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Category Archives: Flying Free Healing Arts

What do you do for a meaning?

I’ve had a couple of topics waiting, and they’re both going to have to wait a bit longer. I had an interesting thought this afternoon, and by this evening it had grown into a full-fledged reflection, and is on its way to maybe even achieving the status of an understanding.

I was considering the phrase ‘what I do for a living’.  I dislike this phrase. I dislike most variations and most meanings of this phrase. ‘What do you do for a living?’ is often one of the first things people ask when meeting someone new, and it’s just as often not very relevant.

What someone does for a living is specifically what they do that generates enough money to pay the bills, buy the groceries, keep clothes and soap and maybe even a new lip-gloss available. It’s just what it says – it’s a way of keeping up the bits and pieces that allow someone to survive.  It’s also as likely as not to have little to do with someone’s passions, dreams, interests, what they put their heart and soul and energy into. People can work in a job simply because it’s a job. They could have a trust fund, be disabled, or so many ways to try to make ends meet.

‘What do you do for a meaning?’  Why aren’t we asking that?  When I’m introduced to someone, why don’t they want to know what I do for a meaning?

My friend M, for example, works for a large office-supply chain. She makes a decent wage, insurance, all of that. And it’s not at all her passion. She loves food. Finding new restaurants, comparing different recipes for similar dishes, seeking out authentic ethnic food or great places to buy particular ingredients; those are all things she’s passionate about. She writes about it in a blog. Filling orders for paper and desk chairs is what she does for a living. Discovering restaurants and comparing dishes is what she does for a meaning. A meaning is so much more.

I was thinking of that as I left my therapist’s office today (always a good thing when your therapist can make you think!).  I was mentally composing a self-description that included ‘I’m a counselor for a living’.  And then it occurred to me that that statement doesn’t really fit me at all.

(Before I go any further, I do need to add a disclaimer for people who are, have been, or will be my clients. It is NOT your job to make sure I am making enough to live on. We agree on a fee, insurance, whatever; and that’s that. That is not what this post is about.  Yes, building up a business is not the easiest thing to do, but it’s what I’ve chosen to do. I’ve also had repeated opportunities to work for more hours in a per-hour or salary position. That isn’t what I want, and I’m doing okay.)  So moving on…

I am not a counselor, therapist, or any similar term ‘for a living’. A small part of that is, yes, that I don’t (yet!) make enough to live in the style to which I’d love to be accustomed – or even to maintain my own lifestyle now. That’s okay. I do make enough to add to the household budget, I’m married to someone who makes more than I do right now. Together, we do make enough.  But that’s not the main reason this term doesn’t fit.

In fact, that’s really not the reason the term ‘for a living’ doesn’t fit. The main reason is that it doesn’t matter how much I make, I’m not doing it ‘for a living’.  I, like most counselors, have to charge something to be able to afford to be a counselor – but I’m not doing it ‘for a living’.

I am a counselor for a meaning. There are dozens of things I could do to pay for groceries and cat food and insurance and petrol for the car and making sure I have a place to live. I could probably get a job in the same company as M, my friend above. If I needed to, I would.

What do you do for a meaning?  I like this question so, so much better. I happen to do at least one of the things I do for a meaning to make that ‘for a living’ part work as well. I think that makes me lucky, but I don’t think everyone would agree with me. I know that I specifically chose not to do several other things that are meaningful and enjoyable for regular pay or on much of a schedule, because I knew that that would take the meaning out for me.

I do many kinds of art. I paint, sew, make jewelry, do calligraphy, work with clay, do henna art… and several of these things would stop having meaning for me if I did them ‘for a living’. If I were a professional calligrapher, for example, I would most likely be employed writing out endless invitations, addresses, and certificates. The joy I take in putting an important or beautiful text onto a page in beautiful writing, adding lovely or cute or amusing art alongside, would be completely smothered as I ticked off another 50 envelopes.

What do you do for a meaning? I am an artist, a dancer, a counselor, a friend, a gardener, a reader…

What do I do for a meaning? One of the things I do is counseling. I love it. It’s a very important, very meaningful part of my life. I feel like I make a difference. I’m honoured to have people who let me see their struggles & triumphs and to provide a helping hand. That’s a major thing for me. That has meaning.

What do you do for a meaning?  Regardless of what you do to pay the bills, what do you do for a meaning? The IRS can worry about what you do for a living?  I’m changing that question for myself. I’m also daring you to ask. At the next party, the next time you’re meeting a the significant other a relative or friend brings along, the next time you get together with people you don’t know, ask what they do for a meaning.  Then explain what the heck you meant. And then, LISTEN. It’s amazing how great it feels to have someone listen to what you’re passionate about!

If you’re okay replying, tell me what people have said. There’s plenty of room to post replies here!  What do you do for a meaning?  What does the person you met the other day do? What’s meaningful in this world?

