My Inner Dragon is Growing Up: Learning How to Not Abandon Myself

Recently, i was involved in a small conflict with someone at work. As a sole entrepreneur, this doesn’t happen a lot these days. In fact, this doesn’t happen in my life in general. It highlighted for me that even though i may be a therapist who specializes in healthy relationships, boundary work, and communication skills, i am also a work-in-progress. I am not exempt from conflict or making a mistake.

This incident was medicine for me as it really helped me take stock of how far i have come, and the work that is yet to be tended to. In some ways, starting the year off with this is a great reinforcement of my commitment to my Word of the Year: Embrace.

I need to embrace that conflict is a natural aspect of being human because we will be faced with people who have competing ways of tending to their needs. This is a reminder to all of us that anger and conflict are not inherently bad, rather it’s how we respond to it that matters.

I won’t go into the depths of what happened here. Rather, what stood out for me was how i handled myself and what i gleaned from the person who had a competing need.

To start, i was able to reflect on how i have evolved in my personal relationship with conflict. I grew up in a home where my needs were not heard, and i felt that they didn’t matter. Having a voice and opinion was something that took many years to grow. I, like most people, am conflict avoidant most of the time. I am not averse to it because when i am able to notice my needs, i can get into the messiness and still address what it is i need, even if it is flawed.

It’s one thing to know that you have needs and that they matter. What is also necessary to be the steward of said needs is to have skills to handle conflict or competing needs that will inevitably happen.

I did not grow up with the best models of conflict resolution skills. In fact, i felt afraid by my parents’ anger and difficulty to tend to their own emotions. I learned that walking on eggshells was not just a practice but a survival skill and it has taken me years to evolve from that trauma response. With that in mind, i have had to do a lot of work to heal from my childhood as well as update my skillset around conflict. It can be hard to not regress when we are with our families of origin, especially when the work is not reciprocated. So, when my dad’s default of attack and then withdraw tactics get activated, i have to work hard to stay grounded. I have to hold two truths – that his childhood context will always be in the room with us, and i know how to take care of myself now.

A good place to start when you are wanting to evolve your relationship with conflict is to remember that it is tethered to how often we are up against wounded Parts, not necessarily our best Self. Conflict happens when protectors come online inside us, and we are in conflict with flawed yet well-intentioned Parts of other people. Our parts are in the conflict – not our most evolved Selves.

Because i did not feel safe with my needs or standing up for myself, a Part of me used to come online whenever i was in conflict. She was my Inner People Pleaser. She later grew up to be sassy and a bit of a dragon because i so desperately wanted to stand up for myself. But what i lacked was the skills to stay rooted and assertive – i became passive aggressive instead. I knew i didn’t want this but it was a way to not stay stuck – my new-found Inner Warrior was also not wise enough to notice the impact i had on others.

Working on this really helped me be mindful of how experiencing conflict felt in my body – i got hot in my core as well as wanted to bow my head down, or be deferential. I would have shallow breaths that inhibited my ability to say something – to speak up. My whole body got in my own way in fact. Through somatic healing work, i was able to attune to this and have more clear mindfulness when this response showed up in me.

We are all works-in-progress as humans: We are supposed to be. One thing i have learned is what i need to stay present during a conflict. I’ve noticed that having steps and a path is really helpful for me because it acts as a guide and keeps me grounded as well as attuned. Here is what i have come up with: 1)Notice your Reaction in your body 2)Take stock of what you need 3)Ask yourself if it is worth addressing – what is at stake? 4)Reflect to stay Present – is this old or new? 5)Resource with skills and self-soothing to help stay grounded and 6)Use I-statements so you can be objective and not reactionary. What these steps do is help me slow down – and not reactive but rather respond with a mindful awareness. I have been catching myself do this more and more when with others, and it need not take more than a few minutes – we DO have time to to do this, i promise you.

It is also important after a conflict occurs to process what happened and your role in. Remember, it take two to tango so there will also be something you did that contributed. The lesson is to learn from your contribution, even it is unintentional – to make you a better human. So, make time after a conflict (remember they are inevitable after all) to 1)Reflect on what happened and what you could do differently and 2)Forgive yourself and accept you are not responsible for others’ feelings.

