Reactive Patterns

It’s 2011, and my reaction to “you have to love your inner child” is “gag me with a pitchfork.” I did what “they” said, and bought a dark haired baby doll with an olive complexion that looks like me.  I had her on my bed for a week before I deposited her in a corner on the floor where I’ve all but ignored her for years. 

It’s now 2021, and I’m curious to review and share the ideas that got me from there to welcoming with unconditional love, appreciation and humor all the amazing aspects of my inner being that I refer to as Reactive Patterns (automatic behavioral responses that are triggered by feelings). 

My hope and intention is that the ideas resonate with you. Who knows, maybe together a collaborative vision will arise that makes a difference in our lives and the lives of those around us.

Two pieces of writing set the groundwork for a process that unfolded.  The first was “Honoring Anxiety” which I later illustrated through this cartoon. 

Honoring Anxiety

So let’s go back to August of 2011. I’m feeling anxious about work, and the therapist I’m seeing asks me a simple question that turns out to be a key that opens a whole new way for me to think about and relate to what others refer to as “inner child.”  The question?  Investigate the feeling, as if it were a character, and describe what  ‘Anxious’ does.

I close my eyes and focus on the jittery sensations in my stomach and watch as ‘Anxiety‘ rushes from one thought to another.  

Every new idea breeds ‘baby anxts’, all frantically searching for answers, solutions, and fixes to the intensifying sense of danger.

Like hatching spiders, the ‘anxt babies’ are carried helter-skelter on the wind of fear, their silken  threads snagging – until, caught in the increasing tangle, they vibrate – stuck and desperate– screaming,  “Anxious!  I am ANXIOUS!!”

“Ah” says the therapist.  And then, gently, “Anxiety’s job is to sound the alert of danger or threat…that’s all.”

It had never occurred to me to think about feeling anxious as an internal warning mechanism.

Prompted by the therapists initial question, and now imagining the feeling as a character with a purpose that benefits me, I name her Anxious Ally and start to use writing as a way to give her a voice.

Thinking about her as an ally, I start to see that until now she’s been purely reactive. Run by adrenalin which is, let’s face it, not the drug of choice for clear thinking, Anxious Ally’s patterned behavior is a spontaneous reaction to the perception, the feeling of threat. 

To give credit where credit is due, in the case of real physical threat, adrenalin fueled Anxious Ally jumping into action is useful.

However the ability to distinguish, to stop and consider what triggered the threat, is not part of her skill set. Instead, the essence of a perceived threat is lost in the background, overridden by the reactive pattern of Anxious Ally’s frantic search for whatever will “stop this feeling!”

As I write, the idea of doing what I start to call “role reorientation consultations” starts to take form.

First I recognize and appreciate Anxious Ally’s natural skill set.

Understanding that her only job is to sound the alert, with heart felt gratitude I say “Thank you!  I appreciate the alert. I love you completely. I couldn’t survive, and wouldn’t have survived, without you – really.”

Then I imagine what would be relaxing and provide an alternative to running what has, until now, been her automatic reactive pattern.

Envisioning a lighthouse where Anxious Ally kicks her feet up and watches the dolphins, I encourage her to hangout there with the invitation: Please, do drop in (and out again) any time you feel something!

Releasing Anxious Ally with gratitude, I’m calm. My mindset shifts to being curious and I look at the perceived threat that had me feeling so anxious when I got to that appointment with my therapist.

I’d gotten 5 transferred clients all at once.  My loyalty to clients and the company I work for has been in conflict with my commitment to taking care of myself…and the plan I’d had to go balance rocks at the South fork of the Yuba river.

Seeing that I relax. I can creatively deal with scheduling. I can be patient and allow additional needed information to arrive, there’s no need to rush ahead without it.

I commit to keep the following Wednesday free and submit a PTO request.  Yahoo!!! I’m going to the South Fork of the Yuba River!!!

