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The Fearful Fetus

Updated: Oct 23, 2019

A Life of Ever-Deepening Connection

Mt Cheam and The Stó lō (Fraser) River in winter

As an NVC Trainer and practitioner, I've explored many alternative models of healing that complement and deepen my NVC practice. Not long ago I was a participant in an Ayahuasca ceremony and asked the consciousness of Ayahuasca to teach me more about the fear I carry from my past. During a pre-ceremony preparation session, one of the ceremony assistants suggested I ask the consciousness of Ayahuasca to teach me more about the fear stuck in my nervous system (in some Indigenous cultures, plants used for healing, such as Ayahuasca, are referred to as Plant Teachers). Somewhere during the 4 plus-hour ceremony, I remembered to ask Ayahuasca about the fear from my past. Immediately I was shown an image of me in utero. It was made clear to me that my mother had a lot of fear and stress in her nervous system while pregnant with me.

Of course she did. Though many would likely have seen my mother as a strong and confident woman, she would have carried a lot of fear and stress from being born in Holland at the start of WWII and from receiving very strict and critical parenting with very little nurturing. My mother learned to be tough - she developed the capacity to override her vulnerability - in order to survive her childhood, but childhood stress and fear remain in the nervous system until they are consciously integrated.

How do childhood stress and fear remain in the nervous system? From before we're born, our brains adapt to feedback from the environment. If a fetus is in a stressed body or a child has a stressful upbringing, the brain adapts to expect and be on guard for consistent stress. Some of the stress for my mother in her childhood included criticism, being left alone to cry, not being held or valued, corporeal punishment from her parents, and all the stress of war - scarcity, loss of freedom, threats to survival, loud noises. Our brain's adaptive capacity is what helped my mother survive and cope with her childhood. Unfortunately, the brain doesn't turn off the adaptations when we reach adulthood. A child's brain that develops in the midst of a stressful environment becomes an adult brain that doesn't know how to relax. As my mother's child, I learned to adapt in similar ways that she had to when I was young. Not because there was a war but because these adaptations are unconsciously passed on through the generations as survival mechanisms.

Neuroscientist Daniel Siegel doesn't distinguish between the nervous system in the skull - the cranial brain - and the nervous system in the body because both are processing information, and that information goes both ways - from the body up to the cranial nervous system (the brain), and from the cranial nervous system down to the body's nervous system. Because the nervous system is responding to the present based on its adaptations to the environment and the traumas of the past, it is carrying the fear and stress and all the emotions, sensations, beliefs and behaviours (both positive/healthy and negative/not healthy) from the past to the present.

In order to heal (integrate) our deeper wounds and lay down the load we carry, we need to get below the conscious mind. We can't talk our way into healing our deeper wounds because the emotions and sensations and beliefs related to those wounds are not stored in the parts of the brain that do conscious analysis. By slowing down specific movements and impulses related to past wounds and mindfully feeling what arises, we can access the implicit emotions, sensations and beliefs stuck in the unconscious mind, integrate them into our conscious minds, and stop reacting to the present based on the adaptations to the past. This is why I use somatic (body-based) processes for my work with clients. And, this is why I use plant medicine as well.

Brain research in which people are put into a brain imaging machine while on plant medicine has shown that plant medicine stops the Default Mode Network (DMN) of the brain from functioning. One of the functions of the DMN seems to be keeping the gates closed on the unconscious mind. Therefore, as you might suspect, plant medicine and somatic processing work quite well together.  Meditation and mindfulness practices can also stop or "quiet" the DMN from functioning.

The teaching about the stress my mother carried in her nervous system was helpful but not surprising to me. I've taught for several years about how we carry our past in the nervous system through implicit memory. What was more valuable for me was breathing with and feeling into the emotions and sensations that were activated in my nervous system while being shown the image of me in utero. This is part of the brilliance of Ayahuasca, it can help us learn about our wounds and trauma, but more importantly, it allows us the opportunity to do some integration by mindfully, humbly, and courageously feeling the feelings that were too big to feel back then. I write "some" because integration often happens in stages over time. I don't always understand the origins of the wounds I'm healing during a plant medicine ceremony, but I trust that there is always some integration happening if I'm able to breathe and feel and keep my mind quiet enough. It's not always easy healing, but it is often profound and sometimes ineffably exquisite.

How does this type of healing relate to NVC? NVC is about creating as much connection as possible, starting with ourselves. The specific use of language - Observations, Feelings, Needs, and Requests - is one part of NVC, but the NVC use of language likely won't gain you the connection you desire if your nervous system is in Fight/Flight/Freeze or Faint/Collapse. From those two pathways of the nervous system, you'll likely either argue in NVC or you'll dissociate or numb and speak a disembodied version of NVC language if you can speak much at all. The deeper we go into our inner healing, the more connected we become to the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual aspects of ourselves. I see all effective inner healing work, whatever the modality, contributing to the Self-Connection part of NVC, even if the modality doesn’t have any of the specific tools or concepts of NVC. If the healing work helps you integrate wounds from your past and/or helps you better regulate your nervous system, it will help you better connect with others, whether or not you use the NVC language model. The more integrated and regulated your nervous system is the more capacity you have for keeping healthy boundaries and sharing vulnerably, for empathy and resonance, and for working through the challenges that arise.

When I started practicing NVC, I didn’t understand inner healing work as I do now and focussed mostly on the NVC use of language. The language certainly helped, but I needed to go deeper in myself, much deeper, to heal the things that were keeping me from the connection I longed for (but was also afraid of). Thirteen years into my NVC practice has brought me to an immense appreciation for the beauty and difficulty of deep inner healing work. Through the Somatic Processes, Depth Empathy, Family Constellations, Sweat Lodges, Plant medicine, and more with which I do my healing, I’ve come to see that inner healing is an ever-deepening and expanding journey that cycles through dark and light, that requires courage and humility, and that takes us closer and closer to the truth of who we are.

A significant part of the truth of who I am comes through me via my creative expression: my music, articles, videos, photography, and interviews. You can find all of that on my Patreon page, As an artist (and as a counselor and workshop facilitator) my mission is to inspire people to deepen their commitment to their and to their healing work and to their deepest callings. Through much of my art, I tell the story of how consistent, skillfully-supported healing work is a potent source of energy, creativity, power, and beauty. I paint a path to the gold buried in the pain and to the brightest of lights that are waiting in the darkest of places.

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