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Mary Ennis Talk at the 2011 Vermont Group Session

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Usually I like to say something and since it’s been a year I figured that this is the opportunity to give a little update to everybody. And now we get to have Oprah Winfrey’s Life Class simulation: What I’ve Learned This Year!

This has been an interesting year, I think, for everybody, and it’s definitely been an interesting year for me. And I think that for me at this point what I learned this year is 1; when you decide to go in a new direction it’s not always smooth sailing. It probably can be, but I think that when you decide to go in a new direction (interruption for greetings), lots of times when you go in a new direction you’re going into uncharted territories with yourself and, you know, everything is new. And so you have this idea and this expectation that you have an idea of what direction you’re going in, so you think it’s going to be all smooth sailing, and guess what? It’s really not. There’s usually a lot of bumps in the road. And that’s the first thing that I’ve learned.

I think that it has taught me also to be a little bit more patient, and that when the bumps come up it doesn’t mean that you’re not (interruption for taping adjustments) that, you know, when things don’t go as smoothly as you expect them to go, and you’re fighting with yourself and going, “God, I have the road that’s in front of me. I know what I want to do and why is it not working?!” That doesn’t mean it’s not working. It just means that there are bumps in the road and there’s adjustments to be made, because you’re doing something new and the old ways die hard.

The reason when you’re plowing into a new direction that you’re really excited about and you really want it to work, some of those old ways and old associations are not so easily discarded.

And the other thing that I’ve learned this year is that associations are really big. (Sounds of agreement from group) They’re really big and they’re really strong, and sometimes they are so flat in front of your face that you can’t even see them. And the one thing that I have really learned in a really intense way is that some of the associations that we have can be so big and can be so influencing, and we can be oblivious to how they are influencing and never even see it, and not even know that it’s there.

I’m going to share with you guys today an intimate part of my life as an example of what I’m saying, which is taking a little more guts than I’m used to to share. I’m not a stranger to sharing, but this is a little bit more personal than I usually get.

This year has been a little bit challenging for me in some aspects. Well, in some aspects with work you know—with the new direction and being really excited about it and having bumps happening, and wondering, you know, why is this not going as smooth as I expected? It should be clear cut and it’s not. But as I thought I would be getting over those bumps in about six months, turns out I now kind of expect that by the end of this year I will be a little more smoothed out in that direction.

But another very interesting challenge that presented itself was in family. And I have playfully talked and joked around briefly through the years at times with people when people are talking about things that, you know, went on in their childhood or as they were growing up, and their life and whatever. I will make some comment about, well, I don’t remember a lot. And I never really gave it a whole lot of thought. It never seemed to bother me that I have big gaps in my memory, but something’s happened this summer in my family that involved a lot of associations, a lot of triggers. There were some things that came up in relation to subjects such as mental illness, and what that is and what it does, and I got triggered in a pretty big way at one point.

And my whole intention for the most part is to—as much as humanly possible for me—to be as supportive as I possibly can with anybody. It doesn’t matter if it is a client of mine, if it’s a friend, if it’s a family member. But probably, honestly speaking, more so with family. And so having that very objective intention all the time, I am very aware, or I try to pay a lot of attention to what I’m doing and how I’m interacting. And I value being direct, but there are times that I’m very unsure of what to do or what to say or how to be.

And in getting triggered a couple of times in some pretty serious ways—didn’t last very long, I had a brief blurt out moment—I caught myself immediately and thought, oh, this is not very supportive. And what it kind of opened my eyes to was that the surface trigger is just that—it’s surface. But there’s something beneath that that’s a lot bigger. What I discovered for myself was that I had some pretty big—I shouldn’t say “had”—have some pretty big associations when it comes to different types of behaviors. And mental illnesses fall into that category because people that have mental illnesses display different types of behaviors at times that are not always very easy to understand.

One of the things that kind of was born out of this whole process was the realization that it’s not really important to understand somebody else. I have valued understanding tremendously through my life. If I can understand something, I can accept it. If I can’t understand it, I can’t really accept it. I have to find a way to understand what’s going on or what’s happening. There are things that I can’t understand and I will probably never understand through the entire time of my life and my stay here on this planet because they’re not in my experience and I have no reference point, so I probably will never understand them. But it doesn’t matter. What I do need to understand and be aware of is me and how I deal with whatever is being presented to myself. And how I approach it, how I respond to it, what choices I make, if I have choices. Because sometimes when you are triggered by an association you don’t even know you have choices. You just react. And you don’t even know you’re reacting sometimes. And it all seems very normal to you in the moment because that’s the way you’ve always associated.

