How to relax completely

I want to be able to relax completely. I want to be able to enter a state of deep relaxation that overflows into my everyday life.

So how do I do this?

I’ve tried breathing exercises and meditation many times in the past, I’ve also tried yoga, massage, reiki, spiritual healing, psychotherapy, nutritional supplements, warm baths, cold showers, qigong, and seen Physiotherapists, osteopaths, and a handful of others I can’t remember.

But in the past I didn’t understand CPTSD, emotional flashbacks, or dissociation. I didn’t understand how mental representations create my reality. Following on from yesterday’s post: I know now that long-standing behaviours like dissociation and hyper-vigilance have a cognitive basis.

In other words, I can’t relax because I have some kind of belief that it is more important for me to remain alert and vigilant.

So no matter how many exercises or methods I use to relax, part of me is adamant that I remain alert and on guard at all times.

Brainstorming relevant thoughts about being alert, I come up with:

– I need to pay attention in case something bad happens

– I need to be aware of everything around me

– if I don’t pay attention something bad will happen

– you can’t take your eye off people

– you shouldn’t ever let your guard down

– better safe than sorry

– if you’re not paying attention, anything could happen to you.

These sound a bit nebulous, but they were backed up by bad experiences of being caught off-guard by awful people, leading me to subsequently reinforce the fallacy that “this wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t let my guard down”.

Why is this a fallacy? Because being eternally guarded and hyper-vigilant is not the answer to a happy and safe domestic environment. While it may be true that guardedness and vigilance could pre-empt instances of abuse and harassment, they aren’t viable solutions to abuse and harassment.

And while it’s also true that abuse and other forms of trauma might be more jarring if they happen when we are relaxed and unguarded, it’s ultimately a deeply maladaptive strategy to therefore determine that we will never again be caught relaxed and unguarded.

So in order to relax completely it is necessary to first remove ourselves either temporarily or permanently from sources of abuse, harassment, or danger in general, and second, to acknowledge and accept that being guarded and vigilant is unsustainable. Find a safe space, and really affirm that it is now safe to be – in the best sense of the word – careless, inattentive, oblivious and forgetful; to well and truly let go of any thoughts of threat or danger or negative consequences of being deeply and satisfyingly relaxed.

Why I hate writing

I’ve written a lot over the years and used to enjoy it.

But over time my enthusiasm waned as I realised that what made sense to me didn’t necessarily make sense to anyone else.

I thought I was communicating valuable insights, but what did those insights amount to?

Now when I try to write I feel almost immediate weariness and disgust. I know that it’s not writing per se, but the way I am trying to write.

Nonetheless I still try and fail repeatedly every week.

Along the way I learned that I’m tired of trying to communicate to people who don’t care and don’t want to listen. As a child it was ingrained in me that whatever I had to say was by turns ridiculous, worthy of contempt, deserved to be outright ignored, or to be painfully endured as the most burdensome thing imaginable.

“Are you finished?” ūüôĄ

When it came to writing I tried to limit myself only to ideas that seemed objectively worthy of communication, divorced from my subjective voice and perspective.

My ideas had to be entirely defensible, and I strived to find points of interest that made them relatable and “worth listening to”.

None of these are bad in the right measure, but they can collude to support the deep conviction that anything I communicate has to overcome a barrier of hostility and opposition; that my words and thoughts have no intrinsic worth and are not worth the effort of communicating.

This is all the result of childhood conditioning, and what it calls for is the remedy of recognising that my expectations were shaped by some really awful people, but most people in the world aren’t like that, and I do in fact receive many positive responses from people I’ve never met who resonate on some level with the words I have written.

Ultimately, we write for ourselves regardless of how others respond. We write to express our thoughts, to clarify and focus our perspectives. We therefore don’t need to impose restrictions or extrinsic criteria in the hope of pleasing an audience or avoiding criticism and condemnation.

