Self-Resonance

“We are all rather like tree rings and shell patterns

in that what has happened to us leaves a permanent record.

The goal of trauma work, therefore, as I see it,

is not to erase or cure but rather to expand and include and

grow larger than whatever has happened to us.”[1]

– Francesca Mason Boring

 

It Feels Good to be Heard

One day when my son, Kai, was six, he and his friend were playing with a balloon at a birthday party. Suddenly, Kai’s friend’s three-year-old sister, let’s call her Gabi, ran crying out of the room.

A few minutes later, I stood up and went to the bedroom, where she sat on the bed crying.

Gabi’s mother was kneeling in front of her, pleading with her to stop crying, and her grandfather was standing in a corner with his guitar, strumming an upbeat song in an attempt to cheer her up.

Meanwhile, Gabi was seemingly oblivious to all their cajoling.

With her mother’s consent, I sat down beside Gabi and asked what was wrong. Between sobs, she told me that the boys had taken her balloon. It wasn’t their balloon. It was her balloon. And they hadn’t asked for it.

I looked Gabi in the eyes and said, “That’s really sad, isn’t it? Are you really sad? Do you really want your balloon back?”

Gabi turned and looked at me with a puzzled expression, as if she was surprised to finally be heard. Then she heaved a huge sigh, put her head on my shoulder, and slowly stopped crying. “Yeah,” she said, seeming relieved that someone had asked her what she needed without trying to convince her to feel differently.

After a moment, we stood up, hand in hand, and went to ask the boys to give her the balloon back.

They promptly did.

What happened between Gabi and me that day was resonance.

What is Resonance

The word resonance comes from the Latin word resonare, meaning to sound back.

Resonance is what happens between two people when one person brings their warm, curious attention to the other in an attempt to understand them, and the second person responds with—Yes, that’s it!

When someone shows that they truly get you, and your body relaxes and responds with, Yes! that’s resonance. Our human bodies vibrate at different frequencies depending on our emotions, and when we resonate with another person, it’s as though our emotional worlds vibrate together.

Resonance is compassion-plus. Compassion means to suffer with. Self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff identifies three components of self-compassion: 1) mindfulness—an awareness of what’s happening without trying to change it, 2) self-kindness, 3) a recognition of our common humanity and how we are not alone in our pain.[2]

We can feel compassion toward someone else without them even knowing it, but as Sarah Peyton writes in Your Resonant Self, “we cannot be resonant with a person unless we are being relational—resonance is a two-person experience. Someone else can’t simply declare a resonance with us. The receivers are the ones who get to say whether or not someone else’s presence or language feels resonant”[3]

Although I had been deliberately practicing resonance toward myself, my clients, and my loved ones for nearly a decade before discovering Sarah Peyton’s work, I hadn’t been calling it resonance. I’m so grateful to Sarah Peyton for naming the importance of resonance and teaching the neuroscience behind it. This precise language has helped me become even more precise in my practice.

Resonance can happen verbally or nonverbally, and we can receive resonance from a part of ourselves, another person, an animal companion, a song, nature, or any being in the more-than-human realm.

Today, I want to talk about self-resonance, the practice and skill of offering resonance to ourselves.

Rather than practicing self-resonance, when most of us encounter a challenging situation, we ignore, criticize, dismiss, negate, or diminish what they feel; try to fix what’s wrong before truly understanding what’s going on; or tell ourselves there must be something wrong with ourselves or others.

In contrast, resonance looks like warmly attuning to and deeply understanding what we or another feel, think, and need, even if we don’t like what we or the other person is doing and are hoping we’ll change behavior.

Self-resonance creates the inner sense of safety we need to hear our inner guidance, discern what we need, listen to what’s really going on for other people, and choose next steps that honor our needs. Resonance is like tending the soil within us so that all the other seeds of radical discernment can take root.

Before we explore how to cultivate self-resonance, which we’ll do in the next chapter, it’s important to discuss what makes self-resonance challenging—personal and collective trauma—and how resonance heals the brain.

We’re about to talk a bit about trauma. If you start feeling overwhelmed as you listen, please pause and care for yourself. You might scan your room for safety, move your arms and legs, turn your body from side to side, or drink some water. Becoming overwhelmed can be a sign that seeking support from a trauma-informed therapist or healing practitioner could be helpful.

