Phew! Buckle up. Part 2 of my conversation with Aundi Kolber is out today, and it is absolute ! We set aside the script and got real about our own experiences, including. . .
1. How people pleasing becomes a survival response
2. The shame we feel when we start to change
3. Alison's unexpected experience of comfort in a crisis
4. Jesus and the Nervous System
5. Did Jesus ever get "activated"?
6. The problem with toxic positivity & spiritual bypassing
Check out Aundi Kolber's new book, Strong Like Water anywhere books are sold!
Listen to Part 1 of our conversation: Episode 45
Learn more about the Fawn Response: Episode 14
Learn more about Trauma: Episode 4
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Music by Andy Luiten
Sound editing by Kelly Kramarik
While Dr. Cook is a counselor, the content of this podcast and any of the products provided by Dr. Cook are not specific counseling advice nor are they a substitute for individual counseling. The content and products provided on this podcast are for informational purposes only.
Purchase Strong Like Water, by Aundi Kolber
Listen to Part 1 of our conversation: Episode 45
Learn more about the Fawn Response: Episode 14
Learn more about Trauma: Episode 4
John 2:1-11 Jesus turns water into wine
John 11:35 "Jesus Wept."
James 1:17 "Every good and perfect gift comes from above."
Matthew 21:12-13 Jesus overturns tables in the temple
John 10:10 "I have come that they may have life to the full."
Pete Walker, MA, MFT "Codependency, Trauma and the Fawn Response"
Dr. Arielle Schwartz "The Vague Nerve and Your Health"
Deb Dana Rhythm of Regulation
The Best of You Podcast:
With Dr. Alison Cook and Aundi Kolber
Episode 46: Strong Like Water
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Alison: Hey, everyone. I'm Dr. Alison and I'm so glad you're here to discover what brings out the best of you. This podcast is all about breaking free from painful patterns, mending the past, and discovering our true selves in God. I can't wait to get started as we learn together how to become the best version of who we are with God's help.
Hey, everyone, welcome back to The Best of You, Podcast. I am so glad you're here today. I can't wait to share with you this second part of my conversation, with my friend Aundi Kolber. It's a special week. This is the week her brand new book, Strong Like Water, is out in the World. I'm sure many of you have already gotten your hands on it. It's an incredible book about the power of strength and really the nuances of strength. That there are different types of strength. That it's not always what we think it is on the surface.
And today we get into some really interesting nuances of the conversation. Including a conversation about the fawn response, which is a way of pleasing others, or winning others over, that emerges as a form of a trauma response. And we also dig into a really fascinating discussion about Jesus and the nervous system, and how He models resilience and this flow of strength. So please enjoy my conversation with Aundi Kolber.[00:02:54] < Music >
Alison: We tend to think of activation, or we tend to think of this situational strength. My sense is we might tend to think of it more, obviously, as when I'm in that fight response. Or I'm in just a high, anxious, my body is tense, my stomach's in knots. All those ways in which cues that we are now in that situational strength. What about that fawn response?
What was so confusing, for me, is my situational strength is pleasing people. That's how I am surviving, it's the fawn response. And how do I become aware of that?
Because that seems like a nice, good Christian thing to do. And, for me, with that particular one, because it's so interpersonally linked, I almost need, in that one place, other people to remind me, you being one, of, no, safety doesn't feel like me setting myself aside to make someone else feel okay. Safety doesn't mean playing small so that I don't threaten anybody. Tell me how that piece of it, for those who are listening, whose situational strength is just playing really small is just disappearing.
Aundi: Yes, thank you for bringing that up. And like we talked about in the other episode, how I led with the fierce part, and then there's the stalwart part. You and I have talked about how much I also resonate with the fawn part, and that is very much a part of my story and my strategies, as well.
