If I asked you to list all that you trust, how long would it be before you named yourself?
Trust. That sparkling quality vital to well-being & wholeness. The living water of thriving relationships. Without trust for others we live in suspicion that, over time, annihilates joy, compassion and curiosity. Without trust for oneself we live under a cloud of doubt, loathing, and fear, denying the approval our own conscience.
I inhaled self-distrust before I can remember. It wasn’t that my parents didn’t encourage and support me. It’s that their encouragement was erratic. Praise then criticism. Warmth then emotional chill. You are precious; but just look how intelligent, industrious, and accomplished your brothers are. Their inconsistency left me uncertain, withdrawn, sullen.
I can barely imagine the emotional poverty my mom and dad came from. They told me, “You shouldn’t feel that way. You can’t think that. You didn’t try hard enough! What will people think?” What had their parents told them? (Inherited trauma is real, and as I wrote earlier: You can only give what you’ve got.)
Personal Anger: Elephant Training
Looking back, my childhood resembled elephant training.
“The way circus elephants are trained…: When young, they are attached by heavy chains to large stakes driven deep into the ground. They pull and yank and strain and struggle, but the chain is too strong, the stake to rooted. One day they give up, having learned they cannot pull free, and from that day forward they can be “chained” with a slender rope. When this enormous animals feels any resistance, though it has the strength to pull the whole circus tent over, it stops trying. Because it believes it cannot, it cannot.” 228-229 The Gift of Fear
Tamed by disappointed looks, comment on my behavior, or physical punishment, I believed that I could not trust my preferences, my feelings, my thoughts, my choices, my self.
Some people write or speak about the moment or process of surrendering their will, of relinquishing their voice and vision and caving to social pressure. I have no such memory. I cannot recall a time when I had a personal voice or vision to surrender.
I am angry that early life influences chained me and stripped me of trust in myself. You can be deceived. Look to others—at home, at school, at church—for validation, and even guidance.
I wrote about this in earlier posts:
Home: The First Time, This Will Hurt
The message repeated over and over: Not reliable, not worthy, not capable. Selfish. I believed. When outside voices failed, I repeated it myself. About the time I turned 35, this belief bloomed into the chronic drag of low-grade depression. It bottomed out one morning in bed. My nose streamed and my tears ran into the funnels of my ears as I stared at our bedroom ceiling. Ken, I love you and our kids so much. But I’d rather die than get up and live one more day.
Thirty-one years ago September 1st, I launched into the biggest trust project of my life. I married Ken. I stand by the claims made in the first essay of this series:
Getting married is not an accomplishment.
Staying married is not an accomplishment.
Learning to trust another person, and yourself—that’s an accomplishment! A golden-amazing-worthy-of-the-word accomplishment.
But building deep trust happens slowly and daily (no matter what the retreat center advertises). Like growing a redwood. Like quenching thirst in the desert. Especially if you’re as wounded, as parched, as messed up as we were. Ken, divorced by someone who found his financial and professional potential disappointing, wondered if I would jump ship when the going got rough. I claimed, I’m fine. I’m fine. I am fine, fine, fine! In denial of elephant training and growing up in a Man’s World.
In spite of our histories we said, I do, proving once again that hope triumphs over experience.
After the Wedding
Our first matrimonial year was hell. The authoritarian work environment stank. But wait! There’s more! Married, guilt-free sex was awkward (we had waited), good (in that frenzied beginner way), and sweaty (we lived in Khartoum). Trusting each other was just plain awkward. Neither of us had much experience with trust. Wondering if he’d chosen another partner who would leave him, Ken spent that year dodging confrontation. Coming from a family that verbalized and critiqued life out loud, I talked and talked and talked (even during sex) about all that was wrong with our boss and the work we were assigned. Ken, feeling responsible, hardly spoke. I cried. Ken retreated. I raged. Ken watched baffled.
Grace means we do not get what we deserve; we get what we need to grow.
We survived Sudan. We could have bailed, but we stuck it out. We were stubborn (some said we wouldn’t last, and we didn’t want them to be right.) Plus plane tickets out of Khartoum were pretty pricey, which helped us stay stubborn. But the main reason we survived was grace. Somehow grace snuck into our turmoil and planted the seeds of trust. Eventually, in the midst of confusion and sticking it out, we solemnly promised each other: I am on your side. We are on the same team. (Coming from my competitive background, this was huge.)
Those seeds grew into tiny trust seedlings.
That year in Sudan I became, without knowing it, a co-creator of the emotionally safe space that is our relationship.
Return to the Wild
With Ken and the people who have come alongside me in the dark times, I have broken the chain of elephant training that kept me looking to others for validation and guidance. (That caused quite the stir.) Recently, I’ve been striding so far into the untamed wild—by spending time with trustworthy people, avoiding those who are not emotionally trustworthy, listening to my heart—that I only remember what the chain and stake look like when I write essays like this. Of this emerging wildness, Ken says, “You are way more than I bargained for.” We both smile. I laugh out loud.
Trusting ourselves or other people is a vulnerable and courageous process.” ~ Brené Brown
In other words, trusting moves us from a chained existence to the courageous, wild places of life. I love everything Brené Brown writes about trust. Her words here confirm my belief that learning how to trust oneself and others belongs with the biggies: kindness, patience, and reading. These should be required teachings—at home, in schools, by faith communities. (If you want to know what this teaching might look like, listen to Brenés Anatomy of Trust here.
When we learn to trust wisely and well we find our way back to integration. Trust* mends the breakup of body, mind, and spirit. (*This trust includes trust in the Divine. I’ll write about that next time.)
So this is it, dear reader. My year of Personal Anger. In the process of remembering, writing, and sharing my anger, I’ve learned so much about the importance of owning and examining my story. This series of essays represents some of my examination practice. It is also an invitation to you to own all of your story, including your anger.
Writing often brought me to tears, while putting it out there for you to consider brought me closer to clarity and compassion: for myself, for others.
Thank you! I am grateful for you companionship, for each one of you who read, commented, or simply let me know, Me too.
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