Our Inner Community

inner-communityI am immensely fortunate and grateful to have a number of very dear friends. Some live close by and some are far away on other continents. One of them, my spouse, I see every day, and others I have not seen in years. I was taking a walk not too long ago and started thinking of a friend I had not spoken to in a few weeks and made a mental note to call her later that day. During this thought process I realized how close I felt to her and how her friendship, warmth, and support have settled in me, become part of me, something I can feel and have access to independent of actual contact. Just thinking of this friend made me feel accepted and appreciated. In that moment I realized that there is a whole community of people I have internalized and who help me feel anchored in this world. Some of them are not even alive anymore but they are still with me. You may have guessed I am somewhat of an introvert. But I am also a really social creature. Something that is not always easy to consolidate. My desire to be solitary and spend time thinking and writing and my joy of being with people, as a partner, friend, therapist, are aspects of my life that I constantly have to assess and balance. But I have always been aware that I am only able to feel comfortable and at ease being alone because I have this sense of a loving community within myself.

This line of thought took me, as so often, into the territory of psychological theory and philosophy. In self psychology the concept of the selfobject describes part of the experience I just mentioned. It is the sense that functions that other people originally fulfilled for us are available within ourselves even when the others are not there. We can feel nurtured even if no parental figure is there to nurture us. The selfobject, however, is not connected to a specific person even if this person, such as a parent, was the one who originally provided the function for us.

The experience of an “inner community” that I was describing above is related to the idea of the selfobject but it can more easily be traced to specific people and stories. And, most of all, it can be consciously expanded and built on if it does not feel safely in place. In Narrative Therapy we proactively look at life stories and at the sense of inner community they provide or prohibit. The main story lines and their protagonists may not always be the most supportive and nurturing ones. But often there are buried story lines that hint at forgotten overlooked supporters, people in the past and/or present who are loving members of one’s own inner community. Sometimes they can be revisited only in memory, but often contact with them can be rekindled or strengthened in real life leading to wonderful connections that then also reinforce their presence within us allowing for this strong and permeating sense of not being alone in the world.

How About Vitality?

pansies-in-winterI often think about vitality. It is an irresistible force and people who derive their energy directly from their love and acceptance of life are magnetic to me. All of us are kept alive by vitality, it is the pure energy that set in motion our first heartbeat as well as the first neuron sparking in our brain. It is the energy we feel when we wake up in the morning and that we use to get out of bed and face the day whether our body aches or our soul is crying from sadness. Vitality is always our driving force, but it can feel like a weak little flame barely kindled or like a raging fire trying to bring us down. I have seen people whose vitality seemed almost snuffed out from the grief and depression they were experiencing and I have also worked with people whose vitality was so untamed that they could not sleep, relax or even think clearly anymore.

There is a song I have always loved and whose lyrics go “Can’t you hear the drummer/ who beats in you/ full of persistence/who carries you forward despite all resistance/even through enemy territory/listen to the beat/when it is gone it is a sign that nothing will move you anymore.” (by Herman van Veen) In a strictly biological sense this drummer can of course be interpreted as our heart beat. But for me this song has always been about our vital life force that is expressed in our passions, our love of life and living beings. It can be a great experience to explore where our own vitality shows itself and how we can nourish it if it feels somewhat weak, or how we can calm it down if it seems to overwhelm us.

If we look at depression and anxiety in the context of our life force, we can see how they are two expressions of this energy. Anxiety shows itself in physical symptoms such as a rapid heart beat, “butterflies in our stomach” or even chest constriction. On an emotional level it can feel like fear or a sense of doom. Anxiety is our experience of the survival strategy of fight, flight or freeze. It is therefore linked on a most basic level to our vitality. Depression can feel as if you have no life force left. Feeling vibrant and alive is the opposite of feeling depressed. There are theories in psychology that link depression to grief that has not been allowed to be fully lived through and somehow gets “stuck” in our inner experience of life. Anxiety, on the other hand, is closely connected to our fear of dying. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, which can follow a life threatening experience, comes with uncontrollable experiences of anxiety caused by flashbacks of aspects of the event, nightmares and night terrors.

Looking at how “mental illness” can also be described as life force that somehow has gone haywire or is being oppressed, the question is how can we invigorate our vitality and calm down the anxious self? If we can acknowledge that our body, mind and feelings are all powered by the same energy and that we can work on any or—ideally all–of these aspects of our self to feel vibrant and vital, we can develop our own strategies for a fulfilled life. This does not mean that we have to, or even can, rid ourselves of all experiences of depression or anxiety. They come with the human experience. But they don’t have to dominate our lives. Depression tends to respond well to action. Physical exercise, social interactions, giving to others in time and expressions of affection, creating, leaving the house, telling your story, searching for reasons for gratitude, all of these actions and many more can alleviate depression. Anxiety can be relieved with meditation and relaxation exercises, with rethinking one’s own anxiety provoking thought patterns and with conscious experiences of anxiety provoking situations and observing how the anxiety eventually has to give in and subside. Focusing on coming into the moment and consciously—mindfully—experiencing one’s own vital life force can help disconnect depression and anxiety from life in the here and now.

A therapist can be a valuable supporter in creating and implementing an anxiety and/or depression busting,  vitality stoking personal plan. If needed, a therapist can also link you to other health providers and assist in coordinating your care toward a full and vital experience of life.