In last week’s blog, I shared the radical request I made of my daughter. Today’s posting is the second part of that conversation.
“Can you tell the difference between the two?” I asked my daughter. “Can you feel the difference between when a situation or person is not safe and when your brain or body perceives a situation as threatening because it is different, new, or undefined?”
“Yes, definitely,” she answered right away. “In the first situation, it’s a real person or something that is actually happening. In the second situation it is something that is…” She paused.
“Hypothetical?” I offered. “And because you don’t really know what is involved, it feels scary?”
In some ways, my daughter’s finely tuned alarm system is a blessing. She is well-connected to her intuition, and can read people and situations well. We share this trait, and discuss what it feels like to navigate our environments, listening to our intuition. While others often need to wait until something tangible or provable happens, we know the moment we meet a person or enter a situation if it feels unsafe and we know to keep our distance or get the heck out. Being able to read when a person or situation is not safe is a gift I want my daughters to nurture and embrace, not minimize or ignore.
Yet, I have also seen my daughter respond in fear or defensiveness to irrational perceptions that are not based in reality. The gifted occupational therapist (OT) that worked with our family for several years explained to us that sometimes, after we have a negative experience with something, our brain creates pathways that anticipate and fear having additional negative experiences in a variety of new, generalized situations.
For example, when my daughter was much younger, she had very real, negative experiences wearing different textures of fabric and styles of clothing. Her sensory system, at that time, was not able to cope with how zippers, elastic, tags, or tight-fitting clothing felt on her body.
The OT helped us understand that when my daughter looked a new piece of clothing, her brain reacted from a fearful and defensive place based on all of her previous sensory experiences. Over time, and with great patience, they worked together to improve my daughter’s physiological ability to integrate different sensory information. They also worked extensively to identify “fear vs. reality” in new situations. When the “No Way!” response came up for an article of clothing, they developed ways for my daughter to stay in the conversation long enough to identify what, specifically, her body was perceiving in that moment. Was this sweater we are looking at now (not all the ones your brain is remembering) soft or scratchy? Tight or loose? They trained my daughter’s brain to respond to what was actually in front of her instead of reacting to prior and anticipated experiences.
This training is what helps us discern whether we are honoring our intuition in a situation or operating from a fearful place. The question we can ask ourselves is, “Am I responding to what is happening in the present or to what I fear will happen in the future based on what I have experienced in the past?”
When we are in a situation, the information we take in and respond to may or may not be tangible or provable, but it is real. The information we are listening to–at multiple levels–is there, in front of us, in that particular moment. The key to checking our own response is to discern if we are responding to what is present in that moment or what we fear will happen in the future based on something our brain is making up about the situation.
I have one friend who sums up this concept in one quote. “If it feels peaceful, it’s true; anything else is made up.” When she says “peaceful” she doesn’t mean happy, or easy, or good. “Peaceful,” for her, means clear, present, and unclouded by worry or fear about something that has already happened or that we fear will happen.
My children and I take turns being the teacher and the student in what it means to be present. We have different ways of explaining it, referencing it, and discussing it with each other. One thing we know to be true is that the messages we receive about a situation are most valuable to us when our minds and bodies are fully present. That’s how we know the difference.