When You "Mess Up"

At some point in therapy, clients may come into session and begin with something like, “I really goofed up,” (Okay, sometimes the language is more colorful!) or, “I’m not proud of this, but….” Or something like that. 

And I’m not surprised. Active participation in therapy involves willingness to learn and make changes.  You get to know your thoughts and beliefs, feelings and physiological reactions in all kinds of situations.   You start being able to observe yourself in your family, work and life systems. You take responsibility for your self and surrender the hope that others will change along with the belief that if they do, THAT will finally make your life better.   People sometimes leave my office in anger when I tell them I cannot help them change someone else.

And following this path of self-responsibility also means that as you learn and bravely make changes, trusting your gut for what resonates and staying on course as well as possible, you will also mess up.   

Boy will you. 

After messing up, you might then blame yourself or others, feel ashamed, lose hope, throw your hands up in despair or declare that this work on self and making changes is too hard.

And what I’ll tell you from deep knowing and experience, because I am a human being working on my self right along with you, is this:  It’s all normal.  It’s all expected.  And it’s all alright.

I’m not saying that it’s fine to lash out at yourselves or others, repeat a hurtful pattern in a relationship, gulp multiple glasses of wine, buy or eat something to make yourself feel better, or avoid life by binge watching Netflix.  But I do understand those choices as common ways to avoid your pain and temporarily alleviate your suffering. And I know that lasting change takes time.

So after making a mistake, it’s important to remember that in order to be brave, awake, and self-responsible, you must turn toward yourself with kindness and forgiveness, identify what triggered the “mess up” and return to what you have decided is a healthier path for you. You may need to apologize to yourself or someone else.

You will do this over and over.  You will “mess up” over and over.  And part of what determines how you learn to navigate the world with greater ease, courage, and strength is how you decide to handle your mistakes.

I know this because I live it.  I revert to old, non-productive ways of managing stress, thoughts and feelings.  I blame others.  I stew.   I forget my ways to deeply care for myself and stay engaged in the world.  I forget that I am part of a wider family, cultural, economic and social system.  

Recently I really “messed up.”  One of my significant triggers, which I’m mentioned in an earlier post, is worry about money.  I come from a long line of money worriers, Swiss and Germans who worked hard, lived frugally and didn’t have a lot extra.  When I am calm, I can remember the patterns in my family history, and the way I am prone to absorb similar worries about money.

When I am triggered, however, all of that dissipates. If I forget to slow down and comfort that scared part of me, I will lose it.  I’ll target my spouse for my worries.  I’ll lose sleep and start to spin catastrophic scenarios of poverty, bankruptcy and humiliation.  Yup, that’s what I do.  Even while, at the present moment, I have a warm home, plenty of food and clothing, savings in the bank and a robust private practice.

I’m human and it feels awful to careen down that particular lane. That lane is narrow, rutted and filled with potholes where dark clouds loom overhead, where I believe I am unprotected and alone, the only one facing these worries.

But I’ve learned I can return to my truth and my tools for calming myself  – these constitute a much broader, smoother lane:  deep breathing, journaling, meditation, recalling my deepest values (and how I can live them regardless of any financial statement), talking to trusted friends, gratitude, and sometimes calling my own therapist!  That lane is smooth and lined with leafy trees and benches for resting, friends are available down side lanes and I can be grateful for all the resiliency and muscle I’ve built from years of working with this.

So, if you are a perfectionist, or think working in therapy will produce instant results with a clear upward trajectory, I am here to ruin that delusion.  But all is not even remotely lost. Therapy, undertaken by those who own responsibility for self, while letting go of what is not theirs to focus on, can be an invaluable accompaniment to lasting change, reduced symptoms, and a lifelong commitment to learning and re-centering after you “mess up.”

I’ve always liked the following poem, Autobiography in Five Chapters, by Portia Nelson.

Chapter 1

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am hopeless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter II

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in this same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter III

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it there.
I still fall in… it’s a habit… but,
my eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter V

I walk down another street.

—————————————————————-

Change, however, is usually not linear and sometimes, despite hard work, we revert to early chapters.  The difference that work on self makes over time is the ability to more quickly pick yourself up and walk down a different street.

I close with a quote by Daniel Hillel:   

“I get up. I walk. I fall down. Meanwhile, I keep dancing.”

Brenda Hartman-Souder, LCSWR

January 2020

(photo by by chuttersnap on Unsplash)

Human With a Full Heart

It’s Monday and I’m very tired. Exhausted is more accurate.  I’ve come off three days of high intensity. 

I  watched our son play the role of RP McMurphy in his high school’s fall play, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”  And not only watched but participated, rapt, for three performances, in that heartbreaking drama.   

