How to Work With Unconscious Contracts
When I was walking my dog last night I ran into a rigid place inside myself. For any of you who’ve worked with me for a while, you know that a felt sense of rigidity is a cue, a way of knowing there’s something going on under the surface.
This rigidity provides an entry place to work with unconscious contracts (alternatively I call them ‘Sacred Vows’), which are contracts that we make with ourselves, others, or the world.
We enter into sacred contracts with our primary caregivers, ourselves and the world for two main reasons: to stay relationally connected with our parents, and as a strategy to survive trauma.
The result is that we become suspended in a spider web of subconscious contracts that can emotionally and/or physically derail us in ways that are confusing and debilitating.
You can read more about my process and full outline of how to do this work below.
If you’re ready to work with your own, feel free to download this free handout that walks you through the process!
So — I had been worrying away at myself about having been a terrible mother, which is a common “resting place” for me when I am walking my dog (or doing dishes, or waking up, or falling asleep, or generally breathing.)
(Of course, my sons wouldn’t want this to be my constant accompaniment and they probably actually like me quite well and wouldn’t want a different mother.)
As I chewed on myself I found this funny hard place which was thinking they were “bad” for various things that many young people do and for their struggles.
I was surprised.
I wasn’t surprised that I was condemning them, but I was surprised to be able to find the rigid place so clearly and to be able to feel it as a distinct thought structure.
I could feel myself standing on one side of a brain chasm, and I could feel myself putting them on the other side.
(For those of you who are lost, although the condemnation was more complex than this, one example of it is substance use.
I was raised in a religion where people didn’t drink or use substances since they were thought to separate you from your true self and from God. I left the religion, but kept the abstinence, so I was standing on the “I don’t use and you do” chasm.)
Knowing the things I do about brains and their rigid places, I thought, “Oh, here is a place where my brain is protecting me from pain. I wonder what the pain is that my brain is protecting me from?”
As mentioned above, the work that I was stepping into is what I call “Unconscious Contract Work.”
Unconscious Contract Work is a form of deep self-resonance that allows us to explore what the needs are beneath our brain protections, which include behaviors like self-sabotage, rigidity, addictions and addictive behaviors, blame, contempt, self-criticism and self-hate.
So I set up the form as I walked along the dark street, using the grammar of a formal vow declaration to dig for the pain that was lurking beneath my condemnation.
Part 1 of Unconscious Contract Work
“I, Sarah, solemnly swear to < my essential self > , that I will < see my children as “bad,”> in order to…“
Wait — this sounds so formal. Does it have to be so formal?
YES! This is the point at which grammar takes over.
This sentence construction invites our brains and our bodies to uncover the link between the belief or the behavior and the original separations from self that we as humans contractually create with ourselves in order to protect our unaccompanied beings from unbearable pain and separation.
This construction allows us to reveal to ourselves the deep needs that were at play at moments of aloneness, most often from when we were tiny, but sometimes from difficult moments when we were older and alone.
As I felt into my “in order to” what came to me was a sense of the way my mother pulled away from me when she thought I was being “bad.”
And a sense that if I could align myself with her, I wouldn’t lose her.
Or at least a part of me wouldn’t lose her. By judging myself and others, I could be with her, and I would not have to be alone.
My discovery was that my body and brain had this contract with me: “I, Sarah, solemnly swear to my essential self that I will judge others as being ‘bad,’ in order to be good with my mother, and not be alone, no matter the cost to myself or others.”
The final part of the contract, “no matter the cost to myself or others,” is essential.
If we don’t see that we are paying a price for our unconscious contracts, we have no reason to release them.
Because indeed, the next step is to find out if we really want these contracts.
Part 2: Check to see if you want to keep this vow.
I asked myself “Essential self of Sarah, do you like this vow (contract) for Sarah?” And the answer was, “No, the price of separation from the people I love is too great. I release this contract and revoke this vow.”
What’s the Neurobiological Premise of Unconscious Contract Work?
The neurobiological element at play in this work is the capacity of the amygdala (an organ deep inside the brain responsible for emotions and for unconscious memory) to bind things together, and the capacity of naming and resonance to unbind the things that the amygdala has joined.
The amygdala will bind stimulus and unconscious behavioral reaction (i.e. drinking and rejection/separation) so that our reactivity happens so quickly that we have no choice and no recourse against our own closed doors.
Inside my brain, the chasm and the rigidity dissolved.
I felt closer to my sons, both the one who is living and the one who has died. There was no longer a division separating us.
My curiosity turned to my habit of continually regretting my past as a mother. What was the pain underneath my relentless self-evaluation?
“I, Sarah, solemnly swear to my essential self, to ceaselessly examine my parenting for its flaws, in order to … give my living child his best chance of healing by finding what was broken and repairing it – oh. To keep him alive.” The realization brings me tears.
“No matter the cost to myself and to him.” Yes, it’s a pretty big longing. And it makes so much sense.
‘Essential self of Sarah, is this a good vow for you and your child?” “Not so good, no. There needs to be an acceptance and a moving on from death, so that the living can have their own lives, and have hope.
“Sarah, I release you from this contract and I revoke this vow.”
The tears relax, my body lets go. There’s a little more peace in here with me. Now we’ll see what comes next.
Unconscious contracts/sacred vows are formed within every brain system, and put us in jails of our own making. The practice of awareness and release allows us to open these barred doors and step out into new freedom.