Why Self-Resonance Can Be Challenging

Let’s start with a definition of trauma.

Although most people think of trauma as a difficult event, trauma is not an event.[4] We can go through difficult experiences, feel difficult emotions, and yet not be traumatized. So then, what is trauma?

There are many definitions. My favorite comes from Sarah Peyton. In her book, Your Resonant Self Workbook, Peyton writes:

“[Trauma is] the experience of something difficult, during or after which we are not accompanied by warm and precise understanding, either from ourselves or from others.”[5]

In other words, trauma is being too alone during challenging events or circumstances. These events and circumstances could include single, acute events like an accident, attack, or sudden loss; ongoing, complex circumstances such as being raised by emotionally unavailable or unpredictable parents; or systemic oppressions such as poverty, racism, or transphobia. Unhealed trauma can also be passed down through generations within a family, workplace, or community.

If we’re lucky, we are accompanied by someone who accompanies us with warm understanding through our difficult experience. If we’re not so lucky, the trauma lingers.

After experiencing a traumatic event or circumstance, our amygdala—the small, almond-shaped emotional center deep in the brain—stores the unconscious memories as if they were happening in the present time.[6]

From then on, the amygdala constantly and automatically scans our present-day experiences for similarities to the traumatic situation.[7] When something happens that reminds us—usually unconsciously—of the trauma, the amygdala sets off an alarm and activates the rest of the body-brain to react as if the traumatic circumstances were happening now.

In an attempt to protect ourselves and the people we love from the event ever happening again, we humans develop coping strategies such as hypervigilance, aggression, distrusting ourselves and others, disconnecting from ourselves and others, not holding ourselves or others accountable, isolation, misinterpreting other’s actions, not holding boundaries, workaholism, overthinking, overplanning, power-hoarding, perfectionism, replicating oppressive behaviors that don’t align with our values, blaming others, controlling our environments, managing other peoples’ lives, or using alcohol, drugs, nicotine, sugar, screens, food, gambling, shopping, staying busy, partying, sex, spiritual practices, or other behaviors or substances to numb our pain.

One of the most common coping strategies that people form in an attempt to keep themselves safe are unconscious contracts—agreements or promises that we make without full awareness, usually to ourselves, to act or not act in a certain way.

For instance, many people form unconscious contracts with themselves not to offer themselves compassion until the world’s problems are solved, believing that compassion is something that should be reserved for others in a down-power position such as young children, hurt animals, the planet, or people with less systemic privilege. Many others promise themselves that they will not to make themselves vulnerable in order to protect themselves from future disappointment or rejection. And, of course, vulnerability is often required in order to receive and offer ourselves resonance.

Although our coping strategies make absolute sense to the part of us that is trying to protect us, these strategies can be hard to understand and wreak havoc in our lives. Of course we try to convince the part of ourselves who’s acting up not to feel, think, or act in ways that don’t meet our current needs well.

And so, if you find yourself feeling feelings, thinking thoughts, or reacting in ways that you don’t understand, it may be a sign that you’re touching an old trauma and that a part of you is trying to protect you.

One coping strategy that I find many highly-functioning, high-achieving people revert to—myself included—and which makes resonance challenging, is left-shifting, as in shifting to the left hemisphere of the brain.

As neuroscientist, Iain McGilchrist, writes in his book, The Master and His Emissary, the left and right hemispheres of the brain are very different. Whereas the right hemisphere is the relational brain which perceives complexity and systems in their wholeness, the left hemisphere is the instrumental, get-it-done brain, which separates things into parts and compares them to each other.

The brain’s body map lives in the right hemisphere, so to be able to discern the messages from our bodies, we must be able to access the right hemisphere. And resonance arises from the right hemisphere as well.

The challenge is that trauma can make the right hemisphere an excruciating place to be, and so to avoid pain, many of us develop a habit of hanging out more and more in our left brains.

I imagine that systemic oppression—imperialism, capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and so forth—arises from and perpetuates left-shifted-ness. When we perceive our fellow humans as separate from each other, it is so much easier to hurt one another. And, when we are hurt, we flee to the left brain for comfort. It’s a vicious cycle, and I believe this is one reason why our dominant culture is so resonance-starved.

