“Nervous System Privilege”- How To Navigate Reciprocity In Relationship When One Of You Is More Traumatized Than The Other

Over the course of my life, in my romantic partnerships and friendships and business partnerships, I have sometimes been the more traumatized person, tended to gently by someone less traumatized or further along in recovery and I have sometimes been the less traumatized one. I’ve been known to ask my elders how they tolerate me, when they seem so much further ahead of me in their own recovery journeys. And I’ve also heard from many clients and experienced it myself that it can be quite challenging when you’re trying to relate with someone with a heavier trauma burden than your own.

When there is a disparity in trauma burdens and how many years along we are in our trauma recovery, there is automatically a kind of inequality that makes 50/50 reciprocity nearly impossible to balance. Sure, we might equalize things in other ways. Maybe one person pays more of the bills or someone does more of the house labor. But when it comes to the emotional labor of tending to a close relationship, the person with less acute trauma symptoms or more years under their belt in recovery may automatically wind up doing more of the emotional labor.

And you know what? I think that’s okay. 

Because even though it may not be technically “fair,” it’s also not fair that some people have a heavier trauma burden than others, through absolutely no fault of their own. And others somehow get spared a bit, living lives that might seem charmed relative to the torture some people go through, growing up or navigating life. That’s not fair, any more than it’s not fair that some people are born white and are spared the traumas of being BIPOC in the United States, or they’re born straight and don’t have to deal with homophobia, or they’re born wealthy and can afford therapy and don’t have to wonder whether there will be a roof over their head or food on the table, or they’re born able-bodied rather than being born with a congenital anomaly, or they’re born in war-free territory, where they don’t have to deal with refugee camps and immigration, or, even worse, murder of civilians, rape, looting, gunfire, bombs, and infrastructure destruction.

What Is Nervous System Privilege?

My friend Steph Jagger calls this unfair advantage of having a relatively lower trauma burden (and the relatively calmer nervous system that may accompanies a less traumatized internal family system) “nervous system privilege.” I had never really considered this kind of privilege as similar to other kinds of unearned privileges like whiteness, cis-gender heterosexuality, wealth, or able-bodiedness. But of course it is a privilege, something that gives us a leg up in the world.

It’s not always easy to tell which people have nervous system privilege. Sure, we can find out their Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) score and get a sense of how much Big T trauma they’ve had, although the ACE score doesn’t account for things like racial trauma, being a Holocaust survivor, growing up in a violent area, or being queer. It also doesn’t account for developmental trauma, such as the trauma of benign neglect or the trauma of being raised by a narcissistic parent who expects you to be perfect or a passive parent who fails to protect you from someone like that or parents who are so incompetent as adults that you have to learn how to be the grown up way too early or parents who infantilize you and don’t let you individuate and grow into a functioning adult.

Some people assume that if you’re high functioning in the world, you must have a lower trauma burden, that if you were severely traumatized, you might not be able to rise to the top of the corporate ladder or become a successful doctor or lawyer or write a book or earn a lot of money or fulfill a dream or develop a talent.  But while it’s true that some people adapt to severe trauma by under-functioning, others do just the opposite. In reality, some of the most apparently high functioning individuals have the highest trauma burdens. Just look at Oprah. And Donald Trump. And many Ivy League professors, Olympic athletes, Nobel Prize winning scientists, movie stars, rock stars, and sports stars. Even the gurus and spiritual leaders and healers we might think have risen above their traumas turn out to have heavy trauma burdens, as I discovered in my research and wrote about in my book Sacred Medicine.

The “Faux Window Of Tolerance” 

According to Nurturing Resilience authors Kathy Kain and Stephen Terrell, this is because the nervous systems of some trauma survivors develop a “faux window of tolerance,” which makes them appear very calm, cool, and collected, even when their nervous systems are actually in a severe threat response. Their pulse may be low, their blood pressure may be low, they may appear full of equanimity, and that may be because they’re numb, dissociated, disembodied, and in a “dorsal vagal” freeze or fawn state of the parasympathetic nervous system.  

Oddly, sometimes this kind of traumatized equanimity gets people a lot of approval. Just look at the majority of New York Times bestselling spiritual teachers. If you put many of these supposedly enlightened people on monitors, you might be surprised how stressed out the zennest of the zen actually are.