And, so, I just appreciate you bringing that up. Because this is definitely the nuances where people get missed or where, particularly, in Christian culture, there is this sense of praise, particularly, for women who are living from the fawn response. And that is a very confusing place for the person themselves. Because whereas if someone is in the fight response, you might get interpersonal feedback like, "Whoa". Or if someone's leaving, you might get different feedback.
So with the fawn response, there are many things to say. And, honestly, I find the fawn response fascinating and, also, at times, a little bit infuriating, but fascinating. And what I mean by infuriating is just because it's also part so much of my story. So with the fawn response, I really conceptualize it similarly as a place of you're leaving. If we're thinking of it as self, there's a sense in which the self is disconnected from. Or if it's the other language I use, you're leaving the window of tolerance and you're either going to a place of hypervigilance like, "How can I help?"
"What else do you need?"
"Oh, can I do that for you?"
"Oh, but can I take care of that?"
"Oh, hey, can I just crawl on the floor in front of you?" You can feel the energy in my voice, with the hyper-vigilant fawn response. And then what I would say, because I think there's really more research that's needed with the fawn response.
But my understanding, and this is really from consulting with Dr. Arielle Schwartz, which she's done some great work around different nervous system responses. But that it can also go into more of a dorsal-vagal fawn response. So what that means is that, again, it's still situational strength, but it's more from that place of the hyper-vigilant like you've, "Oh, I want to help you. I want to do this." And, then, it's almost the submission piece. Like now it's just, "Okay, go ahead and just walk all over me, I'm good"
Alison: I'll just roll over and play dead."
Aundi: Yes, "You can just take whatever you want from me." And that's a different energy. And it's important when we're talking about the nervous system, we can track how different states are experienced in our body. The reason why both of these are fawn, and that's not a dissociative response is that the goal there, Pete Walker coined this term fawn response. And it's really about over-accommodating and pleasing, or submitting, to neutralize the threat.
It's important to say it's really adaptive and it's a very complex response. This is not something that most people just do, the first time they are in a situation that someone wants something from them. Most folks learn it because, over time, they've learned fighting doesn't help. Fleeing doesn't help. Just playing dead, just dissociating, maybe not enough.
What they've learned is, "If I spin myself in circles and give you every single thing that you want, and walk on eggshells around you. And then not say anything, maybe, I will be able to navigate the threat." And, so, that's situational strength 100%.
Alison: And I love that, again, because then there's no shame because we do shame ourselves for that. And it's, no, that's how you learn to survive, it worked. And even if you find yourself in it, one of the things I've learned is that is probably a cue, there might be some unsafety around me.
I want to circle back to this because you touched on this, and you started to talk about how when there's a lot of it. When someone has been living almost only out of situational strength. In that moment of beginning to recognize we can feel shame. Before we immediately go to the compassionate resourcing and we start to see ourselves, we start to observe ourselves. And when we start to observe ourselves when we start to see ourselves. I remember this vividly, for me, when I began to witness and observe that fawn response in action, there was shame in that.
Aundi: Yes, I love that you named that. And, I mean, from the perspective that I often work, it's like saying, "If shame is showing up, the question becomes what function is shame playing in that situation?" And it may be that in the past it wasn't safe for me to access the resources I needed. So shame may have actually kept me in the situational strength and in the cycle because something in my body was like, "If I don't, there is nobody for me, there is nowhere else to go."
And, so, I want to be clear in saying, I'm not saying shame is necessarily where we want to live, but we can have compassion for the role that shame has played. And perhaps how it's kept us in the survival mode because it communicated, in some way to us, it is not safe to come out of survival mode.
And, so, part of this work, and I talk about this a lot in Strong Like Water. Sometimes people might even feel like it's too much, but this is just my own journey of really wanting people to pace themselves. That pacing ourselves, it's that growth that feels doable. It's the bite-sized pieces where we're not trying to do so much at once. That it, paradoxically, might even be too much for the nervous system to digest by doing so much at once.
And, so, I say that even with shame. Even if we can just begin to think about thinking that's it. Maybe we aren't ready to have compassion, yet. Okay, that's fair.