Additionally, the brain’s seeking circuit—the network in our brain that is responsible for motivation, planning, accomplishing goals, and getting things done—comprises a lot of the left hemisphere and has no connection to the right.[8] When a person’s seeking circuit is overactive—like it often is in high-achievers and workaholics—people can become habitually left-shifted and have a hard time connecting with themselves or others.

Advice-giving, problem-solving, criticizing, and other attempts at fixing a situation are primarily left-brained behaviors. And, it makes complete sense to want to fix what’s not working. Of course we don’t want to feel pain. Of course we have a deep need to contribute and make things better. And, of course, advice sometimes helps us feel better, especially when we have a need for information and the advice is given with consent.

But, when someone tries to fix us, we can feel even more unheard and unseen, and like Gabi, we might want to cry even louder to be heard.

In some strange, paradoxical way, when we let go of striving to fix ourselves and the world, and instead turn toward each other and ourselves with warmth and welcome, we are far more likely to soothe our nervous systems and become more resilient in our efforts toward change.

How Self-Resonance Heals the Brain

To get a picture of how resonance heals the brain, I invite you to lift one hand and close your fingers over your thumb. Your thumb represents your limbic system, which includes the amygdala, and your first two knuckles represent the prefrontal cortex.[9]

Whereas the amygdala is the emotional center of the brain that recalls trauma and scans the environment for safety, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for many essential functions that are key to wellbeing and discernment, including accessing the body’s guidance, responding effectively to our fears and worries, maintaining a sense of emotional balance, considering and taking action to care for the greater good, attuning to other and responding with resonance, exploring new possibilities, making plans and decisions, and maintaining focus and attention.[10]

In the brain, resonance lives in the neural fibers that connect the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala.[11] Trauma makes these connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala weaker and harder to access.[12]

And what happens in our body-brains mirrors collective trauma. While our collective wounding creates and manifests as separation from each other, internally, trauma within us weakens the bonds between the parts of our body-brains.

But healing means to make whole. Healing means to reconnect the parts that have been separated—within ourselves, within our families, within our workplaces and communities, within the collective whole of humanity and all of life. Resonance is the relational quality that heals.

When we practice self-resonance or we receive resonance from others, we begin to light up parts of the brain that have been dormant for a long time and to mend the neural fibers between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. Just as our fingers curl over and warmly nestle our thumbs, with resonance, the prefrontal cortex develops the ability to support the amygdala.

The stronger those connections become, the more the prefrontal cortex can run the show, which allows us to both feel better in our bodies and choose more effective responses to our challenges.

In the next episode, I’ll share three core elements of self-resonance and practices to help you cultivate them.

I invite you to take a break, stretch, tend to your body, do anything you need before moving on to the next chapter. I’ll join you there when you’re ready!


[1] Francesca Mason Boring, Connecting to Our Ancestral Past, Healing Through Family Constellations.

[2]

[3] Sarah Peyton. Your Resonant Self: Guided Meditations and Exercises to Engage Your Brain’s Capacity for Healing. (New York, NY: WW Norton, 2017.) Page xxiv.

[4] I’ve included a list of potentially traumatic events in the appendix. The list is not comprehensive and can be painful to read, but I included it because I find that many people downplay their traumas especially if they cannot remember the event, don’t realize they’re grappling with trauma at all, and find it soothing to have another person name their experience as traumatic.

[5] Sarah Peyton. Your Resonant Self Workbook: From Self-Sabotage to Self-Care. (New York, NY: WW Norton, 2021.)

[6] Sarah Peyton. Your Resonant Self: Guided Meditations and Exercises to Engage Your Brain’s Capacity for Healing. (New York, NY: WW Norton, 2017.) Page 108.

[7] Ibid. Page 26.

[8] Jaak Panksepp’s circuits of emotion.

[9] Ibid. Page 28.

[10] Daniel Siegel, Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. (London: Bantam Press, 2010.)

[11]  Sarah Peyton. Your Resonant Self Workbook: From Self-Sabotage to Self-Care. (New York, NY: WW Norton, 2021.)

[12] Sarah’s burnout slides.

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