Most people aren’t awful; many people are lovely, authentic and open. If I write firstly for my own benefit and secondly with the expectation that most people aren’t bad and many are good, then I think I can learn to enjoy writing again.

The Iceman, shallow breathing, and the freeze response

I’ve started experimenting with “The Iceman” Wim Hof’s breathing method because of the evidence that it can reduce inflammatory agents in the body.

But the deep breathing proved increasingly difficult for me to sustain. Breath holds? No problem. It’s the quick, repeated breaths that left me tense and unable to continue.

Which is great, because I’ve struggled with different forms of exercise and physical exertion all my life, but hadn’t considered the root cause might be in my breathing.

It turns out that stress, trauma, and anxiety cause shallow breathing. The fight-or-flight (or freeze) response sometimes calls for complete stillness and silence, with the possibility of frantic action if the situation calls for it.

You see a bear in the woods (or in Australia a snake) and our first reaction is to freeze and hope the dangerous animal doesn’t notice us. The backup plan is to get the hell out of there, requiring the use of auxiliary breathing muscles in the chest and neck.

This article describes the process in detail, rethinking the stock advice to “take a deep breath” in the context of strength training, yoga, and other forms of exercise.

When you freeze, your breathing becomes almost imperceptible. Many people go through life breathing like this, compensating with occasional deep inhalations and periodic sighing to balance out the shallowness.

The article linked above offers some suggestions for grounding oneself in the absence of deep breathing. For me these experiments with the Wim Hof method have brought to light a core component of health and vitality that was inhibited due to prolonged stress and trauma.

As I observe my breathing I now recognise that familiar feeling as the freeze response in action, attempting to still and reduce all movement and activity, out of a primal instinct for self-preservation.

Do your thoughts create your reality?

The etymology of thought comes from the verb to think:

From Old English √ĺencan “imagine, conceive in the mind; consider, meditate, remember; intend, wish, desire” (past tense √ĺohte, past participle ge√ĺoht), probably originally “cause to appear to oneself,” 

So a thought is something conceived in the mind, caused to appear to oneself. In cognitive science or philosophy of mind these are called “mental representations”.

Much of our thinking or representation is done in abstract, but we can also think in sensory forms such as visual and auditory, and in verbal form as well.

In other words, we can picture, hear, smell, taste and touch things in our minds, and we can talk or listen to ourselves in words, and we can think wordlessly as well.

All our thoughts are representations to our own minds. But what is the purpose or use of such representation?

Some argue that mental representation evolved because it allows us to creatively solve problems by imagining how reality could be different.

But philosophers and scientists also recognise that mental representation is to some degree implicated in our experience of reality. We don’t perceive reality directly, we perceive what our brain has processed and interpreted reality to be.

This gets really interesting when we consider the role cognition plays in our mood and overall mental health. Therapies like CBT explicitly try to alter our mental representations to help us feel better. They train us to change the words, images, and abstract symbols we create in our minds.

It turns out that constantly telling yourself “life is just too hard” will make you feel pretty bad about living. Or that traumatic experiences of abuse, threat, and violence can persist for decades in your mind as representations of possible dangers you may have to face at any moment.

Representations are powerful. Thought is powerful. And we recognise most clearly in cases of trauma and mental illness that others’ mental representations are not serving them. But we struggle to recognise it in ourselves, and above all we collectively struggle to see anything awry when our negative mental representations are considered “normal” simply because they are widely shared.

It is inspiring and uplifting to know that when we change our representations we change our reality on a profound level. Not only can we recover from the destructive and limiting stories of the past, but we can surpass or simply discard what others consider “normal” as well.

Evolving spiritual beliefs

Spiritual or metaphysical beliefs represent how we see ourselves in relation to all that is.

Our metaphysical beliefs matter, even if they don’t seem to figure in everyday life.

But even our metaphysics are influenced by our individual personalities. It’s not easy to reconcile a “self-made man” ethos with a belief in divine providence. Personal responsibility doesn’t sit well with a belief in an all-powerful God.

