Dolls, like clowns, have a long and powerful history of symbolic meaning for human beings. We think of most dolls now as playthings for children, but dolls have always been much more than toys.
The old word for doll was “poppet,” related to the English word “puppet.” In many cultures, dolls were used for spiritual rituals and magic, and as oracles. They are perhaps most famous as tools of black magic, but were also used for healing, fertility, and romantic and protective spells. From the Far East to Africa to the Americas, dolls have been an important social instrument for centuries.
There exist in the world a small handful of haunted dolls, both in museums and collections and for sale on sites like eBay. Several horror movies have been inspired by famous haunted dolls, such as Robert and Annabelle.
As a child I didn’t have dolls, and didn’t want them. A toy doll to mother and care for was not nearly as much fun as a pet, which we had an abundance, and nothing was as lovely a plaything for me as a book. Some things never change.
No, I didn’t have a doll until I was nearly 50 years old, when I decided I needed a very specific kind of doll for a very specific reason. Most traditional dolls were handmade out of whatever materials were available. As a child of the twentieth century, I went shopping online, trusting I would know her when I found her. I already knew her name.
I wanted a new doll resembling myself. I looked at hundreds of dolls, mostly hideous, plastic and cheap, trying to find good old-fashioned rag dolls or soft dolls. There are some, but they’re few and far between. Alas, there are no dolls depicting (ahem!) maturity. Most of them simper, lowering plastic eyelids over improbably shiny blue or brown eyes. They have equally shiny and synthetic hair and frilly clothes. It was a little like shopping for candy in the candy aisle during Halloween. Slick, artificial, patently synthetic color, all sugar and no substance. Certainly, I found no dolls with even one grey hair or crow’s feet around the eyes. I thought about making a dried apple doll, but it was a fleeting thought. For some reason, that wasn’t quite what I wanted.
I persisted until I found a plain rag doll with brown yarn hair tied into two bunches with ribbons and blue eyes. She wore a yellow dress and white felt shoes on primitive club-shaped feet.
I grew up doing all kinds of embroidery, cross stitch and needlework, but I never learned to use a sewing machine or do practical things like make clothing, so I had to ask for help to get more appropriate clothes made. I found a young woman who sewed and asked her to make my doll a pair of denim jeans and some kind of a top. I told her the doll was for a niece of mine who was something of a tomboy and a mountain kid. I didn’t want to admit the doll was mine.
Dolls are commonly used for therapy for adults and children. In my explorations, I’d run across the idea of working with one’s inner child many times, and I knew making a doll to represent oneself is a common therapeutic activity. As I’d never had any meaningful kind of relationship with dolls, this didn’t attract me.
Until it did. I’m not sure exactly why my interest in dolls changed at that particular point in my life. All I can really say is I was suddenly ready to figure out if I could love myself. A doll seemed an obvious way to externalize the parts of me that felt so chronically unloved and unwanted. Beyond that, I really didn’t think. I just felt the need, and obeyed it.
When the clothes were ready (jeans, a T-shirt and a zippered sweatshirt), I dressed the doll and cut her brown yarn hair short. After spending most of my life with long hair, I’d recently cut mine, more as an act of rebellion and self-mutilation than anything else.
I cut the doll’s hair with a mixture of anger, resentment and grief, and a strange thing happened. Instead of looking at her with loathing, I had the completely unexpected and spontaneous thought that the short hair was cute. It wasn’t ugly. It didn’t make her look like an old hag, used up, dried up, sexless and powerless. That’s what I saw when I looked in the mirror at myself, but when I looked at the doll I saw something else entirely. As a child I had begged to be allowed to have long hair. I was eventually allowed to, when I was old enough to care for it. This was reasonable, as my hair is thick, curly and unruly, to put it mildly. For years, though, as a slim, short-haired, active child in the same tough jeans my brother wore, I was taken for a boy.
Somehow, looking down at that helpless rag doll and the short ends of yarn scattered around her, it seemed I was looking at a long-vanished version of myself, and I didn’t hate her. She wasn’t loathsome. She merely had short hair. I’d meant to hurt her, even mutilate her, but her innocence turned a hostile act into a reluctant feeling of wanting to protect her from any who would seek to hurt her, including myself.
This was a powerful moment. It was so powerful I doubted myself. What would people say if they knew I’d bought myself a doll and lied about it in order to get the clothes I wanted for her? What would they think of me? What did it say about me, these feelings of self-hatred mixed up with an uneasy need to protect? Protect the doll from me? Protect the doll from others? Protect myself?
I was confused, embarrassed and compelled. I kept the doll with me as I moved around my little log cabin, not to handle, but just to look at. Occasionally, I talked to her, in the same way I talked to the cat I belonged to at the time.
Then, one day, something distressed me. I was trying to calm down and think more clearly, and I saw the doll, sitting propped on a table. I picked her up and held her against my shoulder, patting her back and swaying on my feet in the age-old motions of comforting a baby. I had worked for years with chronic and terminally ill children and their families as a young woman and then raised two kids of my own. I love and understand children, and the familiarity of holding one again made me weep.
