Back in July, over the long 4th of July weekend, I rented a tiny little cabin near Red River Gorge for a spiritual retreat. I didn’t bring any books or my computer, there was no Wi-Fi, and the cabin had a TV that I never even turned on. My intent for the weekend was to enjoy nature without any distractions whatsoever, do some meditation and journaling, and hopefully give myself the opportunity for self-discovery.
The simple little cabin was perfect. I was in complete solitude. Although there were a few other cabins in the area, no one else occupied them that weekend. There was no need for me to venture out in my car for any reason. I had plenty of food stocked up, and a firepit out front with a ready pile of wood and kindling. I could walk out the front door in any direction and hike for miles all around me. It was the ideal setting for my quest for insight.
On the last afternoon, I sat on the front porch in quiet reflection. Slowly some realizations came to me. I reflected that I’m about two-thirds of the way through my life – if I’m lucky I have about thirty years left in my lifetime. I thought to myself, what do I want the last third of my life to look like? What have I learned in my sixty years that I can put into practice to make the last thirty years of my life better? The first thing that came to mind was to stop being so scared. I’ve lived my entire life in fear. Afraid to do new things, afraid of getting hurt, afraid of being wrong, afraid of making mistakes, afraid of not being perfect. I just don’t want to live like that anymore. The second thing to hit me was to stop worrying. I worry and worry. My mom is the champion of worriers, she passed it on to me, and I learned it great. But I’m tired of it because it sucks my life away. I’ve used up beautiful days of my life worrying about things that never happen. I waste my precious life on it. And finally, I don’t want to hate myself anymore. I think I’ve hated myself my entire life. The way I view myself is so critical, so judgmental, so inflexible. It makes me unhappy and hopeless. I asked myself: do I want this last part of my life to be different than what it has been? So, these are the things I want to be different: I don’t want to be scared. I want to stop worrying all the time, and I want to love myself. That’s what I must change in order to have a chance of happiness in the time I have left.
I came away from that weekend with those intentions but struggled to put them into practice. Making changes when you are hard-wired a certain way is one of the biggest challenges we can face. And all the “intellectualizing” in the world will never lead to changes until you go to the very core of your belief system and release and change those flawed core beliefs. I knew that I had some kind of a core belief around unworthiness but had a vague feeling it must be something more to it. And even after years of effort and self-help books and self-help teachers, therapy, and intense inner child work over the past year, I’d never been able to pinpoint exactly what happened to give me those beliefs and how to change them. I felt like I was never going to “get it.”
Then, this past November, I had a hugely triggering event in my personal life. One morning a few days after, I woke up in tears from a vague dream with an overwhelming sad feeling that I had somehow been replaced. As I cried with overwhelming pain, I suddenly realized that this feeling went way, way back. I asked my inner child if she had ever felt replaced like that. Like a thunderbolt, the answer came to me: “When Renée was born.” I was stunned by the feeling of absolute certainty. That was the core belief, right there…finally.
I felt replaced when my little sister was born.
When I visited my mom a few weeks later, I asked her if she could remember what was going on in her life when my sister was born. I was shocked when my mom told me that after Renée was born, she suffered from post-partum depression. She was 31 years old with 4 young children. My dad was working two jobs and couldn’t offer much support. She was so depressed she couldn’t leave the house. She was prescribed medication that made it even harder for her to function. As I listened to what happened at that time, it all began to make sense.
I’ve been practicing a technique of dialoguing with my inner child using a non-dominant handwriting technique advocated by childhood trauma therapists. Your dominant hand represents your adult self, and the non-dominant hand represents your inner child. The switching of the pen between the dominant and non-dominant hand activates the two hemispheres of our brain, and using our non-dominant hand facilitates access to our unconscious beliefs, and those of our inner child. As I dialogued with my inner child about the time my sister was born, I was astounded at what was being revealed by my left hand. My little Alise finally revealed the hurt that I’d felt at that young age. All that my 17-month-old self could understand was that suddenly my mom disappeared. Then when my mom came back, there was someone else who took her attention. And on top of that, she was depressed and withdrawn. Children at that age don’t have the capacity to make sense of what is going on with their caregivers. I didn’t have the awareness to recognize everything my mom was going through. The only conclusion my tiny little mind could make was that I had been replaced. That it was my fault my mom was unhappy and angry. Therefore, I was bad and must not be worthy of love. Overwhelming feelings of rejection, abandonment, and unworthiness that I have felt my entire life came barreling to the surface of my consciousness, knocking me to my knees. I’ve been replaced. I’m all alone. I’m unworthy of love. These are the core beliefs have stuck with me and wreaked all sorts of havoc in every single aspect of my life. They’ve made me scared of living and kept me afraid to take chances or to make mistakes. They have made me hate myself for being less than perfect. They’ve made me feel unloved and made me totally co-dependent in my romantic relationships, desperately looking for my partners to fill what my friend Barbara calls the “gaping wound of my soul.” I realized too that the devastating heartache I’d always felt after every single breakup in my life actually had this belief as its source – I’ve been replaced.
My therapist has been teaching me that I can’t think my way out of trauma. She has emphasized over and over again that in order to heal and change my stuck core beliefs, it’s imperative that I allow myself to actually feel my feelings, which has always been so difficult and completely foreign to me. I’ve spent my entire life avoiding my feelings. Because as a young child, it was just too much to bear. And even now, the feelings coming up are just as unbearable and painful. But another part of my therapy is learning how to experience these feelings, to develop a mind/body connection and gain the ability to regulate the emotions that arise from my feelings. Then, I can allow myself to experience that tremendous pain I felt as a young child in a more regulated way. To recognize and validate the pain. Then lovingly re-parent my inner child, and comfort her in ways that I’d needed back then. To reassure her that I’m not bad, that nothing was my fault, and I am worthy of love. That’s where the healing takes place and that’s how the changes in my life will finally happen for me. By facing my fears and feelings instead of avoiding them.
I searched for a tangible symbol of encouragement to act as a reminder as I move forward. Almost nine years ago, just before I went on my Amazing Adventure around the country, my dear friend Patti wrote me a note, encouraging me to follow my heart and my dreams as I embarked on a new journey. At the end of the note, she wrote “Be Brave.” I have long desired to memorialize that as a tattoo, but always put it off. A few weeks ago, it finally happened. And now, as I embark on this new journey in my life, I can remind myself every day, every hour, and every minute of my life, to Be Brave.