On a different tack, the impersonal nature of Daoist or some Buddhist beliefs might appeal to, or repel, people depending on how they relate to the idea of a personal deity.

It’s not just that faith means different things to different people, but that different people are drawn to different ways of relating to existence itself, or conceiving of that relationship.

My metaphysics were unwittingly shaped by traumatic experiences as well as my underlying temperament; hence I was drawn to spiritual perspectives and practices where the individual mind finds peace and wholeness by realising its unity with a divine and transcendent truth.

Everyone knows that words themselves aren’t the way, they can only point the way; hence it doesn’t matter if you call that transcendent being God or Sunyata, or the Dao. But it does matter what we are trying to accomplish in relation to that transcendent being.

I always emphasised the loss of self in the divine, the search for security and sureness and freedom by surrendering individual boundaries and letting go of personal preferences and will.

But now I can see that this was also a way of retreating from conflict and trauma, surrendering boundaries and a sense of self that were already extremely fragile. I neglected the fact that the union of the human and the transcendent is an intermingling. We connect to the divine not to surrender a flawed human experience, but to complete it and make it whole.

Some mystics wrote of losing themselves completely in the divine…but they found enough of themselves afterward to speak or write about it.

New wine

Jesus said “Whoever loves his life will lose it, but whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life”…and I don’t know what he was talking about. Why would you want to keep a hateful life for eternity?

I don’t worry anymore about things that don’t make sense to me. If it doesn’t make sense to me, it probably isn’t meant for me. But at the same time, I’ve outgrown some things that used to make sense.

It used to make sense spiritually to deny myself, hate my life, and look for the freedom of retreating into something I knew to be perfect, pure and free. But now I’ve decided that life is supposed to feel good, and be good. My life is supposed to be happy.

And all of a sudden I saw the shift in my spiritual beliefs: I am not meant to be losing myself in a greater, transcendent whole. I am a part of the whole, to which the greater, transcendent, divine being extends and communicates itself.

Addiction as self-medication

My approach to diet involves recognising that I tend to overeat for two reasons: insufficient sources of pleasure and enjoyment in life, and as an escape from negative emotions.

In my case, what I thought was hunger was actually an impulse to distract myself from negative emotions.

The causes of negative emotion are different for all of us. That’s why I urge people to consider professional help and mental health support.

Like other forms of “addiction”, overeating can be a way of soothing and distracting from negative emotions. Studies into obesity have shown that for many, both the overeating and the weight gain can provide an unconscious solution to the problem of traumatic experiences such as abuse, neglect, and assault.

That’s why conventional diets don’t work for everyone. There’s an inner, often unconscious, struggle between the desire to lose weight for health and aesthetic and social reasons, and the desire to escape from very painful emotions or memories.

Have some compassion for yourself in this process. First, because you may be seeking to change behaviours that have been in place for years or decades. Second, because although self-medication with food or other substances tends to have negative side-effects in the long term, it’s also typically a case of doing the best we can under very difficult circumstances.

All things being equal, I doubt anyone prefers to be overweight. But all things are not equal. We work them out piece by piece over time, and compassion and understanding are not only deserved but essential.

It‚Äôs a game…13!

Omens and miracles.

Yesterday I had an omen. Walking home with my daughter in the morning we came across a scene.

A cyclist and a local resident flagged me for help. It turned out that a mother duck with eight or nine ducklings had lost several of them down a storm-water drain.

She wouldn’t leave them, and the ducks couldn’t get out. The grate was far too heavy to lift without the right tools, and even if we could lift it how could we catch four little ducks down a one metre diameter drain?

The woman decided to call the RSPCA and our rescue party disbanded. As I told my mechanic on the way home: there was nothing we could do. He replied “you mean you did everything you could do.”

Right – it just happened to be nothing.

To me this was so clearly an omen but I had no idea what it meant.

