Recently, I read a heartwarming story in Tim Ferris’s Blog. The writer relates how one night in the pits of despair she experienced the transformative power of an enlightened witness. Through that serendipitous connection, she was able to change the trajectory of her life.
Who is an enlightened witness?
According to the famed psychotherapist, Alice Miller, an enlightened witness is someone who compassionately listens to us and validates our experience of abuse, pain, or injustice without judgment or denouncement. Furthermore, she believes that having an enlightened witness is critical for healing from an abusive past and not repeating the cycle of abuse.
Additionally, an enlightened witness doesn’t judge you, invalidate you, give advice or try to brush away your reality. Most importantly, they don’t try to defend the people who harmed you or ask you to forgive and forget.
They simply bear witness to your painful emotions of anger, rage, shame, guilt, fear, loss, neglect. Their attuned presence allows you to make sense and process your feelings with regard to the past and present.
However, finding a truly enlightened witness is like finding a needle in the haystack. That’s why for most of us healing from childhood trauma is so difficult. Unless someone, sees us as valuable and precious beings we will forever be struggling, drowning in an ocean of pain.
Enlightened Witness – Changes Your Default State
We are relational beings and nearly all trauma is due to interpersonal deficits we experienced as a child. We did not feel safe, we were neglected, mocked, abused, ignored. This resulted in growing up with messed up core beliefs, namely, we are unworthy and unlovable.
To ease the pain of not being enough, we end up living through the destructive spirals of our tainted stories. Depression, addictions, toxic relationships, and other coping mechanisms become our normal.
Till we encounter that kind, loving, caring, accepting human being who sees beyond our failures and shortcomings. They listen to us, see us, and accept us without judgment. It recalibrates your default state of existence – I am a piece of shit – worthless. It ameliorates that soul-crushing lonely feeling.
Being Seen – A Loving Mirror
As a first-time mother of a toddler, I was struggling in a new place when a kindly neighborly grandmother, called me to her home to share some of her child-rearing insights. She shared tips on what are the best weaning foods and what to do with a fussy baby. Knowing she was there was a big relief. She didn’t ask any personal questions rather she focussed on being supportive. Seriously, my son’s good-healthy eating habits are all due to the selfless gifting of her wisdom.
That I am not alone, someone cares enough to make time for me helped me push on through some dark times. Even today, I can feel her warm compassionate gaze and calm voice while she shared the nitty-gritty of mothering.
Moreover, for many of us who grew up having to repress our true selves, having someone accept us without judgment is a game-changer. It effectively changes the negative core beliefs of our dysfunctional childhoods. An enlightened witness through the act of truly seeing us acts as a loving mirror. This helps rewire our faulty brain connectivity.
How Being Seen and Heard Heals Our Brain
The human brain is wired for relationships. It flowers and blooms in a warm caring bed of love. Instinctively, we can sense people’s feelings towards us without them expressing it verbally We are primed to detect micro-expressions of another person. Deep down we know whether someone cares about us or not. Whether they are really interested in us or simply pretending to care about us.
Authentic caring interpersonal connections activates the primitive limbic mirror neuron system (LMNS) in our brain. Through the eyes of an enlightened witness, we experience limbic revision. Our amygdala is able to down-regulate our feelings of distress to facilitate feelings of safety within us. We no longer have to be defensive and closed up.
This letting down of our armor has a neurobiological effect on our mind-body system. Our reptilian brain which was in a state of hypervigilance can let down its guard. Nonetheless, this is a critical turning point in our healing. Since our reptilian brain controls our body functions of fight-flight-freeze response.
The reptilian brain needs to feel safe and secure in order for it, and the rest of the brain, to function properly Only when we experience that felt-feeling of safety deep within our bones can our stress response system calm down. Then and only then can the higher areas of the brain – the pre-frontal cortex function optionally. Or we will be forever stuck in our cycle of self-induced destruction.
Glimmer of Hope
All it takes is one person to catalyst change in our lives. No matter what the self-help gurus tell you, people need people to feel human. Healing requires the presence of a loving enlightened witness.
We need new loving experiences to override the earlier faulty core beliefs. I have been fortunate to have a son who listened to my stories with total acceptance of me – a wounded human being who happens to be his mother.
Change does not happen overnight but gradually. In the presence of one loving, caring soul, our lives are transformed. My prayer to all those – May you all have at least one enlightened witness to bring a glimmer of hope to help you transform your life.