In my family, we have 4 of the necessary 7 vaccine shots. One of us chose Johnson & Johnson, hence the odd number. So we’re halfway there. And I’m a little giddy about soon being fully vaccinated.
We are all living through an ordeal. The 13-month and counting pandemic upended our routines, relationships, living spaces, work, and everyday activities. We’ve been crabby and sad, we’ve adjusted and found new ways to manage, all while living in a time warp. And now, with effective vaccinations, we are starting to eye the future and our possibilities as life opens up.
As a therapist, I hold deep respect for how clients faced the pandemic, how they expressed emotion and endured, how they did what was needed to keep themselves and others safe, and kept working on their goals. A crisis like the pandemic brings out the best and the worst in us and clients have been creative, resourceful, and have also suffered and faced themselves in new, sometimes painful ways. They are meeting with me virtually, a significant shift for all but a few of them. Some clients prefer telehealth while others look forward to sitting together again in my office. I look forward to that too and anticipate providing both in-person and telehealth services. The pandemic forced this innovative shift for me and I’m grateful for that.
Clients are also expressing trepidation about how to emerge from the cage or cocoon – depending on how the pandemic has been experienced by them – of their homes. And while I’m relieved to be vaccinated, I can relate, especially as an introvert. I’ve missed seeing clients in the office, and friends in my home, at restaurants or gatherings. But I’ve also kind of liked the simple schedule of outdoor walks with friends, phone calls and texts with extended family members, and pretty much hanging out with my spouse and young adult children. I’m aware that stepping out into social activities and public events might feel strange, be difficult, might lead to a heightened vulnerability. We need to give ourselves time to adjust yet again.
Courtney Martin’s blog post titled “Internally Rearranged.” is terrific. I hope you’ll read it here and give yourself space to think through your own internal shifts. I know I keep referring to her writing – but it’s so spot-on, especially through this past year. I’m pretty sure that as we contemplate and accept how we’ve changed, we’ll know more clearly how to step into the next phase of the pandemic.
Stay well, be patient. We’re getting through this, and that’s cause for celebration.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.
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.”
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.
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.
“Don’t despair if your heart has been through a lot of trauma. Sometimes, that’s how beautiful hearts are remade: they are shattered first.”Yasmin Mogahed
Last fall I saw a house being demolished. The equipment necessary to bring it down was parked on the road and slowed my journey up Oak Street to my office, so every day I’d glance quickly to see more of the house being knocked to pieces.
I don’t remember what it looked like –it was probably a modest two-story like other simple colonials that line the street.And I don’t know anything about the lives of the families that lived there, the story of that particular house or why it was razed.It might be a sad or tragic story to tell.I love the old homes in our city and am always disappointed when one has to go.
But I was also curious to see what happens next.
Our family owns an empty lot where a two-family home stood.Information about what happened is sparse but one short article I found on microfiche reported the house was destroyed in a fire in the 1970’s.No one was injured and there was speculation about insurance fraud, but by the time we bought our home, it was an empty expanse of crabgrass, languishing perennials (but some very fine peonies), a concrete driveway slab at the curb, and bits of the garage foundation at the back. It was pretty ugly.
That empty lot played a big factor in our decision to buy this house. We had it graded, fenced and finished out with topsoil and grass seed.Then we dug a garden and developed, over the next 17 years, perennial and vegetable beds that have provided beauty and sustenance.Our children played in the yard when they were little, it’s a great space for hosting potlucks and also gives us extra space on a street where homes were sometimes constructed too close together to let the sun in.
My point?Destruction can lead to something good both in property and in personal experience.Emptiness can be a fertile space for something new to grow.
In therapy, persons often come knowing that something isn’t working, that reactive or addictive patterns in themselves or relationships are causing stalemate and damage. Or that a relationship or job or stage of life or dream is ending.
Something is being demolished….and this is part of life – it’s predictable.And waiting alongside sorrow, shock, resistance, and anger is also the possibility of what might be born after an ending.But the ending has to come first.
People can move from what’s empty, unusable or just plain over to welcome something new, hopeful, meaningful, useful.It’s not easy, it’s not pretty or elegant – all that demolition and mess and hauling away of what was; but it’s doable, necessary and important all the same.
Therapy should be a safe place for clients:
to be listened to and understood,
to know, as a foundation under their feet, their strengths, values, connections, and resilience– what’s going to help them make it through
and then to understand what has to change in order for growth to occur; what needs to be deconstructed or demolished or finished so that something healthier and more workable can emerge.
It’s possible to both grieve painful endings AND hold onto the belief that something lovely, strong or meaningful might be built in the space left by ending old habits, surrendering a dream, facing sorrow, or releasing faulty beliefs.
In just the last week, I noticed that the empty lot I drive by has been leveled, topsoil and straw spread.I’m waiting to see shoots of grass poke up through.
You will know a respectful home once stood there, that it’s not there anymore and you will also appreciate the little rectangle of green possibility.
Brenda Hartman-Souder, June 2018
Some good reading on endings, grief transitions, etc.:
Transitions:Making Sense of Life’s Changes by William Bridges
Healing Through the Dark Emotions:The Wisdom of Grief, Fear and Despair by Miriam Greenspan
Kelly Brogan, MD’s website:https://kellybroganmd.com/ I don’t necessarily agree with all of Dr. Brogan’s expressed views and beliefs, but her writing on facing pain, the transformation possible when leaning into one’s suffering instead of running from it, are powerful.
Grief Recovery Handbook by Russell Friedman & John W. James