Then today I was doing an exercise on reprocessing traumatic experiences. The idea is to identify aspects of your past experiences that still inform how you feel about yourself in the present. Thoughts like “I’m weak,” or “I’m powerless” and so on.

The next step is to ask what you would prefer to believe about yourself in that past experience instead.

I came up empty. I couldn’t really see a positive aspect to an experience of powerlessness.

And then I thought of the ducklings. Yesterday’s omen.

“I did everything I could”…and it wasn’t “nothing”.

I did everything I could. I didn’t have the right tools for the job. I wasn’t actually powerless, I did everything I could.

Given the circumstances I did everything that I could do, anything anyone could reasonably do.

That’s such a shift in perception. I’m not weak or powerless. Sometimes there’s just not a lot you can do.

This morning on the walk to school the ducks were gone, and the heavy grate showed signs of having been lifted out and replaced. All the dirt and debris had shifted and the edges were clean and clear.

I like to think the RSPCA got someone out to rescue them. It certainly looked that way. Isn’t it nice that there are people willing and able to do things like that?

As for me I’m just so appreciative of the message or omen that was given to me. It’s just such a clear signpost of the path I’m on and the way my life is changing as I find alignment with my inner being and let go of the resistance I’ve been carrying.

Towards a spiritual psychology

I’m very slowly working towards a kind of spiritual psychology or anthropology, based on my reading and experiments over the years.

I hope it will take into account all the variables in my past experience: dealing with things like depression and anxiety, mysticism, cognitive and emotional states, and temperament.

It will be at heart a pragmatic approach, aimed at overcoming the suffering in my own life, and exploring the promises made by various religious teachings about the availability of love, joy, peace, and even bliss in this lifetime.

For me ‘pragmatic’ means I have a goal in mind. I didn’t go looking for answers out of simple curiosity, but because I sensed there was something¬†wrong but had no idea what, how, or why.

So my approach will probably not appeal to many people, just as I’ve failed to find answers in the many popular approaches, theories, and methods available at present. The reason I haven’t become an exponent of any particular system or teaching is that no system or teaching has proven sufficient for me.

A quick sketch

Consciousness is something special.

In some religious systems, consciousness itself is considered divine – part of, or even all of God, right at the heart of your existence.

In others, consciousness is “close to” the divine, and is considered the “true self” or soul, in contrast to the false self, the ego, the accumulated thoughts and impressions that we usually treat as our self.

We could spend a lifetime trying to resolve and explore these theoretical differences, but remember this is a pragmatic effort. Regardless of the exact descriptions or definitions, consciousness is “special” in a good way.

The significance of consciousness is much more obvious in an Eastern context than in a Christian one, but we must bear in mind that the word “consciousness” has only recently been taken to mean what it means in this context. As “a state of being aware” it dates back only so far as the 18th Century.

Years ago I went looking for Aquinas’ perspective on consciousness, but couldn’t find it for the simple reason that Aquinas lived in the 13th Century, and for him¬†conscientia¬†would point to¬†conscience, not consciousness.

In fact¬†conscious¬†is just a derivative of¬†conscience.¬†Both come from¬†con¬†meaning ‘with’ and¬†science meaning “knowledge”. We could just as well say¬†conscient¬†instead of¬†conscious,¬†as in “are you conscient right now?”

The light in the darkness

In the context of mysticism, the specialness and significance of consciousness has been captured in the term “light”, as in “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it”, which is not only a powerful spiritual statement, but also a pretty neat summary of contemporary philosophy of mind and the “hard” problem of consciousness.

Likewise: “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.”

We tend to think of evil deeds in concrete ways, as specific actions that contravene divine law.

But in the broader spiritual context it is clear that everything we do is corrupt and insufficient. It is ‘evil’ in a broad sense, and pragmatically this means our efforts are incapable of overcoming suffering or bringing us the happiness we seek.

We needn’t feel condemned for our actions, it’s enough that our actions cannot redeem us. Futility is an evil, just as much as malice.

