Empaths Sensitives Stop Self-Soothing, Assert Clear Boundaries

Empaths Sensitives Stop Self-Soothing, Assert Clear Boundaries

It is obvious isn’t it? If you are sensitive or empathic or an introvert, who feels easily overwhelmed by life or people, you need boundaries.

I myself am a sensitive empathic introvert and can be easily wobbled by other people’s vibes. I know very well how to self-soothe and use calming techniques. They are great and useful. They certainly work well when I am on my own.

But when I am out in the world dealing with people and everything else, I need more than self-soothing. I need boundaries.

Why? Because the self-soothing mindful calming techniques will, in fact, just make me more of a passive sponge.

That is a horrible thought — being a passive sponge. But that is exactly what happens if we self-soothe and calm ourselves when faced with hostile or difficult behaviour and vibrations. We just become receptive radar dishes absorbing all the crap. Not good.

I talked about this when I was recording the interview for The Shift’s ‘Meditation and Mindfulness Summit.’ The very experienced woman in charge of the video/audio technology said afterwards that this was the first time she had ever heard that. “I’m a sensitive empath and no one has ever told me to assert my boundaries. That makes total sense.”

In fact I have been teaching how to assert boundaries for decades. My best techniques are in my books Psychic Protection and Feeling Safe. I also have an online Psychic Protection course you can find here at Watkins Wisdom Academy. https://watkinswisdomacademy.com/product/psychic-protection/

Especially for women who from a very young age have had to endure unwelcome intrusions of their boundaries, it can be crucial to learn to respect and assert your space.

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— I recommend books on ‘assertiveness training.’

— I suggest too that people do twelve months of a martial art so as to learn the minimal strategy of throwing a kick or punch and asserting your boundary. You may never need to throw that punch, but that attitude will be in your aura and be felt by bullies who will back off.

— Sometimes I suggest that folk should wear a watch that beeps every hour (I have a £6 Casio that does the job) and every hour they pause and assert clearly and loudly to themselves: This is my space! My boundaries! Respect! Do that sixteen times a day for a few months and things will change.

As always, do it with love and affection.

I hope that is all of the above is helpful. The huge silver lining to being empathic and sensitive is that we can also feel all the good things.

And of course — if you are strong, healthy and have clear boundaries, be chivalrous and kind.

 

Polyvagal Theory & Emotions

Polyvagal Theory & Emotions

Like many folk I hugely benefit from talk therapy. It helps me understand who I am. It clarifies how I navigate my relationships and my work.

But for mental and emotional pain, I benefit more from body-oriented therapies — becoming aware of the actual physical sensations of hurt and tension, and working directly with my body to shift them.

Teaching a holistic approach to personal development, I have sometimes sounded over-enthusiastic and judgmental, asserting that talk therapists need to better understand what is going on in the body. In the tea breaks at workshops psychotherapists and counsellors have asked me to be less critical of talk therapy.  I have apologised.

In my twenties I experienced three years of psychoanalysis with one of the founders of talk therapy in the UK, Edward Glover, a wily eighty-year old. I remember halfway through our first session, when he gently paused me and pointed out that I had just contradicted myself. I almost wept that someone was really listening to me. I loved him. I was his last client. Shortly after ending our relationship, he died and I went on two years retreat.

And then my best friend, Allen, brought me to California where I experienced body-based therapies. Massage. Shiatsu. Breath-work. Feel the sensations of tension and pain. Drop down into them and then follow a strategy of movement and release to bring them into flow and healing. I was startled by — and grateful for — how well they worked.

With all this background I am obviously an enthusiastic advocate for both talk therapy and body therapy.

My grumble is when either of them does not acknowledge the validity of the other. Mainstream medicine also has its fundamentalists. Imagine a three-way argument between fundamentalist talk therapists, body therapists and medical clinicians. Groan. What does that mean? Here, have a pill.

 

POLYVAGAL THEORY AND MOLECULES OF EMOTION

This is why the discoveries and theories of scientists such as Candace Pert and Steven Porges are so crucial. They give us grounded, evidence-based maps for how physiology and psychology, body and mind integrate.

