Integration feels strange...

It's a very strange thing, bringing a child true self back into life. Precociously intelligent, knowledgeable and hard working, but missing experiences of childhood and youth. Add all the personality of a false self to unlearn, and I'm left with the difficult job sorting my feelings. None of the feelings are new, but what I can do with them is changing. Anger, for example.

I used to suppress anger entirely, thinking (as I did as a child) it too dangerous to express except when alone. Now I can express anger, but I have no idea where it will go, or how much damage I'll do, or even a good way to express it. It's still a fear, destroying a relationship over something small. You see, I have no experience with being angry and having someone still love me. Maybe it happened when I was a very small child, but by the time I was in first grade I was wary of becoming angry and was swallowing emotion already.

I can express love, and I'm very grateful for that. But the "bad" emotions, anger, lust, power, self, the emotions I suppressed to become the low-maintenance child, I need to learn.

How I think

I always thought in a difficult way: Whatever I'd heard would need to be considered, processed, categorized, then I'd remember it, integrate it into my thinking.

After I heard about arborescent thinking, it was pretty clear to me. My brain is like a huge beautiful tree. This tree has many tall branches, each very wide, with many diverging limbs. On these limbs are leaves. Each leaf is an idea. Around the base of the tree are all there thoughts, ideas, things, impressions, and feelings I've seen or felt. Each leaf represents in individual thing, and has a very proper place on the tree. Finding that place takes consideration. I need to consider what is there, and the interactions. 

Once I know where the leaf belongs, it goes there and stays there. Each leaf is visible from the ground, and by all other leaves.

It's an analogy that works for me to understand my thinking.

Arborescent Thinkers = Highly Sensitive People?

Back in 1980 two French education psychologists, Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus, observed children learning, and saw two groups: one group learned quickly but the learning was in context; when the context was removed the kids had a harder time recalling the information. The other group learned with difficulty (or at least slower) but what they learned could more easily be applied to other contexts. They used the term "rhizomal" for the first group, referring to the way ivy grows by extending tendrils which then set down roots and spread from there. The second group they called "arborescent" referring to the branching of a tree, where information was organized in roughly binary branches, and one branch is "visible" to another. 

In 1996 a psychologist named Elaine Aron in The Highly Sensitive Person identified the traits of the 15-20% of the population who are natively more sensitive to physical stimuli. A consequence of this sensitivity is the need to process information more deeply, to make sense of it. Deep processing means it takes more time to understand what is taught, but once understood, it has a wide breadth of application. 

I think both theories are describing the same phenomenon.

Integration and Healing

A few years ago I had an unusual experience: I saw in my mind, sitting in a chair in my room, a four- or five-year-old version of me. He was sitting very still, very patient, aware. It was incredibly sad for me to realize that it was me, or a portion of me, I'd been protecting all my life from emotional pain. Keeping him safe was why my false self developed (I think).

Last week Becky and I started doing a thing called Sensate Focus Excercises (see below). While Becky was touching me (stage 1) I thought of that little guy, and realized this was exactly the thing he always wanted: loving non-sexual touch that goes on and on. So I sort of invited him to be present and enjoy the moment.

While he was with me I though I'd explore what it was that scared him so much that he wanted to withdraw and let my superego take care of him. The event that came to mind was one I'd remembered all my life, but I think I had depersonalized it. It happened when I was about 5 or maybe 6. Mom had bought hamburgers from Ripples for the family, a rare event as money always seemed tight. Dad wasn't there. I was sitting on the end of the bench against the wall, with Lee and Ross next to me. Kathy was on the far end. I was taking my time eating my burger when Kathy dropped hers on the floor. This misfortune made her cry, so mom reached over and cut away half of my burger and gave it to Kathy. I took this as a huge indignity and protested loudly: why must I make the sacrifice just because I am a slow eater? The other kids left, just me and mom at the table, She was still eating her burger and I demanded it. repeatedly. She slapped it on my plate and said, with as much venom as I'd ever heard from her before or since, "Here. I hope you choke." I was initially pleased, then I processed what it was she said. My mouth went dry, heart started beating furiously, and I tried to eat. You can't eat with no saliva, but she was so mad I tried anyway, and couldn't hardly choke down a mouthful. That's when I realized I probably would choke to death, as mom wanted. That was the trauma. 

After that I ate fast. But mostly I realized I had to keep mom happy. It's a scary thing discovering your mom wants to kill you if you take her food, so I worked hard to keep her happy. It's also a tragic thing when a kid thinks he needs to be attentive to his mom's emotions and feel responsible for them.