The evil of human actions encompasses everything from the murderer and rapist all the way up to the proud and spiritually-barren Pharisees. That’s why Christianity presented such an apparent inversion of the moral order – because it doesn’t matter how well-behaved you are if you still have no love in you.

Some people think that light and darkness are metaphors for good and evil. I think it’s the other way around, in the sense that good and evil are ultimately grounded in light and darkness.

Light, love, and maladaptive defense-mechanisms

The ever-present light in us is also love, in that ‘light’ and love are attributes of God. Again, speaking pragmatically rather than seeking theological precision, this mysterious light by which we know the world and our own selves is also the source of divine love.

Yet instead of remaining in that love, we pay greater heed to the world, giving in to doubts and fears.

You can see this very clearly in children.

Young children are (all things being equal) loving towards their parents or caregivers. They give and receive love naturally.

Unfortunately, their parents and caregivers are not consistently loving in return. Our faults and foibles prevent us from responding to the love of our children perfectly.

Children experience this deprivation of love as a threat to their very survival. This makes sense on a biological level – since the child is entirely dependent on its caregivers for food, shelter, and security. But it also makes sense on a spiritual level, since we are told that love, light, and life all come from God.

In the face of this deprivation of love, the child invariably succumbs to doubt and fear, and immediately strives to regain the love it has lost.

This is the root of the problem: succumbing to doubt and fear, and thereby shutting down the immediacy of love in themselves, while then concluding that external conditions (the world) need to be controlled and rearranged before love can return.

In practical terms, this amounts to a child who stops experiencing love because of their parents’ implied or explicit rejection, and then seeks to find a way to regain that parental love and protect themselves from further harm.

The many layers of the psyche

Over many years of making psychological moves to avoid hurt and regain love, the child-teenaged-adult psyche ends up with many complex layers of beliefs, emotions, and choices that all originate in the choice of fear and doubt over love.

What this means is that in theory any of us can at any time feel divine love in our hearts. So long as the light (consciousness) is there, love is there as well. And the light is always with us.

But in practice our receptivity to this love is on a hair-trigger. We are ready to shut off the flow of love at the slightest hint of anything in the world of our experience that resembles the hurts, fears, doubts, and defense mechanisms that have shaped us over the years.

For example, many people develop perfectionist tendencies when young. Let’s say your parents were often depressed or angry, leaving them emotionally unavailable to you.

But then one day you get a good result at school or do well at sport, and suddenly your parents seem interested and engaged and proud of you. From your point of view, it’s as if they’ve said “Yes! This is the kind of behaviour and accomplishment we find worthy of love!”

Many children (depending on temperament and other circumstances) will form an intention to become as accomplished and successful as possible, because this is obviously what it takes to earn their parents’ love again.¬†

Conflating accomplishment and success with the supply of love is one cause of perfectionism.

Perfectionism can also originate in the inverse circumstance Рwhere a child is told that they will suffer further rejection if they do not succeed in life.

Metastasizing fear

Becoming a perfectionist is one instance of a maladaptive response to fear and doubt. It’s mal-adaptive because it doesn’t really achieve the desired result (securing a supply of love) and it actually creates further conflict and harm.

Because after a while the child will begin to reflect on their perfectionist efforts. They will have further psychological responses to their perfectionism, such as: fear that they will not be able to achieve their goals, resentment that they must be ‘perfect’ in order to be accepted or loved, a sense of emptiness after finding that their accomplishments do not bring lasting rewards, and so on.

Again it depends on the child, but rest assured that they will make some kind of “move” to try to avoid further hurt and attain more love.

If, for example, the child feels insufficiently loved for their accomplishments, they will begin to feel angry and resentful at this injustice. Somewhere in the child’s mind they made an implicit bargain with their parents that they would be loved if they accomplished enough, or did as they were told, or didn’t rock the boat, or whatever particular issue first ruptured their sense of being loved.

