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

There Is Nothing Wrong With You

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That’s an ironic title for a therapist who makes her living helping people with various life problems and challenges, and who are frequently convinced there’s something terribly amiss. 

And I get it.  As a professional, I view symptoms, mistakes and problems with a different lens, but in times of deep personal stress I revert back to that kind of “I’m defective” or “I’m broken” thinking; it’s that ingrained!

Raised in the Christian faith, I was taught that I was flawed at birth – not because of anything I did but simply because I was born into an already sinful world and therefore blotted with badness. It’s taken me more than fifty years to counter this teaching of “original sin,” –  a teaching I view as untrue and damaging.

Now I believe something different.  I understand clients who come to me as humans whose challenges and symptoms are important messengers trying to get our attention.   They may certainly be painful, confusing, damaging to themselves and others, deeply entrenched or getting them in trouble.  But that does not mean they are sign of individual pathology or badness.

Turning Toward Yourself

A therapist can only truly help their clients with lessons they’ve learned themselves.  For me, finally turning to myself – my mind and my body, with kindness, acceptance and compassion has been the key.

When I started to more consistently relate to myself with genuine acceptance and friendship as I felt scared, angry, worried, depressed, tired or sad, I recognized a fundamental shift, a huge relief and a feeling of rightness.

Going Against the Grain

How is it that our culture (and religious systems) teach us to hate ourselves until or unless we reach some pinnacle of perfection?  And who decides what perfect is? You needn’t travel too far to understand that in other cultures and countries what is beautiful or right is different from our western notions.

Do you know anyone who truly loves and accepts themselves for the marvelous creature they are?  Their body, even if it’s got stretch marks, varicose veins, sagging skin or “too much” heft?  Their fine mind, even if it sometimes spins unhelpful tales and convinces us of our imperfection?  Their emotions of grief, joy, fear, worry, contentment – all of them – as entirely human and acceptable?

Clients are relieved when they can name and experience this shift – from believing they are defective, flawed and in need of a huge overhaul to truly understanding themselves as whole and good, but with habits, ingrained reactions and ways of handling their problems that CAN CHANGE. 

Clients also often fight this shift – it can take a lot of time for someone to understand that hating, criticizing, berating and rejecting one’s self never gets them anywhere on the road to health.

A Wider Lens

Applying a family systems perspective to what is going on in your life also widens the lens and can make it easier to see how futile it is to place all the blame for life’s problems on one person (yourself or others).  A systems lens allows us to see that everything is connected and affects everything else.  We are intimately connected in our family, friendship and work relationships and what others do and what we do are part of a moving, integrated, dynamic system.   No one stands alone, isolated, defective and to blame.

The paradox is that change happens quicker and more smoothly once a client starts to trust more of the time that indeed, there is nothing wrong at the core with them – that they have inner goodness, resiliencies, strengths and insight that can guide them in the work of kindly looking at and taking responsibility for what is painful.

Pema Chodron says this in Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change: “We are fundamentally good, not fundamentally flawed, and we can trust this.”

If you can see struggles, symptoms or problems as messengers while harnessing an even fledgling belief in a wise, good, core self, you can learn to work with the very pain that led you to seek help.

So, there you have it.  I won’t view you as broken, defective, or “bad.”  And I’ll gently challenge you if you view yourself that way.

Brenda Hartman-Souder, LCSW
August 2019

Photo by Alistair MacRobert on Unsplash

For further reading, consider:

Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, by Pema Chodron

Six Steps to Befriend Yourself, by Matt Licata and Jeff Foster.  You can access it in two parts on Sounds True:  https://manyvoices.soundstrue.com/6-principles-for-befriending-yourself-part-i/, and  here:  https://manyvoices.soundstrue.com/6-principles-for-befriending-yourself-part-ii/ and here:  https://manyvoices.soundstrue.com/6-principles-for-befriending-yourself-part-iii/

Restful Insomnia Article:  https://restfulinsomnia.com/how-to-make-meditation-be-more-kind/

 

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

Preventing Fire

I burnt the battered pine recipe box.  It’d become obsolete for me in the era of online recipes and no longer using those index cards from 30-odd years ago. I added the box to our fire one cold winter afternoon; it crackled, roared and burned bright for a few minutes, then whoosh, it was gone.

So, what’s the point here?  I don’t regret burning the box.  But watching it quickly disintegrate got me thinking about reactive, heated exchanges between people and the regrets that often follow.

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Reactivity is common, it happens all the time in us:  someone says or does something that triggers us, and we react, either mentally, emotionally, physically or verbally.  Or in all those ways.  

A reactive face to face argument, phone, text or Facebook exchange can heat up quickly, combust, and then reduce a relationship to ashes. Or barring that, needing significant repair.

Do you wanna do that?

Recognizing when we’re too heated, upset or triggered to communicate well and need to take time to calm down and think things through is one of the most vital skills we can learn in ourselves and in our relationships. 

Victor Frankl wrote: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

“Respond, Rather Than React”

I didn’t create this phrase but find it a vital little mantra with myself and with clients. Stopping to pause to sort out our reactions and thoughts and then responding in a way that is neither defensive or blaming and keeps communication open is a learnable skill. It is hard but doable.

Here are some steps to consider:

  • Stop when triggered or upset by something someone did or said.
  • Notice what’s happening in your body – where is your body letting you know you are angry, scared or upset?
  • Breathe into those spaces to calm them a little.
  • Notice what you are telling yourself – the storyline that automatically pops up when you feel hurt, misunderstood or blamed.
  • Make an intention not to respond until you can do so with kindness, honesty, and non-reactivity.  That may mean initially saying something like, “I’ve got to sort out my response but I’ll be in touch soon.”
  • Decide if this a battle worth fighting – get in touch with your deepest values and make a decision whether or not this warrants a reaction.  (This is different than avoiding difficult conversations with silence.)
  • Be curious – about your own reactivity – where it might come from –  and also what might be happening for the person who just fueled your fire.  Remember that you are only responsible for your actions and words, not those of others.
  • Think about how you can respond in the form of an “I” statement.  “I” statements are effective, and for more about them click here.  
  • Practice your response out loud.  Run it by someone you trust, if you can. 
  • Then, respond, owning your own thoughts and feelings instead of attacking, blaming or criticizing.  Stick to that script over and over.
  • See what this does for your next interaction with anyone….

This process takes practice (a lot of it!) and can be challenging, but it’s worth the effort you make. And there’s more to developing good communication and relationship skills, like learning to truly listen and reflect back to the other person what you have heard, which can often reduce conflict in the first place.

And, about Digital Communication…..

Social media and digital devices make it effortless to pop someone a message.   And they make it easier than ever to leave a trail of misunderstanding, hurt and relational damage.  Text and email messages are one-dimensional…we don’t have eye contact, body language or sometimes even the context in which something is being said to help us more accurately “read” what someone is saying.  I still think it’s best to save the important stuff for a face-to-face conversation or at the least, a phone call.  I know, I know – some of you are muttering – Brenda, you are SO outdated.

But I say try it, be thoughtful about what messages can be sent digitally and which ones can’t.   Whatever you decide, respond versus react.

I guarantee fewer relationships will get burnt.

Brenda Hartman-Souder
2018

Note:  One of the best blogs I’ve found on learning about and developing relationships and practicing non-violent, thoughtful communication skills is that of LaShelle Lowe-Chardé on her blog at Wise Heart.  If improving relationships is important to you, check it out.