Candace Pert’s research described and explained how human moods, feelings and emotions are mediated and experienced through hormones/neuro-peptides. For example, anxiety is a physiological experience mediated by the neuropeptides of cortisol and adrenalin. The physiological experience triggers and loops with the psychological. Candace Pert’s research explained how human beings can experience ‘stews’ of mood, as neuropeptides mix with each other and flood the body. Have you ever experienced lust, hunger, enjoyment and anxiety at the same time? This is not unusual. It is a physiological, hormonal state, which we usually describe in purely emotional language, ignoring the biology. (Candace Pert, Molecules of Emotion. My The Endorphin Effect.)

Steven Porges’ explanation of polyvagal theory presents another profoundly useful perspective. Deeply embedded in our biology are three states, which from birth are continuously responding to our circumstances.


 

State One: Safe, cooperative, relational, social

 


 

State Two: Threatened, aroused, energised to fight or flee

 


 

State Three: Traumatised, petrified, immobile, dissociated

 


 

Depending on our circumstances, on our personal history and specific triggers (inner and outer) we move unconsciously between these three states. Think of a row with a family member or colleague, how it starts, escalates, triggers and subsides.

In the therapy world, polyvagal theory has been particularly influential in its understanding of trauma and trauma treatments. It focuses on the biology of immobility and dissociation, appreciating that the frozen state of trauma victims, such as victims of torture, is an evolutionary survival response to insurmountable threat, injury and pain. From this perspective therapists can then carefully explore the strategies of safety that may enable the victim to return to health.

(If you want to explore the therapeutic strategies associated with polyvagal theory then for the general reader I recommend Deb Dana The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy and for therapists Porges & Dana (eds) Clinical Applications of Polyvagal Theory.  For the pure science avoid Porges’ original work unless you are a postgrad biologist and read his The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory.)

My own interest in polyvagal theory is more focused on how it explains our every day behaviour, as the three vagal states unconsciously influence how we feel and think and behave. (My original doctoral research was in identity politics and how biological imperatives for a secure sense of identity work out through the individual into society and world politics. See my Personal Identity, National Identity, International Relations.)

In particular I am focused on how these understandings of the body, its neurology and hormones, can support holistic personal development and spiritual growth — more love, more consciousness, more ethics and compassion, here and now, in action.

A FOURTH STATE

So to the three states of polyvagal theory and to the stew of emotions I want to add a Fourth State.

To describe the Fourth State physiologically: The human nervous system and brain is so evolved, sophisticated and adaptable that it can create synapses and connections that transcend the vagal and hormonal states.  Instead of being submerged in these states, the human mind can develop a new faculty, which is able to step back and take an overview. The mind-brain likes narratives. Just as it can watch a movie, it can also watch its own body and behaviour. So its own thoughts, feelings and behaviour are just another narrative.

The mind-brain can develop so that it steps back and observes the three vagal states and the molecules of emotion. It can be a witness to all the stuff of feelings and thoughts. More than that, it can choose to self-manage, influence and guide these states. (Plato said that the rational mind is proof of the soul.)

But this rational, higher, self-managing mind is a new state and a new neural groove and muscle. So the synapses and connections need development and repetition.

Of all people it is meditators who, sitting quietly with themselves, experience this new witnessing state and an ability to self-manage inner sensations and chemistry. Like benevolent white witches and wizards meditators can stir, blend and reformulate the bubbling stuff in the cauldron of their bodies. Always with more love, more wisdom, more consciousness.

Emotional intelligence. Mindfulness. Meditation. These approaches help us develop our higher mind, our detached compassionate witnessing. Not a floating, disembodied balloon of awareness, but a kind awareness that is fully engaged with flesh and blood realities.