But how will the child respond to these feelings of anger and resentment? Whatever they decide, it will be a choice that seeks implicitly to limit their hurt and attain more love, or as much love as they can hope to achieve in their circumstances.

These psychological developments go on and on. Some people have a few, others have many.

The more you have, the more likely you will develop outright internal conflicts between different “moves” or layers. Some people end up depressed or suicidal for no apparent external cause, because the layers of their own psyche create a kind of inner tension or turmoil that they don’t know how to resolve.

Finding the answer

That’s why the spiritual path is both simple and complex, easy and difficult.

The simple spiritual answers like “God is love” can be a source of great comfort, but not necessarily a lived experience. Can you just¬†choose¬†to be full of love, and then do it? Maybe you can, but many of us cannot.

So on the one hand we’re told that all we have to do is¬†believe¬†and we will be saved.

But on the other hand:

“Make every effort to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.”

Why this dichotomy? Because the simple truth is obscured by the many layers of our psychological defenses and accretions.

Defenses like turning to alcohol, sex, or drugs to try to relieve the inner tension, boredom, or suppressed pain which is in turn the outcome of other, more subtle defenses.

Defenses like intellectualising everything, shutting down emotionally, using dissociation or hypervigiliance to gain a sense of control over your own experience and environment.

Defenses like seeking out conflict and emotional turmoil, harming oneself or hurting others.

Nonetheless the answers are there.

The underlying, inescapable reality is light, not darkness, and it expresses itself in love, not fear.

Melancholics and trauma

A reader asked how melancholics express love and affection, physically and emotionally, etc.

I feel like l need to understand why he takes forever to be close to me, doesn’t seem to like physical touch (which l think is related to past trauma) despite me providing a safe zone.

I don’t know the person in question, so this is more of an educated guess based on my own experiences and my interactions with other melancholics.

Trauma

First I would say that it most likely is related to past trauma, or the internal adaptations he’s made to the past trauma.

In a melancholic, trauma could produce adaptations like detachment/dissociation, hypervigilance, agitation, and so on.

Physical touch could be difficult because he’s basically in fight-or-flight mode, feeling in danger and ready to run or lash out at the slightest hint of a threat. His nervous system could be amped up, and every sound or sensation is magnified and feels like a violent imposition that is putting him in danger.

That’s one option anyway.

Alternatively, he could be detaching/dissociating from unpleasant emotions, trying not to feel them. If this is the case, then physical touch would be unwelcome because he’s already doing his best not to feel anything. Physical contact from a loved-one would normally have a relaxing, grounding effect, but in his case it would also bring him closer to his unwanted painful emotions.

Temperament

Dissociation and hypervigilance are pretty common responses regardless of temperament, though I suspect melancholics are more prone to internalise and hold on to past trauma than the other temperaments.

But in addition to mechanisms like dissociation and hypervigilance, melancholics will also respond to trauma in uniquely melancholic ways.

Because melancholics are idealists, they will be drawn to idealising their response. That means they will look for ultimate, perfect, and meaningful responses to their suffering.

You can tell a sanguine or phlegmatic to “learn to let go” but a melancholic will baulk at “letting go” because it implies that the problem is not as significant as it feels to them.

Letting go sounds like “forgetting” and since when has a problem ever gone away just by forgetting about it?

So a melancholic will be drawn to radical, idealised solutions to their internal suffering. Solutions like…rejecting all intimate or dependent human relationships, wishing they could live alone like a hermit on a mountaintop, somehow gaining complete control over their emotions, or simply ceasing to rely on or experience emotions in the first place.

These are the kinds of ‘solutions’ that will really just mess you up a whole lot more, but they appeal to the melancholic because they are inspiring. They hold meaning and promise a lasting solution to the problem of suffering.

What I’m getting at here is that a melancholic might have developed ideals and (unrealistic) goals that¬†further¬†inhibit them from accepting or expressing affection.

