If you clicked on the title expecting something about college basketball, I apologize. As much as I love basketball (three of my four kids played competitively in high school) I don’t follow the March playdowns. My March Madness stems from insight gained at a recent writer’s meeting seminar.
Almost every month, the writer’s group I belong to, the Greater Vancouver Writer’s Association, features a speaker on a topic relevant to writing. This month, it was counselor and author, Cami Ostman. The purpose of Cami’s seminar was to help remove obstacles to writing.
I’ve attended the Surrey International Writer’s Conference almost every year, for two decades, and listened to a variety of professional writing biz folk give advice, and talks, on Getting Words on the Page, and Butts in Chairs. I’ve also read numerous books on writing, and the writing life, publishing, etc., but this seminar with Cami, was the first time I ever heard suggested that the blocks, or obstacles—or as Cami called them, Parts—aren’t Bad (or as one writer mentioned she’d been advised, evil), but Good. They developed to protect us from harm. Huh?
What harm is there in sitting down to write (sedentary lifestyle issues aside)? A lot it turns out. Depending on your history.
Negative childhood experiences can block adult effectiveness.
Children, she explained, are at the mercy of adults. When adults exploit their power, through violence (verbal/emotional/physical/sexual), or even messages intended to protect: “Don’t go near the water, you’ll drown”; “Don’t eat that, you’ll get fat”; a child’s ability to develop stable self-confidence is undermined. Messages imparted with intent to hurt: “I wish you were never born”; “Don’t bother, you’re never going to amount to anything”, can inflict damage so deep in the psyche, many adults aren’t aware of its impact on daily, and life, decisions.
For a writer, that damage may manifest as an inability to finish, or conversely, start a project. The obsessive rewriting of a partial or full manuscript to ensure it’s “perfect” (so it never goes under submission, where it might get rejected). Abandoning the page at the first invite for coffee, or request for help, from… anyone. Indecision about what to write. All common—allegedly unprofessional—excuses. Or so the many different experts I’d listened to over the years, claimed: EXCUSES, EXCUSES, EXCUSES.
But Cami offered another point of view: not, EXCUSES. Tactics. Tactics designed the psyche to protect damaged areas she called, Exiles. She led us through a gentle exercise to help us get in contact with our Exiled, and Protector, parts.
We closed our eyes and recalled times when we heard, or felt, the impact of a core belief we’ve shaped of ourselves, or our abilities. For me, there were two defining moments:
I was eleven, and had asked to sign up for softball : “Why bother, you’ll just quit, like you do everything else.”
The second message hit hard four years later, in response to my upset over my dad leaving my mom, our family. Leaving me. “Why does it even matter? It’s not like he’s your real dad.”
So, two messages, long ago, that still occasionally overshadow my adult responses:
You’re a quitter.
You have no right to your grief; it’s not legitimate. You’re not legitimate.
In retrospect, with thirty years of parenting under my belt, I understand the first message, tossed out in a moment of harried parenting, wasn’t intended to hurt so much as it was to distract from the probability we had little money, and perhaps less Adult time, to invest in competitive sport (though I did get my first horse for about the same price of softball registration and equipment, so it wasn’t a total wash). Hindsight also improves my ability to recognize the statement as false.
I’d finished a lot of things by the ripe old age of eleven: homework, successive school years, novels I’d read, chores, etc. What I hadn’t taken to the heights of accomplishment were a couple of big-ticket items: Ringette, and Figure-skating. The kind of things you can’t really know you’ll like, until you try them. That’s what being a kid is all about—discovering what you like. I discovered I didn’t like Ringette, especially as none of my friends played. So, I moved to figure-skating, where my friends were. I lasted two years, earned my Level I Dance badge, and quit. But at that moment, frozen in my child’s mind, all I knew was, I was a quitter. And four years later, I was also no longer welcome in my dad’s life. Which was a lot harder to reconcile, as he was the only dad I knew. He’d raised me from the time I was a toddler, and I’d only learned a couple of years before he left, that he wasn’t my “real” dad.
As adults, we’re not supposed to let past hurts color current thoughts and behavior. Or, as Cami explained, Hook us, when someone does, or says, something, that resurrects Exiled pain.
So, I’ve tried for years to ignore, rationalize, the emotions that crop up time to time. Except, when it comes to emotional trauma, there is no stopwatch, or calendar. The subconscious doesn’t say, “Oh, well, five minutes—or five years, or five decades—has passed, so, let’s just Forget About It, Shall We?”
The mind doesn’t work like that. Ask anyone suffering PTSD. That physical response—to lash out or shut down—is a survival mechanism. And a damn nuisance when it kicks in as an adult, in response to non-life-or-personal safety-threatening events.
Fortunately, Cami showed us how to get in touch with our Exiles, and Protectors; to discover what core beliefs might be holding us back.
As we sat there, eyes closed, recalling painful moments or messages sent and received, Cami softly asked us to put a hand, or hands, over the part of our body that felt the pain. For me, it was my throat, and my gut. My stomach was tight, drawn in; my throat constricted, like something was stuck in it. She asked us to visualize the shape of that hurt.