Maybe we are not ready to have compassion toward the fawn response yet. Okay, that's fair.
First, if we can even just develop the capacity to notice it and just to be with it. "Oh, there you are; I see, from a functional standpoint, here's what you've been doing for me." Over time, what can begin to happen is we may begin to develop some respect for "Oh, the fawn response actually helped me navigate an extremely abusive system."
Oh, okay, "I wonder what would have happened had I not fawned. How much worse would it have been for me?"
And, so, again, in our culture, we're not always good at holding that nuance. But I think it's this place where we really honor the role that it has played for us.
Alison: Yes, I love that. Shame, it's not telling us the truth, it's not where we want to live. And also, I've learned when it shows up, there's a reason. It's a cue to just say, "Okay, hello there, shame, I see you." It doesn't help me to shame myself for the shame.
Aundi: That's right.
Alison: It's just a cue that there's a wound there, that there's a pain there. And often it's just a matter of letting it run its course, but it's part of this journey. The biggest thing to remember is it doesn't mean that you've done something wrong. It might mean you're doing something really brave.
You talk a lot about this idea of becoming flexible and adaptable as this key to strong like water. So give us a little bit of a reminder of what you mean by that. And then I loved this idea that Jesus is actually this beautiful example of that. So tell me a little bit about that.
Aundi: Yes, the nervous system flexibility that I'm talking about, when we go back to this flow of strength idea. Part of how I conceptualize healing is not that we're always living in integrated strength. Because, honestly, that's not necessarily possible. And, frankly, there are just times that our body needs to be able to not even have a conscious thought before it reacts. We actually need that to exist in this world that we live in.
And, so, one of the ways that I conceptualize healing is that it's moving toward our body, our self, and our nervous system, accurately responding to what is in front of us. Now, this really, for me, I could just camp out here and we are going to talk about Jesus with this. But what, I think, is so countercultural here, I mean, this is not only secular culture, this is also Christian culture.
In a way, secular culture's version is toxic positivity; "Put on a happy face, just smile, everything's going to be fine." And then from a faith perspective, spiritual bypassing might just look like "Just pray a little bit more. Just believe."
It's not to downplay, like what we talked about, we are holistic beings. It's not that faith is not a resource; faith very much can be a resource. But if we have to disconnect from ourselves to our experience, our faith, that is spiritual bypassing. And I would say it's a form of potentially situational strength.
Alison: Say that again.
Aundi: If we have to disconnect from ourselves in order to function. In order to experience our faith, then we are almost likely going into spiritual bypassing. Which I would say is a form of situational strength.
Alison: Okay, I'm sorry, I have to pause because I've never really thought about it exactly like what you just said. Which is disconnecting from the nervous system, disconnecting from those cues to go to faith resources. It's not that the faith resources in and of themselves are a problem. There are times when I am connected to myself and I'm connected to my body, and the Word of God is flowing through. It is changing me, transforming me, and beautiful, same with prayer, same with all the things.
There are also times in my past when I'm totally disconnected. I'm totally in whatever mode of fight, flight, whatever, activation, situational strength. And I'm trying desperately to remember that Bible verse, and it's another form of anxiety. It's another form of striving, and it's soul-killing. And, so, you're saying, in fact, that is potentially another form of situational strength, it's survival. Not all bad, again, no shame in it.
That helped me understand, after I had my stroke, Aundi, in the car, on the way to the ER, I was so activated in my body. And the spiritual part of me was grasping for promises of God, grasping for prayer, and it was not soothing me. It doesn't mean it was bad, but it was confusing to me.
I was like, "That was interesting." Because in a moment of almost feeling like I was going to die or not knowing what was going to happen to me. Those resources were there but not comforting. And what was comforting was when I got to the CAT scan and the nurse put her hand, I said, "I'm so scared." And it brings tears to my eyes, put her hand on my arm and said, "I know it's scary, honey, it's scary." That's what soothed my nervous system, that embodied comfort and safety.
