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Category Archives: Emotional Safety

Don’t stress about it (I just might take that advice)

Today I was supposed to pick up some stuff from a colleague. Just a few things for me, not something that had to be transported immediately from one person to another or a major part of my job – just personal. This isn’t a ‘several times a day’ kind of thing, but it does happen a lot in my job. People have stuff, need to get stuff out of their space and given to people who can use stuff, stuff is exchanged.

Mind you, I don’t want someone reading this to go into a career in counseling or a related field on the basis of getting stuff. (From what I’ve heard, try being anyone famous for that. Bonus points for famous and someone who makes regular comments about stuff on the computer, radio, or TV.)  But anyhow, while counseling, social work, and the like are not professions filled with free wardrobes or being able to specify what colour of candy in your trailer, they do tend to get you ‘stuff’ on a regular basis.

Some examples:I have a tote bag from my supervisor – she went to a training, was given assorted items with the logos of the businesses sponsoring the training, and didn’t have a use for the bag. I never run out of pens or post-it notes, as long as I’m willing to use ones with ‘Eating Disorder Centers’ or ‘Behavioral Health Services’ blazoned on them, because they give this kind of thing away by the handful at trainings. I got a whole set of leather coasters once at a workshop because the guy giving them away was packing up and didn’t want to have to take a ton of them back (I’ve been decoupaging the labels from really cool drinks onto them). I get stuff.

When perishable items or simply a huge amount of items are given to shelters, counseling centers, housing centers, etc; things that are left over get given to the people who work & volunteer there. (I once left a shelter with as many loaves of bread as I could carry – and then gave some to a homeless guy at the corner where I turned off of the interstate.  So it gets to the people who need it -just maybe by an interesting route 😉  )

Just a note here, please, PLEASE don’t stop donating on the basis that therapists end up with ‘stuff’!  No matter what you have to give, someone can use it. (Except maybe germs. Every winter there’s way too many colds & flus going around every shelter & safehouse & counseling center I know of. We all have plenty of germs. If you think you have a really unusual one, contact the CDC.)  Everything else, though, can be used. Bread & beach balls, lip gloss & lotion, diapers, tires, bus passes – ever considered giving a half-used member ship to the zoo or museum or gym to a safehouse if you’re moving and it still has half a year on it?  A lot of places could make that work for someone!

DO check first – some places don’t take items x, y,or z – they partner with the place down the street who has the room or the freezers or whatever. But we can use anything – except germs.

The thing is, stuff like those loaves of bread expire pretty quickly. Sunscreen & make-up take longer, but they still go off after a while. And we can’t tell you if we’re going to have 87 women who all need ‘coppery sand’ face powder, for example,  or only two or three.  So when things have been given to as many people in need as possible and there’s extra stuff, counselors and caseworkers and the wonderful fantastic people who make the computers keep working and manage the front desk and whoever else get offered stuff.  And your donation is still helping someone. Not having to buy bread for two weeks PLUS giving some to the guy I passed at the corner?  Major help that month!

So I was supposed to meet up with a colleague today to pick up some stuff. I said I could probably adjust my schedule just fine to meet up with her. Until this morning, when my schedule started going a bit sideways. Schedules do that sometimes.  I’m usually pretty relaxed when it happens to other people. I know it happens to everyone. But when it happens to me, it bothers me.

Part of it is that I were left to my own devices I wouldn’t have such a thing as a schedule. In my heart I want to live in a time and place where sun or clouds, warm or cool, day, night, impulse and inspiration drive me, and not just me, but everyone.  I’d love, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, to be the wise woman at the edge of the village. I’d tend my gardens and create my art and when people needed advice or a shoulder to cry on or emotional guidance, they would come out my way, carrying a basket of fruit or a jug of milk or a few eggs or a loaf of bread in payment. And I’d set aside whatever I was doing, or maybe just continue weeding or kneading bread or whatever, and we’d talk.

I’m actually trying to do some of that.  I’m happier when I work on my garden on good garden days, paint on good painting days, bake or make jewelry or go for a walk when it feels right to do those things.  I’m even working on having counseling clients sit outside with me (although not this week, it’s been snowy, blowy, and drippy). I’m working on the idea of clients going for a walk, or how people would feel if they & I worked on knitting or embroidery while we talked. (Although if I’m writing stuff down or drawing a kinda stick-figure version of the brain or something, I need both hands, and my whiteboard.)  And when I’m guiding a client through an art exercise, there are times when I get to do art, too; although it’s whatever supports or guides their project, it’s still art!

But the time and place I live in also requires schedules. The hotline run by the local domestic violence organization is staffed 24 hours. That means for me, and all of us who staff it, there has to be a schedule. Twenty people available on Tuesday and no one on Saturday would NOT be ’24 hour’.  It would also be kinda hard to stuff twenty people into the office, or even into two or three offices!

If I’m going to meet with a client, they deserve to have the time for themselves. And since I live in an area much larger and more occupied  than a village, if I decide to go to the store, it’s not very likely that a client will see me go past and wait until I’m on the way home to come out to my office. So I have schedules, and appointments, and even a clock.

If I’m meeting with a group; leading a group, or as a member of a counselors’ support or supervision or educational meeting, or going to yoga or dance, or any group of people, then we all have to meet at the same place, at the same time. We all have to work around individual clients (if we have them) or other groups or staffing the 24-hour phone line or driving clients from point A to point B or whatever we do.  We have to work all of that around errands and families and social occasions and the very important ways we take care of ourselves.  No matter how perfect the day is for a walk along the creek or to stay in with a cup of cocoa, there are some things that have to be scheduled.

I also tend toward being the type of person who tries to take care of everyone else first.  Alongside that need to follow the patterns of the seasons and the weather and my own interests is a strong belief that I should be taking care of you. If there’s a meeting of people, and I don’t strictly have to be at the meeting but it’s the best time to hand out the extra stuff (you never know – I could get more post-its!), then I should manage my schedule to be there, not have you manage to meet me. (Not always. I know. I’m working on it.)

