Two Arrows (Part 1):

What it is about your nervous system that can stop you showing up as you want to?

sunset thinking

This is a question I heard the very wise Stephen Terell pose, at one of his training events in Belfast last summer (back in the days of mass gatherings and before we knew what social distancing even was).

It was one of those questions that became my companion. It has been sitting with me ever since, in my top pocket, so to speak, close to my heart, walking the beach with me. Many times I have found myself in dialogue with it.

Mark Nepo says “we all get dropped into life, but we don’t get to choose the drops”. In line with this, one of my drops into developing a keen interest in our nervous systems came about as a result of a humiliating situation back in the early 2000s. At the time coaching was a shiny new process in Ireland and I found myself, along with a dear colleague/friend delivering an introductory lecture on coaching to a group of MBA students. As I went to speak, I found I couldn’t speak. Now, I would like to tell you that this was due to a sore throat or a physical issue with my voice but that would be lying, it wasn’t, it was a nervous system response, I went into freeze. I lost my ability to speak, in front of a room of students and my colleague had to step in, it was mortifying.

What was worse than the event itself, was how I treated myself about it afterwards- ‘the second arrow’ as Tara Brach calls it.She tells the story of a Buddha asking his students, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” The student replied, “It is.” The Buddha then asked, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?” The student replied again, “It is.” The Buddha then explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. And with this second arrow comes the possibility of choice”.

My second arrow was feeling shame for letting my dear friend down, self-doubt set in and I lost trust in myself, what if this happens again? Standing in front of people was a big part of how I made a living, how could earn a living if I couldn’t trust my voice? I don’t even know how long it took me to talk about this, wanting to hide from it, to forget about it and move on, but of course that is not how it works, it was lodged in the system. The more I tried to ignore it, the louder it got and the more generalised it became; I started to worry about it happening not just with groups but in one-to-one meetings with clients too.

blog summer 2020

These events set me off on a journey of discovery of NLP, fire-walking and exploring many other modalities to try and ‘cure’ this problem. However, it only lost its hold from a combination of factors, including firstly learning to have self-compassion around my nervous system response. As Carl Rogers says ‘the curious paradox is when I accept myself just as I am then I can change’. Secondly, working with groups enough times for my nervous system to build some new neural pathways that verified I was not going to die. I have since gone on to speak at conferences and I now love to facilitate groups.

So what was it about my nervous system that was stopping me from showing up as I wanted to, as a confident speaker?

What it is about your nervous system that has stopped you from showing up as you have wanted to at times?

I understand more now about how our nervous system functions and what was happening when I froze and couldn’t speak. This was down to a process carried out by the cells of our nervous system called ‘neuroception’. These cells are primarily concerned with reading our environment and feeding back if we are safe or unsafe. This process is unconscious, it happens below the thinking part of our brain, Deb Dana (who works extensively in this area) refers to it as “detection without awareness”. It also occurs in a millisecond and is not governed by our rational mind. Instead, it has a lot to do with the cells in our gut and the information they feed back to the brain.

When there is an appropriate ‘match’ between neuroception and the situation, our system will bring the energy necessary to effectively handle the experience. However, when there is a mismatch, for example, when I was completely safe standing up in front of the group of students but my nervous system made me feel the opposite, we are unable to calm our defense systems.

      brain What I think is really helpful to remember here is that all of this is an unconscious process, influenced by referencing some earlier experience held in your cells which was also perceived as unsafe and the current situation is seen as similar. So a nervous system response to keep you safe kicks in. I think it is really useful to know that the previous experience can be something that happened as an adult or a child. There is lots of ‘epigenetic’ research to suggest that this can also be an experience of our ancestors that we hold in our cells, that we have no rational sense of.

So all of this is a sacred attempt to keep us safe, to ensure that we survive ‘danger’ which is a sometimes completely appropriate response and it can also be experienced as completely inappropriate. There is also the ‘second arrow’ of how we treat ourselves afterwards to deal with.

Read Two Arrows (Part 2 ):What could be different if you knew your nervous system response always wants to keep you safe?