Polyvagal Whatsit

Polyvagal Whatsit

emoji brain cells

POLYVAGAL WHATSIT

Most of you by now will have heard of Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory. But you might be unclear about what it actually means and its implications. The actual biology and science are a tad complex, so here is my take on the core practical insights of polyvagal theory.  I’m being cheeky and stripping away the science to reveal what, for me, are its core insights that are practically useful for personal development. (For an introduction to the science of polyvagal theory, the Wikipedia article is a good start.)

Three Primal States: Petrified, Aroused, Cooperative

This, for me, is the essence of polyvagal theory: Embedded in all human beings are three primal states. These are evolutionary survival mechanisms and embedded parts of our biology. They are below our threshold of consciousness – they function without us being aware of them.

Polyvagal theory helps us to be aware of them and manage them.

These three states are:

  1. Frozen, petrified, inert
    This is what we do when experiencing traumatic threat.
  1. Aroused and ready to fight or flee
    This is what we do when we perceive threat that does not traumatise or overwhelm us.
  1. Cooperative
    This is what we do when we are not threatened.

Polyvagal Theory suggests that we move through these states almost as if we are reliving the primal evolution of our nervous systems.
Petrified —> Aroused —> Cooperative

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What I find useful about the polyvagal model is:

Built-In

It is realistic and useful to accept that these three states are an intrinsic part of our biology. To be petrified is normal. To be aroused is normal. To be cooperative is normal.

So they don’t need psychological analysis to understand them. For example, we all experience being petrified not because we were mismanaged by our parents but because it’s a natural state. To be petrified is a normal biological state and sits in all of us.

Simultaneous

I don’t buy that we move in a linear direction from one state upwards to another. I think it is more realistic to suggest that all three states are happening simultaneously in us. For example, if we go to an awkward social event or a shop assistant is rude to us – then simultaneously a part of us freezes, another part is aroused and wants to attack or run, and a third part wants to cooperate. This is the way we operate as human creatures.

Petrified + Aroused + Cooperative = Normal human interaction

Body Aware Self-Management

I like the polyvagal model because it suggests how we can better self-manage ourselves and develop healthily. For example, if I am going into a meeting where there are authority figures who make me uncomfortable, I could go psychoanalytic and explore what these people represent for me and what needs healing; or I can simply say to myself: Ah ha my evolutionary nervous system is behaving normally. Let’s see how I can soothe and manage it.

This then points to all the strategies of body awareness, meditation, emotional intelligence, mindfulness, qi gong, internal martial arts and so on – which work directly into the nervous, endocrine and gut systems.

To do this self-management requires — roll of drums, fanfare of trumpets — consciousness. Yay for consciousness!

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So where I go is:

Petrified + Aroused + Cooperative = Normal human interaction

TO BE SELF-MANAGED BY EMBODIED CONSCIOUSNESS

I hope that is helpful. If you want a very readable book that introduces polyvagal theory and therapy have a look at Deb Dana’s The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy.

 

What is Spiritual Health?

What is Spiritual Health?

You can’t judge a book by looking at the cover,’ sang rock n’ roll pioneer, Bo Diddley. These words were acutely relevant to me when I was a young man learning yoga and simultaneously working with the severely disabled.

On one side of my life there were these toned, flexible and vibrant yoga teachers. On the other were teenagers and young adults confined to wheelchairs, bodies crunched up and completely dependent on the physical help of others.

But which of these two groups enjoyed spiritual health?

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Thirty years on and I am leading a team pioneering the first mainstream vocational qualification in spirituality and health. Its development, as you can imagine, has involved long discussions about the nature of spirituality and health. We have also had to anchor it all down into a coherent language that could be approved by the government education watchdog, Ofqual.

Our working definition of good healthdescribes it is as a state of comfort and flexibility, which applies to our physical and mental wellbeing as well as to our spiritual selves. Bad health is the opposite. Pain and rigidity. Movement hurts. Nothing flows.

What is particularly interesting here is that we can be physically flexible, but hurting mentally and spiritually. Equally we can be spiritually strong and physically weak. In Taoist philosophy, authentic good health is to be in harmony with the benevolent flow of the universe. So our physical bodies can be wrecked – but our spiritual and mental health can be fantastic.

