By Sarah Peyton
Being asked to “shelter at home” sounds peaceful and safe, but for many people it’s anything but. There are a lot of elements to peace and safety, including externals like money, and how calm or violent the people around us are, but also including internals like how cruel or merciless our inner voices are, and the tone of our internal atmosphere.
This internal atmosphere is common to all humans. It is a part of our implicit sense of self. We know things both explicitly (what we know that we know) and implicitly (what we don’t know that we know). We know ourselves from the facts that we remember of our life experiences, and we know ourselves from the accrual of tiny moments of how we have been treated from our earliest days.
Each of us has this felt sense of self, but each of us also has a “felt sense of home.” This, like the sense of self, is a complex mix of what we have smelled, seen, lived through, touched and experienced in the places that we have called home. Sometimes this blend has the pleasure of many moments of warmth and care, but sometimes the accrual is more painful and frightening. Sometimes home has a history of addiction, domestic violence, harm, pain and dissociation. Sometimes our bodies can’t relax in a place called “home.”
It is also possible that the people who lived in our “homes” were not warm and caring, but instead were cold, uninvolved or withdrawn, or even scornful, sarcastic or humiliating. This kind of difficult experience, on its own or added up over years, is traumatic for humans, both children and adults. It leads to a profound shame made up of layers and layers of alarmed aloneness – the sympathetic activation state of the circuit which emotions researcher Jaak Panksepp called PANIC/GRIEF – the state of alarm that mammals feel when they have been abandoned or have lost someone they love to death or disappearance. Every moment that we have received cruelty, deliberate silence, or harm is a possible moment of trauma, and when those moments have happened in our “homes” they contribute to a felt sense of home that is fraught with emotional unbearability.
Often, people confuse this shame about “home” with their sense of self, which then makes a restriction like “Shelter at Home” into a painful prison sentence. What is needed, more than anything else, is warm self-accompaniment in the contextualizing of the shame, so that we stop confusing our traumatic history with our sense of who we are. Our childhood home, even if it was a battlefield or an iceberg, was not a shameful place, and we do not need to be ashamed that we lived there. We now have the opportunity to flow our present day adult self, with all of our capacity for warmth and understanding, back through time to resonate with the self that we were then, and see if that child self (or younger adult self) wants to come back with us to present time, fully realizing that we survived that past experience and that we don’t need to live there anymore.
In doing this, we have the possibility of disentangling past home from present home, of transforming our sense of what it means to shelter, to nest, to rest into the floor, walls, furniture, textures, colors and smells of where we live now, and to create a new, differentiated felt sense of home – a home that welcomes us and wants us, and for which we are just right, and which is just right for us.