In bringing this up to myself, I—not intentionally, but it just happened—that it started to open up a floodgate of memories. The interesting thing is, I have one regular client who has been a client of mine for fourteen years, and he does sessions every other week, and he has been talking to me for years about imagery and about how outside things reflect what is going on inside and dot-dot-dot-dot-dot. And I’ve listened to him say that, I don’t even know how many times. And it has literally gone in one ear and out the other because I didn’t understand what he was talking about. And I’m sure Elias has said it ten thousand times, and it never registered with me. This year, as many of you know, we had a major flood in Brattleboro. Hurricane Irene decided to come all the way up the coast and it slammed us, and we had a huge flood and it did a lot of damage.

Two days before the flood hit here, in actual water, I had a floodgate open inside of me. So it was kind of amusing that the outside really did reflect what was going on inside because it was—I am not taking responsibility for the flood!—but it was interesting to see that objectively and to know what was going on inside of me.

My flood was a flood of memories. Most of them were pretty unpleasant, and it makes a lot of sense to me now why I didn’t remember them and why I so effectively locked those up pretty good for my whole life. And I decided it wasn’t really important to me to really delve into all of these memories and flood up more because the ones that I got were good enough examples to me of experiences that I had when I was younger that were really not so great.

And the thing in that, though, was that it helped me to understand how I developed some of these associations that I have, especially in this one area—which I’m only using as an example of associations in general—but in relation to, for me, mental illnesses. And some of them are really ridiculous. But, I mean, it’s really interesting when you really start to look at some of the associations that you have, how stupid they are. But you don’t know that they’re stupid, and they’re very influencing anyway, because you’ve never looked at them.

And one of them that I had was if you’re around somebody that has mental illness for too long, you’ll catch it. Okay, that is ultimately stupid. You can’t catch mental illness. But I made an association a long, long time ago that it’s something that’s going to rub off on you or you’re going to start being mentally ill, too, if you are around people that are—which is absolutely not true—but that doesn’t matter because the influence that that created was for me to keep a distance and not get too involved. And if I couldn’t keep a distance, then I would turn myself into complete and utter denial—it didn’t exist. If it doesn’t exist, it doesn’t matter if I get close to it.

So, and it is amazing to me how much people can…how effectively and how efficiently we as people can be in denial sometimes. I can honestly say at this point that I’ve probably spent 34 years in major denial. Nothing is wrong. Everything is fine. Never connecting any dots. This experience is not related to this experience. This action or this behavior is not related to any other behavior. They don’t any of them connect because there’s nothing wrong. Everything is fine. Because if there’s something wrong, I must have done something wrong, or there must be something wrong with me, because it’s passed from me to my child. So, I’m directly involved.

Now, at this point I can say I have a greater understanding and that is not necessarily true, but also having the realization that this is emphasized even more because my mother has this, also. So now I have it on both sides – the side before me and the side after me. And I’m in the middle and I didn’t understand it then - when I was younger with my mother - and I don’t understand it now either, with my daughter. But it’s something that isn’t going away. And whether I understand it or not, what is important is that I do understand me and what I’m doing, and how I respond to things, and whether I’m reacting to things.

In that, I realized that there have been…these associations have been so strong, not just that you can catch it, but also that if you’re not careful, the relationship that you value will end up being severed. Not death, but that there will be no relationship because you won’t be able to maintain one. Or another big association that - I have to make sure that this person is safe all the time, because if they’re safe, they won’t hurt themself, but if they’re not safe, they will. And that’s dangerous because that’s another way that the relationship can get severed. And if the relationship is important to me, then it is ultimately important to me to make sure that that person is safe.

I can’t make somebody else safe. I can’t choose for them. I can’t protect them. I can’t make sure that they are safe and that they don’t hurt themselves—they will anyway. What I need to pay attention to is what does that do inside of me.

My mother tried to commit suicide six times. My daughter has tried four. In all those four times never once until now did I ever connect the dots that there was any similarity between the two. In those four times that my daughter tried, I never once connected the dots that they were related to each other. That she may be doing this action for the same reason she tried the last time. Because each time it’s different, and each time was a separate thing, and there’s nothing wrong with her. She’s fine. So, of course, I’m not connecting the dots. I’m also in major denial.