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But what on earth do we actually mean by spirituality? I like to encourage people to develop their own definition of spirituality.  What’s yours? Working in an educational charity we have had to clarify and articulate our own stance. After much consultation we drafted a definition that seems to work for most people regardless of their beliefs.

Spirituality is everyone’s natural connection with the wonder and energy of life.

We also had to clarify and explain the meaning of spiritual health. For this we identified three crucial elements: connection, peace of mindand compassionate care. When assessing my own spiritual health these are the crucial issues. Am I connected? Do I have peace of mind? Am I caring and compassionate?Those questions apply whether we are in a wheelchair or teaching yoga.

 

CONNECTION

It is worth repeating, isn’t it? The first of the crucial elements of spiritual health: Are you connected to the wonder and energy of life?

In the new Your Spiritual Health Programme, readers are guided through a series of questions to help them discover how best they make this spiritual connection. People have so many different ways. Yoga. Reading. Nature. Art. Caring. Worship. Song. Sport. Cooking. Meditation. And so on.

Then when people have identified what circumstances and activities work best for them, they are guided to practice them regularly. Through mindfulness, grounding and breath they are supported in deepening the experience and fully enjoying it. For many yoga practitioners that happens at the end of a session, in corpse pose just lying there, soaking in the deep connection.

PEACE OF MIND

Spiritual peace of mind is not apathy, or a relaxation exercise, or a brain wave state. It arises from a deep and wise way of looking at life. This wise attitude guides us to take regular reflective pauses.

In these mindful pauses we observe and monitor our lives with detached good humour and compassion. We recognise that all our circumstances and experiences – good and bad, health, illness, success, failure, loneliness, community – are always opportunities to develop love and consciousness. This development of love and consciousness is surely the true purpose of our lives. Understanding this brings us meaning and coherence, a deep calm.

COMPASSIONATE CARE

The third foundation of spiritual health is compassionate care or love in action. If we are not actively caring we block the harmonious flow of the natural world, causing congestion for others and ourselves. Energetically, being compassionate pays forward the good energy we receive from being connected and having peace of mind.  Selfishness, egoism, narcissism are all prime symptoms of spiritual bad health.

Fortunately Mother Nature has evolved us very shrewdly. When we give care our endocrine systems are stimulated in a positive and beneficial way, relaxing tissue. Doing good, feels good.

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The wonderful thing about spiritual health is that we are not dependent upon anyone else for our ‘medicine’.  We also always have access to a wonderful doctor who knows us better than anyone else, our own consciousness. So my fellow doctors, shall we all look at the state of our spiritual health?

Connected.

Peace of mind.

Compassionate care.

For more information visit yourspiritualhealth.org

What is Health and Healing?

Every Thursday at noon I sit in St Joseph’s Chapel in Glastonbury Abbey and participate in a healing meditation. It is a simple twenty-minute session: being still; awareness that healing is always available; receiving healing; sending healing to wherever there is suffering.

Sometimes in this meditation I contemplate what exactly is happening. I have one sceptical brain cell enquiring whether spiritual healing is real, or whether it is just a displacement activity to make me feel useful in a world where I may be useless. But this doubt is more than balanced by a clear sense, a deep knowing, that something real and useful is truly happening

In my meditation I also enjoy contemplating the nature of good health. Good health it seems to me  is best defined as a state of comfort and flexibility.  There is enjoyable harmony and flow. This applies to both our physical and mental states. It is similar too for societies. Bad health is the opposite. Illness is pain and rigidity. Movement hurts – physically and emotionally. Nothing flows.

If we accept this simple flip-flop – comfort and flexibility versus pain and rigidity – then we can suggest a coherent definition of healing. Healing is surely anything that facilitates comfort and flexibility. This definition is appropriate for modern medicine. It also reflects the Taoist philosophy that the universe is a harmonious ocean of flowing states; so a healthy state, for an individual or a community, is also to be in harmony with this continuous flux and flow.

