The Healthy Self is a dynamic entity, holding the capacity for self-regulation, autonomy, and our connection with ourselves. Its resources can be expanded through therapeutically facilitated integration of the cut-off trauma parts, and the consequent reduction of the survival self.
However, throughout life we need to train ourselves to use the Healthy Self well, and to add to the resources it carries. This might involve abdominal breathing exercises, meditation, being out in nature, listening to music, having enough time to ‘be’ with ourselves and enjoy what that brings. This is about how we structure time and activity.
The Healthy Self is about the present; the trauma parts are about the past, and the survival self is facing both the past and the future but isn’t in the present moment.
Thoughts about how to develop healthy resources were stimulated by two events I participated in during August. One was a 5-day online retreat, the other was a one-day conference on ‘Facing Mortal Threat’. I recognise that we all take something different from the same event, but the things I took away included:
Values or Virtues for living in the present and therefore from the healthy self:
We need to know what is important to us, not our parents, not those we want to impress, but to our being able to live a life from a Healthy Self-perspective. I have always struggled when people talk about values, as so often what are listed don’t seem to me to be values. The word used in both these events was virtues, which I could connect with. What virtues do I want to develop in myself which build up the capacity within my Healthy Self?
Some suggestions that I resonated with were:
Patience: I recognise I sometimes lack patience, usually with inanimate objects and that just makes whatever is happening worse. I can also lack patience with myself and, of course, with others, those I love and random strangers. To foster patience is to foster the ability to stay in the ‘now’ and not to be caught up in what was and what might be.
Equanimity: this isn’t just an acceptance of what is, with a shoulder shrug. It is both acceptance that we can’t control events or people, and actively transforming our internal responses to external conditions. If control is one of our survival strategies, fostering this may well be a challenge, however, that is the point.
Inner courage: from our Healthy Self we can become aware of our Survival Self, if we have the courage to look more deeply into ourselves. I was reminded on the conference that courage has to be taken, it can’t be given to us from outside. External conditions might support us activating our courage, and we may need to develop awareness of what external conditions make that harder or easier. Inner courage enables us to be open to life and to create a life with meaning for ourselves.
Generosity: this is more than giving time or money, but a generosity of mind; a desire to be kind. This challenges our perpetrator energy (as does patience of course), providing an alternative way to respond to those around us. Kindness isn’t about rescuing, or a cloying sweetness, but calm holding of ourselves, even in the face of unkindness.
Those of you who are familiar with Insight Mindfulness or Buddhism will recognise these.
Healthy Self action
We also need the capacity to act, it isn’t just about calming our system. But it is acting from the Healthy Self. On the ‘facing mortal threat’ conference, and one of the speakers used a term I hadn’t heard before, ‘toxic feminine’, which as a feminist I took exception to. I think he was referring to a potential danger in only focusing on calming (which I assume he was associating with the feminine) when we also need to act to use our autonomous agency. This might be in relation to our life or in relation to what is happening in our society. I took this on as an important resource within the Healthy Self.
Slowing down so the Healthy Self can breathe
The acceleration of life was also discussed; everything is speeding up. I think we need to slow things down for the Healthy Self to breathe. Not into a sort of slumber, but to step out of the acceleration that is all around us and into which we are drawn. Covid-19 preventative measures have enabled this for some. Society is full of survival strategies to keep at bay the trauma feelings also present within us all.
Survival Thinking Patterns
During the retreat I also noticed how my thinking patterns were survival strategies. The planner, administrator, imaginator, and story teller were all busy when I was trying to sit and ‘be’. These thinking functions all have their value, but often they are about trying to control the future or reassure myself about the past; they are not about the now. And of course, part of my career was built on these thinking functions, leading large international projects or consultancy assignments. It is not that in themselves they are survival strategies, it is the use they get put to. They can crowd out the Healthy Self, shout it down almost. To develop my connection with my Healthy Self, enabling these to rest would be valuable.
I encourage us all to explore whatever ‘virtues’ are relevant to us or whatever resourcing and deepening our Healthy Self fits best for us. What you decide on will be different from my selections. I think this helps us in our coaching, and whatever professional practice we are in. It helps diminish the extent and potential damage of our survival strategies.
Julia Vaughan Smith