I’ve never told anyone this, but when I wrote my book, it didn’t have a chapter on boundaries. I wrote the boundary chapter last and included it in the final draft.
As I was looking at the chapter on connection and relationships it hit me – I can’t write about connection, I can’t invite people to explore how they connect, unless first I write about boundaries.
See, relationships, and all relationships, involve negotiating needs. At first, as infants, our needs are met based on our caregiver’s best attunement to what we need, and over time we get to feel from the inside out what those needs are, and communicate them. If everything goes well, our needs are supported well enough by the environment and we are able to grow, individuate and inhabit our authentic selves.
However if our needs, and emotional expression, aren’t met adequately – on the contrary – perhaps they are punished, or we are shamed or ridiculed or isolated for having them – we have to somehow adapt.
Enter freeze (the high tone dorsal vagal response).
We usually look at the freeze response from a defense system perspective, where we share the same intelligent mechanisms as the body of the possum – being able to disconnect, dissociate, shut down, in order to escape from inescapable danger.
But it’s a bit more complex in the human attachment dynamics.
While in nature, we dissociate to move away from physical pain, in relationship we use the freeze response to survive emotional pain.
It hurts to lose relationship with our caregivers, so we do anything to protect it. In our dependence as young humans we learn what to do and not do in order to get closeness, attention and approval.
Thus, in a relationship where our own needs and emotions aren’t recognizes or supported, it feels that to have emotions or needs is a threat to the relationship with the caregivers. We learn how to say no to ourselves and what’s true inside of us and say yes to the relationship. Because we can’t escape the attachment relationship and the pain of not being seen or felt, we learn to run away from ourselves.
In this way basic needs like inhabiting our own space, self-protection through setting boundaries, and the need to be heard and understood, can become thwarted and shut down. This can happen because of fear of being physically harmed, or emotionally harmed. For the young psyche not being seen, felt and supported equals inner annihilation.
When we shut down our expression, our very aliveness is suppressed and on the surface it very much looks like a freeze response.
As we don’t have two nervous systems – one for defense from physical danger and one for defense from relational danger – the system will collapse or shut down the same way that it does when we encounter a threat to our physical body.
The somatic adaptations of freeze are associated with decreased metabolism, oxygen conservation, lower mobility and motility of the digestive system, decreased absorption of nutrients, and a lowered ability and motivation for physical activity. The immune system can also be compromised and syndromes like autoimmune conditions, chronic migraines, and debilitating fatigue can manifest.
While there are true and legitimate medical reasons for these presentations, oftentimes we see that the attachment system is the one that has chosen that path in order to serve some of our earliest attachment needs. I work with people daily who are cleared by medical professionals for being “healthy” and having clear tests, only to be left more perplexed and misunderstood, or worse, being told their symptoms are psychophysiological (what used to be referred to as psychosomatic), as if those symptoms are imaginary, with no reason or ground to be there.
Inevitably, living in a state of freeze, while also needing to function, requires access to energy. You can’t live on an empty tank.
To override the freeze, many people will eat and use stimulating foods just to get some energy on board to do basic life – such as meeting work requirements or home and family expectations. I’ve often worked with people who use caffeine, chocolate, crunchy, sweet, salty, and often also processed foods – to just get through the day.
When freeze is on board students will often share that just living life takes all their energy, let alone pursuing growth or creative tasks or dreams and aspirations. Of course, that adds a layer or grief, disappointment and even despair to an already slowed down system.
This is why reinhabiting personal space, being able to reconnect with life force and somatic boundaries, and growing a deep and healthy relationship with our own inner boundary processes is a huge part of resolving life long freeze patterns and the way we use food to cope with the resulting physiology.
When we know how our bodies set and hold boundaries, and when we develop sensitivity to what is appropriate in each boundary situation, we can avoid acting out and hurting others, or acting in and hurting ourselves.
When we finally feel the flow of aliveness, we see that it’s our own life force that we’ve been longing to feel below the freeze. We find out that that’s the energy we were longing to feel, and not the temporary jolt of a food that feels like a fix in the moment, but later leads to feeling even more depleted and low.
I hope that what I am sharing here gives you a glimpse of how the freeze response may result from suppressing our need to have and express personal space and boundaries. I also hope you are beginning to connect how that freeze response and our food behaviors go hand in hand.
I want you to also know that little by little, these dynamics can shift and with the right map and guidance you can reinhabit your personal space, learn to set healthy boundaries and find the true energy you’ve been looking for.
This is the energy that you can harness to build your life from the safety of an embodied self.
If you are ready to learn more about boundaries and start to see real changes in your life, especially if you have been dealing with freeze physiology, I hope you come to the Master Class in February.