In my relationship with my partner Jeff, we’ve definitely had to learn to deal with disparities in the degree of nervous system privilege we both have- and learn to adapt to this disparity. Sure, he has some privileges I don’t have, like male privilege and Harvard privilege and homeowner/ social class/ higher income privilege. But it turns out that the one way in which I have more privilege than him- my relative nervous system privilege- is a massive one. Because privilege also means power, and although both Jeff and I have a lot of worldly power in many ways that are fairly equal, the power that comes with being able to calm your own nervous system and stay in your heart and in more of ventral vagal state in the face of an intimate relationship is an enormously powerful advantage in a romantic partnership. Because of this power differential, trying to share power and keep things equal and balanced and emotionally reciprocal when one of you has nervous system privilege and the other doesn’t is a big hurdle to overcome.

Balancing Out Disparities In Privilege

Years ago, I taught a class called “Relationships On The Spiritual Path” because the number one reason people emailed me via my website at the time was because they felt frustrated that they were further along in their personal growth journey than their partner was, and this created problems for them relationally. I had not heard the term “nervous system privilege” at the time, but if I had, I might have been able to explain to my clients that disparities in the state of the nervous system could explain some of these struggles in a way that does not position one partner as “superior” to the other or look down on the other as “less than,” the way people in spiritual communities who judge their partners as “less spiritual” often do. When we view this through the lens of nervous system privilege (or lack thereof), it automatically equalizes us all and shatters the grandiosity that can come with thinking we’re “further ahead” than our partners and therefore “better than”- which would be a nail in any relational coffin, since none of us like to be looked down upon.

When Steph first introduced me to the concept of nervous system privilege, she explained it in a way that it took me a while to fully grok. To be honest, I’m still working on this as a growth edge in my own therapy. My takeaway was that nervous system privilege may be something we need to equalize the way we try to account for racial disparities with affirmative action, for example. In other words, we may need to take some actions that may seem initially unfair and unequal in order to equalize the privilege (or lack thereof) afforded to differently privileged individuals.

So I am taking that to heart in how I try to show up with my partner, and it’s given me a vastly different way of figuring out how much I can tolerate having my boundaries violated or how much I can handle what might sometimes feel like mistreatment or how much I’m willing to give hall passes or second chances- because I understand (from an IFS perspective) why my partner does the things he does- and why he can’t yet help it, although he’s working his ass off to try to change that, he’s completely devoted to doing his work in therapy, he’s brave and badass and going for it in a way no other partner I’ve ever had has, and I’m watching the transformation happen in front of my eyes. It’s hot, and I have the utmost respect for his courage and dedication to healing.

Stand Up For Yourself AND Be Generous With Someone Else’s Traumatized Parts

Extending compassion, being patient with Jeff’s process, and dealing with this issue of nervous system privilege has been a razor’s edge in my own recovery, given that I have a LOOOONG history of spiritual bypassing, tolerating sometimes severe abuse in the name of being compassionate, letting perpetrators off the hook because of my conflict avoidance, suppressing my anger because of my wish to be seen as a “good” and “spiritual” person, staying too long in dysfunctional relationships because of my desire to demonstrate loyalty and avoid abandoning people I care about, and my general conditioning as a woman to give a wide berth to poorly behaving men.

To love myself, to stand up for my parts, to be both firm and flexible with my boundaries, to negotiate needs without becoming the “doormat to diva” narcissist after years of codependence, to stay vulnerable and in my heart even when my partner’s heart is closed and seems invulnerable, to keep putting my hand on his heart when my own heart is hurting and coax him into co-regulation when we both get lit up, to calm my own parts while also calming his, to bargain with my own parts when they’re scared and exhausted and fed up and ready to run, to keep giving him chances to try again when he messes up but apologizes and tries to make things right- these are not easy things to do.

I am wordlessly grateful to my IFS therapist Nancy Morgan for helping me walk these razor’s edges so I can keep current with my parts and make sure I’m not sacrificing their needs for his or throwing myself under the bus because I desire connection with my partner. I have a long way to go, I’m sure, but it helps me, when Jeff and I are both mired in the muck, to remember that my relative nervous system privilege is a blessing to us both. 

“It’s Not Fair!”

When I have parts that scream, “It’s NOT FAIR!” I say to them, “Yes, you’re right. It’s not fair.” Because, often, it’s not. I have to ask my parts to risk further, to go to their edge, to trust me more than they’re sometimes ready to, even when I’m not sure my discernment can be trusted either. I have to ask my own parts to make sacrifices my partner can’t yet make, to relax boundaries they want to hold firm sometimes, to resist controlling the situation when it feels utterly out of control and intolerably uncertain, to relax and let me handle it, in Self, even when my protectors are freaking out. 

