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Compassionate Inquiry

Don't ask "what's wrong with me?" Ask "what happened to me?"

Exciting news - I've been accepted into Gabor Maté''s year-long professional training in "Compassionate Inquiry." It's a method that Maté developed to "guide people to recognize the unconscious dynamics that run their lives and learn how how to liberate themselves from them." It's a kind and gentle framework for guiding people to deeper insight, and through insight, to greater freedom. It's been transformative for me personally and it has enhanced my work with others in really powerful ways.

I was first introduced to Maté's work a decade ago I read his book When the Body Says No, published in 2003. He makes a powerful case for the connection between stress and illness - especially the stress of unexpressed emotion; of habitually putting others needs before our own; and of striving, perfectionism and inner criticism. The framework has informed the growing fields of psychoneuroimmunology and psychophysiological disorders treatment, which I've addressed here before.

I've written elsewhere about my own "when my body said no" moment a decade ago. I was living a life that was unsustainable on so many fronts that my body literally collapsed and my life unraveled. When I read the book, I saw myself in the case histories of patients he presents. I knew for certain that his paradigm explained my experience. In my personal growth and my work with clients, I've placed huge emphasis on slowing down, learning to say no, learning to read the body's subtle signals (before they get so loud they take you down), and setting boundaries. I've examined the stories that organize my life and the assumptions that underlie them. I've revisited the experiences that set those stories in place. Those are the ways we heal from stress-mediated physical and mental health challenges.

Compassionate Inquiry guides us to find the most compassionate possible explanation for what is going on. Whether it's a relationship dynamic, a personality trait, and addiction, or a chronic health challenge, the question is the same: how is this an adaptation or a protective response that began when you were too little to take care of yourself? What happened to you as a child (or what didn't happen that should have)? What impact did it have? How did it shape your understanding of yourself and the world around you? What tools did you have at your disposal at the time? And finally, can't you see that you made the best choice possible to protect yourself? That you are continuing to do so, even if the behavior now causes problems in your life? Doesn't it make perfect sense that this is happening now? It is not - and was never - your fault. It is, however, your responsibility as an adult. If you can see the truth of what you have subconsciously adapted to - or protected yourself from - you can face it. If you can be kind and compassionate with your child self AND your current self, you can make different decisions about how to react. If, however, you just pathologize your behavior, beat yourself up for it, or try to muscle yourself into changing it, you will go in circles. You will not grow or change.

As with everything I have ever studied, I'm applying the lessons of Compassionate Inquiry to my own inner work as well as my work with others. The past half-year has challenged me in ways I never could have foreseen. Just when I think my husband and I have rounded the corner in our post-cancer treatment healing journey, another tsunami rolls through. Just when I feel like I might be stabilizing, something else comes up. There have been ongoing physical challenges for him. It feels like the doctors did not tell us how long healing would take. We both had the impression - and believe we were told - that side effects from chemo-radiation would last about a month after treatment. Not the case. Perhaps they did say it would take longer and we didn't hear it. Perhaps, as the psychologist at the cancer center suggested, they downplay things to keep patients' spirits up during treatment.

Doubtless it would have been a lot harder to get through his treatment if we'd known it would be a six-to-twelve month process rather than a 3-month process. The flip side, though, is that now we have no real guideposts. We don't know what to expect. Things keep changing. Healing is not linear. It's been a lesson in accepting what is, rolling with the waves, listening to our bodies and hearts, and holding ourselves and each other with compassion.

Yes, I have learned all of these lessons from my own health challenges. And yes, they form the core principles that guide my work with others. But this experience - being the spouse, caregiver, and advocate - has forced me to learn them all over again and in new ways.

I know I've said this before, but cancer really hit us like a tidal wave. When I was a kid, we spent a lot of time at the beach in the summer. I loved to ride waves. There's an art to riding a wave. If you catch it perfectly - take your feet off the ground or jump in at just the right point - it will carry you gracefully to shore. If you misjudge, however, and get caught in the breaker, you get tumbled. I vividly remember the feeling of being grabbed by the power of the water, spinning upside down and sideways, and then awkwardly and forcefully crashing into the shore. My nose filled with salt water and my bathing suit full of sand, I'd quickly try to regain my composure, looking around hoping no one had seen me get pummeled.

