Caught in-between: The messy middle of shifting st...

Caught in-between: The messy middle of shifting stuck patterns

Note: This post was written towards the end of May. Since then the challenges out in the world, and in my relationships with myself and others, have shifted again. But hopefully these questions of how we navigate in-between states are still relevant, even as the nature of that in-between shifts.

As lockdown eases I’ve felt a similar easing in myself. I’m not as trapped in trauma as I have been for much of the last few months. The fear/shame feelings are not such a big part of everyday life. I haven’t had a major flashback in a while [update: except for the massive one I had two days after writing this post, ah well it’s a process]. 

However there has been an edgy, uneasy feeling of late. I fear that emerging any further from my own personal lockdown will mean ‘going back’ to old patterns I really don’t want to return to. There’s a sense of not being ready, certainly, to engage in more challenging situations until these new ways of relating to myself, others, my work, the world, have had a chance to bed in a little deeper. At the same time there’s also some frustration, a pull to engage more, to be ‘through this’: to be able to work on bigger projects, to deal with urgent situations, to approach things I’ve been protecting myself from in order to address this trauma, and to get a little stronger.

It’s back to fear and shame again of course. There’s both fear that I will over-stretch, overwhelm, and override myself again, and shame that I should be able to do more, go further, reach some kind of imaginary destination point of recovery or fixed-ness.

The in-between state

I’ve found it helpful to return to a chapter in Pema Chödrön’s book The Places that Scare You about ‘the in-between state’. She speaks of a time in the warrior’s journey of addressing our stuck patterns when we’re completely fed up with our old ways of being, but still wish that outer circumstances could bring us lasting happiness.

We know that our usual habits are no match for suffering, but we still want to go to them for comfort because we can’t quite trust our new ways yet. We struggle to hang out in the gap left by dropping our old strategies, and just to be with the agitated energy of that place without trying to get ground back under our feet. It’s hard to hold the uncertainty and paradox of it all instead of going back to binaries of good/bad, right/wrong, truth/lie, etc.

Bringing these Buddhist ideas into dialogue with the trauma literature I’ve been studying, I see that most of my recent struggles have been around a draw back to those old habits of fight, flight, freeze, and fawn, realising they’re just not working for me any more, but struggling to be with the edgy, agitated feelings left in their wake.

Flight and freeze

I’m tempted back to flight. At those times it doesn’t really feel okay to keep focusing on this inner work, despite everything I know about how necessary that is for me, for everyone around me, and for my outer work. I think I should be out there more, I should take on more, I should be working on a ‘big project’ again instead of these blog posts, I should get the decks cleared, I should read about something other than emotional trauma because the world is on fire.

When I try to push through with this it doesn’t work. I force myself to answer emails and I know I’m being less human and connected than I want to be in my replies. I start a blog post but it feels dead and unappealing: so different from the lively, fired up kind of writing I do when I wait till it’s really calling me. Working like this feels zombified and dehumanising to me and to others.

Flight doesn’t work for me any more. So instead I have to sit with the fear feelings that come up when I push through, and the shame feelings that come up when I’m not ‘doing’. I have to keep learning to be warm, kind and tender towards them – towards the parts of me that can’t ‘do’ like that any more, and towards the parts that struggle so much with ‘not-doing’ – instead of ignoring or overriding them.

When flight isn’t working, I’m tempted back into freeze. Instead of sitting with that appalling shame feeling I could just give up and fall into the black hole of scrolling social media or Netflix binging. But that doesn’t work anymore either. Like Pema says:

We’d give anything to have the comfort we used to get from eating a pizza or watching a video. However, even though those things can be pleasurable, we’ve seen that eating a pizza or watching a video is a feeble match for our suffering.

Pema Chödrön – The Places that Scare You

Every time I engage with any of my go-to comforting activities from that place of trying to avoid feelings or distract myself, I feel worse afterwards – and often during. The flickers of tough feelings become flames or even fires in the background in order to be noticed.

This doesn’t mean never doing any work, or anything gentle, of course. It means continuing to notice how I’m engaging in both work and gentle activities. It means returning to the gap – to sitting still – whenever I notice I’m treating myself non-consensually around work, or around the desire to distract from tough feelings. It means staying with the edgy emotions – along with everything else in that moment – until I know that I’m in a position to make a kind, consensual decision about what to do next, and returning to the gap if those emotions return, as many times as it takes.

Fawn and fight

In contact with others I notice a draw back to fawn and flight. When I don’t really feel okay about giving myself this time to focus on addressing trauma I feel like I should be engaging with others differently. I feel like I should say ‘yes’ to every request for my time and energy. I shouldn’t have boundaries around what kinds of contact feel okay – and not okay – for me if those conflict with what others want from me. I should have capacity for interactions that I still don’t feel ready for.

That old fawn pattern manifests as quickly responding to every email request with a ‘yes’, before I’ve had chance to tune into whether it’s something I want, or to get enough information. It manifests as not feeling able to honestly explain what I’m going through and the limits that might put around things I may previously have had capacity for (ironic given that it’s out here for all to read, but there it is!) It manifests as jumping back into contact with others the moment I feel I might be ready, rather than leaving it a couple more weeks to be sure.

A few weeks ago I went straight from solitude to a very busy walk where social distancing was impossible, without thinking about the impact such a sudden shift would have on my nervous system. I didn’t feel able to draw back, to find another way, or to figure out what I needed afterwards because of not wanting to be difficult or awkward for another person.