I’ve said before that being a melancholic is like being lost in a fog where only the biggest and brightest landmarks can be (dimly) seen. So imagine you’ve grown up in the fog, unable to respond adequately to your own suffering by altering your environment, and this predicament has left a deep and long-lasting impression on you that you never ever forget…

If you can’t change your environment (due to lack of knowledge, power, or both) then all you can do is change yourself.

Maybe the best you can do is try to stop those painful or unpleasant emotions from having control over you.

Melancholics may then choose to identify with examples of human beings who are emotionally detached and invulnerable, in the belief that this is an attainable and desirable way to live.

If this is the case with your melancholic, then he might not know how to reconcile this idealised role or imagined invulnerability with the more simple and healthy enjoyment of expressing and receiving affection.

Summary

All of this is potentially complicated.

In the first instance I would consider either the detached/dissociated or hypervigilant/fight-or-flight responses as possible explanations for avoiding accepting/expressing affection.

Both of those can run quite deep, and people do not necessarily recognise that they are in these states.

The secondary thing is the idealised role that could mean he has past or current ideals that make it hard for him to accept emotional vulnerability and intimacy. He might not even realise that these ideals are incomplete or unrealistic or not good models for a healthy human existence.

If this sounds daunting, just bear in mind that all people of different temperaments have issues and problems and faults. Melancholics are just more likely to internalise it rather than blaming it all on other people or taking it out on others.

Obviously none of this is a substitute for professional counselling etc.

So bearing in mind my non-professional status, there are a couple of ‘themes’ that might help. If possible, you could talk to him about how simple physical affection makes you feel relaxed and happy, and ask him how he feels about it.

Melancholics seem to love talking/thinking about themselves, and a spirit of genuine inquiry (as opposed to a challenge or interrogation) is usually welcome.

After all, if you start breaking love down into more basic actions and feelings, isn’t it that we feel relaxed and happy when we’re with someone we love? And physical contact tells us that the person we care about finds us lovable and attractive. Verbal affection and “reaching out” tells us that we’re important to the person we care about, and vice versa.

If you can find a way to talk about it, and discuss how he feels, I think that might prove fruitful. If he’s melancholic, he may not have a very clear sense of how he feels or why he feels that way. If there are repeated patterns like it taking him a long time to get close, then he might be able to make observations and work out what’s going on.

If you mean that each time he sees you, it takes him a while to physically get close to you, then bear in mind that it might simply be taking time for his physiological and mental state to change. That is, if his “normal” phys. and mental state is fight-or-flight, then yes it will take quite a while to cool down in your presence, to a level where he is calm enough to accept and express affection.

By becoming aware of patterns like these (if that’s what is actually going on) we can learn to adjust.

Anyhow, I hope some of this is relevant and helpful. Since I don’t know the circumstances or the individuals involved it’s quite general and may not be appropriate for your situation.

Trauma and the ingratiate melancholic

The past few days have brought up several instances that bring to mind a phenomenon I will call the ingratiate melancholic.

As mentioned in a previous post, the melancholic has a tendency to act towards others according to ideals of human behaviour that do not necessarily match how he actually feels, what he really wants or values.

The ideal spouse, friend, child, parent, guest or host, all of these impose an expectation or a role that the melancholic might feel more comfortable, more self-assured if he adheres to.  But at the same time, in adhering to the role, the melancholic is not truly being himself. He is not being true to himself and is not developing the virtue of sincerity.  His motives may be good, but he is actually giving people less of himself than if he were able to express the thoughts and feelings that do not fit into that ideal.

There is, however, another way to interpret this phenomenon: through the lens of the human response to trauma and stress.

An excellent book on Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder by Pete Walker introduces the concept of PTSD developed not through single traumatic events but through consistent patterns of traumatic abuse and neglect, such that the individual develops survival-mechanisms or maladaptive responses to trauma that are in turn subject to the abusive environment. The individual is left with a personality riven through by maladaptive responses; he may not even know which parts of himself are ‘original’ and which are maladaptive response, because both have developed together and are interdependent.¬† So while sufferers of PTSD may be conscious of distinct personality differences before and after the trauma, for complex PTSD sufferers, no such distinction can be made.