In this context the process of all healing methods – surgery, medication, touch, spiritual healing, exercise, diet, being in nature and so on – can then be easily described. First, identify what is uncomfortable and rigid. Second, intervene with an appropriate strategy to enable comfort and flow. 

There are obvious problems of course if we deny or misdiagnose the rigidity. More difficulties can be triggered too if we seek an easy healing intervention, instead of an effective one.  A simple example from most of our lives is when we feel emotional pain and then intervene with food instead of perhaps some quiet in nature or a dance.

It is a simple reality of life that most of us at some time or another experience pain and therefore seek healing. The good news is that within each of us is there is a great doctor, a wonderful agent of healing: our own consciousness. 

Your consciousness – your mind, your awareness, your soul – can acknowledge your pain, seek to understand it and find the best medicine to bring yourself back into flow, comfort and flexibility.

Ten Secrets of Psychic Protection

Everyone is sensitive to atmospheres and vibrations.  This is a normal human sensitivity. But some of us are more highly tuned than others.

Some sceptics might protest and say that it is all imaginary – made up by an overactive mind – and I reply: Did you ever rent or buy a home where you didn’t like the vibe?  The sceptic responds: Never! And I, trying not to be smug, say: Case proven. Because you are sensitive to atmospheres.

One of my friends was an officer in a nuclear submarine. When things went wrong and needed fine tuning, the captain always asked my friend to fix it because he had an extraordinary sensitivity to how the vessel felt and where it needed attention.

My dad was a psychiatrist and disliked all kinds of psychism and spirituality. Nevertheless he claimed that he could tell what was wrong with his patients the moment that they stood in the doorway of his consulting room. How could he do this? He said that he could read body language, but I have known of many blind people who have the same ability so cannot ready body language. So what is the source of their sensitivity? And in your own home or work place, can you feel the mood of someone coming in the front door – especially if they are angry or depressed?

This is all very normal stuff. We all sense invisible stuff. It is a human sense just like sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Sometimes, in ‘respectable’ language, it is called intuition. For me, I simply understand it as a result of the fact that we all have magnetic fields. Every atom and cell in our body has a magnetic field. That is basic chemistry and physics. Planet Earth has a magnetic field. Birds guide their migration roots using their magnetic field.

When something enters our magnetic field, it creates an ‘event’ that ripples through into our nervous system. We then feel or sense it.

The challenge for some people, including me, is that we have very sensitive energy fields and nervous systems. This means that sometimes we feel too much and it can be disturbing, tiring or even overwhelming.

In my mid-twenties for instance I lived off-grid for two years in the High Atlas Mountains of southern Morocco. When I came back home to central London my body could not stop shaking for several months as I felt all the vibrations of the city after two years in the mountain calm.

At the same time I was also exploring different approaches to spirituality and healing. Because of my own sensitivity I was particularly interested in spooks and negative atmospheres. I explored whether these unpleasant experiences were psychological or energetic phenomena and how to discern the difference. I led many workshops and trainings in this topic and wrote two books Psychic Protection and Feeling Safe on the subject.

I can summarise the advice I give to people who are sensitive to energies:

  1. Learn about your magnetic field and energy body; and how it integrates with your nervous and endocrine systems. Know thyself.
  2. Do what works best to strengthen your nervous system. Less caffeine, less alcohol, less recreational drugs, less rubbish food. More exercise.
  3. Learn about internal martial arts – chi gung– how to use meditation and movement to build your inner strength.
  4. Develop a stable grounded centre of gravity – what is called hara in martial arts and bottom in horse riding.
  5. Practice the classical strategies of psychic protection such as protective bubbles, shield, columns of lights, power animals and plants.
  6. Keep your energy moving – physically, psychologically and in your home and workplace.
  7. Use your sensitivity to deepen your connection with the unconditional love that permeates the universe.
  8. Ask and pray for help.
  9. Develop your ability to love, bless and forgive those whom you dislike and might be ‘enemies’.
  10. Understand that sometimes you attract difficult situations that are in fact great opportunities for learning and development.
Book Cover Psychic Protection by William Bloom
Book Cover Feeling Safe by William Bloom