And it wasn't that all those things I was grasping for weren't true. It's just that was a situational strength response, in that moment. And, again, not bad, not good. Just not exactly what I know to feel as that deep sense which I felt after that of God with me.
Aundi: That's right.
Alison: That is so interesting.
Aundi: Yes, I think that's such a good weaving together, that's exactly right.[00:15:38] < Music >
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Aundi: It's just understanding that there have maybe been times for folks when spiritual bypassing has played a role for them. That they may be, again, like all situational strength, have needed. There was something about that that it didn't feel safe to maybe go to God, for example. So they couldn't bring themselves to God. So they disconnected from themselves and in a way dissociated toward God.
And, so, we can honor the function while also naming that, ultimately, that's maybe not really getting us where we want to go. Which is bringing it to our full self. Which is allowing faith, as a resource, to be experienced as a true resource.
And not as a way to suppress the body, the nervous system, or the sensations we're experiencing because in that way it can be harmful. And in that way, it may mean, "Oh, I'm going to have to come back to this thing later to process." Because our body is not experiencing the support needed to metabolize the distress that's happening.
Alison: Yes, that's so good. I'm so glad we're continuing this conversation because I think, man, in that moment I had to come back and go, "What God? Because God is with us when we're in situational strengths, we know that baseline, God is there. But our bodies are not experiencing that and parts of us are scrambling to experiencing that God is there.
But that experience, for me, that was the biggest piece I had to process. I was like, "I spend a lot of time with God, why in that moment did I not feel the comfort of God? Is there something wrong with me?" And that's I think something a lot of people feel, and God bless you if you do in those moments feel. There are other times where I felt the comfort of God.
But that was fascinating to me and I had to learn to look at it "Oh, isn't that interesting? And how do I resource myself in a new way?" Because, for whatever reason, the thought of death, for me, did not bring that. And I did, I went through a journey of working that through with God and not shaming myself for it.
I think so many people have that experience of praying, of trying so hard. That situational strength and, again, we want to be clear, we're not saying God isn't there with you in that. But for whatever reason, that strategy is not actually what your nervous system needs in that moment. And that particular thing might not be the resource that you need to move you into that lived, felt, experience of safety with God.
Aundi: Yes, there are certainly people who are in situational strength where God is God. So I don't want to put God in a box. It is not to say that apart from anything we do, God shows up in some way and, generally, speaking we are in that survival brain. What is first and foremost going to move us towards that compassionate resourcing and into the transitional strength, is really almost a case by case. The question, "What feels safe to your body?"
Aundi: And, so, it's not to say that Scripture couldn't be also a resource.
Alison: A hundred percent.
Aundi: It is not to say that a prayer wouldn't be part of the resource, but if it is not, it's okay. It's okay. It's valid. And here's what I would just say, I think, a lot about the Scripture that says "Every good and perfect gift comes from above."
Alison: That's right.
Aundi: And, for me, I'm like, "Listen, these things that are communicating safety to our bodies, that's a good gift."
Alison: Amen, that's right.
Aundi: That's a good gift, and there's no shame in having to use whatever resources are communicating safety. So you can have a foothold into your transitional strength, and then you can make decisions about what you need, or what people you need, or in what ways you need to experience God.
The other thing I would just say, that I would just communicate, is that in situational strength, probably, one of the biggest indicators is that there really is no choice. In transitional strength, you have some choices. In that survival brain, situational strength is like you got buckled into the roller coaster, and now you're going. Now, right before you get on the roller coaster, if you can be like, "Hold on, I think I want to get off the roller coaster." That might be possible. And, so, I hope, as folks are hearing this, I hope that maybe evokes some compassion.
Alison: Yes, Amen.
Aundi: This is not you being like, "Oh, I don't need God, I don't need support." No, this is your body doing what it is designed to do, which is to survive.