Admitting to myself that I was in major denial for all of my life until now was pretty difficult and a real eye opener. And it would have been very easy to also really go into judgment mode and discounting myself mode because of that—all the things I should have done, all the things I didn’t do, what I should have been aware of, what I wasn’t aware of—but that’s kind of pointless. What’s done is done. And I realized that a different kind of perspective, that it doesn’t matter whatever time we’re in, and whatever mode we’re in—whether we’re in denial, whether we’re angry, whether we’re destructive, whether we’re happy—whatever we are experiencing in any given time framework is the best that we can do in that time with what we know.

Looking back from the perspective that I have now is ludicrous. I know more now than I did then. I know more now than I did two years ago. I know more now than I did one year ago. So looking back and judging my behavior or my choices from this perspective is ridiculous, because I didn’t have that information then. So, I was doing the best I could then, even if it wasn’t good. It was pretty bad. It was the best I could do.

So, there’s no place for blame, not for other people, not for myself, not for circumstances—not even for God if there is one—because it just is what it is. And it’s all a bunch of choices. My mother made her choices—whether she was aware of what choices she was making or not - it doesn’t matter. She made choices. My daughter makes choices—whether she’s aware of what those choices are or not—it doesn’t matter. They’re being made.

What does matter is how I interact with them, how I view them, what I do with them. And I’m coming to find that everything is so individual. We share lots of things, we share lots of experiences, we share lots of feelings, ideas, perceptions about things, but everybody’s experience is so their own, is so unique to them, and they’re all so different that maybe it’s impossible to understand completely everything in our world, or other people. But that’s not important. What is important is that you understand yourself.

I know that I realized that there were some associations—one that I will share with you—that I probably either generated or developed when I was very, very young. This is one of the memories that came to me during the flood time. I literally had until then no recall of this at all, ever. It might as well have not happened. I might as well have been abducted by aliens because that was missing time. And I remembered an experience with my parents. I was not hurt, but my sister was, and it was pretty horrendous. It was very horrendous. So much so that a neighbor of ours heard what was going on. I didn’t hear it because I was made to go out in the front yard and stay there, and what was going on was in the back of the house and I couldn’t hear it from there. But my neighbor was in the back yard and she heard it and she came to our house, asked me what I was doing sitting on the front porch, and I didn’t really have an answer except that I was told to stay there. She bust into my house and there was a lot of yelling and screaming because the door was left open, and she came out with my sister wrapped up in a blanket. She grabbed my hand and took me to her house and told me that we were going to call my grandmother to come and get me. Before my grandmother arrived to come and get me, an ambulance came to get my sister. My sister ended up in the hospital for about a week. She was unconscious when they took her.

The point of this is that—this is hard—is that associations can be very insidious, and they can be so unknown to us that we develop ideas and behaviors ourselves because of the influence of those associations, that we justify to ourselves, and we don’t even know what really instigated that, what influenced that. From the time I have had children—from the time my children were born—I had an absolute staunch, unbending rule that we never, ever, ever strike a child, including spanking. It is absolutely unacceptable. My justification for that—because I didn’t have this memory—was being a new modern mom and that how can I teach my children not to hit other children if I hit them? So, being the example to them, I should never, ever, ever hit them. And I never did. And my children can attest to that. They have never, ever been struck.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it comes from a bad place. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that I never struck my children, and that I made this rule with myself, but I had no idea what the motivation for that is. Now, a part of that association was also, if you do hit a child, you are a bad person. It’s not just you should never do it, but if you do, you are a bad person. Now, where that started to become confusing and conflicting to me is when my daughter had her child, and her philosophy is that spanking as discipline sometimes is acceptable and necessary. That’s her philosophy.

I don’t look at my daughter as a bad person. I don’t think she is. I don’t even necessarily at this point believe a hundred percent that spanking a child is ultimately terribly bad. I’m kind of on the fence with it. But I’m not so absolute as I used to be. My daughter lived with me for four years, the first four years of my granddaughter’s life. My granddaughter at times can be a handful and very willful. And there have been times while she was living with me that my daughter took her upstairs and spanked her. She wouldn’t do it in front of me because I have such a bad reaction to it. There were times when she would tell me she was going to spank my granddaughter and I would physically leave the house. I could not even be in the house.

I experienced a tremendous conflict in this. My daughter is not a bad person. I don’t see her as a bad person. But only bad people hit children. So, where do I go with that? And it’s not acceptable to hit children, so how do I deal with that? I didn’t.

I didn’t remember anything yet. I didn’t know why I felt that way. I didn’t understand why it had such an extreme affect on me, so I just didn’t deal. I went away. I removed myself.