Walker describes maladaptive responses in terms of four instinctive responses to trauma. To the well-known triad of fight, flight, and freeze, he adds the ingratiating response of ‘fawn’.¬† For people in long-term abuse or neglect scenarios, the most successful maladaptive strategy can become an ingrained part of the personality, whether it be fighting, fleeing, freezing, or fawning.¬† Of particular interest in the context of the melancholic temperament is Walker’s depiction of the ‘fawn’ response type:

Fawn types seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs and demands of others. They act as if they unconsciously believe that the price of admission to any relationship is the forfeiture of all their needs, rights, preferences and boundaries. They often begin life like the precocious children described in Alice Miler’s The Drama Of The Gifted Child, who learn that a modicum of safety and attachment can be gained by becoming the helpful and compliant servants of their parents. They are usually the children of at least one narcissistic parent who uses contempt to press them into service, scaring and shaming them out of developing a healthy sense of self: an egoic locus of self-protection, self-care and self-compassion.

Walker does not utilise a temperament theory, but what interests me is the possibility that the melancholic temperament may be predisposed to developing the ingratiating ‘fawn’ strategy in response to environments that may or may not be dysfunctional in and of themselves, but are experienced as such by the melancholic child in the absence of positive role models or intelligible social and cultural messages and cues.

While a melancholic child could develop any one of the trauma responses, or multiple trauma responses, the fawn response is in many ways most appropriate to the melancholic child’s circumstances.¬† Firstly, like phlegmatics, melancholics are not well-attuned to the external environment to begin with, but unlike phlegmatics they also struggle to recover from traumatic experiences and incidents. An extreme melancholic child will struggle to recognise the same cues or mirror the behaviours of other children, yet will be acutely aware of this disparity and may well suffer for it. Persistent disorientation, confusion, and implicit ostracism can exacerbate actual dysfunctions in family and environment, such that the melancholic child is more severely traumatised than a child of a different temperament would be.

Yet at the same time, the causes of these trauma are systemic and normalised: imagine a melancholic child sitting confused and disoriented in a classroom where all the other children show no signs of confusion or disorientation.  If the child expresses his confusion and disorientation he will be the subject of negative attention from the teacher and other students. Of the available responses to this negative attention, fight and flight will only exacerbate it. That leaves freeze and fawn, though even freezing will bring about greater negative attention than the meekness and compliance of the fawn response.

Extrapolate this dynamic across nearly every aspect of life: the growing melancholic child fears hurt and humiliation, has a long memory for it, yet is predisposed to experience it afresh because of his relatively slow and sedate response to external stimuli. Surely such children will learn soon enough that the best way to avoid humiliation, trauma, and negative attention is to ingratiate oneself with others (especially authority figures) where possible – learning to play a compliant, amenable, obedient and good-natured role.

For adult melancholics, the pressure to maintain this long-practiced response to stress and trauma can be both reasonable and deeply emotive. On the one hand, it is reasonable to take care in how you express yourself verbally to others, so as not to unwittingly offend people with careless statements. On the other hand, it is certainly a maladaptive strategy to maintain a deeply guarded approach to social interactions, and to filter one’s statements compulsively so as to avoid any possible negative interpretations.

The danger identified through the complex PTSD concept is that melancholics may mistake this maladaptive strategy for their own personality.¬† They may think that they are ‘nice’ people or ‘considerate’ people rather than simply fearful and ingratiating people, who may even lack the capacity to exercise consideration or ‘niceness’ when their behaviour is already so tightly determined by stress-oriented strategies.

They may find themselves acting in ways that deny their actual thoughts, feelings, and values due to the ingrained influence of their maladaptive responses. Ultimately, they risk being unable to express themselves honestly and sincerely with friends and loved ones, living instead through the filter of an unwarranted survival mechanism that has outlived its usefulness.