Sometimes, that’s hard. This morning, when I realized scheduling was going to be pretty difficult today, I e-mailed the person in charge to apologize. (Something I’ve come to realize is that people work best with changes in plans if you tell them as early as possible.) I let her know that my schedule wasn’t quite as workable as it seemed the other day when I said I could be there. I said that I didn’t mind coming by to pick things up at another time, but I didn’t want her to feel pressured – she could give it to someone else, instead.

Her return e-mail simply said that she could leave the things in a space in the staff area for me to pick up later, and not to stress about it. “Don’t stress about it.”  What a fantastic sentence. At the intersection of various angles of self-care, care for others, things I need to do, things I want to do, things I said I’d do, things others need to do: ‘Don’t stress about it’.

She meant that this particular errand could be done without each of us having to match times perfectly, but I’m hearing it more deeply.  I’m coming up on having people over for a holiday dinner. I need to tidy up the house. I have things to do for my work. I have things to do for myself. I have things I need to do before I can do other things.  Don’t stress about it.

I need to be reminded of this quite often. As much as I want to live in harmony with myself and my world, I tend to think everyone else needs their needs met first, and it can be stressful. Don’t stress about it. I suspect quite a few other people need to be reminded about this, too. I wonder what would happen if we all reminded each other a bit more. Come over when you can; don’t stress about it. Get that finished as you’re able; don’t stress about it. Happy holidays; don’t stress about it.

I wonder how that would work as a closing in an e-mail or on the phone? Thank you. I appreciate it. I love you. Sincerely. Don’t stress about it.

I just might give it a try as a closing in some of my communications. But I’ll try not to stress about it.

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How’s your dashboard working? More on trust

Soooo… a few posts back I promised to write more about trust.  It’s a huge topic, and I don’t think I’ll get to the end of it any time soon. But here’s the next installment…

I believe I stated previously that so-called ‘negative’ emotions like fear or anger aren’t actually bad things – they’re like all emotions, and emotions are signals to tell you what’s going on – like emotional dashboard lights.  Are you in the right gear?  Do you need to add oil to your car? Is the door shut?  Emotions are designed to work the same way; they ‘light up’ when there’s a ‘go ahead’ or ‘don’t do that right now’ or ‘proceed with caution’.  That’s a good thing, and even when we wish the situation was different, knowing what’s ahead is usually better than stumbling in with no warnings.  However, emotions don’t always work properly, and even when they do, they don’t always agree with the emotions of the guy next to you.  When that happens, it can be a problem.  It can be a BIG problem.

Continuing with the ‘indicator light’ analogy – have you ever driven a car that has a permanent indicator light on?  Or one that flickers on  off regardless of what’s actually going on in the engine?  (If this has never happened to you, feel free to buy me a new car whenever you want 😉 )  For those who haven’t driven older cars, or who don’t drive (or who never bother with looking at the dashboard); cars have a LOT of potential indicators. Nearly everyone relies on things like the speedometer & gas gauge.  Many years ago when I was just old enough to be out on my own, the car I drove had a broken speedometer. As far as it was concerned, you weren’t going any miles (or kilometers, for that mater) per hour at all.  That meant you had to pretty much guesstimate based on how fast other traffic was going, and slow down just in case if there was a cop around.  Things like the speedometer & the gas gauge tend to be passive – if they’re broken, they simply don’t register anything.  Emotions like that are more like some kinds of depression – everything is flat, and it’s hard to know what’s really happening, because not much is showing up.

Cars also have a bunch of lights &/or sounds telling you things like your oil is low, your engine is too hot, you need to get the engine looked at (nice vague warning there).  They might make noise if a door is open or a seat-belt unfastened – some even have a recorded voice telling you just what’s happening.  My current car has the ‘check engine’ light permanently on.  In this case, it doesn’t mean anything except that the car is coming up on being old enough to vote and over time even cars that are well cared for get some quirks. I can ignore that light. It’s small, it’s unobtrusive, and I know it’s not a problem. But what if…

What if I was driving a car that had Every Single Light on? Or if every light randomly went on & off many times in even a short drive? That would include the turn-signals, that also make a click-click-click noise, and the ‘open door’ dinging sound, even if the door was closed.  Add a random beep or a voice that was supposed to signal a loose seat-belt (my car doesn’t have this, but many cars do) – but did it just on a whim, regardless of seat-belts actually in use?  I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking that a short trip, just a mile or two away, would be driving me nuts.  I kinda think I wouldn’t want to go out in that car unless it was an EXTREME emergency.

This is what it’s like for people whose emotions are too sensitive.  Instead of useful spikes & drops & flows of feelings that help gauge a good (or bad) day, it feels like EVERY day is flickering and dinging and beeping and pretty much, you just want it to stop!  There’s currently two common diagnoses for this kind of feeling. One is Anxiety Disorders – situations where all the worry lights, fear sirens, anxiousness beeping are all going off – and you really don’t know why.  It could be in the middle of the frozen foods or at the park or in church – often the emotions don’t seem very related to actual problems at all.  What they do relate to is messages from way back in the brain that made sense at one time.  There are different kinds of anxiety disorders, but they all refer to having a brain that’s not giving emotional feedback properly & usefully.

The other common diagnosis is ADD, which stands for Attention Deficit Disorder.  It used to be called Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) if lack of attention made someone hyper, and ADD if it made them zone out.  Then the powers that be changed the name, and now it’s all ADD, with different subtypes (hyperactive is one, lack of attention is another, and so forth).  There’s a lot of controversy about whether ADD is real, if it’s overdiagnosed (especially among children who naturally need to run around and whose attention spans aren’t very big yet).  However, for people who do have it, it’s more like different indicator lights going on & off.  Instead of overwhelming emotions on full force, ADD is described more like ‘okay, I’m interested in math… no, wait, I’m tired.. no, I’m too hyper, and anxious… and so forth.  Interestingly enough, some research suggests that kids & teens who have anxiety disorders often act more like someone with attention problems than anxiety problems.  If you’re anxious or can’t trust your own signals, you’re going to be pretty distracted!