Then, if I can get my parts to step back a bit and comfort them like a good mother would, I can validate them while also reminding them that it wasn’t fair that Jeff was never allowed to cry without getting beaten, never got held on someone’s lap when he needed comfort, never got supported to follow his bliss or nurture his talents, never got to date or have friends or experience life outside the extreme fundamentalist sensibilities when he was growing up, never felt safe or loved or nurtured by people he could trust to care about his needs, and never got praised for coming so far in life in spite of it all. I got all those things from my parents. I have my own issues, and my parents weren’t perfect. But it’s true that I quite literally grew up at Disney World. And although Jeff and I have both tried years of therapy over the years, I’ve been in the right kind of effective trauma healing therapy for five years longer than Jeff has.

When we hit these crucible moments, I try to validate the parts of me that feel the unfairness of how hard my system has to work to co-regulate Jeff, how hard I have to work to Self-regulate my own parts, how many challenges we take on and how many things we give up in an attempt to make this work. I let those parts feel sad or terrified or angry or frustrated, and then we come back to center to figure out what to do next. Now. And now. And now, trying to stay flexible, without getting too caught up in what happened in the past but not forgetting it either, without getting too spun out from future tripping but without ignoring the need to plan ahead either. 

Then my “not fair” parts can relax and feel compassion for Jeff, and then me and my parts can work together, in concert, to find a way to make things as fair as possible, even when that means I sometimes do more of the emotional labor and make more of the sacrifices and compromises for us both. One day at a time, as they say in recovery, we find our way- together, apart, together.

It’s Okay To Be Angry About Lacking Unearned Privilege

Jeff sometimes gets angry at me when I’m standing up for my parts and trying to hold him accountable for things that hurt me or trying to get him to understand why it hurts when my boundaries get violated or our agreements get broken. He will holler, “You’re so PRIVILEGED!” 

 It triggers him that I feel entitled (in a healthy way, I hope) to justice, for example, or to stand up for myself and have my basic human rights upheld. At first, I did not understand why he would say that, given that he’s an attractive, tall, white, male, cis-gender, heterosexual, able-bodied Harvard doctor with two graduate degrees and financial security. He’s richer than me. He’s smarter than me. He gets more respect in the mainstream world than I ever will. He’s the ultimate patriarch in many ways. I mean, how many more privileges can you get?

But now we both understand why he says that- because he’s spent a lifetime not even knowing what he’s entitled to, not knowing what his human rights are, not knowing how to fight back or say no or call the lawyers, when necessary, to press charges and hold others accountable. When I introduced him to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights put together by the United Nations as a utopian vision of what all humans should be able to claim as their basic rights, he was in shock. He always assumed there were two sets of rules- one unfair set of rules for him, and a whole other set of rules for everyone else. He’s finally realizing he is actually more likely to be able to actualize those rights than anyone else on the planet, given all his other privileges, but it still doesn’t feel that way to his nervous system.

Now that we both understand this, it helps me open my heart when he gets upset. I can feel the young parts in him that experienced such injustice and I can just acknowledge, “Yes, I am privileged. And I’m so sorry you didn’t get what I got when we were little.” And then I can entrain him into my calmer nervous system by reaching out and wrapping my arms around us both and humming and rocking us until we remember that we’re on the same side, we’re allies facing a common mountain of what feels like insurmountable healing we’re trying to climb, and most of all, nobody’s leaving.

Then we practice cherishing each other, which we’re good at doing, and somehow, everything seems okay even when it’s not.

The good news, and I’ll write more about this in coming posts, is that unlike some privileges (like whiteness or heterosexuality, for example), nervous system privilege can be earned- although it sometimes requires certain financial privileges in order to do so, a health equity issue Jeff and I are both working on at Heal At Last. 

We’ll talk more about neuroplasticity and how the window of tolerance can be stretched in other posts. I’ll also write more and unpack how Jeff and I work with disparities in nervous system privilege in upcoming posts.

But before I do, I’m very curious to hear from you all. What are your thoughts on nervous system privilege? Have you had situations like this, when you’ve had more nervous system privilege than someone else, and if so, what has worked? What hasn’t? Have you been the one with less nervous system privilege, and if so, what was that like?

*In case any of you are worried about it, Jeff and I are editing these posts together, so he’s in consent (as much as he can be) to share our stories in case it helps anyone else struggling with nervous system issues.