Friday, March 20, 2009

The "Panic Room" Self

This post is a little insight into how my mind works. My hope is that some of you might see some similarities here, or that my female readers might see their partners in this.

When I am confronted with something that seriously shakes my expectations in a negative way (which is, of course, a matter of interpretation), I have a subpersonality (a part of my psyche) that pops up and takes over - I call it the "panic room" self.

Most of you know what a panic room is, but if you don't, here is a description:
A safe room or panic room is a fortified room which is installed in a private residence or business to provide a safe hiding place for the inhabitants in the event of a break-in, home invasion, or other threat. Safe rooms usually contain communications equipment, so that law enforcement authorities can be contacted.
Many of us who have been through hard stuff in our lives have a self inside of us that functions much like a panic room. When we are overwhelmed with a threat of some kind, that part/self emerges to take over and prevent the psyche from being harmed. When we were young and defenseless, this was a healthy adaptation, as adults, not so much.

When my panic room self gets activated, like many men, I withdraw - energetically, emotionally, and often physically. Because this is a widespread issue - in fact, it is often (wrongly) seen as a feature of masculinity - men tend to be seen as incapable of expressing emotion. Or, we tend to be seen, at least in the past, as the strong, silent types. True but partial.

As we increase our awareness, however, we can often see this happening and either tell our partner about what is happening, or at the least assure her/him that it isn't personal. Being able to see these interior selves as objects of awareness rather than be their subjects of experience is an important skill to develop. Being able to make this distinction - and share it with our partners - could go a long way toward saving many relationships that might otherwise fail.

There are two basic ways to develop this skill.

1) Mindfulness and meditation practice. If we can learn to observe our thoughts and feelings as they happen, rather than simply acting them out, we are well on our way to being able to identify and observe the different selves we contain, so that we do not become victims of their maladaptive behaviors.

This video by Thich Nhat Hanh explains basic mindfulness and more:
Buddhist mindfulness techniques can help to bring the mind back to the body so that you are fully present here and now. For sitting meditation, Thich Nhat Hanh describes simple practices of awareness that increase a sense of well being and release tension in the body. He offers walking meditation as a practice that can help you to live deeply every moment of your life, free from the prison of the past and of the future. He gives instruction, too, in addressing pain and anger in your heart and developing a deeper awareness of and appreciation for everyday moments of life: cooking, cleaning, driving, and working in such a way that you feel peaceful, mindful,and happy.

2) Developing an observer self, often through psychotherapy. I've posted this before at IOC, but I'll include it here for those new to my blogs.
An Exercise to Identify the Observer Self

The observer self is that aspect of consciousness which can watch us act like fools and stand back at a safe distance, shaking its head in disbelief. It is capable of observing our behaviors with an even, unattached point of view. The observer can help us see our wounded areas, our habitual patterns, and our inner selves more clearly, without the interference of the ego and its desire to maintain the status quo. The observer self is an invaluable ally in personal growth that can lead us into higher levels of consciousness.

The following exercise, adapted from Roberto Assagioli’s disidentification process in Psychosynthesis and Ken Wilber’s meditations in One Taste, can help us detach from ego-consciousness and step back into the observer self. For each of the steps there is a mantra that some people find quite useful in detaching from each element of the ego-self.

Practicing Detachment

Get into a comfortable position, either sitting or lying down. Take a few deep, centering breaths, allowing the body to relax. Closing the eyes can help focus attention. Feel the air moving in an out of your lungs as you breathe. Become aware of your body, its position, how your limbs feel, where you are holding tension. Become aware of your whole body and all the sensations it experiences. If you are comfortable with mantras, the one for this step is, "I have a body, but I am not my body." Repeat aloud or in your thoughts.

Take three deep cleansing breaths. Now leave your body and move to your emotions. What feelings do you notice? Are you bored, anxious, happy? Notice your current feelings, and then think about the most common feelings in your life. Do not dwell on those feelings -- just recall them and then release them. Mantra: "I have feelings, but I am not my feelings." This mantra works well as a reminder when you are angry or afraid that you are frozen in an emotion.

Take three deep cleansing breaths. Move from your feelings to your desires. Desires are those things that motivate us. We all have many things that motivate our behaviors, such as simplicity, comfort, quiet, money, health, or others. Observe the things that motivate you, but do not judge them. Simply call them up and notice them. Mantra: "I have desires, but I am not my desires."

Take three deep cleansing breaths. Now move to your thoughts. As each thought rises to consciousness, observe it but do not dwell on it. Then watch as the next one rises to replace it, over and over again. This is the state of consciousness most of us experience. However, we often get stuck on a handful of thoughts that return over and over again in our lives. Notice the pattern, but do not hold on to it. Notice the flotsam and jetsam of consciousness, the memories, the ideas, the fears, the opinions, and the ways you tell yourself who you are as a person. Mantra: "I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts." This mantra works in meditation to return a wandering mind to the breath.

Take three deep cleansing breaths. Finally, become aware of that part of you that has been observing your body, your feelings, your desires, and your thoughts. Having detached from the basic elements of consciousness, repeat the mantras: I have a body, but I am not my body; I have feelings, but I am not my feelings; I have desires, but I am not my desires; I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts.

What is the source of your awareness? Who is that self behind all these realms of ego? The self is not an image or a thought, but a deeper essence. The self is at the core of our humanity.

The one who has been watching your sensations, feelings, desires, and thoughts is not the same as the object it observes. WHO IS IT THAT HAS BEEN OBSERVING ALL THESE REALMS? It is your SELF. The Self is not an image or a thought; it is that ESSENCE which has been observing all these realms and yet is distinct from all of them. Mantra: "I am the self, a center of pure consciousness."
Whatever comes into awareness is fine. You are none of those things, so just watch them pass like clouds across a blue sky. "And this witnessing awareness is not itself anything specific you can see. It is just a vast, background sense of Freedom – or pure Emptiness – and in that pure Emptiness, which you are, the entire manifest world arises. You are that Freedom, Openness, Emptiness – and not any itty bitty thing that arises in it" (Ken Wilber, One Taste, 88).
If we can come to this place of mindfulness or develop a strong observer self (both function in very similar ways), we are less likely to end up in the panic room self when confronted with hard stuff, or we'll at least know that it is happening as it happens - and we'll be much more conscious partners in our relationships.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Actually it's quite normal to withdraw when your overwhelmed by emotions, contact with other people or distractions by noises can be highly distressing or even frightening at such a time, it may be neccisary to escape mentally if it is not possible to escape physically, until you have calmed down.

I do not consider this unhealthy,if you think of it that way you might as well just say crying is unhealthy, their both only temporary solutions and wont fix the problem, and both /can/ be a problem if you get carried away.