Bringing this back to the real world, feeling emotions instead of a dashboard full of lights – what do we do about it???  This is a situation that isn’t about a rational way to trust someone else, it’s about trusting yourself.  How do you trust yourself to know what you need and want when your ‘dashboard’ is that screwed up?  Where did it start?  Why is it doing this?

My own perspective is that most people start with something that actually does provoke a real emotion.  There are theories that all anxiety or ADD are entirely based on brain chemistry and can be fixed with medications, but I think that most often, a real incident came first.  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), for example, is considered a type of anxiety disorder, and it is by definition cased by going through a traumatic situation. That’s a fairly obvious example, even if the recovery part isn’t nearly as simple. There are other situations, though, that can provoke ongoing anxiety without being as obvious.

When I was a kid, my mom gave me a strong lecture on not trying to catch bees.  I was young, I was interested in bugs & birds & animals & plants and was in general just the kind of kid who would try to catch a bee and end up stung.  So she told me not to catch bees, that bees would sting, that stings were ‘ouch’.  I developed a bit of a phobia of bees for a while. It was like my emotional ‘look out for the bee’ light went off if there was a bee anywhere nearby, not just if it was close enough to cause a problem.  Eventually I worked at getting over that fear (aided partly by being a teenager who didn’t want to look scared in front of my peers).  But a mild phobia of bees was also likely very helpful when I was a child.

What if it hadn’t stayed mild?  What if my brain had decided that beetles look kind of like bees (and start with the same syllable), so I should be scared of them, too?  What if I had then noticed that an awful lot of bees, and beetles, were found outside and decided I shouldn’t go outdoors?  If events in my life had gone in a different direction I could have all-out agoraphobia (fear of being outdoors), and I wouldn’t have any idea where it came from.  My ‘warning system’ would be going off too often for too many reasons; but it would have had a starting place, and things that bumped it up along the way.

Dealing with an overwhelming ‘dashboard’ of emotions is NOT easy!  By the time everything is signalling, it’s pretty hard to trace it back to one bee.  Sometimes people can, and need to, and other times they can’t, and shouldn’t. There are quite a few tools to help, but it treatment can still be like a baffled mechanic trying each thing in turn to see if it makes a change. The important thing is, you aren’t crazy, you have some very sensitive emotions, and even better, your brain can help fix itself!  A car has to rely on a mechanic, but a brain can learn to re-work its emotions. Some people need to know what caused the problem, and others just need to work toward the solution.  Both methods are okay, and when I’m working with someone whose emotions are overwhelming them too much, we can do either or both – whatever seems best.

Part of that process ends up dealing with trust.  There’s knowing why things got screwed up, there’s helping the brain learn or re-learn how to give feedback in ways that are useful and functional. And then there’s learning to trust yourself – both to trust your emotions, and to trust that if you have a bad day it’s not the start of a bad life.  Healing from anything is going to involve some times that feel all wrong. Sometimes you even learn more when things go wrong, because you can see what they are and what happened NOW, instead of trying to untangle possibilities from way back when!

Trusting yourself to trust.  That’s an awfully big job, but it’s one that’s so very worthwhile.

 

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Trust, distrust, mistrust – what’s it made of, anyhow?

Trust has been coming up a lot for me lately. (You may have noticed this if you read my previous post.) I’m not at all surprised. Trust is something we all deal with; and we don’t get to just learn it once and maybe stop in for a refresher course every 10 to 20 years. No, trust is something that comes up in every relationship, in all kinds of circumstances, in nearly every interaction. Trust is at work when we go ahead and go because the light is green and that means that the people coming on the other street should have a red light and honour it and stop. When I stop to think about how many times and places I have to trust someone I’ve never even met just to drive to the store, to mail a letter, to order a pizza… yes, trust comes up all over the place, all the time.

Since it does, it’s hardly a surprise that trust is going to come up pretty regularly in conversations with clients. Clients are people. They also drive and shop and send letters and order pizza. They talk to friends and family members and significant others. Trust and distrust are ubiquitous.

Achieving the goal of knowing when to trust, how to trust, who to trust is perhaps not so ubiquitous. Even the most well-adjusted, emotionally healthy person on the planet is going to have times where they feel mistrust, or trust when they shouldn’t, or wonder if their trust is being abused.   (I’m also pretty convinced that the most well-adjusted, emotionally healthy person on the planet spends most of their time hiding out somewhere trying to avoid those of us who are not nearly as sane and balanced.) So I think I can say that most of my clients are just like me in this. They aren’t always balanced, they have issues, they wonder if they’re doing things right. We all do.

They’re also like me in that they don’t just wonder, they go to therapy, they talk and write and paint and move and think and journal and share their way through those issues. They have the guts to confront their fears and shadows and imperfections. To all my clients, and me, who also sees a therapist, and everyone else out there in therapy: Way to go Us!!! Therapy is not ubiquitous, even when it should be.

One of the things that people in and out of therapy work on is trust. So just what is trust? How do we break it down to knowing when something feels trustworthy and when it doesn’t? Is it a feeling? A reaction? A thought?

There are a lot of answers out there, but I’m taking it down to a simple definition. Trust is a state of congruence.

Trust is not specifically an emotion. Emotions come in many shades and strengths and variations (sort of like paint – there may be a future post embedded in that thought 😉 ). But taken down to basics, emotions come in roughly five or six types. Glad, Sad, Mad (I like starting those out that way because they rhyme); then Fear, Shame, and if you want a sixth, Alone. Each of these can be big or small, can be healthy or unhealthy, can be separate or combined with other emotions. Emotions are immediate responses from the brain whenever we run into circumstances that set them off. They are, among other things, like little areas that light up to warn us of what’s happening.

Trust isn’t an emotion, because it has more thinking and assessing in it. But it’s not just a thought, because many of us, myself included, go with gut feelings or reactions we can’t fully define in determining trust. Trust includes input from all of these.