In addition to spanking or hitting is not acceptable, screaming is not acceptable also. Part of the memory included lots of screaming. Well, now I know why I have such an adverse reaction to people that yell. I can’t deal. I walk away. I put my hand up and I look at them and I say to them, “I can’t hear you,” which is the truth, and I walk away.

This is not a very effective way to deal with people. Sometimes people yell. Ignoring them and walking away from them doesn’t actually work because the person that’s yelling will follow you. You can’t really, actually get away from them. If they are yelling, they want you to be hearing them yell, and they will follow you—believe me, I’ve had it happen. And so you can’t get away. And so what’s happening is, inside there is this riot of panic and distress and all kinds of feelings that I don’t even know what they are.

I’m not exactly—as most of you know—the most feeling person. I’m not a real emotional person. I’m not a real touchy-feely person. I’m not a real feeling person in general, for the most part—while in certain situations, floods of feelings are coming up, and I don’t know what to do with them because I don’t even know what they are.

This is how associations can influence us in ways that—sometimes they’re not bad, like not hitting your child—but they can also create confusion and they modify your behavior. If I was in a grocery store and a mother came up and her child was screaming, screaming, screaming, and the mother smacked them, I would leave the store. My behavior is being altered not by an objective choice, not because I’m thinking about what choices I have—because I’m reacting to that association and it’s dictating what my behavior will be now. Which leaves me where? Am I really directing myself? Am I choosing anything? No, I’m reacting to things. I’m reacting to things that are not real comfortable and it certainly isn’t empowering.

I think that this is a really big deal. I have been listening to my clients this year and I can’t even tell you how many different subjects, and this seems to be the bottom line of most of them. They are reacting to things and they don’t know why. Or they don’t understand what they’re doing. They’re having this behavior and they don’t get it. Why am I doing this? They do this and it hurts them and why do they do it?

It’s like, you know, I’m not happy and I don’t know how to get happy. I don’t know what I want anymore because whatever I do doesn’t work anyway. These are real things that everybody deals with in real life, and a lot of them have to do with these associations that we don’t even know are there.

If someone would have asked me about any of this two months ago, I wouldn’t have been able to answer. If someone would have asked me, “What was going on in your life when you were five?” I would have said I don’t know. I do now, but that’s about how old I was when that experience happened, and I know that wasn’t an isolated experience.

I also know that there are experiences that, in my own life, have influenced me to be not trusting, not trusting other people. I believe that I have addressed that to a great extent without knowing what the influences were, or the associations, but it was a lot harder and it took a lot longer and a lot more years to really get to a place, and lots of struggle, lots of fighting against myself—I’m going to make myself trust things if it kills me! It doesn’t have to be that hard, but it’s taken me all these years to figure out that it doesn’t need to be that hard.

And I guess the point of why I’m sharing with you guys today is because I know it doesn’t have to be that hard, and I don’t want any of you to have to make it that hard or to have to go through the turmoil that I have had to go through. It can be easier. That if you really are looking to widen your awareness, to be more aware, to be more in control, to be more directing, it really is a matter of really looking at all of the stuff that goes on inside your own self. That if you stop looking at all the stuff that’s going on around you, you’ll get there a lot faster and it will be a lot easier than fighting with it all the time.

And I don’t think it’s necessary for you to remember every association. I don’t think that’s the point. I think for me that it was important to identify some, because they’d been in place for so many years. But I don’t think it’s always necessary that we’re that analytical. I think it’s a matter of figuring out what’s important to you.

It’s important to me to be supportive. I realize I can’t be supportive if I was operating from a standpoint that I was. If I’m operating from the standpoint that I have to understand you to be able to accept you and be supportive of you, I’m not being supportive. If I am reacting to other people, I’m definitely not being supportive. If I can’t listen, I’m not being supportive. If I can’t hear you, then I can’t be supportive to you. And if that’s what I want to be, I need to figure out what are the things that make me not be able to do that.

I think everybody has things inside of them that are important to them, and whatever those things are, the things, it’s a big deal to look at whatever it is that doesn’t let you be that, whatever it is that doesn’t let you express that. Because it’s important to you! And in the end it really does give you a very different perception of yourself and of everything else around you, and it really does change your world around you. It’s not really a figurative thing; it’s a real thing.

So, that was my sharing today. (applause) And it’s probably not going to happen for a while again. That was a tough one! I have no idea what the dead guy is going to talk about, but hopefully this will be one of the times that he complements what I talked about.