Like a bad wave, cancer turned our relationship roles and dynamics inside out and upside down. It blew apart our boundaries. It triggered deep, old traumatic wounds for both of us in different ways. I've had many moments where I felt like I was failing him, failing us. I've felt anger toward him for the ways he has reacted and coped. We've pushed each other away and then pulled back in close. It's been really messy.

Trauma is not what happens to you. It is what happens inside of you as a result of what happens to you. Yes, cancer was a bad thing that happened to us. But it wasn't the trauma. For him, the trauma was the loss of his strength and self-reliance. Mental and physical strength and self-reliance are the qualities he developed to adapt to the hostile environment of his family growing up. Having those so abruptly snatched away sent his nervous system into overwhelm, into a freeze response, a shut-down. And so I took over. I managed everything that needed to be managed to get him through the diagnostic and treatment processes. It was all he could do to show up and keep moving.

For me, the trauma was losing HIM. Of course he was still there, but not there for me the way he has always been. He couldn't be. I knew this and I thought it was OK. It was OK during the insane 3 months until treatment ended. It had to be OK - there was no other choice. But afterward the hurt feelings of an abandoned child began to surface. Of course in the moment, I couldn't see that these were old feelings from long-ago injuries. I was just stricken with anger and grief. I thought cancer had broken me.

To make it even harder, there was a voice in my head screaming that my reactions were selfish and unfair."How could YOU be feel hurt and abandoned when HE HAS CANCER?" it said with scorn. "Aren't you kinder than that? More compassionate than that? What kind of person..." It went on like that, the voice.

But my emotional reactions are not rational. And - this is really important - they are not about what is happening now. They are echoes, memories, of times when similar injuries occurred and I was terribly small and helpless and scared, and had no one to comfort me. Maté explains that we may not recall early childhood experiences (in explicit, narrative memory) but we remember them in an embodied way (implicit memory). The memories reappear in our reactions in the present. I learned as a child to hide the pain, bury the anger, to smile, to appease. To, quite literally, hold it all in and hold it together. It what I had to do to stay connected to my parents. To survive. And it "worked" for 45 years. Until my body said no, no more.

It's now been almost 3 months since Lonnie's treatment ended and I find myself in need of a very, very compassionate lens. If I didn't understand the real traumas we've suffered - traumas which go back to early childhood and have nothing to do with cancer - we'd be in big trouble. I understand why he shut down. I understand the way he has approached recovery. I understand why I went into overdrive. I understand why the healing stage has been so painful for me. We've each had deep, core wounds reopened. I've been amazed at the pain and power of the feelings that have come up. And, seeing the truth of WHY it's been so hard, so painful, seeing that truth has allowed me to forgive myself. To forgive myself for feeling anger toward a man I love with cancer. For running out of steam. For emotionally breaking down. For not always being present, loving, and understanding. For fearing for us, doubting us, grieving us.

It would be so easy to blame, to resent, to fester. That is what was modeled for me in my parents' relationship. My mother was always on what she calls "a slow burn." Being a sensitive kid, I saw exactly what was going on between my parents - her disappointment that showed up as criticism and coldness. His shutting down and becoming avoidant in the face of her criticism. His depression punctuated by bursts of terrifying rage. Her tightly wound, cold, and distant demeanor. They were both hurting. They did not have the insight or compassion to hold their suffering, to turn to each other with kindness. Tragically, they were doing the needed repair work and coming to a new place of love and peace together when he died suddenly at age 62.

So yeah, this post was a bit all over the place but hopefully the core message is clear. We are all doing the best we can. It helps immeasurably to really understand why we react the way we do -- and why others are the way they are. We need safety and compassionate witnessing to come to that understanding. We need that from others. And we need it from ourselves. I bow in deep gratitude to all the ways the universe has reached out to teach me this. I only hope I can continue to remember. And, to offer this Compassionate Inquiry to others who need a soft place to land.

I'm sure I will have more to say about Compassionate Inquiry as I go through the certification program in the coming year. If you're curious you can learn more on the CI web site or search YouTube for videos of Maté demonstrating the process with clients. It's intense and it can be triggering to watch, so trust your body to tell you if it's too much. And, as always, reach out anytime if you need a compassionate witness. ❤️


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