Trust is congruence. We all have sets input: thoughts, feelings, memories, and information about any particular situation. When current information, past memories, thoughts, and feelings about a particular person or idea or topic all agree and support each other, we tend to trust that person or situation quite a lot. When our thoughts and feelings and different pieces of information and memory are all in conflict about something or someone, we tend to distrust quite a lot.

Most of the time we have small amounts of incongruence on any particular topic. Information, emotion, and thoughts might match up, but old memories aren’t in agreement. A situation makes us feel both thrilled and excited (both of which are variations on glad or happy) and nervous and worried (variations on scared). We have nothing but positive information and facts, but something feels wrong or off. Each of these situations has places where input just isn’t agreeing.

It’s not comfortable to just sit around without deciding what to do about anything, and it certainly isn’t productive, so we find ways to weigh the input so it’s easier to clearly trust and go forward, or distrust and stop. Knowing where memories come from and why is one way to solve the dilemma. If a review in the news, a friend, and an advertisement all say that a restaurant is good, the smells and sights are appetizing, the menu has foods I like; but the past three times I’ve gone out to eat I really disliked the food; I’m weighing current information, thoughts, and emotions against memories. Assuming that the memories aren’t of the same restaurant, I’m likely to decide to try trusting it. But if my memories are of that particular place, those memories weight a lot more, and just might outvote everything else.

There are times when people know they will be scared of something they want – stage fright or anxiety about a job interview are great examples. Many people refuse to allow their feelings of fear to make the decision. Others are too scared anyhow. Of all the kinds of input, emotions and physical feelings have the strongest immediate force.

There are thousands of examples I could put here, but they all boil down to the same result. Conflicting information results in mistrust. Deciding how to act on trust or mistrust requires knowledge of self and knowledge of outside sources. Regardless of the strength of the input, how realistic it is matters a great deal.

When I work with an adult survivor of childhood abuse, I can guarantee that their memories of childhood will be incongruent with any other input. Even if a survivor is assessing a situation involving the people who perpetrated abuse, their own situation is different. I am a survivor. My memories tell me that my abusers are all adults with a lot of power, that they are all larger than me, and that I am always small and have no power of my own. That was true then, but it isn’t true now. I can acknowledge my fears and honour them; but they aren’t an accurate source of information for situations now.

Instead, I have to consider what I know to be true now. I know that I am an adult. I know I’ve taken courses in self defense. I know that I have a lot of people who have heard my story and believe me. I know that I can ask a friend to come with me if I’m worried. I know that I can make sure I have a way to leave at any time, have a cell phone programmed to dial a friend, and talk to other people to make a decision. I have a lot of power and choices now that I didn’t have as a child.

Many times, the decision to trust or not trust gets way more complex than this, of course. But the basis of trust is the same. When all or most of the input matches up, we feel like we can trust the situation. Even when all the input is saying this is a very bad idea, we can trust – we trust ourselves to get out fast! When input is confusing and conflicting, we feel mistrust, and it is hard to know who to trust and what to do.

From there, two of the most difficult situations are ones where trust doesn’t matter and ones where trust is misplaced. I’ll follow up on these in future posts, because they each deserve their own discussion. Trust is not always the answer. The answer to trust, however, is still congruence. The next time you find yourself in a trust dilemma, try to separate and identify each piece of input. Then try to determine how much each piece really matters in the situation, and how much each piece itself is true. (It’s one of the reasons therapists like articles and books that have a lot of research and support from other articles and books. Stuff that has a lot of support from other sources is more trustworthy that something that’s one person’s idea. If we’re going to be applying a new idea to actual people who are trying to work through tough issues, we want to be able to trust the information we’re using.)

If you can decide how much each piece of input matters, how strongly it affects you, and how truthful it is, you’ve worked out a lot of how much to trust this situation. You go forward, and you see the results of your decision. Then you can use them to help figure out how much to trust the next thing, and to look back and see if the input you had was worthwhile. That’s the process of learning to trust. It’s not a very easy process, but it’s a very worthwhile one. I wish you good luck and clear thinking in that process and hope you’ll wish some back to me. We’re all on different paths, but we’re all on this journey together.

 

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Enough trust to dance on

I am primarily a visual and kinaesthetic learner. This means that my favourite ways to really learn & understand something are seeing & doing.

(If you’re interested in how you learn, the VARK test is an easy online questionnaire that can give you a lot of insight. Go to vark-learn.com – you can take the questionnaire, read about different learning styles, all kinds of stuff!)

It also means that a lot of what I write uses metaphors that refer to seeing & feeling.

Lately the subject of trust has come up in several places in my life. It’s come up with different clients, it’s come up when talking with my spouse, it’s something I’m thinking about; so I wanted to give a good look at one of my favourite analogies.

To me, trust is like a floor. Ideally, it’s a good, sturdy, solid floor. It has enough space to move around on, at the very least – maybe more. When someone has grown up in a good family, been cared for and loved and guided and given discipline when needed and plenty of praise and knows where they stand, so to speak, that person has a floor. They do know ‘where they stand’, or to put it another way, they have an under-standing. They have something their life is based on; usually some combination of family, friends, social understanding, spiritual beliefs, and ideas about who they are as a person. That understanding is where trust comes from.

When something happens to damage trust: divorce, or a horrible fight; having a partner cheat, going through the death of a loved one; being raped or attacked or assaulted or a home robbery or natural disaster or so many other things smash a hole in the floor. It may be a case where a few boards need replaced (if we’re thinking of a hardwood floor), or where concrete or stone need to be fixed (if it’s a harder material). It could be so bad it damages a support that holds the whole floor up, or it could be a minor nick that can be buffed out. It might even be a dent or scar that’s left in place as a memory or a point of pride in survival. But when things happen that affect our basic trust, our base, they damage that base. They damage our floors.

This first example assumes that someone starts with a pretty strong floor. When someone has been abused in childhood, though; or neglected or abandoned; or has any major traumas as a child that aren’t dealt with then; their floor doesn’t get built very far or very well. A survivor of childhood abuse or neglect is more likely to be balancing precariously on a few boards, or trying to reach everything in their lives while standing on a plastic step-stool. Not only is it hard to move forward with no floor to walk on, but it’s so much harder to fix the problem when there isn’t a floor there, or the floor is rigged together from mismatched bits and pieces.