When we take time to do this, we remove any residual baggage of misaligned guilt and it keeps us moving forward with intention. This is one way i have been standing up for myself instead of self-abandoning my needs. Surely, it is not easy especially after a lifetime of people pleasing and fawning. That’s why one other important resource is to learn the difference between belonging, fitting in or fawning for safety.

In a recent I’m Not Your Shrink podcast episode, Dr Tracy Dalglesih speaks about the polarity between giving up ourselves so that we are not abandoned or rejected by others. We will do whatever we need to fit in or fawn towards someone. This is a safety need, that stems from our nervous system. We are social creatures and being in community is a survival skill. It was built to keep us safe and now our job is to discern if the danger is real or not. Anyone with unhealed relational trauma may have a harder time addressing their needs because it may put our relationship at risk. Dr. Tracy goes on to share the concept of Differentiation: where we can get a felt sense of separating someone else’s needs from our own, instead of being stuck in enmeshment: The antidote to self-abandonment is the practice of differentiation.

The role of anger and defensiveness as a reactionary impulse is our body’s way of telling us a boundary was violated.

Someone i support recently told me that i am the Queen of the Reframe and i am boldly claiming that title. I don’t love demeaning and pejorative words to describe someone. I find them violent and discriminatory, reductive and slamming. And yet, i do love the reparative work of reclaiming words. For instance, many moons ago, i learned the reframe of the word BITCH – a woman who Believes In Taking Care of Herself. And so, sometimes when i notice i am upset about something that someone did that impacted me, this word is a perfect tool to help me notice the impact on me: A boundary was violated and my anger is actually a proportional response. Even that is huge – my anger can be a valid and understandable response.

I am a social creature who thrives off connection and relationships. So it makes sense that I may not want others to use that term against me, or call me selfish. And yet, i think what makes these labels unhelpful is that the person using them doesn’t also reflect on what they have done to cause my reaction. It gives them an excuse to not do their own work of critical self-reflection. So a huge part of this journey with conflict for me has been embracing (see what i did there) that i am not responsible about what others think about me. I am also okay with accepting that not everyone will like me. This is especially true when it comes to being proud of my truth and the boundary i placed with them.

“As good girls, we’ve been socialized to believe we’re victims and not the heroines of our own lives. This socialization can put is in a passive stance, feeling as if the world, relationships, and events are happening to us, robbing us of our agency and will.” Majo Molfino

This is the golden ticket for me as i am maturing into adulthood: I would rather disappoint someone else because my need matters to me, instead of having regret for not speaking up. This is one way we can work on not abandoning ourselves. For many of us (especially women), this has been a hard truth to come to. Our inner people pleasers and Good Girls struggle to put our needs first, let alone on the table at all, if it means having someone be upset with us. And yet, if it means that every time i revisit the argument later or am faced with it again, a little part of me holds shame and resentment. This is not the way i want to live. I am moving on from my Inner People Pleaser and Good Girl. Yes, it’s been messy at times, but it’s also been reparative, transformative, and is getting me back to honouring my own needs.

What is this really about? We need to zoom our lens out from what we think the problem is. It may not be what’s right in front of you: It isn’t necessarily about the parking ticket or table in the office, but rather old wounds that have become a pattern for us. Often, it is around an attachment rupture or confrontation that someone is putting their own need above mine. In her book, Break the Good Girl Myth: How to Dismantle Outdated Rules, Unleash Your Power, and Design a More Purposeful Life, Majo Molfino shares more insight into this as well as great ways to evolve from our Inner Good Girl. It includes a self-care plan as well as unpacking the myths of sacrifice and perfection.

Another helpful healing practice is to get to know what Healthy Aggression feels like. Remember, our felt sense of anger is a message from ourselves that a boundary we need was violated or minimized. I like to think of this inner knowing as my Inner Warrior coming online. She is wild and also has healed from the attack mode she used to need. Kimberly Ann Johnson has been a teacher for me about this. In her book, The Call of the Wild: How to Heal Trauma, Awaken our Inner Power, and Use it for Good, she shares that it is imperative to have a felt sense of our boundaries: It’s not enough to just think our way through this work. We also need to reclaim our right to bear our teeth a little, even if it’s just in front of our mirror. These somatic resources can be a great support to help us adapt with healthy maturation.