Alison: That's right. And you know what, it also goes back to conditioning your own childhood wounds. Like, when you go into that situational strength, especially, if it's a crazy thing out of the blue, like what happened to me. You go right back to eight years old where I didn't have a felt experience. I only knew this legalistic way of relating to God.
So, of course, it wasn't a conscious choice, it's just where my brain and nervous system went. So tell us, Aundi, I got to have you talk to me about how does Jesus represent this nervous system flexibility? Does that tie in here?
Aundi: Yes, absolutely. Well, before I say that, what I want to step back and just say is that one of the things that, similarly of the geeking out, that I like to do. I love and, for me, this just roots me a lot in my own faith is that Jesus, this incarnational, embodied God.
Alison: That's right.
Aundi: And, for me, that is so vital as I've walked through my own traumas, and healing those experiences. And walking consistently in my career with folks who have been harmed in so many different ways. It is not to minimize the other elements of Jesus's divinity and the bigness of God, those matter.
But, for me, it is a love letter. It is an absolute love letter, an invitation to really security and the with-ness of God. That God lived in a body. God lived in the constraints of a body. God was birthed in vulnerable circumstances, wept, and slept, and did all these things that are human and embodied.
And, so, I frame it that way first because I cannot overstate the significance of Jesus living in a body. There are so many things; one, we're going to talk about the nervous system in a moment. But even just from this attachment lens, which is also something that I integrate a lot.
That instead of a God who remains far off, I think the fact that the embodiment of Jesus really communicates, in a very attachment-oriented way, the nearness, the solidarity of God with us.
And, so, all of that, for me, is the context in which here is Jesus, this incarnate God living in a human body. And in His life, I mean, in Scripture, we do get pictures of Jesus, but, obviously, I know that there's a lot of His life we never were privy to.
And, yet, I think about the flexibility of, for example, going to the wedding, His first miracle, and He is making water into wine. And that there's this sense of celebratory, there's this sense of that is a nervous system experience. You don't just do that through the lens of just like everything is perfectly calm, it's like remaining neutral, all the time.
Alison: Yes, that's right.
Aundi: Jesus was not vanilla, Jesus showed up as a human. When He's flipping the tables to the money changers, that's anger. One of the stories that is so sacred to me is when He shows up after Lazarus has died and He sees, I think it's Mary weeping. And just those verses, Jesus is moved and then Jesus wept.
Aundi: And, for me, I mean, there's more to that story, He raises Lazarus. He does that. But I just cannot get over the fact that the God of the universe, who already knows what's going to happen first is moved and weeps.
Alison: That's right.
Aundi: That is nervous system flexibility. If we go back to what we said, at the beginning of this episode, we are responding appropriately to what is in front of us. Jesus, even in these examples, there is a match there. There is a match in His literal nervous system to what's happening in the situation.
Now, I think, this is a beautiful example on so many levels. One, it is our own invitation to be matched. To have different emotions, to honor anger, to honor joy, to honor grief, among the many other experiences we might have, and Jesus had. But it could have been different. It could have been communicated to us differently. Jesus didn't have to necessarily weep. Jesus didn't have to show this anger.
The fact that He did not only, I think, is an invitation to us in our own humanity, but it's also an expression of the fullness of God with us, in our humanity. It's not like God just being "Okay, I guess you're human; I'll tolerate that."
It's like, "No, I love you so much and I, too, share those experiences with you, and model that with you, and feel with you." Yes, I mean, all of that inspires me. It inspires me because what I have learned about the nervous system and embodiment.
I'm like, "There is no true healing on this Earth if we don't bring our bodies." And, so, what a beautiful picture that Jesus shows us what it's like to be fully human and to live in a body.
Alison: So do you think Jesus went through the whole flow of strength? Do you think He had situational strengths?
Aundi: Yes, this is the way that, based off of what I know about the body, and just know about Jesus, and also how I viewed Jesus as being both fully God, fully human. It's that I believe He did probably access situational strength and in also the partnering of His divinity. I could see that maybe as I heal, how I'm able to move more quickly along the flow.