In an ideal world, a child starts out not needing their own ‘floor’. An infant is literally carried. They share their parents’ floor. Healthy parents with good parenting skills provide the materials to build a solid base, a good support, and the child starts seeing what goes where as they grow. A toddler is figuring out how to stand in a metaphorical sense as well as a literal one. They discover just what kind of flooring, what shape and size and strength they will need as they explore climbing onto a couch, over a dog, onto a shelf (with parents frantically chasing after). Toddlers discover that falling down hurts, and that they really love spinning in circles, and rolling down hills is fun. And that healthy child has parents and others who realize that their child’s view is of a strong foundation. The child sees what they build as amazingly large and amazingly strong; because it is so much bigger than it was the day before, and the day before that. But these caretakers also realize that a child often has a weaker foundation than they think they do, and they still hold their child next to them, sharing their own trust, their own ‘floor’, to keep their child steady as they explore.

If we – both those who grew up naturally and easily building a secure foundation and those who have put one together later in life and those who are still working at it – look at the resources that someone with long-term abuse or neglect or trauma is dealing with, it’s pretty easy to see how difficult it is to trust.   Someone whose floor is badly damaged, or never built well at all, is likely to keep on having difficulties. We have another common idiom for this. We say that they ‘fall through the cracks’. Their own floor is full of not just cracks, but gaping holes, places mended with sub-standard material, and dangerously weak places, because this is all that person had to work with.

Then they try to get help from various agencies and centers and assistance programs – and these programs are often not well esteemed in society. They are not well-funded; they can’t afford enough staff, enough space, enough resources for everyone who needs help. Not because they don’t want to be, but because resources have to come from somewhere, and it may be hard for someone with a firm foundation to compare their own under-standing to another’s. These agencies do their best to collectively create a strong, sturdy floor for their clients, but it doesn’t stretch out far enough to hold everyone who needs it. There isn’t enough in the budget to always keep it in repair. Most of all, it’s hard to line up the bridges and corridors linking one agency to another. And clients slip through their own cracks and through the cracks in the organizations that try to catch them.

When I work with a client on trust, I like to bring up the analogy of a floor. I like to start with the idea that each of us needs to begin by finding a few bricks or boards of security in ourselves. We need to create a space of trust that’s big enough to stand on, to sit on; maybe even big enough to lie down on. Those materials come from being trustworthy to ourselves.

Yesterday evening, I knew I was low on milk. I knew that I’d want milk the next day (I really love my tea in the English style, with honey & milk). After my last clients of the day left for their homes, I put on my walking shoes and my coat, and went out to get a gallon of milk. That action created a brick or two of trust in me for me. I can trust myself to go get milk. I can use those ‘bricks’ to expand my floor, or to support an edge that might be a bit weak.

I’m gonna need it. I have an interview this afternoon that will hopefully result on getting to work with more clients. To get there, I had to trust myself to contact the group I’m interviewing with. I had to believe that my resume & question answering was good enough. I had to ask people if I could use them for recommendations – and that meant I had to have extended enough of my floor earlier to reach people & met people so I had people to ask. Today I have to trust that whatever I wear, it’s the right thing (or close enough). I have to get myself to the appointment, I have to talk to the interviewers, I have to present the skills I have that would be an asset to their work.

That’s a lot to ask from one small brick. It’s not all on that brick; I have others from previous times that I trusted myself to follow through, to care for me, and then did. I have more from learning to trust a few others, and to receive bricks or boards or building suggestions to make my floor stronger – strong enough to let me take a bit of a reach without falling through.

Let’s rewind, though, all the way back to when I was a teenager. I’d been in several foster homes, because my parents weren’t trustworthy. Not in a teenage ‘my parents are idiots’ way, but in a way that adult counselors and social workers agreed were not trustworthy. I needed to get an after-school job to start saving money for when I was out on my own. I didn’t have many ways to get to places that hired teenagers (if you’re thinking ‘every fast-food place out there’ – you’re right). I didn’t trust myself enough to present myself well. When I did get a job, every single day scared me. It wasn’t a job I liked (no surprise there). It barely paid enough that I could afford my share of the rent in a shared apartment. My meals featured a lot of leftover fried fish from said job.

In that time, I was building some of my floor. I was learning who I could rely on, and who I couldn’t. I was finding ways to make my money and time stretch farther. But I was also putting enough pressure on my floor to break perhaps 2 or every 3 boards I added. Bicycling to work (I didn’t have a car), physically hurt. Leftovers from a fast-food restraint aren’t very nutritious or very appetizing. My trust in myself and in other people had gaps and weak places and splinters and places that tripped me every time. That meant that in trying to add, to extend, to strengthen, I was handicapped before I even started by a very messed up sense of trust to stand on and reach out.

I was discovering just how many places there were to fall through the floor that was supposed to catch me; such as not being able to go to college. My social worker arranged that I could stay with my foster family until I graduated high school, but I turned 18 several months prior to graduation. That meant my legal guardian from my 18th birthday on was me, but financial aid paperwork insisted on either the information of the parents/guardians who would be supporting me in college (none), or the signature of the same parent or guardian stating that they would not be supporting me through college – still none. I was also failing to discover places to get help. Before you can ask for help, you have to know that help is there and you have to be able to reach out far enough for someone to reach back. It took a while to build those first shaky bridges out to others.

{Just a note: A few years later the FAFSA – the national financial aid form – was adjusted to allow the option of checking the box ‘I was in foster care or a ward of the state at the time I turned 18’ just for occasions like mine. But it meant that despite being accepted to college, I couldn’t go straight from high school, I had to go later on. I fell through that crack in that floor, and I believe it was significantly harder to climb back up, repair the crack, and go forward again.}

Adding up each person who wasn’t given the emotional supplies, tools, & guidance to build trust – that’s a lot of people. Then we need to add the ones who have had their trust damaged later. We’re social creatures. We reach out. When we find someone that we think we can care for (as a friend or romantically or as part of the family, it doesn’t matter), we tend to try to extend our own floors to meet with theirs. Sometimes it’s a narrow bridge – maybe even with a gate in the middle.