I do this healing process in incremental steps, so that both my mind and body are in agreement. That means, i work to own my feelings with I-statements. I have a simple somatic practice called Strong Back Soft Heart to hold space for my needs with a Strong Back, and also the feelings of the other person with a Soft Heart. When we hold our own needs with the same level of respect as how we hold other’s, even if the outcome isn’t 100% our dream ending, we can feel at peace with it.

As I’m embracing my mid-life emergence, that means also reclaiming that i will get upset with others because we cannot always have aligned goals or needs. Moving into the Virgin era of my life means embracing the gift that comes with old(er) age – i don’t have to care what others think about me anymore. I don’t have to accept the role they want me to play for them. While a part of me can’t wait for that to be fully embraced, i know that i still have work to do in order to integrate these parts to be more humane and respectful even when i disagree with others.

So, i will let myself roar – i will not silence myself anymore. I just won’t do it with a fire but rather a soft fierceness.

Highs and Lows of Healing in Real Time

This summer, i intentionally turned inward a lot and slowed down even more. This sacred pause has given me gifts of soft fascination: I have been in awe of the vast array of city flower gardens in my neighbourhoods. I admired the abundance of honey bees in my own wee garden. I have read books that honour nature and how its resilience can teach us everything about life and living.

My body experienced the benefit of rest and pause, as the foundational need that it is.

I also thought about the inner lives we all have. We all have that inner story – that quiet voice that keeps coming back to us in whispers, a lot of the time in shadows.

One part of my inner story has brought me back to my early curiousity of the Goddess. Not just the Triple Goddess of the Maiden Mother, Wise Woman, but that lush and luminous Goddess figure herself. At my most present and regulated, this is the story i’ve been re-visiting this summer.

I wore summer dresses that helped me embody the Goddess; i ate juicy fruit; i danced in lake water. I wore my long hair down and felt the sweat of summer sun on me.

Our inner story is happening all the time. Sometimes, we are the writers of the story. Other times, we are the audience of our own narrative storyline. Oftentimes, our response to day-to-day interactions comes from our inner story; and it often has nothing to do with the actual interaction. Sometimes, what i think is the story is just the overstory, the backdrop. Sometimes, i am rudely reminded that what i think is the story or point is not, but in fact it is the epilogue that provokes an old, nuanced and hidden story in my body. One that i wanted to long forget.

For instance, this summer i experienced a few revelations that have shown me that i am both further along in my own growth and also still more wounded than I realized. It has shown me that healing is a constant process, and one that is not necessarily linear.

It’s Not about the Paint Job
After living in my own house for over a decade, it was time for us to paint the exterior. The paint was beyond chipping, it was not a colour i liked, and the damage was starting to cause trouble to the integrity of the house. Plus, after being at home almost 24/7 for 18 months this past year, i wanted to be proud of the dwelling i call Home.

I am by no means a seasoned or knowledgeable renovator or handyperson. Getting quotes, calling people to book things, and otherwise trying to speak their language is always something that causes me discomfort and ultimately dysregulation. While i am a child of a self-employed house framer by trade, my own father’s understanding of home repairs was foreign to me.

When it came time to go ahead with the project, we were very confused, surprised and disappointed with the whole experience. I am grateful that the colour is something i love, but the work of the “professional painting company” was a very far stretch from the word professional. They literally splatted paint on my neighbours own newly painted walls. Twice. They splattered paint on our front doors and windows, and on so many other things. We were in constant conflict, and by the last day, when we had to ask again for them to do a better job, and to actually do what they were contracted to, my body was screaming for me to listen to her.

I am conflict-adverse. My need for Flight is pretty prominent. As a woman, i was socialized to be a People Pleaser and to avoid conflict. I think most people are conflict avoidant, to some degree. And yet, conflict is inevitable.

At first i thought it was my fear of conflict and negative feedback that made me feel so nauseous. Maybe it was my people-pleasing part that struggled when my breath was shallow. My inner Nice Girl was wanting to throw up inside. Ultimately, i had to slow down and really take stock of what was happening. I realized it was a Wounded Exile Part that has been quiet and in the shadows for years: My Inner Teen who was hurt too many times and did not trust smarmy boys with false promises. Boys who are pushy and have egos that get in the way of their own vulnerability. This crew of young painters embodied that.