He blew his role out of the water.  He embodied that crafty, law-breaking, but ultimately loving character.  He and the entire cast and crew pulled this difficult story off with aplomb. I rarely make statements like these about my children, but part of the intensity of this weekend was being forced to recognize his natural talent and to accept accolades from audience members when I am by nature modest and humble.

We hosted family members who came to see the play and enjoyed times of connection, eating, walking and just hanging out.

Our college-age daughter came home for the weekend and played the role of proud big sister – what a joy to have her here.

And we learned early Saturday morning that my sister, who has congestive heart failure, was rushed (again) to the hospital in the night’s wee hours, then eventually flown to a larger hospital with specialized expertise in heart disease.

Texts from her spouse smattered the weekend and I experienced sorrow, alarm, and helplessness.  I am so glad I went to visit her in her midwest home just two weeks ago, and I am so sorry that living so far away, there is little I can do but pray.

So, this morning, I’m outside walking my usual trails, full of joy, pride, grief, worry.   All of it, the whole shebang.  My stomach is churning.  And I finally settle on a phrase that partially calms me:  

My heart is so full.  I am human.  My heart is so full.  I am human.

Then I came home and had a good cry – a cry for my sister, and for her spouse and adult children and grandchildren, for the uncertainty that surrounds her health and future.   

And a cry for millions who have been treated poorly, even cruelly, at the hands of mental health professionals.  The trauma inflicted on patients in the 1970s (when “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” premiered) may not be happening in our country anymore . But we still stigmatize emotional challenges, mental illness, and quirks in behavior; we prevent humans from accessing acceptance, help, growth.  We forget that all people are to begin, human.

And now, I’m slowly caring for myself by following the kind of advice I might chart with a client.  I’m taking it slower than I usually do during the day.  And returning to old rhythms:  folding laundry, writing the grocery lists, going to the library, and then heading for my office where I will sit with other humans whose hearts are also full and who are facing loss, grief, change and are doing so with quiet courage.  Even on a Monday.  Even when they are exhausted.

Note: I wrote this on November 25. My sister, who is currently more stable, proofread this post and gave her okay for me to write about her.

Brenda Hartman-Souder, December 2019

Therapists In Therapy: A Green Flag

Thirty years ago, I applied to graduate school, convinced my main objectives for earning a master’s degree in social work were to increase my helping skills and earning potential. 

Halfway through the MSW program, however, the more compelling, underlying reason for going back to school emerged with painful clarity:  I needed to understand my own life, my symptoms of anxiety and insomnia, my relationship conundrums and the difficult patterns and issues in my family of origin.  I needed to help myself.

And so, desperate for understanding and relief, I found a therapist and began to work. 

Being in therapy as a graduate student and then as a fledgling therapist transformed me.  I learned ways I was caught in unhelpful relationship patterns.  I learned to pay attention to my symptoms and listen to their messages, rather than trying to suppress, kill or numb them.

And being in therapy made me a much better therapist.

I realized my “mess” or situation, was not another’s and if I was attending to my own, then I could better keep my own stuff out of therapy with clients.  And if I couldn’t, I could catch myself more quickly and get back to a grounded and centered way of accepting clients,  not absorbing their anxiety or blaming them for their pain.  I went from thinking I had to be an expert (who had it all together) who “treated” clients to increased awareness of what I had in common with each of them.

While I don’t regularly go to therapy now, I occasionally schedule an appointment.  This happened recently with a family situation that triggered high anxiety. My therapist helped me remember key system issues, my truth, and what I needed to do.

The bigger picture

Finding a therapist who lived and practiced family systems theory, was also something I lucked out on.

A family systems therapist changes the frame from broken, defective, ill, or diseased to something far bigger and less labeling.  A family systems therapist helps a client learn about and see the bigger picture –  at least three generations of family and the other systems they grew up in –  the way communication patterns, beliefs, hot issues, rules, rituals, tragedies, and positive events impacted them and others. 

Family systems therapists move conversations away from “Where am I broken or defective?” to “Where am I caught in my family, life or work situation?  How can learning more about my family history be a resource to me?  How do anxiety and pain get expressed or managed in my family and in me? What can I do differently? How I can take responsibility by working on myself, finding ways to care for and ground myself, work with painful or anxiety-provoking issues and trust the process?

For instance, my parents were born just before or during the Depression. While my grandparents were resourceful and made it through without terrible consequences, I inherited frugality and fears about financial scarcity that I believe are connected to the deprivation and hardship their families suffered.  This helps me not be so hard on myself when money fears surface, to separate their past from my present, and to observe without buying into my catastrophic money stories.

