by Lynda Klau Ph.D.
Previously published by the Global Association For Interpersonal Neurobiology Studies
The first arm didn’t do it. The second arm completed the transformation.
Almost one year before, after I had broken my left upper arm, I would sit at my kitchen table in the dark of the night crying from the pain. As I did so I began to hear another voice, it was my very young self crying, now not from the physical pain but from the agony of long ago.
It’s Thursday morning, February 16th. I’m leaving my apartment building in New York City, stepping from the building’s front entrance to the street, when my left foot gets caught in my right pants leg. I crash down onto the sidewalk, landing with the entire weight of my body on my right shoulder and arm.
When I arrive at the hospital, the surgeon tells me that the humerus of my right arm is broken in three places and I dislocated my shoulder. He immediately schedules me for surgery.
After the operation, I’m home again. People keep telling me how traumatized I must be from the accident and the surgery. They’re right: I observe a tremendous amount of fear coursing through my body and my thoughts. I feel vulnerable, emotional, and powerless. For the first few nights, I’m afraid to sleep alone, so I have friends stay over. I only feel safe enough to leave the house using a hired car service— not even a street cab, let alone my own two feet.
Clearly, part of me is being run by my most primitive emotions. But paradoxically, at the same time, I notice something new blossoming inside me.
In the days that follow, I can do very little. I spend most of my time inside. My home is comforting; its simple beauty nourishes my soul. Almost every day, I wear my red velvet jacket lined in silk charmeuse. I feel like I’m being held by its loving arms. To eat, I order my favorite wild salmon miso stew: it is so warm and healing.
Between my friends, family, and colleagues, as well as my therapist, body workers, surgeon and his team, I’m surrounded by a circle of love, support and protection. I watch myself begin to relax and feel safe. As I do so, my body begins to thaw. Only then do I realize how frozen it had been.
To my amazement, almost miraculously, as I begin to work with clients again, I notice that I’m more open, intelligent and present than ever before. My thoughts and energy flow, with stories and quotes leaping to the tip of my tongue. This is also true with close friends.
By being mindful, I can hold what seems like this pot of contradictions. Now is not the time to figure any of this out. It’s the time to be quiet, take care, and listen.
It wasn’t until I finally went to the hairdresser for the first time since the accident— when my knotted, unkempt curls were lovingly washed, brushed and combed— that I had a profound insight into the nature of my trauma from the accident and the contradictions that emerged.
During the car ride home, I asked myself: “What are the facts about what I’ve been going through?” I told myself: “Well, I have a broken arm and I went through surgery.” Period. It wasn’t a life threatening accident, or a major operation. So why was my emotional response so intense? What was opening in me? Within the space of a breath, the answer came: my broken arm, as well as the surgery, had triggered a deep symbolic trauma rooted in my early self.
iii. Sorting it Out: Interpersonal Neurobiology
In many ways, Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB) provides a map of my transformation that I believe can be useful to others. My own experience validates and reinforces the framework of IPNB on a subjective level. Knowing this allowed me to embrace an even deeper evolution and awareness. Once I realized that I was living the map, I was able to let the map guide me further.
From my current perspective, it is clear that the shock of my accident triggered what IPNB would call a limbic trauma originating from my early relationship with my mother. In the words of psychiatrist Donald Winnicott (1971) and the Attachment Research literature (Gerhardt, 2004), when a mother is “not good enough” and does not provide enough of her presence—her heart, her eyes, her attunement—the baby develops an insecure attachment. As a result, her earliest understanding of life and love is one of fear-based survival, rather than her own goodness, connection and inclusion. She feels isolated, unconnected and bad, and the world around her seems dangerous.
Up until the period of my recovery, I had not been able to differentiate this early non-verbal limbic trauma from my present reality. Finally, feeling “safe enough” inside and without, surrounded by a loving “village,” and having the mindful awareness to observe my feelings without identifying with them, I was able to bring consciousness to this implicit limbic trauma. I could differentiate and hold my limbic wounded self with love and compassion. When it had words, I could listen. When it was unable to express itself, I could sense its feelings and put them into words. I could take care of my very young self in a way that my mother couldn’t. How lucky we are to be able to have a second chance at becoming ourselves.
The more I was able to differentiate my early limbic trauma from present reality, the more my hippocampus could do its job, integrating my left and right hemispheres. This felt like a huge bilateral leap forward.
At the same time that my emotional-psychological self was evolving, my body was transforming too. Our bodies are our psychological mirrors. The way I had previously held my body reflected the deep neural tracks of a scared, frustrated, and powerless woman. My awareness of what I could sense within my body deepened. What seemed like pounds of fear dropped away. A limp that I had developed years before— which I had tried everything to heal— began to disappear. My body-mind, vertical Integration, was now stronger than ever. Most importantly, I could trust my body to support me in a way I never could before.
As a result of all of this, my middle pre-frontal cortex became unblocked, stronger, and more present, enhancing my energies for the Nine Functions and integration in the Nine Domains.
My life changed in ways both subtle and profound. Now I was increasingly able to align with my calm center—what Dr. Dan Siegel (2012) terms “the hub of the wheel.” This is what mindfulness practice calls the “witnessing presence,” “awareness,” or the “invisible realm.” Rather than reacting from an undifferentiated limbic trauma, I could pause, breathe, reflect, and consciously choose how to respond. I had found my way out of the prison of conditioning and into freedom. I had finally earned a secure attachment. In my words I had finally come home. Hallelujah!
Of course, this doesn't mean that I’m immune to being triggered again, or temporarily falling into a limbic hole. Transformation and growth is always a cyclical process. Yet what I do know is that— like a train—I have changed tracks.
iv. Endings and New Beginnings
The steps that I experienced on my journey may have implications for all of us. Consider your life; consider how Interpersonal Neurobiology provides an exquisite framework that can help each of us cultivate and evolve our selves and our world.
What a joy to watch ourselves walking solidly on the ground between heaven and earth.
Gerhardt, S. (2004). Attachment Theory. Routledge, NY.
Siegel, D. MD (2012). The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the
Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are (2nd ed.). NY: The Guilford
Winnicott, D. MD (1971). Playing and Reality. Ann Arbor, MI: The
University of Michigan Basic Books.
©2013 Lynda Klau Ph.D.