Other times we meld our floor to theirs, creating one unbroken expanse… but what if that person breaks our trust. The edge of our floor is now jagged, ripped up, damaged. It takes a lot of work to re-build that edge so it’s strong and smooth, and longer to make it truly strong enough to join to someone else.

If we’re attacked, raped, mugged, robbed; suffer injury or illness or a fire or a flood, our trust in the world and in ourselves is damaged. It could be a few dents, or it could be a crater right in the middle. People say to ‘pick yourself up’; to ‘keep on going’. They say ‘hasn’t enough time passed’ or ‘you can’t let what happened rule your life’. It takes more energy to keep on going when you have to detour around a hole in your foundation, or to avoid the jagged edges. It takes even more energy to go on going on AND to find the materials to replace that hole in your floor – in your trust.

In going on, in avoiding the cracks and holes where possible and pulling myself out when I do fall in, the goal is to have a floor big enough and strong enough to dance on. One that’s strong enough to hold others. One where I can invite others to come close enough for a dance – and one that’s mine so I can invite them to leave if necessary, too. I want a floor that will support walls if I want some spaces just for me, and other spaces to share. I want to be able to join my floor to others’ if I choose; but I want to have the insight not to join to someone who will rip up my floor because they decide to detach theirs. I don’t want to trick myself into standing on someone else’s floor, I want my own.

I am a person a counselor, a journeyer, a gardener, an artist. I love and I am loved. I am a dancer, and I want a floor that I can dance on.

 

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Reflections on therapists; Reflections to clients

Today I’m writing in response to something I read on another blog that hit home in several different ways for me. It’s not the first time I’ve heard something similar, and while I wish things were different, it won’t be the last. At the same time, I can put myself on the other side of the situation. The issue was between a client and a therapist, and while I don’t think I can put myself into the other therapist’s shoes, I can definitely put myself into the seat next to her in a classroom or at a seminar.

Rephrasing this in my own words, the issue involved the therapist telling the client that she might feel less stress if she didn’t make herself do so much so often. While I believe the therapist meant well and certainly had a point that people are often stressed by doing more than they can or want to do, the client was understandably upset by this. The stressful things she makes herself do involve caring for her children, taking care of herself, managing household chores, and similar issues. The therapist followed this up with telling the client she is very self-aware, very good at using coping skills, and that she, the therapist, can’t really do anything else for the client, so she will stop seeing her.

The client writes that she felt rejected, that she was already having problems with depression (hence seeing a therapist) and that the rejection didn’t help, and that she really wonders if life just doesn’t ever get better – that she will always feel too tired, too sad, to stressed.

Reading this reminded me of two other instances. One happened in the town I now live in, where someone told me that the local county mental health clinic basically looks at people’s ability to meet day-to-day needs, and does not push farther. They want clients in and out in 8 sessions, ideally, and do not want to take the time if a client comes in asking for help to look at past baggage that they have been carrying for years. The attitude is ‘you’re functional. Leave it alone’.

The second instance happened to me several years ago. I was seeing a therapist who professed to work with some of the issues I wanted to deal with at that time. Within a few weeks of seeing her she told me that I acted very differently from most people she’s treated with the same issues. This was a neutral statement, and she wasn’t either willing or able to explain it further, so we went on. After a few months she was very upset by some of the things I told her. She wasn’t upset on my behalf; she was upset that I had talked to my then fiancée instead of talking first to her. At the time, my fiancée had been accompanying me to sessions when he could so that we could talk about how things that affected me affected him, and vice-versa. She told me that she would no longer see me if he was present. That sent up a red flag to me, and I pushed the issue. Although she wouldn’t say so in so many words, she essentially felt either threatened that I trusted him more than her, or she felt that he was a bad influence on me (how?? I don’t know), but she wasn’t willing to say either of these things directly. Instead, she said she could no longer work with me.

I felt incredibly hurt. I felt rejected. I felt like I couldn’t even have a problem in the right way! When I hear these stories, I hear an echo of the same feelings. They are part of the reason I decided to become a counselor – so that I could be the kind of counselor I wanted to have.

Because I am a counselor, and have been through lots of school and continue to attend seminars and conferences and such, I have to take a moment and step to the other side of the situation. In classes about working with clients, therapists are told that when they are not able to continue to help a client, they need to stop seeing that client. They may need to refer the client to someone else. They may need to tell the client specific things they believe the client needs to do in order to continue therapy. There are so many reasons that a counselor could feel unequipped to help or that they are not meeting the client’s needs, but a counselor who is not helping the client does need to stop seeing the client.

This is not just a suggestion. In most places it is a law, and it is certainly an ethical rule. It stems from the need to protect clients. It is unethical to keep inventing issues for a client to work on just to keep the client coming to therapy, and paying the fee. It is unethical to try to help a client with a difficult issue that the counselor feels unequipped to work with. It is sometimes important to nudge people to try their wings, to rely on their own skills. As counselors, we have these considerations repeated over and over, and good counselors keep them in mind.

Going a step further, counselors are human, too. Counselors feel worried, nervous, and out of their depth sometimes. They do have times where they need to put self-care first.

However.

However, there are times where counselors are not truly seeing the needs of their clients. In school, I noticed that most of my classmates spoke a language of relative wellness and safety. They did not speak the language of trauma. They did not automatically check doors and windows to know where to escape if necessary. They did not have a small voice in the back of their head that suggested that someone in charge, like a professor, could do very painful or demeaning things to them if they did not behave correctly. They did not consider inside or outside, tiny halls or large auditoriums, people with a certain hair or skin colour, facial hair or lack of facial hair, a certain pitch of voice or accent to be a potential threat or to raise the heart rate just by existing.

When we talked about things like trust, emotional safety, or ability to speak about difficult issues, I knew that many of the people I sat next to were imagining a very different scenario than I was. As just one example: When we had guests to speak to a class about trauma, it seemed that some of my classmates had not given a thought to ideas like whether a veteran would want to be able to see out a window or request a tour of the building with emphasis on exits before being comfortable to speak to the class.

