There is a scene in Moana in which she is trying to convince her friend the chicken that the ocean is not something scary. She says:
“Heihei, the ocean is your friend.”
The chicken (as you can imagine if you were a chicken in the middle of the ocean) was not convinced. My little one and I also learned this lesson about the ocean not always being your friend recently. We were boogie boarding in the ocean and my little one got pummeled by a wave. He stood up, crying, with a bloody nose. We got out of the water, rocked and cried in a beach towel for a bit, and then he was ready to go back in. I was surprised. What?! Already? My Mama Bear protective instinct was thinking:
Oh No. You are not going back out there. We are going to stay up here on the beach with SPF 50. Under an umbrella. Making sand castles safe from the ocean for the rest of the day.
Thankfully, he (and my husband) are more resilient than I. They went back in. Eventually, so did I. I even swam out past where the waves break and floated for a bit. For a few moments I was carried by the water. It felt good to let go.
Years ago I worked with a young woman who was recovering from bulimia that called the ocean her Higher Power. She was a surfer, and, like Moana, she knew both the power of the ocean and its capacity to carry her through difficulties. She knew it could carry her. And that she couldn’t do it herself.
Riding the Waves, Higher Powers, and Other Recovery Metaphors
There’s a reason why waves and the ocean are so often used as metaphors. Waves are both separate from, and inextricably connected with, the ocean (your Higher Power/Part-Of-You-That-Knows/Wise Self). “Riding the wave” of your feelings, without attaching to them, is a skill of recovery. In order to be at peace with having all kinds of feelings, you have to acknowledge your feelings, ride them out, and not get pummeled by them. (Or get back in the ocean with new humility after you get pummeled). Some waves are peaceful. Some are fun to surf; some are destructive. They all emerge from, and return to, the ocean. The ocean is vast. It can carry and hold almost everything. So can your Higher Power (Wise Self, Part-Of-You-That-Knows). It can help you let go. It can carry and guide you where you need to be. And, if you’re not respecting its power, it can turn you upside down and pummel you.
One thing I learned from my little one recently? Don’t let fear of the ocean’s power block you from connecting with it. You will get hurt in life. That is inescapable. Don’t let fear keep you from engaging with life on life’s terms. As the great poet Rumi said:
“Don’t move the way fear makes you move.”
Get back in the ocean. In imaginal Psychology they call the wise part of the Self, the part that is based on a vast expanse of compassionate objectivity, the Friend. In that sense, Moana was right. The ocean really is your Friend.
Anxiety comes up frequently for people in recovery and moms. When I imagine anxiety, it looks like this:
It is rigid, red and rapidly moving. Usually, we want anxiety to go away. We want to just get rid of it. But when we ask what anxiety has to say, and respond with curiosity or tenderness to the scared-self, a new relationship can emerge. Below are some examples of what the anxiety part of the self might say.
Here’s What Anxiety Says:
- I’ve made a bullet-point list for you. You should do everything on the list and then I will go away.
- (After list is complete): “OK, that was the first one. I now have several more.”
- Other people have it all figured out, so you should pretend like you do. One way to do this is to look good. I will help you with that. Try to look perfect.
- You are the only one that struggles with this anxiety. It makes you isolated, and you don’t belong because of it. Therefore, you should hide it.
- Be very busy. If you’re not busy, doing things, I can help keep your mind be very busy. I can even make your thoughts race.“
- I will always be your friend, but especially from 1:00-4:00am. At that time, I will remind you of the ways you are incompetent, the world is falling apart, and you can’t do anything about it. If you go on social media during this time, I will find lots of evidence for you.
- Other moms are doing it better. You are not qualified to be a good parent. You should read parenting books to illuminate all the ways you are f*cking up.
- Your body is the wrong size/shape. You can (and should) fix that. If you do, I may go away (but I will probably stick around because you will need me to manage you, since you can’t be trusted).
- Not eating, bingeing, purging, drinking, or smoking pot are good ways to get me to go away. (Oh, and you will need to maintain that. And you should hide that you do that, because it is shameful).
- The world is not safe. I have found lots of evidence of this for you.
As you can see, it is not a kind voice, this anxiety. It is relentlessly hypervigilant to the ways that you are inadequate. Strangely enough, this part of the self is often trying to protect you: from vulnerability, from the unknown. In my training as an Imaginal Psychologist, one way we worked with different parts of the self – and integrating them back into wholeness – was to bring fiercely compassionately objective voice into the dialogue. Compassionate awareness can take several different forms: it can be humourous, fierce, gentle. It can be rational and empirical. In my experience, this compassionate part is much more flowing and less rigid than anxiety. It feels like a deep breath down into the cooling water under the anxiety. It might look like this:
Here are some examples of what this voice of might say to anxiety. What the Voice of Compassionate Objectivity Might Say:
- Isn’t it interesting to notice the associations between anxiety and accomplishing or not accomplishing things? So interesting to notice…
- I bet you could choose to do some, all, or none of the items on the list, and your value as a human would remain fully intact and whole. How about you try and I will be the witness observing?
- Is “figured out” an equation? If “it” is figured out, does that mean fear or suffering disappears?
- Who are those “perfect,” and “busy” people? If they exist, might they be struggling with the same fear of inadequacy you are?
- If there are 7.5 billion people (roughly) on the planet, do you really think you are the only one who struggles with these thoughts and feelings? Might it not be the very thing that connects your heart, mind, and body with humanity?
- I wonder what would happen to your thought-speed if I help you breathe. Does it change if you breathe all the way into your abdomen? It doesn’t need to change. But if you are in discomfort from the racing, bringing attention to your breath can help your body shift into parasympathetic (rest) mode. Would you like to try?
- I will do everything I can to help you get a good night’s sleep, honey. I’m going to help you with loving limits: no social media at night. Not helpful.
- We can take stock of your strengths and weaknesses during the day and/or with someone who can add compassion and objectivity to the assessment. When you’re feeling weak, that’s not the time to assess your weaknesses.
- If you can’t sleep, I won’t abandon you. I’ll stay with you and the anxiety. I’ll be right there with you, surrounding you with care and tenderness.
- Body size and shape have nothing to do with your worth, honey. I know you keep really wanting it to be about that. But I’m going to keep reminding you the answers you seek are not there.
- Did you show up to the best of your ability as a Mom today? Your best can be different on different days. That is ok. Mistakes are how we learn. Oh, and put the parenting books down.
- You can tolerate anxiety. It won’t kill you. You can ride the wave of this fear without medicating it.
These are just some examples. The goal is not to get rid of anxiety. The goal is to develop a different relationship with it. Perhaps it might look like this?
Obviously, you will have to see what your own voice of Compassionate Objectivity has to say.
For now, I will leave you with a summary that I and some of the people I work with find helpful:
There is nothing wrong with you.
Nobody has it all figured out.
You are safe right now.
You are not alone.