I was also instantly comforted, as though I myself was being held in spite of my age and ugliness. I’ve been aware all my life of the longing to be safe, secure and loved in someone’s arms, a longing I rarely admit, always endeavor to bury deep, and feel much shame about. Something about holding the doll assuaged that longing. In a strange sort of way, I was holding myself, or at least some part of myself.
I can’t explain the neurophysiological effect of being able to hold and comfort my doll. Perhaps a neurologist or a good psychiatrist could. What I do know is it’s been enormously and unexpectedly healing. The gnawing need for nonsexual physical reassurance and affection has been something I’ve learned to live with, never revealing it or expecting to have this need met. If I could not find it as a young, reasonably attractive woman, I’ll surely never find it now. I can’t hold myself, but I can hold my doll. I don’t always treat myself with unconditional love, but I can give it to my doll. In fact, I’m incapable of giving her anything else. I’ve always found it much, much easier to love others than myself. Loving others is a beautiful way to live, but it’s not always reciprocated or even recognized for what it is, and much of the love I’ve given has walked away from me, never to return. With the doll, somehow my love comes back into my own starving skin and heart.
I’ve had the doll for about six years now. I’ve turned to her in times of fear, insomnia, emotional pain, panic attacks and PTSD. I’ve wept with her (and perhaps for her), rocked her, kissed her, practiced Havening with her, snuggled her and slept with her in my arms. Until now, I’ve kept her presence in my life a secret from all but one person. She’s been more useful to me than any psychological therapy or pharmaceuticals I’ve ever tried, with the single exception of emotional intelligence coaching.
I’m writing this post now because I thought it would be fun for Halloween, haunted dolls being a thing in our culture. As I write, however, I’m slightly sobered. I’m not prepared to debate whether haunted dolls or haunted anything else are “real.” The belief in such things is what fascinates me, along with the history of such objects, investigation into this kind of phenomena, and the way it captures our imaginations. What I will say is if an object or person can be haunted or possessed, I would assume intense energy or emotion is associated with such possession.
It’s not hard for me to understand why dolls, like clowns, have so captured our imaginations. I’m quite certain my doll is the most intimate object in my life. I would never want to see her in another’s hands. God forbid she ever takes it into her head to talk about my demons and vulnerabilities. I don’t mind if she wants to move around in my attic space, though, or even look out the windows, as other haunted dolls are alleged to have done.
I was recently introduced to Havening. I’d never heard the term before, but I was intrigued by a brief explanation that Havening is a neuroscientific tool to assist in repairing emotional trauma. I looked at a couple of links and was so interested I tried the technique myself, just to see what would happen.
The human brain’s structure, function and capability are still a mystery to us in many ways. The brain does appear to be highly plastic; that is, we learn, we unlearn and we can develop new neural pathways and rehabilitate, to a greater or lesser degree, some kinds of physical traumatic brain injury as well as emotional trauma. We obviously treat some brain-based dysfunctions by pharmacological means, in the form of prescription drugs or self-medication via alcohol, nicotine and illicit substances.
Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash
In our current culture of emotional illiteracy, sometimes the only way we know to mitigate our emotional pain is to numb out or distract. Relieving our symptoms, however, doesn’t address the root cause of our difficulty, it only covers it up for a time. Havening is a tool that allows us to address the source of our trauma and pain without chemical substances or the need for specialized (and expensive) treatment. It empowers us, the experts on our wounds and broken places, to become our own healers.
Nowhere on the Havening website or in the video is there mention of us giving our consent to the possibility that we can change, grow and heal. However, that is in fact the first step. I have observed, in myself and others, that sometimes we become so deeply invested in our pain and limiting beliefs we’re really not willing to heal and change. We say we are. We say we want to feel better, but when it’s time to do the work of exploration, excavation and learning to make different choices in managing our thoughts and feelings, we don’t. We’re not willing to be wrong, let go of our grievances and stories, practice forgiveness and give up the satisfaction of shaming and blaming others.
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash
I suspect Havening is a waste of time for those who approach it unwillingly, just as more traditional therapies are a waste of time (and money) if we’re only going through the motions.
Assuming we consent to give Havening a chance, the technique requires us to sit with ourselves in a quiet, safe place and deliberately bring to mind a single difficult memory or event. Rather than running away from our feelings, we intentionally recreate and recall them in all their vivid intensity, and as we do so we notice how our bodies process and express our difficult feelings. When we have re-experienced, as fully as possible, the feelings around our memory or event, we begin to lightly stroke or rub our arms, self-soothing with our own touch and presence. Still stroking our arms, we close our eyes and visualize walking along a beach, counting slowly to 20. Still stroking our arms, we open our eyes and, without moving our heads, look to the left, then the right, then the left. We don’t have to do this quickly or with strain. We practice this lateral gaze, combined with stroking our arms, for a minute or two, then close our eyes and visualize walking through a summer meadow, counting slowly to 20 again. We follow that with the lateral gaze for a couple of minutes, all the while still stroking our arms. The third and last visualization is of walking down a staircase, combined with arm stroking and counting slowly to 20. We follow that with practicing the lateral gaze for a couple more minutes.