With that in mind, I am addressing this primarily to my fellow counselors.

When you meet with a client who has been abused, or has anxiety, or depression, or has been through a very traumatic situation, especially an ongoing one, you are meeting with someone who comes from a different place than you are at. You look around your office noticing a comfortable place to sit, your diplomas and certifications speaking of your credentials, your sincere tone and calm demeanor; and you think you see safety and reliability. Your client looks around to see how many doors and windows are there. Most likely, she wants to be able to escape through all of them if necessary, but doesn’t want anyone to be able to look in. She considers the furniture. Can it be thrown? Used as a barricade? Do you have anything hiding behind it? She thinks about how you talk to her. Are you really hearing the fear? The pain? Can you understand it if you do?

You’ve been trained in a variety of tests and tools and routines. You can diagnose if he’s suicidal, eating disordered, depressed, fearful. You have a strong sense of ‘normal’, and you see your client through that lens. It’s normal to have enough energy to wake up, care for kids, make and eat breakfast, get dressed. It’s normal to feel sleepy, to forget something you were supposed to bring along or to take an hour to feel fully awake. Your client speaks of the fatigue of getting ready for the day, of the scramble to get self and/or family ready, to get going, and you think you’ve experienced what he expresses.

You don’t know. Your client is not talking about needing an extra cup of coffee, your client is talking about sincerely wondering if anything today is actually worth getting up. Your client talks about feeling forgetful, strained, bogged down. You think of the notebook resting on the table at home instead of being at work. You think of hunting down a child’s shoe, of not being sure what to make for dinner tonight, of having to fit in a meeting after work.

Your client is talking about wondering if they actually plugged in the coffee maker, or if it was an iron. Or maybe they touched nothing at all. Your client noticed today that their child’s shoes are different from the ones they remember, and would like to ask you if that kind of memory loss is normal.

Your client jokes that she might get more out of therapy today if she just napped for the hour on your couch. You don’t know she’s perfectly serious.

  • Before you ask, your client is perfectly normal, in her world, his world, my world. Your client is not demented or schizophrenic or delusional. Your client is trying to cope with an enormous amount of stress and fear and pain and frustration; and every tiny thing that goes wrong adds to that load.

For a checkpoint, think about the last time you were very, very tired. Too tired to remember that if you saved the outline of your paper onto a thumb drive, it’s likely still on the computer you were working on if you can’t find the thumb drive. Tired enough that you caught yourself waking up here and there from micro-naps. Think about the last time you felt like everything in the world was riding on one, difficult maneuver that you didn’t think you had control over. Maybe it was a test to be licensed, or to be accepted into school. Maybe it was a tricky place in a relationship. Think about that.

Think about the last time you were emotionally very hurt; a fight, a death, a major disappointment. The last time you didn’t think that anything could really make you happy again.

If you can, think about all these feelings – tired, stressed, anxious, and sad – all rolled into one. Think about how futile everything seemed. Think about how difficult it was to remember to eat – or how eating was the only think that made you feel connected to the world for a minute. Think about how you seemed constantly tired but sleep just made you think things you didn’t like, or made you toss and turn. Think about the feeling that a huge rock was balanced above you, and you had so little control over when it would fall or what it would hit on the way down.

Now: remember that most likely, this was not a usual feeling for you. You felt happy and calm and productive before it, you had an idea that you would feel good and centered and meaningful after you got through it. Think about the ideas you had – that you could always become a truck driver or a guitarist if school didn’t work out, that is the sadness never lifted you’d channel it into art or poetry. Think of the little things – a massage, a walk, a song that you found for yourself, and gave yourself, to remind you to get through.

And think of how much it helped if someone was with you, not making you do anything, but just experiencing the same thing, offering an ear or a hug or being willing to make that trip to the store so you didn’t have to.

Your client doesn’t have many of those last things. Your client doesn’t remember when it felt better. Your client doesn’t have the idea that dreams can come true; or if one dream falls through, it’s a shot at realizing another. Your client may not quite, actually, feel real.

  • Your client is still not crazy, still not hallucinating, still not schizotypic or autistic or, worst, exaggerating or making it all up.

Your client has not learned HOW to be happy, safe, comfortable, fitting. Many of us, even counselors, think that being happy, feeling safe, fitting in is simply something that happens. It isn’t. It’s something we learn IF we have happy role models, a safe place to grow up, people who accept and encourage us. If we don’t have those factors, we don’t learn those lessons.

Forget, for a moment, the details of the abuse, the level of depression or anxiety on your handy test, their current estimated level of functioning. Just think about leaning, for a moment.

Learning starts at the moment you become aware. Learning starts as soon as you can see or hear or taste or touch or smell or feel or think. Learning starts as soon as you start to be.

Someone who has not been shown much happiness doesn’t learn to recognize it, to feel it, to know it.

Someone who has not had stability does not learn how to make plans and count on them.

Someone who is punished for exploring starts to retreat. Someone who is told, or shown, or both, that the world is a scary and unreliable place starts to feel anxious. Someone who does not know that it is safe to express becomes depressed.

As a metaphor, consider comfort as a cup of hot cocoa. You could have all the hot cocoa in the world, with whipped cream and marshmallows and candy sticks and cinnamon; and if you had never seen or heard of anything resembling a mug, you would have no idea how to acquire and drink a simple, soothing, comfort of a cup of cocoa.

Your client has no mugs. Your client has not been raised with mugs. Your client is uncertain of stores, because they don’t know how to look for a mug or how to tell if it’s the right kind.

All around them, people are rolling their eyes, pointing out that cocoa is available in so many places. Good cocoa and average cocoa and excellent gourmet cocoa and flavoured cocoa and the kind that’s in a packet and has been left too long – but at least it’s cocoa. And your client not only lacks a mug. Your client lacks the idea of a mug.