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Seeds of life

A bit of a conversation with a client a few days ago and a bit of a conversation last week with my spouse came together in my brain as a new idea – or at least new to me.  I’m quite willing to believe others have had most of the same ideas I have, and have expressed them much better, but it’s still cool to have a new way for me to look at the world, and to share it with others.

Simply expressed (in 25 words or less): Dreams are the seeds we use to grow our lives.

To elaborate on that, in well over 25 words: I’m referring to dreams as in daydreams or hopes, wishes, or wondering; not dreams as in the rather surreal movies most of us watch throughout our sleep cycles. Obviously I can’t tell you about the conversation with the client, it comes under the ethical and legal right for my clients – for ALL counseling clients, with ALL counselors, to have their information and communication kept private. But it had to do with dreams, and the conversation with my spouse had to do with choice versus predestination.

(Note: If you’re having an issue with a therapist keeping your info private, that’s a different topic from this post, but it’s an important one. If that’s you, I urge you to talk to your therapist, or to talk to a different therapist to get an outside opinion, or to look up your state’s regs & state &/or therapy organization ethical codes to see if your therapist’s treatment of your privacy is acceptable.)

Sorry – that was definitely a digression, but an important one, in my opinion. In any case, after my talk with my client, I started thinking about dreams as seeds.  To give a bit more background info; one of my personal-care, stress-relieving, taking-care-of-me hobbies is gardening.  My garden, like my life, is a work-in-progress. Like my life, there are areas that I thought would work splendidly that are kinda dry or droopy, areas that I didn’t really think would work so well that are amazing, and areas that I just haven’t yet achieved the beautiful, show-off state they’ll be in one day.

A lot of my garden is based on what I call ‘confetti gardening’.  (Who knows – maybe one day I’ll write a book on my gardening methods and have it be a best-seller on ‘Confetti Gardening’ – so you heard it here first!).  I love to gather seeds from wildflowers I enjoy – if they’re growing wild in the same part of the world I live in, there’s a good chance they’ll do well in my garden!  I gather seeds from plants grown by friends & neighbours.  I discreetly gather seeds from plants in community flowerbeds or local areas of greenery in front of stores, downtown, by the library… By ‘discreetly’, I mean that finding someone with the authority to say ‘why yes, go ahead’ is really difficult in many cases – does the manager of any store in a shopping area know who is in charge of planting & caring for the little decorative flower & shrubbery areas throughout the parking lot?  Sometimes I can’t ask, but I also don’t, Do Not go out & rip up plants.  I wait until a group of flowers I like has finished blooming & started going to seed. Then I gather a few seed heads or loose seeds and take them back home.  The gardening services for these areas typically come through and ‘deadhead’ – cut the dead flowers off the plants – at intervals. So I take what isn’t needed for the plant, and only if I can’t find someone to ask.  If you plan to emulate this strategy, be SURE you know when the plant has really gone to seed, only take a little bit, and if you have any questions or misgivings, don’t do it unless you can find someone for permission.

I gather seeds from gardens of strangers – with permission!  A personal garden isn’t like a decorative planting in a space in the sidewalk downtown. A personal garden belongs to someone. ASK if you  want some seeds. They’ll likely be delighted to give you some – and you might make a new friend and start swapping plants & gardening advice, but ASK!!!

Back to my confetti gardening, I take the seeds (bought, traded, harvested) that I want or hope will do well in a particular space, and sprinkle them down.  Yes, I do start some carefully in small pots, yes, I get cuttings of plants and I buy growing plants, but a lot of my garden is from seeds I toss in areas they just might do well in.  And then I wait. Several years ago I carefully planted some lovely dark pansy seeds in a particular flower bed. Nothing happened. No pansies from those seeds grew that spring, or summer. The next spring (yes, after a whole previous spring of care, a summer of not bothering to care for a space that didn’t have a plant, a fall of caring for other, actually growing plants, and a cold freezing snowy winter) one of the pansies sprouted. And it bloomed. It did better than a pack of pansies purchased already in bloom from the store. This spring it came back (the ones I plated from the store pack didn’t).  Seeds work like that.

These are a lot like my dreams – and I hope, like everyone’s dreams. We dream the likely (I’d REALLY like to get a couple new outfits for work soon), and the plausible (I want to start taking regular bellydance classes again).  We dream the maybe (Wouldn’t it be cool to get to go on a white-water rafting trip) and we dream the way out there (What if I adopted a kitten with wings?).  These dreams are the seeds of life. They get tossed out into life – hoping to buy a new outfit without spending too much and maybe go on a cool trip and how the heck would I keep my indoor plants safe if I did have a winged kitten – and we see what happens.

