April 12, 2023

Facts vs Feelings: What I learned from a year of studying with Dr. Gabor Maté.


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I heard myself saying: “I feel like I’m two.”

My throat was dry, and I could feel a column of heat in my chest. A flush of pressure rushed to my ears and they felt like they needed to pop, like I was on an airplane. The pit in my stomach seemed to swallow my body.

I was on the phone with a friend who had served me the news that he wasn’t available to talk.

I have no recollections of what else I said, as the sensations of my body swallowed me whole. I spent the entire next day assessing, analyzing, and being anxious about it.

I didn’t understand that I was triggered.

But that was all about to change as I embarked on a year of professional studies with Dr. Gabor Maté.

One of the most important things I garnered from my time in the training is this:

The story doesn’t matter.

Our culture teaches us to tell stories. When someone hurts us, we translate the events to text, even if we speak them out loud: “and then he said,” “and then what happened is,” “and then, I mean you won’t believe this…”

We typically turn our lives into scientific diaries of details and facts and events, much of which is filtered through the lens of proving that we are right or defending ourselves so that we can be more correct than the other person.

I didn’t viscerally understand that stories are not facts. And that perceptions of what happened are not feelings.

Perceptions are interpretations, and storytelling requires us to take no responsibility for our coping mechanisms or triggers.

With Compassionate Inquiry, Dr. Maté’s therapeutic approach, I learned to approach my emotional experience as though it were a visit to the doctor. I practiced analyzing myself and my experiences through the sensations in my body rather than in my brain.

I learned to ask myself important questions, like:

>> What is happening for me?

>> What is the quality of my skin? What sensations are present in the abdomen? The chest? The spine? The back? The neck? The face?

>> Do I feel a temperature change? Where is the sensation? And what is it? Is it burning? Searing?

>> What is the feeling I am experiencing? And finally: what do I make that mean about myself? How old is this memory? How old am I?

These astoundingly straightforward questions, this approach, changed the way I relate to myself, my body sensations, my emotional experiences, and my triggers.

I, like many my age, was raised to mitigate my emotions. Intelligence and rational thinking were the prize tools upon which to earn favor.

I remember screaming when a spider climbed on me. I was on my tricycle on the cement pad behind the house. The Daddy Longlegs tickled my left leg, but when I looked down upon it, it seemed to occupy a quarry of my leg.

Fear overcame me and I froze, feeling and watching the giant spider made its way toward my torso.

I started to scream. Bloodcurdling.

My dad dropped his tools from across the yard and ran over. When he discovered it was only a spider, he blew it off and told me, “It’s only a spider. Don’t make so much noise next time.”

He never asked me why I was screaming or what was happening in my body. He never validated that a spider scares a lot of people, especially children. He never bore witness to my fear.

So by age three, in order to win favor and stay alive by way of affection, food, and shelter, I learned to ensure that my emotional reaction was never larger than the story itself.

I became a gifted storyteller. Words and precision mattered to me. A single incident on a date could weave a yarn for dozens of minutes or portions of hours during drinks out.

I took writing classes, and became obsessed with continuing education. Facts. Certifications. The solidity of the written or spoken word held my grip, as it was the way I could access my experiences and connect with others.

No one had ever told me that the story didn’t matter.

When we focus on the story, we don’t need to explore what happened inside of us. Stories and facts are external. Feelings and sensations are internal.

When we connect to the somatic, then attach it to an emotion and identify all of it out loud, we take responsibility for the events inside of us, rather than the (often disputable) facts of what occurred.

We are pulled away from life as a court ruling and toward our experiences as connecting, vulnerable, and healing.

One of the most present and authentic things we can do for ourselves is to notice and name the physical sensations happening in our body. I can think back in my life to moments of laughter, love, rage, and ruin, and recall precisely the sensations that a photograph could never capture.

The details of our body matters, and we can titrate and dose the amount we can tolerate. Perhaps it is: “I notice my body” or “I notice a hot sensation.” There is a possibility that we can add detail, tone, and specificity.

The last time I was triggered, it was by a tone of voice. My stomach clenched, like a fist had been inserted inside my abdomen and squeezed. Atop it, my chest cavity tenderized, like a scratching so deep within threatened to make it raw with heat. My throat inexplicably narrowed, almost as if a sickness was coming on, my vocal cords narrowed, a lump building and threatening to overtake it.

I spoke, my voice stern: “Please watch your tone. It’s scaring me.”

And I could notice that I had fear.

The fear was old, rather than the young voice sitting beside me and speaking the words that sent my body sideways.

Just like I had been with my friend, my body was two.

During my year of studies, I could slowly, as I practiced the skills over and over and over, identify that I was triggered.

We can start to piece together the combinations of body sensations and emotions that led to our youngest belief system:

I am not good enough. I am not lovable. I am a failure. I am a bad person.

When we have sensations and feelings that lead to these perceptions of shame and unworthiness, our coping strategy is to go back to facts.

Mine was: Tell the story. Prove I’m right. Discredit the other person.

But in the year of my course, although we had the usual lectures and reading list, the work was not intellectual. The monthly meetings and weekly practices with my colleagues required me to, time and time and time again, pull back into my body. I did hundreds of practice sessions.

Sometimes, I couldn’t go into my body. It was intolerable and I dissociated. Sometimes, I could add nuance and stay with the feeling until it dissipated like a firecracker or a hot air balloon floating away from me that I still wanted to hold.

And then I graduated.

In the pause without information intake or formalized practice sessions, I could practice on my own.

Now, my body has become the only part of the story that matters. What is happening inside me is indisputable, no matter what someone else has done. I tell shorter stories and spend more time on what my body is sharing.

I can notice and name sensations in an instant.

I can identify when I’m triggered and I can take responsibility for it.

These seemingly simple questions took a year of practice, and another year of integration. And they are the most profound learnings of my life.

The same conversation I had previously with a friend wouldn’t end up the same way these days. Now, I would share that I have a pit in my stomach, and that the anxiety I’m feeling is reminding me of being a small child on a tricycle.


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