Most of the time in school, in supervision, in workshops and books and articles and discussions; we as therapists are learning how to improve our clients’ mugs, or cocoa, or both. We’re helping clients notice the cocoa. We’re helping clients consider the best brand for them, their preferred flavor, whether they like marshmallows or cream or plain. We’re going out on a limb, sometimes, and suggesting they may prefer coffee, or tea. We’re taught to help clients to consider how often they can and should drink cocoa, if they should drink it with others, what that want to do if someone continually takes cocoa from the break room and never brings any in.

And then we have a client with no mug come in, and they’ve been through a LOT of therapy. They’ve been in groups and read books and done their homework. They can prepare cocoa starting with cacao beans, and they have 6 years of notes that they took on the subtle differences in every brand and additive and comparison on cocoa, and how they feel about it all.

But they have no idea how to use a mug.

At this point, my analogy breaks down, because it would be so easy if we could just hand a mug and say ‘you’re cured’. And it is a bit more involved than that… or maybe not. Because they need to learn to select a mug; To tell if a mug is clean or dirty, whole or broken. They need to know if it’s okay to get more than one mug, where to get it. They need to know when it’s okay to share with others or not.

We need to model using a mug, yes. We need to keep on modelling it. We need to let the client talk and talk and talk about the same story of wondering what a mug was, because they need to speak of it.

While we’re at it, we need to model spoons and straws, saucers and cream pitchers. We need to show them how to use hot water, how to heat water. And no, that isn’t all. A lot of therapists figure that they have it pretty well complete after they’ve shown the client what they’re missing and how to use it. We’re specifically told we aren’t supposed to be ‘professional friends’. We aren’t supposed to keep treating clients who can ‘do it on their own’ or who are ‘healthy’ now. We’re not supposed to treat outside of our levels of competence.

Our Clients Need More.

Our clients need someone to sit with them as they practice their skills. Our clients need someone to sit with them as they practice their skills again. Our clients need a place that has come to feel safe, because they do know where the exits are and what’s behind the chair. And they know they aren’t alone. Our clients need to know that it’s not enough for us if they know how to use the tools, and the tools to care for the tools.

It’s not enough until they feel safe, serene, and happy as a standard part of life.

For some people this means working with several different therapists. This can be sequential, or it can be congruent. A client can certainly see one therapist for DBT and one therapist for art therapy and one for life coaching. Other times it means seeing the same therapist for a long time, even when the therapist isn’t really seeing change. You, my colleague, are not seeing change at these times because you ARE the change.

You feel comfortable with yourself. You feel happy when happy things happen. You worry and feel sad, but you aren’t consumed by worry and sadness. You wake up, get dressed, get to work, take care of your family and interests and hobbies without losing your grasp on your rope. Your client is learning how to do this from you. You don’t have to adopt the client or tell them about your life in detail. But every session, you model hope, and you are teaching your client how to get it… as long as you don’t ruin it by telling them that they can’t do it, that they’re wrong, that they should be doing something else, that they’re too damaged, to scared, too hurting.

So… how are you teaching it, and how do you keep it up, and where is the line between pushing your bird to fly and dropping them off a branch unsupported?

No, I can’t tell you exactly where it is for every person. But I can tell you the basics. For one thing, we have mirror neurons. Go look them up, really! They’re awesome and more is being discovered all the time. Mirror neurons fire when someone else does something. When you feel happy, calm, and content – your client’s mirror neurons fire and they feel happy or calm or content. When you do something, someone watching has mirror neurons firing helping their brain understand what it’s like to do that thing. That’s right. You don’t have to be the guru of happiness or the lama of serenity. You have to be you, and your clients’ mirror neurons will fire off their own happiness and calm and learning.

You keep it up by keeping yourself cleaned up from your own mirror neurons hurting you. All along, when your client is feeling tiny bits of hope and health and confidence, modeled and passed on by you; you’re noticing their anxiety, their stress, their fear. Your mirror neurons are starting to wonder if there is a problem, and are trying to bring you down and downer. Self-care is NOT a luxury for therapists; it’s a part of treating your clients. Massage or a long shower or a yoga class or working in your garden or whatever. Anything healthy that makes you feel good and cleans out the negativity is essential, so you can keep reflecting the positive, literally.

You keep it up by telling your clients they can do this. You can and should let some of your feelings show when they share with you. It is terrible when children are abused. It is scary to have awful dreams. It is stressful to be trying to build the life they never had while hanging on to what they’ve got. It’s also possible and doable, and you need to express that, too.

You cannot tell your clients that they are too damaged, too traumatized, too abused; or that they already know enough, that they can do this as well on their couch at home as in your office. If your client is able to make it to your office, they are able to make it through. There are times and places for intensive or inpatient work. I wish more of us had the opportunity to have people reflecting hope and confidence and health at us for hours or days or weeks, instead of one appointment every week or two. But if they were too damaged to make it, they wouldn’t be in your office.

If they’re ready to fly solo, there’s a good chance they’ll know, and they’ll be suggesting it. In fact, a lot of us are so used to our lives that we’re more likely to shy away from committing to working deeper and try to leave anyhow, or we’ll take one tiny bit of relief as an amazing change and assume it doesn’t get any better. It doesn’t matter if they’re self-aware, know all the tools, meditate and journal and draw and use affirmations – in isolation, all of these reflect from the client to the client. That limits change. We’re social creatures. We’re not meant to live in isolation. We’re hopeful creatures who desperately want to feel good, and good enough. If we’re alone, or living with people who don’t feel good, then our mirror neurons aren’t reflecting good, and it’s not nearly as helpful as it is when we experience being with someone who gives positive reflections.

You are not being a professional friend or encouraging a malingerer. You’re acting as a reflection of who they want to be. Therapist, therapist, on the couch, show me how to stop the ouch. Counselor, counselor in the chair; show me how it feels to care.

Really lousy poetry, I’m sorry. I can do better, but it doesn’t follow the theme 😉 Your biggest role is not to do, it’s to be. Your client can get to better. They need someone to walk alongside them on their journey there.

You are doing enough. They are not too damaged. They can feel better – and so can I – and so can you.

 

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