Photo by Ryan Moreno on Unsplash
At the end of this series of steps, we relax and intentionally probe the memory we started with. We notice how our bodies feel and what our feelings are compared to when we started.
I know from emotional intelligence training experiencing our feelings fully and completely is the best way to allow them to move through us and dissipate, but I frequently feel so overwhelmed by the intensity of my emotions that I’m afraid to do that. Sometimes I think if I start crying, or expressing rage, I’ll never be able to stop; I’ll fall over some invisible edge of self-control into permanent madness and chaos. Havening is enormously useful for me because it gives me a safety net to fall into. No matter how strong my feelings are about a specific memory or event, I know I’m going to be able to successfully help myself calm down and feel better immediately. I don’t need to wince away or try to minimize my feeling experience.
I’ve spent much of my life starved for loving touch. I’m not talking about sex here. I’m talking about skin to skin touch that says “I’m here. I care about you. You’re safe with me.” In times of high stress and upset, I frequently wrap my arms around myself, the closest I can get to getting a hug. Havening provides the physical comfort of touch, which we know can calm stress and produces serotonin, a natural chemical our brains make that gives us a feeling of well-being.
Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash
Anyone who meditates or has done Lamaze breathing for childbirth knows when we focus on breathing or a mantra our minds learn to be quiet. The three visualizations used in Havening, combined with self-touch and counting, immediately distract from the intensity of our emotional pain, as does practicing the lateral gaze. We rarely use our eyes to look laterally without moving our heads, and to intentionally and repetitively do so takes focus.
The purpose of this specific set of steps is to “rewire” a neural pathway caused by emotional damage or trauma. The links in the first paragraph explain the science and neurology behind this better than I can, so I won’t reiterate. What I will say is, somewhat to my astonishment, I noticed a sharp decrease in the emotional pain surrounding a memory the very first time I tried Havening. I didn’t lose the memory, but it was no longer attached to such an intense emotional reaction. I could think of it and remain physically relaxed and centered. I could see it more objectively. I could say, “Yes, that happened. It hurt me, but now it’s over.” Overwhelming unpleasant feelings were no longer connected to the memory.
As I practice Havening, I notice a couple of interesting things. The first is that the memories that give me the most trouble are small. A single phrase that broke my heart and irrevocably changed everything. A memory of no words at all, just someone else’s strong emotion. I use Havening to address my most private mental slideshow, where each slide is a single small period of time; a single scene, rich in sensory detail; a single moment of terrible clarity and revelation. I marvel at the power of these small pieces to shape our lives so profoundly. I never think of Havening around divorce and break-ups or even deaths. Those obvious upheavals are not the events in my life that have had the most power.
Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash
The second thing I notice is how my visualizations are changing. The first time I did Havening, I followed the cues in the video exactly. I had no plan to elaborate on the three visualizations. As I’ve made a practice of the technique, though, my visualizations are becoming more and more vivid and sensual. I imagine walking hand-in-hand with someone. I imagine the feel of the sun, the sound of the sea, the grand sweep of a lovely curving staircase and a crowd of people waiting for me at the bottom. I also note that the unintended elaboration of the visualizations is all positive. I feel safe, protected, loved and joyous. There’s no lingering feeling of pain or discomfort from the memory or event I recalled just a minute before.
Havening is, above all, a flexible tool. Anyone can use it and fit it into his or her particular spiritual, religious or philosophical framework. It’s completely private and open-ended. Havening can be done once a week or three times a day. I can work with a single memory for a week if I need to, or tackle a new one each time I practice. It works equally well with old memories or new upsets.
Havening provides a kind of emotional detox. Since I’ve been doing it I feel lighter, more peaceful and as though I can think more clearly. I’m less easily triggered and hijacked and I respond more and react less. My head and heart are less cluttered. My feelings seem more like allies and less like enemies.
The biggest gift of Havening is the way it supports my intention to be authentic. It seems to me we all suffer some degree of shame about the things that really hurt us. It’s hard to explain, even to ourselves, why a few words or a gesture hurt so much. We tell ourselves and others not to be silly or dramatic or have such a thin skin. Havening provides an open door, an invitation to honestly acknowledge our hurts and take responsibility for soothing them. It gives us permission to feel our honest feelings without the need to minimize, explain or justify. We are fully empowered to respect and address our own pain.
Finally, Havening has become a ritual of self-care. I like essential oils, and I set out a blend from Young Living, a bottle of massage oil and a small hand towel by the chair I practice Havening in. I rubbed a white candle with the essential oil blend, and when I sit down I light the candle, mix the oils and use the mixture on my arms, hands, cuticles, etc. as I practice. Ten or fifteen minutes of deep moisturizing, aromatherapy and massage, in combination with Havening, leaves me feeling calm, strong, centered and cared for.
Havening is a new technique with a lot of promise. I’m interested to watch it evolve and be subject to scientific studies. Several practitioners are expanding Havening for other psychological applications, and I follow the blog with interest. In the meantime, it’s a powerful tool that costs nothing, does no harm, and results in significant benefits.