Every spring I spread a handful of my now 8-year old arugula seeds over the early spring soil. And every year a small lawn of arugula emerges. It looks like nearly every seed germinates. Hardy, more impervious to weather and moisture fluctuations than a lot of my greens, they haven’t yet failed to sprout.
Every year I think the same thing – surely by now these old seeds are dead. And every year, I’m wrong.
A client who worked as a farmer brought me those seeds. She’d barter part of her fee with grass-fed meat, organic eggs and a wonderful variety of vegetables. And once she brought me this hefty quantity of arugula seeds hand-harvested from the farm.
Is there a point to this story?
Yes, thanks for asking – there are several – one broad and one personal.
Spring is when we are most aware of life popping from dead-looking limbs, seeds and earth. Spinach, arugula, lettuce and coriander are growing in my raised bed right now even though it still freezes at night and has occasionally snowed since I planted them. Seeds are amazing if you let yourself think about them. Rattling around in seed packets, they look absolutely lifeless, inert. When planted in proper conditions, they break open and reach toward light.
(Look for a blog post coming soon about that little phrase “breaking open.)
But never underestimate the power of a seed – the literal seeds for planting or the metaphoric seeds waiting in you. Many clients begin therapy, not only when something painful or challenging has happened or is happening but when they “know” that something has to change. This knowledge is a seed.
Second, please consider that you are never too old or worn out for change and growth.
I recently turned 60 and it was a big deal emotionally. I think I thought I’d be all grown up by now. When I took the time to explore why I was so sobered by entering my 7th decade, I discovered regret, gratitude, reminiscence, sadness, hope, acceptance, and then finally, a deep belief that as Stanley Kunitz writes in his poem, The Layers, “I am not done with my changes.” (This is a poem worth reading, especially if you are in middle or later life.)
I have some ideas and dreams for my 60s – seeds still wanting to germinate. And I’ve worked with many clients from their early 20s into their 70s who bring seeds, that while initially dead-looking, are embedded with potential and hope.
Pain, loss, death, transitions, anxiety, depression, past trauma – none of these easy – can all be seeds. These experiences and symptoms point us to something that needs attention. When we are willing to go in the direction of our difficulties with care and kindness for ourselves, we find those seeds more ready to break open, stretch toward warmth and grow into new life. Easy? No. Possible? Yes.
What seeds might be wanting to sprout into something new, healthier or invigorating in you?
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.”
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.
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.