the term “affect phobia” a household name in the homes of psychotherapists. She has brilliantly integrated the work of Silvan Tomkins who is the founder of Affect Theory. The bottom line is that we collect autobiographical memory as we grow up and it includes memory about what it was like to feel certain feelings. So when our innate (wired in at birth) emotions are triggered by Aslan asking you if you have called your mother recently, you will naturally feel some shame (because you haven’t called her in months) and then your brain will associate to other times you have felt shame and remind you of what that was like by triggering parts of the brain that activate emotions (felt on the inside) and/or affects (expressed toward outside).
Now, if you experienced people being overly angry, anxious, or absent when you felt shame (or panic) growing up you might feel fear, more shame, or anger on top of the innate emotion. These secondary emotions are interpretations from the past urging you to avoid the initial signal. You can see where this is going. In social environments where more punishing responses coincided with our innate shame and panic we learn to avoid feeling like something is off (shame) and avoid feeling like what we have done will cause separation (panic).
Enter, Wonder Woman! If you recall the Golden Lasso (originally called the “Magic Lasso of Aphrodite”), it had the power to make it’s captive obey and tell the truth. Since we can’t see the channel of communication that interpersonal attunement sets up between two
people, I like to imagine that invisible channel as Wonder Woman’s magic lasso. There are two reasons this works. One is that if we stay interpersonally connected we will support our brain to make connections that we could then personally choose to share with someone on the outside. However, in a culture that supports punishment over repair we learn to fear that natural tendency to feel shame and panic when we are processing the past. We tend to be unwilling to hold the other end of that magic rope. The real predicament here is that shame and panic are the signals we need to let guide us to repair the disconnection and hold the rope with our collaborators!
This is why Wonder Woman exists at all. She has to go around rounding up those of us who are afraid to stand present with the truth of why we are having difficulty collaborating with others. Part of that truth unbeknownst to us at times, is about how the outside world has responded to us not being able to stay connected and work on solving problems and achieving goals.
I think toxic shame and panic are why Aslan strikes such fear in some of us who might imagine being beholden in his countenance, we fear the responses we might get to the situation yielding the fear and/or panic. In the end we unconsciously attribute the blame for why things are off to our very being as well as the impending doom of separation. This is toxic shame and panic ganging up on us creating a potent fear of abandonment. It takes humans a minimum of 6 years of brain development outside of the womb to reach anything close to independence. Most of us need a few more years after 6 to reach adulthood! There is a good portion of our lifetime where being left alone equals death. The fear of abandonment is perhaps the ultimate fear for us humans.
You might imagine that vanishing would be a logical solution to the intolerable existential situation that involves both a fundamental blame for why life isn’t working out and a fundamental fear that the herd will leave us behind because of it. Especially in the presence of someone like Aslan who is willing to hear anything.
That is exactly what far too many of us do. We disappear from the most loving collaborators that could give us the feedback we need to be who we want to be. We carry these stories of how we “disappear” into our psychotherapist’s offices or keep them to ourselves as we watch our dreams pass us by. Rather than walk into the wardrobe of Narnia Chronicles emerging into an adulthood full of adventure and promise, it’s like someone switched it out with the “vanishing cabinet” from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book series. The vanishing cabinet at “Borgin & Burkes” curio shop is imbued with dark magic that allows the owner to manipulate space and time to control where we “show up”. It’s a nice temporary antidote to the fear of abandonment. But the short term sense of control belies a fundamental undermining of collaboration, the true resource to successful living.
In contrast the white magic of the wardrobe of Narnia works with the natural order of things. It isn’t sought out directly but discovered by chance when the time is right for us to plunge into an uncertain adventure. It encourages us to show up and not disappear when shame and panic signal us to hold the magic rope with collaborators and figure things out. It’s in the wardrobe that we stay connected to friends and the memory of home while we explore new territory.
Each visit is destined to provide growth and the wisdom we achieve through “going with the flow” and learning to allow constraints in the environment to shape the use of our talent and power. The kids didn’t get to choose where to show up in Narnia but there was always good work waiting for them to develop around.
Like Albus Dumbledore says about the sword of Griffindor to Harry, “It will show up where help is needed by any Griffindor”, Aslan likewise, shows up to help when needed. His love and truth help us cut through the din and focus on what is real and reliable. In between visits our task is to stay on task. Usable models of reality will emerge into awareness, but not if we decide to vanish from the challenge and disconnect from our collaborators and therefore our dreams. Maybe some day the cultural norm will reflect a tolerance for holding that magic lasso with each other and Wonder Woman can retire. Until then schools, workplaces, prisons, and governments that have punishing attitudes will continue to see people choosing to vanish and not show up rather than showing up to get things done!