In addition to the therapists initial question, there was another important element that led me from “love your inner child…gag me with a pitchfork” to embracing the concept I called “Welcoming Reactive Patterns for Shifts and Giggles.”

As I began giving voice to my “feelings,” essentially interviewing them to discover what triggered the reactive behavior patterns, I realized that what “They” all wanted of “Me” as the listener was a safe lap, acceptance, and unconditional love. 

In a piece entitled Sign Me Up! (in reference to thoughts I’d jokingly voiced prior to having children) I wrote how it dawned on me that I actually knew how, and had experience  doing that…because I gave that to my children. 

The idea of turning the ability inward – to love and accept unconditionally –  struck me as profound and the practice of welcoming Reactive Patterns with unconditional love, gratitude, acceptance and humor. began to take shape.

Sign Me Up

In my mid to late 30’s a phenomenon was occurring around me.  The Lesbians in my community were wanting……babies.  My partner being one of them, I found myself sitting in circles of womyn discussing the pro’s, con’s, and numerous other details and intricacies of frozen versus fresh sperm. 

As you might imagine, Lesbians having babies is not a simple matter.   There are many reasons for this, not the least of which being it’s not going to happen by accident.  

Years later I would find myself offering suggestions to “heterosexual” friends who were planning to have children.  After all, who knows more about things like timing in these matters than a Lesbian?  But that, as they say, is another story.

At any rate, as I mentioned, I found myself in the midst of heated debates about such important topics as sperm: fresh or frozen? Donors: how to find one? Known or anonymous?  Local or sperm bank (see previous topic, fresh or frozen)?

Listening to these serious conversations I had the following thoughts, which I shared at the time, and over the years, as what I imagined could be a segment in my “standup routine.”

“So, let me get this straight.  I’m going to call this being, sight unseen, into my life, to love…unconditionally.

I know absolutely nothing about it.  No idea of gender, no clue as to its personality or characteristics.  Don’t know what it’s going to look like, act like, let alone think like.

And I am going to love it…more than I have loved anything or anybody in my whole life.

I am going to dedicate years of my life in ways I can’t even imagine and, if I do my job right, it’s going to “leave me! “  Ohhhh yeah!  Sign me up! “

I did sign up though.  My then partner had Coree.  She’s now 22.  And I had Dakota, who turned 19 last May.

The other day I was talking with Coree about how I’d been very withdrawn “in my youth” and she asked me what had made the biggest difference for me, since that’s not how I occur now.  Without skipping a beat, I said, “having kids.  Having you and Dakota.   It’s hard to maintain a decent ‘space out’ when there’s a child interrupting every few minutes with a need of one kind or another.”

So, there you have it.  It’s not just that I can’t (and wouldn’t want to) imagine my life without them.  It’s that I can’t imagine who I would be without the experiences I’ve had, or the paths I wouldn’t have taken, if not for being their mother.

While they do grow up and move on and out into their own lives, the “leaving” isn’t what I joked it would be.   In retrospect I look at my own relationship with my Mother.  While time, distance, and now even “life itself” stretch and reshape our connection, leaving, or being left is not how I would refer to what I experience.

Rather, the opportunity to care so deeply and profoundly about something, somebody outside of myself has opened doors and windows, provided views and perspectives, and given me tools and insights into the expansive domain of “relationship.”

Among an abundance of other things, on the doorstep of 60, taking my experience and turning it inward, I find myself with an ability to “parent” those aspects of myself that were shut down (or up as the case may be) in my own childhood.  And now I have the added capacity and desire to share whatever wisdom and humor I discover.  Yep! Absolutely! Sign me up!
August 24, 2011

The concept of working with my Reactive Patterns evolves over time.

I practice tuning in to physical sensations felt in my body and drawing connections to the characteristics (character qualities) of the automatic behavior patterns that are a reaction to them.

Welcoming Reactive Patterns with unconditional love, acceptance, gratitude, and humor leads me to a greater awareness, view, and understanding of my self and helps me gain insight into my own self-talk.

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