For me, it was a fist, in the gut. And a steel leg-hold trap in my throat.
Wow. The Exiled pain resided in my gut. And my steely Protector shut down any words I might raise in my defense to protect me, because at the time of the initial incidences, I was powerless, at the mercy of the adults who possessed the power—literally—to sign me up and pay for sports, and activities, or grant me access to my dad. So, I shut down. Avoided putting myself out there. Became a Pleaser. Anything to protect me from similar hurt, and rejection.
You want to be a novelist? Why bother, you’re a quitter.
You want to publish? Why bother, you’re not legitimate. You don’t deserve to want that. Go unload the dishwasher. At least prove yourself useful.
Ah. There it is. And what to do about it?
After having us visualize our Protector shape, Cami asked for a volunteer to participate in an Interview. A brave member of our group stood up, and Cami proceeded to interview both the person, and the person’s Protector, whom Cami asked the volunteer to name. To preserve the volunteer’s privacy, I’ll walk you through what I learned through interviewing my Protector, whom I named Idiot (because that was the message I’d picked up when I was young and vulnerable—that I was an Idiot, to want certain things).
Idiot is male, btw (that was part of the exercise, assigning a gender to the Protector, and mine was male, perhaps because socialization teaches girls that males are stronger, and better able to cope? I don’t know. But Idiot is male).
Me: What is your job, Idiot?
Idiot: I make sure she [Deb] doesn’t get too close to anyone to get bullied/betrayed/rejected.
Me: What would happen if you left, or stopped protecting her?
Idiot: If I left or stopped protecting her, she’d fall apart. She’d believe she deserved the bullying and rejection.
Me: How do you feel about doing this job?
Idiot: Exhausted. I’d like her to know she is worthy, and she doesn’t need the assholes in her life. She doesn’t need anyone she can’t trust. She needs to kick them all to the curb, so I can %^#! Retire.
O-kaaaay, then. I had no clue how Idiot felt, how tired Idiot really is. I feel kind of bad for making him hang around so long, when he realized a long time ago I was fully capable of keeping myself safe, now I’m an adult. But you can’t change what you don’t know.
Now that I do know, however, I feel okay about letting Idiot shuffle off to Bermuda, or Arizona, or wherever it is old Protectors go when their role is no longer relevant, when what they’re protecting against—even if it still exists in some manner (rejection/bullying/deceit)—no longer wields the power.
I wield the power. And I have for a long time.
The power to raise my voice in defense of myself when appropriate. The power to do, and finish, the things important to me. The power to be involved in the lives of those I love. That doesn’t mean I won’t occasionally experience disappointment–or lies and betrayal–in a relationship. It means I understand better the source of my Exiled pain, the role of my Protector, and my ability to choose to distance myself from people and situations I can’t trust, without feeling fear, guilt, shame, or anger.
Not Bad. Not Lazy. Not Undisciplined.
In some situations.
The key is to identify the source of the block, and determine whether its role is relevant in an Adult world, whether it’s helping–or harming. That’s where professionals like Cami, can help. Can help identify Exiles, and guide the process of healing–strengthening–them, to help explode blocks to personal wellness, and effectiveness, so Protector can finally stretch out under a beach cabana somewhere, and admire his or her, shiny new gold watch.
Those who foresee the future and recognize it as tragic are often seized by a madness which forces them to commit the very acts which makes it certain that what they dread shall happen. ~Dame Rebecca West
**Please, don’t take anything I’ve written here as advice, or counsel on how to cope with whatever might be holding you, or someone you know back, in some area of life, but rather as illustration of what I learned about myself through a subtle shift in how I perceived certain behaviors, or reactions, I’d formerly labeled as Bad, or Lazy, or an EXCUSE, to Positive, and necessary in some instances, merely misguided in others, but always worthy of acknowledgment, of appreciation, and fully deserving of a permanent holiday in certain situations.
Some situations, some people, still exist and still pose harm to personal safety/emotional well-being, or career, and the Protector exists to help. It’s doing its job. But in cases where it’s causing more harm than good…
If you, or someone you know, is blocked, experiencing trouble achieving success in an area of life identified as wanted, working with a counselor or life coach, someone like Cami Ostman, could help. Beating yourself, or someone else up, about a lack of progress, definitely won’t.
For more information about Cami, and her program to help writers achieve their goals, check out her website, from where I share her bio:
Cami is the author of the quest memoir Second Wind: One Woman’s Midlife Quest to Run Seven Marathons on Seven Continents and the co-editor of two anthologies of memoirs. She has coached hundreds of writers of all ages through the completion of projects varying in length from short poems to very, very long books. She has a passion for story! As a psychotherapist and as a writer, Cami excels at helping people figure out what it is they REALLY have to say. Her gift is to break down the daunting tasks in life into manageable bite-sized pieces for people so they can experience success. http://www.camiostman.net/
To find a qualified counselor or psychologist, check out the following links:
In Canada: Canadian Counseling and Psychotherapy Association (https://www.ccpa-accp.ca/)
Find a Therapist (North American) https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists
Find a Psychologist (UK) https://www.bps.org.uk/public/find-psychologist