Being in therapy during my early years of learning to be a therapist was so foundational, I can scarcely imagine what kind of a therapist I’d be if I hadn’t taken the brave step to admit I was stuck and needed help. Now I enjoy being a therapist to therapists as part of my private practice because I know that therapists who have turned to understand and care for themselves will have more to offer their own clients.

Brenda Hartman-Souder, LCSW-R

Photo by Brenda Hartman-Souder

Nope, Not This Year

Everyone who knows me well knows I’m a gardener. I grew up in a family with a vast vegetable garden. We ate from it all summer while preserving more for winter: corn, peas, green beans, tomatoes.   My mother grew roses, petunias, geraniums and gladiolas.

And almost everywhere I’ve lived I planted a patch of something.  In New York’s north country I put in perennials that could make it through the bitter winters. When we rented an apartment in Syracuse, I begged permission from the landlord to dig up a patch of the back lawn. After buying our first home, I planted cottage gardens around the front of the house. When in Nigeria I sowed all manner of vegetable seeds until I realized the pests were different there and I couldn’t outsmart them.  But even then I persisted with a year-round flower bed, using precious water through the dry season for the beauty that helped sustain me.

In 2013 after returning to the United States, my spouse built a sturdy 28’ x 28’ fenced garden in the side lot of our home – enough to keep out deer and most of the groundhogs. I planted vegetables every summer.  Getting out in the soil was a joy.

Until recently.  The last few years I noticed I became resentful when the garden took so much time.  I’d get a clutchy feeling in my stomach thinking about the needed weeding or the beans that were ready to pick.

This spring, every time I consider gardening, a loud “NO!” rises up in me.  Something within needs to lie fallow longer than the winter. And this is a big deal for me, as gardening is part of my identity.

What does this have to do with you, client or potential client, or visitor to this blog?  

Well, it’s this: change is normal. At times something we took for granted, deeply enjoyed, felt we needed or did all the time stops bringing meaning or pleasure.   

I often ask a client, once I have learned about their challenges or symptoms, “Do you know what you need to do or stop doing or change?”  And often they know.  They just haven’t had a chance to voice it.  Or trust it.

They may need to start to look at a pattern in a relationship where they are stuck or are giving up too much of themselves for the sake of “peace.”  They may need to mourn someone or something that has died.  They may need to stop taking care of other people at their own expense. They may need to start attending  Al-Anon or AA.    They may need to quit their job and go back to school.  These are serious decisions that often take time.

My work with clients often involves helping them trust what they already know…that they are not broken or defective, but in process.  That symptoms are telling them something is out of alignment with deep values. That often grief and letting go is involved.  And that the path, though not always well-lit, is nevertheless clearer once they decide to take one step down it.

For me, even though honoring life’s cycles by getting my hands in the dirt has been vital, I need to stop vegetable gardening this year.  It’s a way of honoring some other cycle now becoming clear in me. 

I trust that when I follow my inner knowing, I’ll learn more what this is about, what opens up for me as I welcome more free time this summer.  I’m committed to allowing the garden to go ugly this year if it needs to, or loaning it out or planting a cover crop to nourish it.

Mark Nepo in The Book of Awakening, says this:  “There is very little difference between burying and planting. For often, we need to put dead things to rest, so that new life can grow.  And further, the thing put to rest—whether it be a loved one, a dream or a false way of seeing —becomes the fertilizer for the life about to form.  As the well-used thing joins with the earth, the old love fertilizes the new; the broken dream fertilizes the dream yet conceived; the painful way of being that strapped us to the world fertilizes the freer inner stance about to unfold.”

I’ll keep you posted on what this summer brings.  

And trust your own process if something in you needs to be born or to die or lie fallow.

Brenda Hartman-Souder
May 2019

Painting Credit: Greg Hartman-Souder

Thank You Tiny Acapella Choir

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A full hour
I spent outside today,
the thermometer at five degrees.

Despite weariness at the interminable winter,
once I’m out and moving,
my growl and grumble give way to
something else.

Gratitude might be too excessive a word,
but my mind quiets and
I breathe into the reverie of walk-jogging
on crunchy but plowed roads.
The day lightens blue and clear.

Today the birds,
hiding, perhaps in the blue spruces,
were singing, despite the bitter, still tundra.

I read that in winter’s cold
birds fluff their feathers
into a downy coat;
they huddle or stack together
and their body temperature
can dip a little without hypothermia setting in.

It’s the lack of food, not the cold
that’s likely to kill them.

Thank you
to whoever’s feeding these musicians
who don’t,
in the early dawn,
decide to warble
only if they are in the mood.

They sing.

Evolutionarily, they probably do so to
call for a mate or claim their space.

But I,
the human that I am,
hear hope.

Brenda Hartman-Souder

Photo by Peter Lewis on Unsplash