Aundi: And it would make me wonder if that's maybe that picture. Because it's just I don't know what big, scary, animal would have maybe potentially eaten Jesus in those days or something. But there is a sense in which to be human requires situational strength.
Alison: It's so interesting. And, so, Jesus experienced it without sinning. I mean, so often, again, there's this link when we're in situational strength is maybe when we are more inclined to lash out or do something. But, again, it gets to there's nothing inherently wrong, it's part of being inherently human.
Aundi: That's right.
Alison: That's so interesting.
Aundi: It can come out sideways and we can cause harm, and that is real. And I think that's where the language of repair matters, the language of reconciliation and forgiveness, and all those things matter. We aren't perfect, and being in situational strength is also not an excuse for harm. We have to hold the inherent value of other people even if.
Alison: That's right.
Aundi: Now, that doesn't mean it's always easy and God makes a way. God makes a way for repair; that's a hard tension to hold, and, yet, you're right.
Alison: That picture that you painted of Jesus in all the different ways that He showed up in His body. It also strikes me as that picture, sort of we're closing out here, of the integrated strength. Because we've talked so much about... because so much of where we live is trying to move from situational into transitional. But I love when you were describing that picture of Jesus. It's like that's the picture that integrated strength isn't passionless, it isn't emotionless.
Aundi: That's right.
Alison: It's not this sort of numb, I think people conflate numb. Give us a little picture of vision, a glimpse, for people listening, of what it feels like.
And even in your own life, thinking back to that 22-year-old that you start off with in the boo. What is your body experience strength like now, in this integrated way? Knowing, obviously, that we're not always there.
Alison: Yes, thank you for this question. I think it's really important and you're exactly right, it's not this numb, flat way of being in the world. I think of it much more like a fullness, like expansiveness. And through my own work, I think of it as these younger parts have continued to be integrated, as my fierceness has become integrated.
What has happened is that it's not that the fierceness exists less. This is phrasing that Deb Dana uses it's before it was in service of my survival but now it can be used in service of my wholeness, and really the good of myself, and also the good of others. That my adult self can partner.
That's what the picture of integrated strength is, it's partnering. It's all those experiences, maybe those experiences that were meant for evil, maybe those experiences that were meant for harm. It's not that we have to celebrate that those happen, but do you know what we do get to celebrate? It's that we survived, that we've learned, that we've grown. The gold that comes from that, that is us.
And in integrated strength, that feels the most accessible to us. The fullness that Jesus talks about; "I have come that they may have life to the full." And, to me, that is the invitation as often as we can access, as often as we can come back, to come back to that place of honoring all the strength. And as we are able to bring those parts of our stories, bringing those pieces of gold, bringing those woven-in pieces that have felt disparate, and allowing them to exist in wholeness.
Alison: That's beautiful. I love that picture of all of it. I love that picture of fullness. It's the fullness of all of who you are and the fullness of who we see in Jesus. Thank you for this gift of your presence and this gift of this work Strong Like Water. Please tell everyone, Aundi, how they can find you, how they can find the book and where to connect with you?
Aundi: Thank you so much, my friend, this has been amazing. I would love for folks to connect with me over at my website, aundikolber.com. You can check out the book wherever books are sold, major retailers like Amazon, and Barnes and Noble, and places like that. I'd love for you to connect with me on Instagram, instagram.com/aundikolber, and twitter.com/aundikolber.
Alison: All right, everybody, grab your copy of Strong Like Water. It is such a deep dive and, again, it's also just so practical. Aundi and I talk about it, I can be disembodied, and those exercises just bring me right into that embodied variancing. Check that out, and thank you again.[00:34:00] < Outro >
Thank you for joining me for this week's episode of The Best of You. It would mean so much if you'd take a moment to subscribe. You can go to Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts and click the plus or Follow button. That will ensure you don't miss an episode, and it helps get the word out to others.
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22nd March 2023