Chapter 1 – Research Informed Root Development

The impetus for the Roots to Thrive journey began with a passionate group of healthcare providers committed to address resource and resiliency gaps amid the rising tide of personal and professional burnout. Motivated to address this need, we secured a grant to support our efforts to weave together the principles, tools, and resources necessary to develop the core factors that enable us to thrive amid highly stimulating – and often stressful -life and work environments.

The foundation of the Roots to Thrive journey is informed by research from the Western perspective. Over 50 years of research suggests that the core factors that deepen our ‘roots’ are congruence (Rogers, 1959) and sense of coherence (Antonovsky, 1979)

Congruence represents our connection to the ‘real’/authentic self, as opposed to the ‘idealized’ self dictated to us by others. Our authentic self is the essence of who we are, the unchangeable elements that we were born into the world with, such as our unique desires and natural talents. The idealized self refers to what we believe others want us to be; the masks we put on because we believe we need them in order to be accepted.

Our degree of congruence is then our degree of connection to our real self. We act congruently when we say “yes” to something because we want to, not just because we think we should. When we say “yes” out of obligation we are putting the approval or needs of others over ourselves. What ‘self’ do we show up in the world as? The further apart our two selves, the more incongruent we will feel. Incongruence is further fueled by the shame of not feeling good enough.

“Shame is a normal response to an abnormal experience. In an attempt to explain what happened to us, we accept false blame that we made it happen. ” Nate Postlethwait

Colonization has resulted in the attaching of a variety of conditions to one’s worth, fueling personal and cultural incongruence. For instance, consider a young child who loves to paint and create art. She starts to call herself an artist, and at first everyone around her smiles and encourages this. However, as she gets older, she is discouraged from identifying as an artist by well-meaning adults and peers, and is asked what else she would like to do with her life. Even though she may still get great joy out of creating, she begins to fear rejection by others, and as a result, she no longer feels worthy of identifying as an artist. She may even stop creating art entirely. To meet her basic human need for love and acceptance, she will put aside her love of art to make space for tasks that are more likely to garner praise from others. The outcome of her DOing has become more important than the process of her BEing.

We also become incongruent when we squash or push away uncomfortable emotions. It’s another way we reject or ignore our ‘real’ authentic self – the self who is experiencing these emotions. For a variety of reasons, emotions can feel too unsafe or uncomfortable to sit with. When this occurs we will look for various ways to distract or numb. This can look like an increase in DOing – staying busy with tasks, numbing through substances, food, screens, taking on other people’s problems – to avoid the emotions in our body.

When our ‘self’ feels threatened, the nervous system activates the threat/stress response. This is the primary job of the nervous system – to respond to threats and activate the body to stay safe. Once activated, survival becomes the priority, often causing difficult emotions to be suppressed in the process. Until the threat is gone, our body’s defense mechanisms – reactive, fear driven behaviours – will remain in the driver’s seat. In this way incongruence is a very real threat to our BEing – our true whole self.

In Robert Bly’s Long Bag, he describes how incongruence develops, beginning in childhood, and continuing into adulthood.

When we were one or two years old, we had what we might visualize as a 360-degree personality. Energy radiated out from all parts of our body and all parts of our psyche. A child running is a living globe of energy. We had a ball of energy, all right; but one day we noticed that our parents didn’t like certain parts of that ball. They said things like: “Can’t you be still?” Or “It isn’t nice to try and kill your brother.” Behind us we have an invisible bag, and the part of us our parents don’t like, we, to keep our parents’ love, put in the bag. By the time we go to school our bag is quite large. Then our teachers have their say: “Good children don’t get angry over such little things.” So we take our anger and put it in the bag.” … Our bags were already a mile long.

Then we do a lot of bag-stuffing in high school. This time it’s no longer the evil grownups that pressure us, but people our own ageDifferent cultures fill the bag with different contents. We spend our life until we’re twenty deciding what parts of our self to put into the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again. (Bly, 1989)

Take a moment and look into your “long bag.” What parts of your essential, authentic do you see in there?

To develop congruence, we:

  • Expand the awareness of who we are – each of us a blend of natural traits and learned behaviours.
  • Learn to manage threats to our BEing, by improving our ability to regulate ourselves.
  • Develop compassion for our authentic selves.
  • Meet challenges with compassion and view missteps as opportunities to expand self-compassion and personal growth.
  • Remember what really matters to us. We align with our calling, enabling our DOing to be inspired by BEing.

Sense of coherence (Antonovsky, 1979) represents how we see and make sense of the world; our orientation to it. Antonovsky sought to understand why some people became ill under stress and others did not. Specifically, he was curious about why some Holocaust survivors thrived following their imprisonment and torture, while some did not. What he found was that how people relate to the world is impacted by three primary things:

1) Our ability to make meaning in the world “What I am doing matters”
2) Our ability to understand how events unfold around us “Life makes sense and is for the most part predictable”
3) Our confidence in our ability to navigate life “I have what it takes to make it through this”.

Sense of coherence is a mixture of a felt sense of optimism and control. In the midst of challenges, it enables conscious action instead of unconscious reaction. Even when something in life leaves us fearful, if a sense of meaning and purpose overshadows the fear, we develop the courage to move through it. With courage, our ability to move through challenges with compassion and confidence expands. For those with a low sense of coherence, unexpected events are often perceived as threatening, activating the stress response. For those with a high sense of coherence, unexpected events can in fact become a welcome challenge. Throughout life, depending on our sense of security in our inner and outer resources, our sense of coherence fluctuates.

