Dan Allender - How To See The Real You

Dan Allender is a leading therapist, best-selling author, and founder of The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology and The Allender Center. Dan’s unique and innovative approach to trauma and abuse provides a healing space that bridges the gospel and individual stories in a powerful transformative way. He recently joined the Solo Parent Society podcast to talk about the importance of introspection and looking back at our journey to find healing so we can unpack the baggage of the past and move forward with hope and freedom. He shares more on how to see the real you.

Dan starts by noting that we live in a culture that doesn’t have a lot of ground for introspection. We’re an active, make a move, get going, get it done culture. Introspection requires space and time and the intent to be disturbed. Because, shares Dan, when we allow ourselves to look inward, what we find will be disturbing. There will be noise that is easier to quell by getting busy and just moving on with your day but there is crucial value in taking time to give ourselves over to introspection. Often, though, we don’t want to do what is necessary to gain an accurate view of ourselves. We would rather stay distracted.

This is likely because “when people think about introspection”, says Allender, “they think first and foremost about reflection on our failures”. Reality is we are broken people and given to self-deception to some degree, he continues, “and introspection is a helpful tool to cut through the “crap” that we often hold in ourselves and others, but what we don’t hear strong enough is that introspection is also helpful in opening the door to look at our stunning beauty”. Introspection is a powerful way to remember that “we are broken but we are also phenomenally beautifully”. The question we need to confront is this: Can we hold the complexity and the tensions of both being true, brokenness and beauty, not sequentially but simultaneously?

This powerful question is worth the time and effort it takes to find an answer, says Dan, but it won’t be simplistic or a quick fix. He notes, “When psychologists talk about the brain, we talk about three parts: reptilian that regulates our breathing and body temperature, the limbic brain that handles implicit processes or unconscious processes, the cortical brain which is the thinking brain. There aren’t many highways between our cortical thinking brain and our emotional limbic brain. One of the prime capacities to engage the complexity of our brain is introspection. So, in some ways our brain is not designed to have a quick and integrated link between what we think and what we feel.” Allender goes on to say that “trauma creates fragmentation”. Furthermore, “if you’re a solo parent, you’re living in a traumatic state; Not just a covid era, but there are realities that you face every day that intensify the traumas of the past and create new traumas.” Allender says, the linkage in our corpus collosum goes offline in the middle of trauma. It acts differently than when we are thinking in a much calmer, wholistic, centered way. “There are so many things at war with us becoming integrated people. Introspection is an effort to begin healing, and bringing our thought and our feeling together, what we see and don’t see, what we know and don’t know, into a pairing and meeting. Introspection is one of the only tools to create brain coalescence and integration.”

Dan Allender’s most recent book, Redeeming Heartache, talks about trauma and how important it is to process it. He says we even need to identify trauma we have forgotten, or we will take it into the future with us as baggage. Trauma, Allender says, loads up our knapsack in ways we might not see but that weigh us down. All of us through trauma experience some of what it means to be an orphan, a stranger, or a widow. He says that solo parents are widows and widowers - whether through death, divorce, or abandonment. There’s a sense of having known love and experienced the loss of love. That wound cuts to the very core of us. Having once experienced love and lost it creates fragmentation and a kind of numbing. To survive, we shut down. We compartmentalize to be able to function, but we lose the capacity for joy and a sense of splendor and goodness. Allender shares, “If we don’t do the work to engage the past, we will carry it into the future.” And he adds, that as we seek to engage the past through introspection, we can enter the heartache and grief and tears that are there, but we can also engage something of the heroic courageous wise ways that we have engaged our lives just to survive and get to this point.

Allender says that some of the coping mechanisms we use to numb out and dismiss our heartache include busyness. While living with Covid, many of us are afraid and feel powerless. We may be angry and feel exhausted. Busyness can help us function and avoid these emotions. To counteract that numbness, we can ask “Where am I feeling tension in my body? Where am I feeling grief?” as a way to gauge our proprioception and the orientation of our inner world. It is a spiritual task to be asking where am I and what I am feeling in my body. This is a body first engagement. Dan Allender is concerned that some in the church may have disconnected from awareness of what is happening in our body, but he says that knowledge is part of knowing how to live in our body. As Jesus became human, we are also to live as human beings, and be present in our bodies.

