It is probably not a coincidence that many young men I interview before coming to the Bridge explain that one of their main goals is to “come out of their shell”. This is not only a very powerful metaphor for their struggles, but it also defines, in a nutshell (no pun intended!), one of the key profile characteristics of the students we work with. This metaphorical shell provides a safe place, protecting them from any (perceived) harm or threat in the outside world. The shell is sometimes their parents’ basement, their room, electronic devices, excuses, fronts, or substances. But if this shell is safe and protective, why would they want anything to change?
Perhaps they have come to realize that the shell deprives them from fulfilling many needs, especially an intrinsic and basic one: growth. And that’s because inside the shell there’s not much of anything, at least not in the case of hermit crabs. We have to come out of the shell in order to grow, and it is through interacting with our environment that we do so.
However, in hermit crabs and metaphorical shells, coming out is directly related to feeling safe; as long as there’s a sense of considerable threat out in the environment, there will be no coming out. Thus, coming out of the shell entails both feeling confident in one’s own skills to deal with the world, as well as trusting that the world is not just going to sweep us away.
The equivalent of the metaphorical shell in the nervous system is the vagus nerve, which plays a fundamental role in a process Steven Porges namedneuroception. This process allows people to decipher signals from their environment, both from objects as well as detailed cues from people, to help determine whether a situation deserves a threat response (get in the shell) or is safe (come out of the shell and engage). Porges explains that this process can go “out of tune” so that people activate defense systems when it’s actually a safe situation, or exhibit engaging or risk-taking behavior in an unsafe environment.
So, how does one support someone’s desire to come out of the shell and continue to grow? Not by frantically tapping on the shell, which will only reinforce the sense of unsafety in the environment, and not by just feeding the hermit crab so he’s nourished without having to come out of the shell. Why? Because neither of these strategies will help the person fine-tune his neuroception of safety; he will continue to perceive erroneously his capacity to engage the world.
At The Bridge and our high school program, New Summit Academy, we believe in a middle-way approach we call supportive immersion. Supportive Immersion is an approach to learning that focuses less on instruction and product, and more on experience and process. It is highly individualized in that it relies heavily on the lived subjective experience of the learner toward what he’s learning, and it keeps at its center the goal of learning how to learn. The facilitator (teacher, therapist, etc.) of this learning process is both hands-off and very involved at the same time; walking with the learner in the process, but not doing the walking for or just shouting instructions from the sidelines. Empathy is a key element, and it’s used to see the task from the worldview of the learner while also using the facilitator’s own knowledge to guide experiences and invite shifts in the learner’s worldview. It’s teaching how to fish, instead of being given a fish type of approach.
This process is very successful for people that are in the shell, because it provides the feeling (neuroception) of safety coming from the support, guidance and processing of the (often out-of-the-comfort-zone) experiences our students are going through and, at the same time, it allows the learner to walk his own path, and feel what it’s like to poke his head out of the shell, and find his own way to gradually make changes that allow the growth they are seeking.