As with flight, the answer is to hang out in the gap with the feelings before responding, for as long as it takes, for as long as I don’t feel ready. If I override myself I will have a backlash of fear, especially when I’ve offered something more than I really feel able to give, or overstepped my own boundaries.

This also means staying with the shame of being where I am, with this very limited capacity, and having to let others know that: not always being the person I would like to be for them – in fact not even close. It feels hugely shameful to say that I can’t yet manage being in a busy area, or that I may have to cancel something if I’m badly triggered that day, or that I still can’t manage to be open and kind in some relationships in the ways I’d like to be.

As with the move from flight to freeze, there can be a move from fawn to fight: from what Love Uncommon calls the broken house to the fortress of solitude. When the fawn feelings are unbearable it’s tempting to go the other way: to go over difficult exchanges, or problematic emails, or tough relationships and judge the other people, even to be drawn to point out their behaviour in shaming ways.

Now that I’m outside of academic systems this comes up particularly around any engagement with people who are still embedded within them. I’m shocked by the tone of some editors and reviewers who are expecting huge amounts of free labour and still give their feedback in harshly critical ways ‘you must…’, ‘wrong’, ‘unclear’, etc. When engaging around assessing students – something I still do a little of – I’ve been in dynamics where the desire to follow academic procedures are clearly placed well above both student well-being, and my well-being.

At such times my head can get very noisy rehearsing stories about how and why others are wrong, what I should say to them, how to ‘win’. There’s fear that whatever I do or say they – and their systems – will override me anyway. There’s shame because I know my response is helping nobody and actually taking me further from the kind of connected and boundaried contact I’d really like to have with others.

If I can stay in the gap, at these moments, I can reach that place where it all dissolves and I see that their attempts to control me and shame me into behaving as they want, have made me want to control them and shame them right back. I can see the whole tragic drama and how I’ve become caught up in it. Then it can dissolve and something much more tender can emerge in its place. I’m humbled by the times I have managed to ‘drop the storyline’ I had going about such situations – as Pema puts it – and have been surprised by a very real, vulnerable, connected interaction where I’d assumed that was impossible.

Dwelling in the in-between state requires learning to contain the paradox of something’s being both right and wrong, of someone’s being strong and loving and also angry, uptight, and stingy. In that painful moment when we don’t live up to our own standards, do we condemn ourselves or truly appreciate the paradox of being human? Can we forgive ourselves and stay in touch with our good and tender heart? When someone pushes our buttons, do we set out to make the person wrong? Or do we repress our reaction with ‘I’m supposed to be loving. How could I hold this negative thought?’

Pema Chödrön – The Places that Scare You

Hanging out in the in-between

So with work/play, and with relationships with others, the answer is – still – to hang out in the gap, in the in-between, with all the agitated feelings that come with that: to welcome those feelings warmly into the big open space of the present moment, to stay with the uncertainty and paradox of it all.

Right now I’m trying to notice the desire to rush through this ‘in-between’ to get to some imagined destination where I can do all the work from that lively creative place, treat myself gently, and navigate all my relationships with others with the perfect balance of compassion and consent with them and with myself.

A big question, for me, is what it would be like to really allow myself to be where I currently am, instead of trying to get somewhere else: to let this be my life. It strikes me that a lot of my nightmares through this period have been of being trapped back in bullying schools and workplaces, and in homes with non-consensual relationship dynamics. I’ve done much in the past years to free myself from non-consensual outer systems, where others involved are not keen to shift those cultures and dynamics, but the inner system still defaults so often to non-consent. 

Allowing this to be my life – this commitment to consensual compassionate treatment of myself and others – involves freeing myself from those internalised non-consensual, controlling, systems, which is a much bigger ask, and requires a whole lot of time hanging out with these feelings, in the gap.

The major practice now – and perhaps forever – is looking out for those four Fs sneaking back in and – when they do – radically noticing the feelings, returning to the gap, refraining from any action until I can engage from a place that is consensual, compassionate, and able to hold the paradoxes. Sometimes that will be a small gap at the start of the day and then crack on. Other times I will have to return again and again to the gap as it keeps coming up. Sometimes I’ll make a choice to go into that four F response to survive the moment, because nothing else feels possible. Then at least I will commit to returning to the gap, and being with whatever feelings that brings up, as soon as it is safe enough to do so.

What I’m aspiring to with the four Fs is:

Flight: Only go to  work when I feel called to it, grounded in what I’m offering, and consensual with myself around it.

Freeze: Only go to gentle things when they really feel gentle, rather than being an attempt to avoid something else, or a form of gentleness I think I should enjoy rather than actually feeling called towards.

Fawn: Only offer things to others which feel right, rather than coming from a place of craving something from them, or shaping myself for them.

Fight: Only engage in contact/relationships where I’m being treated consensually, and endeavour to be clear with others what that involves instead of allowing non-consensual treatment. Resist being pulled into non-consensual behaviour back, recognising how hard it is to be consensual within non-consensual systems, and trying to be open to the full human being rather than this current behaviour.

Patreon link: If you liked this, feel free to support my Patreon, it will certainly help this self-employed person to maintain some income during these uncertain times.

Plural tag: This post was a team effort.

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).