Dan says that one practical step we can take to be introspective in a healthy way is to buy a good journal and use it. Write for 5 minutes a day. Allender says by writing 8-12 sentences on anything troubling you, you open your brain and heart to the intersection between your cortical and limbic system to integrate your thoughts and your feelings.  This begins to change the disposition of how we hold anger and hurt in our bodies. It begins to release it so we can engage it differently.
Different parts of our brain are activated when we write (not type) rather than when we just think or speak. Writing helps link the thinking and feeling areas of our brain connect. Researchers found that when we write down 8-12 sentences about events of the past, the same centers of the brain are activated today that held trauma from years ago. Reengaging those areas now allows us to bring the reality of our current adulthood into the trauma and loss we felt at younger ages. And processing it matters because, “trauma doesn’t go away because of time”. It remains in our body, says Allender. We don’t have to deal with every event of our losses in the past. Rather, he says, we can trust God’s Spirit to lead us to engage in processing certain events when it’s the right time for healing. When we do, we can move forward better in alignment, attunement, and integration than before.

Dan also says that it’s normal for us to be ambivalent about processing trauma because we may be afraid it won’t work, or it may bring up painful feelings. It’s often easier to avoid events we need to work through. We sometimes stay embroiled in busyness so we can avoid having to face the parts of ourselves or our past that we are critical of or contemptuous about. Rather than shaming ourselves, we need to be able to both grieve and bless the parts of ourselves that enabled us to get to where we are today. Even when there has been failure and sin, can we still honor our own struggle with kindness? Romans 2:4 says, “It’s the kindness of God that leads to repentance.” We can examine our past in light of His love and grace and allow His kindness to be with us in our introspection.

Allender says we all know what it is like to feel orphaned, widowed, and estranged. We all ask, “Where are you God and what’s wrong with me?” These questions open us up to some level of contemptuously cursing ourselves. Contempt is the language of evil. When we join that language, we are joining evil. Instead, when we care well for ourselves, we are fulfilling the call of God to give Him glory. We must care for our bodies and our failures with blessing not cursing.

The language of contempt includes the use of “should”. Part of introspection is to align our hearts more with the heart of God. There is no point of entering into our brokenness unless we are captured by the God who delights in us regardless of our failure. We can enter our brokenness with a sense of His blessing and can I enter my beauty with a sense of His commendation. Introspection is a pursuit, not just of our inner self but as the pursuit of the face of God.  
After spending some time in introspection, the orphaned heart, when held with honor and blessing, becomes more able to hold the fullness of our story and that’s when we become more like a priest.  The one who has been estranged becomes, when there is healing and not cynicism and anger, he prophetic presence of God’s justice. When the widow or widower, who has lost love, begins to own their grief but also the potential of love becomes the king or queen. These archetypal categories are part of our identity in Jesus and reflection of being made in the image of God. As we resolve and heal our wounds, we become more like Jesus. Processing our trauma becomes part of our journey of spiritual transformation. Rather than staying an orphan, a stranger, or a widow, we become a priest, prophet, or a king or queen.

Dan says that he wants readers of his book, Redeeming Heartache, to walk away convinced that they re meant for something richer, deeper, and wilder and more magical than they can imagine. Particularly for solo parents, just maki ng it through another day is a miracle. He has so much deep respect for solo parents as he sees all they do. Yet he often finds that solo parents are critical of themselves.  He urges single parents to instead enter into the blessing of your own glory so they will have the courage to face what still needs to be changed. Allender says say NO to the dark and awful assaults we make against ourselves and to ask if you have even five minutes to look at a book like Redeeming Heartache to become curious about your own brokenness so you can know more about your own beauty. In doing this, we open our hearts to say yes to Heaven and the transforming work of God.

Learn more about Dan Allender at theallendercenter.org. Follow him on IG @danballender and @theallendercenter.

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