So, i chose to honour my body and listen to her. My partner stepped in to support me and used his own skills of conflict resolution and non-violent communication. I realized that while a part of me – my more present Manager part – was angry at myself for not being assertive and demanding better, my more compassionate parts just wanted to do what was best for me. Ultimately, we settled for less than perfect but i was happy to be done in the end, and able to address our needs. My voice was not as vocal as i wanted and yet my body was telling me all i had to hear.

I chose to listen to her and not override that she needed love, attention and care. My Manager was disappointed but my Inner Child felt seen.

The Waterfall Heals All
Immediately after this experience, i went away camping. Like that same day. For weeks, i was looking forward to this weekend away with friends. It was long-overdue time together. On one of our adventures, we went to a local watering hole that was known to have a waterfall. As this weekend was the final days of an epic heat wave, this spot was a perfect remedy to cool down. My Inner Goddess was also so excited as it has been my fantasy to swim under a waterfall for years.

When we got to the spot to climb down, my stomach went into flutters: It was a steep, slippery climb down. I told myself that i couldn’t do it. Who did i think i was, a sprite young thing? A reckless child?

The only thing to hold onto the rock wall was a sketchy looking rope. It took me a moment or two of quiet discernment to scan if i didn’t just WANT to do it but also that i was CAPABLE to.

This was a calculated moment of pendulating between a fear state versus an embodied sense of knowing i could do it.

I chose that i could do it.

Once i made that first step down, i knew i always knew i could do it. It was that fine balance of calculated and exquisite risk. It was also that perfect remedy, a counter to what my body felt only a few days prior.

That initial victim or exiled worried girl who showed up just days prior was met in the eyes and told she could do it. I held her with love. This climb down to the water was the perfect healing antidote to remind me that my body does know. She also felt vindicated. All my parts felt seen and i was actively in my most present self – she who is calm, curious, clear, and compassionate.

The water was a glorious gift at the end of the climb. I spotted my whole family as they came down and it made me even more excited for future waterfall adventures.

Tara Brach talks about “real but not true” as a beautiful resource to help us notice if the thoughts and feelings we are having are taking over us. Sometimes our mind and body play tricks on us as a way of protecting us. Yet we need to fact check how real is the feeling, how factual is the thought. Even by inserting the possibility that it may not be true, that lessens the fear that’s taking over our body.

When you are pondering if the fear you have in a given moment is real or true, ask yourself “who would you be if this fear or feeling was not real?” Remind yourself that this feeling may be true but is not real – it is based on old worries and is trying to protect you from getting hurt now.

Story Follows State – most of the time
Our body responses aren’t always about a trauma story. Sometimes it’s also just what is familiar in our bodies over time. Our body stores its own memories from repeated events, like riding a bike or rolling pizza dough. For instance, as someone who grew up swimming in oceans and lakes with a shoreline, it wasn’t common practice for me to canoe or kayak, let alone be in a boat. So as my family has access to a cottage with various types of boats now, I had this identity that I didn’t know how to paddle a kayak.

More recently, i have fallen in love with paddle boarding (SUP), a close cousin to my love of surfing. Now, what i do know is how to stand on a paddle board and use a paddle. Being on a SUP is one of my happy places. It provides moments of peace and embodied joy for me. I also feel fearless, strong and powerful on it.

This summer, when planning to go to a local beach near the cottage, we only could get there by kayak and canoe. I had said to myself (and outloud) that I didn’t know how to kayak let alone canoe. I had that beautiful moment where I noticed what I said and checked myself. Of course i know how to kayak – it’s not that different from paddling a SUP. It was a moment of challenging my thought about myself, and realizing that my body was more capable about doing something than i gave credit. It was my inner story who said that I couldn’t do it. What an amazing moment of reckoning and reclaiming of what I can do.

Not only did i get to that beach, i showed my daughter that it was possible to do something we have never done before. My body felt so strong after, and the beach was even more pleasurable and empowering than getting a ride there would have been.

It’s moments like this where we notice that our thoughts are always true and that the facts live with the body as it knows better.

The sweet reward is a waterfall waiting for you at the end of a rope.