To develop our sense of coherence, we:

  • expand awareness of our inner and outer resources, and our confidence in these resources
  • improve our ability to self-regulate (calm our nervous system response)This helps us to workwith our nervous system instead of feeling overwhelmed by it,
  • connect to desire and compassion, which help us find meaning in our challenges.
  • align with our calling, infusing meaning and passion in our relationships and daily tasks.

Why do Congruence and Sense of Coherence Matter?

Our congruence and sense of coherence determine whether we will view events as threatening, or manageable, possibly even helpful. When we feel a sense of control and meaning in our lives, a major change such as a new job, a new baby, or a move to another province, may feel exciting. Conversely, when we feel powerless in life, and lack meaning or purpose, these same events may seem incredibly threatening. When we have a high sense of coherence, we are more tolerant of change, even relational hiccups, because we are confident in our resources and ability to navigate them. Added to this, we are more likely to see the meaning and opportunity in the challenges.

Those who lack awareness and confidence in their inner and outer resources are more likely to feel overwhelmed when challenges arise, making them more prone to view events as potential threats. Similarly, when we are congruent, and tuned into our authentic self, we are less likely to over identify with passing events and emotions. For instance, receiving feedback from others feels less threatening when we feel secure in our innate value, ie: we feel secure in who we are, and do not require our sense of worth to come from others. Strong emotions do not threaten us, but rather, emotions are seen as welcome guests that provide us with information about what is important to us. In this way, when our BEing feels threatened it can be a cue to tune in with curiosity, rather than a reason to react defensively.

If we cannot resolve a perceived threat, it evolves into a chronic stressor. In high stimulus and incongruent life and work environments, chronic stressors often become an accepted part of life. They sit simmering beneath the surface, keeping us in a hypervigilant state of DOing, and making us prone to all sorts of reactive behaviours. When the intensity of the perceived threat overwhelms us, it clouds our vision, drastically limiting our ability to act. In this reactive state, choice rarely exists at all. Behaviours become robotic and impulsive, based on learned behaviours and past wounds. Most behaviours we feel ashamed of come from this choiceless state. If we can accept that choice is limited in these times of stress, even impossible at times, we are more likely to be self-compassionate about the behaviours that subconsciously emerge. The next chapter will explore this in more detail.

Figure 2. Congruence = Orientation to self, based on one’s alignment between the ‘real’ and ‘ideal’ self. Sense of Coherence (SOC) = Orientation to world, based on one’s sense of capability, meaning, and understanding in the world.

While sense of coherence and congruence are the two main pillars of the RTT theoretical framework, it also draws from the Theory of Unmet Needs (Maslow, 1943) as it pertains to the stress response. Maslow’s Theory of Unmet Needs states that when our basic needs go unmet we feel threatened, and threat = stress. Our bodies are wired to react and respond to threats, and will stay in a reactive state until the threat resolves. While Maslow’s theory of unmet needs is incomplete as a formula for thriving, it illustrates how stress disrupts our capacity for doing so. Once we feel secure in the meeting of our basic physical needs with no imminent threats to our safety, it becomes possible to turn our focus on our need for emotional safety, security, belonging, and esteem. Similarly, if basic physical needs are not being met, if we don’t have secure housing or access to food, it is extremely difficult to turn our focus onto anything but survival.

When we feel emotionally safe, with a sense of belonging, and esteem, we are more likely to express ourselves authentically. From this resourced and confident place, it becomes safe to shift our focus from physical concerns (DOing) to spiritual BEing. It is a path from survival to growth and thriving.

Figure 3: The Theory of Unmet Needs weaves together with congruence and sense of coherence. All three concepts suggest that basic human requirements must be met to engage in thriving.

The RTT theoretical framework also draws from co-regulation theory to help explain why connecting with a more secure ‘other’, or others, can regulate and shift us out of insecure and fearful states of mind. We regulate (calm the activated nervous system), release trauma (discharge hurts/stuck energies of the past), and return to balance most efficiently when in community with others. When we feel socially connected, we are less likely to feel threatened, mitigating or preventing the stress response altogether. From this secure place, we can better access a variety of internal and external resources.

Community is the ultimate nutrition for our nervous systems

Essentially, when we experience the sense of community in the body, we start to become securely attached to others and to our authentic self. We cultivate trusting relationships where we feel accepted as we are, and safe to practice self-expression. We improve our ability to self-regulate and to stay embodied (present in our bodies) both of which are requirements for resiliency and thriving.

Figure 1: Regulating through Connection with Others. Simply BEing in secure relationships can diffuse the stress response, enabling us to navigate challenges from the mind-body-spirit interface.

When we show up more authentically, it can activate intense and often debilitating fears of rejection. When these feelings arise and we lack security in our relationships, we are likely to react protectively. Too much vulnerability can cause us to emotionally shut down or ‘freeze’, causing us to disembody (literally to leave our body) as we retreat to our mind where we try desperately to ‘figure it out’. Therefore, it is imperative that trauma-informed principles are established early on in this program. Flowing from unconditional positive regard, trauma-informed principles include the cultivation of safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration and empowerment (Vickers & Moyer, 2020). If we don’t feel safe, our threat radar will be up, and our tolerance for emotional stress will be narrow. When we feel safe, we can be ourselves, knowing the displays we put on for others aren’t needed here.