Over the next few weeks I guess I decided to protect the real part of me, the alive part, and use the conscious me to stay alive by keeping mom happy. I couldn't take this to my parents because dad was so emotionally distant, and of course I could never again take any problem to mom, or cause her discomfort. There were some scary times early on when I forgot, and unknowingly disappoint her, but she had a belt she'd spank us with to remind us who was most important. And I think she secretly loved the idea of being the queen bee and having the workers serve her.

I guess in the wider world what happened to me is considered a small-t trauma, but it was enough for me to develop a false self to deal with her and to hide my real self so deep that he remained forever a little kid, sitting quietly and patiently for life to happen around him. I forgot he was there for most of my life. It takes a lot of effort to live with a false self.

During our sensate session I comforted him, let him know he had me and Becky watching out for him, and that he could handle anything that came along. I calmed his fear of dying for sticking up for himself. After our sensate session with Becky, which I enjoyed so much, we talked about my experience. I expected the next morning for him to be back in the chair, but he wasn't. He stayed with me. He's still with me.

It's a bit frightening having him here with me, where I can for the first time in my life act on my own. Before I didn't act without considering what effect my actions had on others, because that's all I had to go on. Now I'm independent. I can get angry. I can love. I might have some anger built up at you for all the crap you gave me in the past, which I dutifully accepted. Not any more.

As for mom and dad, I figure they got more devotion out of my false self than any kid owes his parents over a lifetime. We are evened up. I'd give anything now for parents who had some clue that I was in emotional trouble. All I can do now is be that parent to my kids. It sucks to have a mom who keeps saying, "I love you" when you go to school and know she's lying. When I tell my kids I love them, I want to have built up so much trust and sacrifice and honesty and awareness that they know it's true. Because it is. I'm still working on it.

I love you, kids. I love you, Becky.

I haven't worked out yet if the secret attachments to rejection and deprivation are still there. My false self isn't. Gonna be an interesting week.


Sensate Focus Exercises

Sensate focus exercises were developed by sex therapists Masters & Johnson. They can be used by any couple seeking to explore a new kind of intimacy.

These exercises are typically done in steps or stages over a period of several weeks. One person starts as the “giver” or “toucher” and the other is the “receiver.” Partners then switch roles until they reach stage 3, when there is mutual touching. If you do the exercises in the morning, you can enjoy other sexual activity in the afternoon or evening, or whatever timing works for you. The key is to not mix exercises with your normal sexual activities.

Stage 1 Touching, stroking, or kissing can occur anywhere on the body, except the breasts and genital areas. Use the hand that you don’t normally write with (so if you’re right-handed, use your left hand). If you are the giver, start with your partner’s face. Take your time and explore every area of your loved one’s body. You can also explore different types of touch, such as rubbing, squeezing, or tickling. The goal is to experience the sensation of touching, not to try to sexually arouse your partner. Even if your loved one gets aroused, do not try to have an orgasm. After 2030 minutes (or longer, if you like), switch roles. Practice this exercise 2-3 times a week for 1-2 weeks.

Stage 2 Start with stage 1 touching. Then you can begin to explore the breast and genital areas, but do not attempt intercourse, or touching that leads to orgasm. After 20-30 minutes, switch roles. Practice this exercise 2-3 times a week for 1-2 weeks before moving to stage 3.

Stage 3 During this stage, you will engage in mutual touching, beginning with stage 1 touching, and then progressing to stage 2 touching. Even if you both become sexually aroused, do not engage in touching that might lead to orgasm. Practice this exercise 2-3 times a week for 1-2 weeks before moving to stage 4. Start with touching exercises from stages 1-3. Then get into position, as if you are going to have intercourse (but do not have intercourse). Move your bodies so that both partners’ genitals can rub against each other. After one or two sessions, you can then progress to partial or full intercourse or touching or oral sex that may lead to orgasm. It may help to have a lubricant nearby so you don’t need to interrupt the action to locate lube.

Touch, but don’t talk Do not talk during your sessions, as it can be distracting. Decide ahead of time what physical cues you can give each other to indicate when certain touching feels good (perhaps the receiver caresses the giver’s hand), or if you want more pressure (the receiver can press down on the giver’s hand). If you don’t like the touching, gently pull your loved one’s hand away. After each session is over, you can discuss what worked—or what didn’t.

To order an instructional DVD, visit

New Jersey Center for Sexual Wellness