An excerpt from Mimi Zhu’s new book, ‘Be Not Afraid of Love’
“Instead of pointing a trembling finger at love, I carefully and gently look at my fear.”
Content Warning: This article discusses potential triggers for abusive relationships for those who have been in abusive relationships.
Every morning, a delicate iridescent hummingbird hovers outside my window. His arrival looks like a blessed omen and a message of love. I still greet him as he flaps his wings rapidly and wonder if he ever tires of moving.
Some days I try to go further and open the window, but every time it buzzes and disappears out of sight. He always comes back the next day, drinking marigold nectar on my window sill and I watch his flight with admiration.
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It is clear to me that my sudden movements are perceived by him as a threat, and that it will take time for him to trust me. Lately, I’ve been opening the window a little more slowly, and I find that it flies away less quickly.
He watches me for a second, less frightened but more inquisitive, then he walks away. As it takes flight again, I watch its flapping wings, grateful that it hums for survival. I hope he lands somewhere quiet to rest once his belly is full of the sweet golden nectar.
All living beings have adapted many ways to sense danger. I think of the beings I grew up with: observant strays, green tree frogs, thorny succulents and shy mimosas. Like our plant and animal relatives, we display learned and intuitive biological responses to what we perceive as a threat to our safety and well-being.
Most of us who have experienced trauma can be hypervigilant and hold suspicion in our hearts, and our bodies can often react in a myriad of learned and innate ways. Our protective tendencies show how much we value our lives.
Neither survival nor danger is new to Earth, although some human beings seem to be responsible for inventing new threats. The new challenges we are facing lead us to ask ourselves if we still know how to distinguish safety from danger. What happens when love comes our way and we perceive it as a threat? What happens when danger is near and we perceive it as love?
Somatic healing practitioners have distinguished the most common survival strategies as fleeing, fighting, freezing, soothing, and dissociating. In The politics of trauma, Staci K. Haines studies the iterations of each reaction closely, explaining that “these protective responses go far beyond our conscious ability to control them. We have inherited it both through evolution and through the particular biology of who created and gave birth to us. In turn, they work with the interpersonal, cultural and social context in which we live.
Even abusive intimate relationships can disguise themselves as love. After experiencing abuse, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to identify who we can trust. Close relationships can seem like threats to our security.
When abuse has occurred in romantic, platonic, or family relationships, it can seem risky or “boring” to experience true love compared to previous toxic relationships. My coping mechanisms always flared up when I made new connections.
I found myself fearful, hypervigilant and stubbornly detached. I didn’t trust myself, let alone anyone else. It led me to explore my survival strategies and unpack the past trauma I was reacting to.
Understanding this forced me to look at violence that has been historically, personally, and consistently normalized in association with “love.” It took me a long time to realize that I was not afraid of love. Instead, I was afraid of abuse that disguised itself as love.
I have seen violence seep into intimate relationships and I have seen how love has been misinterpreted as a way to abuse, control and possess. I saw love disguised as “passion” and rewritten as domination. There is so much to heal that forces us to embark on an ongoing unpacking of systemic violence, hierarchical supremacy, gender roles and childhood trauma.
With so much to unlearn, how can we come closer to mutual trust? First, we can listen to our intuitions and attend to our various coping mechanisms to understand what makes us feel safe. Our survival mechanisms are unique, brilliant and necessary and they can tell us a lot about what we care about, what we fear and what can bring us closer to love.
I think of the hummingbird buzzing in front of me and how every day we seem to grow closer in trust. I consider my own bodily instincts and how my biological and psychological survival mechanisms work to protect me.
Not only do they tell me how to respond to dangerous situations, but they also affirm that I deserve abundance and security. Instead of pointing a trembling finger at love, I carefully and gently look at my fear. I see that there is a lot of room to relearn trust and closeness. Curiously, love is the force that guides me. Love is what allows us to survive.
This is an edited excerpt from Mimi Zhu’s Don’t be afraid of love which is out now, published by Hardie Grant.