Some of them sprout. Some start to sprout but aren’t in a good place to be nourished. Some aren’t viable no mater what. Some wait and surprise us long after we thought anything could still happen.  The more dreams, the more possibilities of new, interesting parts of life are available.  There are easy, obvious parts of life, and the dreams that sprout and grow so large & take up so much space that other dreams might not get as much of a chance.  My own sprouting career as a counselor is definitely taking up space that an alternate dream of being a rock-star can’t use now; it’s hard to be available every week to talk to clients and touring Europe with a bunch of musicians in a cramped tour bus at the exact same time. 😉

Some dreams end up requiring more care than we can put into them.  The reason I prefer seeds from established plants is that I know they’ll have a better chance of growing in my garden. I want plants to be beautiful & growing well and I’m not the sort who wants to be out making a separate little climate for each plant.  I live in Southern Colorado along the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Summers are usually dry, winters get snow, and have days that dip below 0* Fahrenheit. Rain is wildly different from one year to the next, and I prefer to semi-xerisacpe, where my plants get nearly all of their moisture & climate needs from the climate we have, not from carefully covering, watering, shading, warming…

My life is the same way. I’m willing to do a lot for a dream that matters, but it has to be giving back to me, and sustaining itself as a part of my life.  When I get those new clothes for work, they need to be comfortable to wear, and coordinate with things I already have, and fit who I am – physically and emotionally and suited to my lifestyle.  My dream of perfectly polished fingernails clashes with my dream of spending time working the garden regularly.  Some seeds don’t grow well next to others.

The large, established ‘plants’ in my life (my marriage, my house, the years I put into my college degree) and the ‘climate’ of my life (having a chronic illness, a passion for art & creating, my values & spiritual beliefs) strongly affect what new dreams can more easily take root & grow. This is the part that relates so well to the conversation my spouse & I had. We were comparing free will to destined events. He pointed out that previous choices direct what happens in the future.  It’s not impossible to change course, but the older & more experienced you get, the more energy it takes to make a radical change.  At the time he said this, we had just taken the ramp off of a street onto the freeway (car rides are awesome for personal conversations. You’re basically a captive audience for each other, there’s not a whole lot else to do, and there are time limits, depending on how far you’re going).  It was a wonderful serendipitous analogy. We were swerving onto the southbound ramp (Onto I-25 off of Colfax, for those who drive in Denver), every second getting further from the northbound option. It would have taken a heck of a lot more time, energy, and fussing with side-streets if we’d suddenly decided to turn & head north.  Our journey south wasn’t ‘predestined’, but once we turned, it would have been a LOT harder to go north, especially given the roads in that particular area.

Taking it back around to seeds, or dreams: Growing one plant determines the likely success of others. I have a beautiful blue spruce in my front yard. It was probably planted when the house was built – it’s certainly been there for decades. It’s beautiful, it’s growing well, and I have no desire to change that!  My spruce is big enough and established enough that it quite literally foreshadows what else will grow nearby. Planting seeds that need full sun too close to the tree strongly ‘predestines’ those plants to do poorly.  A few feet further away where it doesn’t cast so much shade, the same seeds have a much better chance.  And it’s possible that a few could defy the odds and grow happily in the shade anyhow – but not as likely.

If I wanted to change that aspect of my garden (and I do NOT want to do this, this is strictly for sake of an example) even taking out the tree wouldn’t simply change things for the garden.  Spruce trees, like most evergreens, are slightly acidic. The needles & cones that fall every year put some of that acidic quality in the soil.  Some plants, like roses & blueberries, LIKE acidic soil.  If I get the chance to grow blueberries, I should either put them near the tree or scoop up some of the fallen needles to amend the soil for the blueberries.  But other plants don’t like acidic soil so much. If I had seeds for a plant that strongly disliked acidic soil, I’d likely not get much growth from planting them near my tree, even if they liked the shade and the other characteristics of the soil. Even if the tree was gone, the soil would be very acidic after years and years of needles composting into the soil around it.  The tree is more than just shade, it’s soil structure, water use, and shelter from wind & rain.

My dreams are the same way. I cast them out into my life, and some get too close to shade, or don’t like the place they land. Some don’t even try to grow until conditions improve. Some break down or blow out of my life entirely. Some need to be consciously moved or tended to, and some take too much work.  Some are even ones I can pass along!  I was given a beautiful ring in a previous relationship. When we broke up, I didn’t want to wear the ring anymore, but it was a perfect style and great fit for my sister-in-law. I hope she’s still enjoying it as much as she did when I gave it to her!

I don’t always, or even often, know just what a seed or a dream will need to thrive. Plenty of times I only find out some detail when it’s too late to change it.  I had a lousy crop of potatoes last year, and found out this past February when reading about companion planting in the garden that potatoes don’t do well near squash. My zucchini were right next to the potatoes! So it goes.

So it goes. Companions and light and shade and nutrients. Direction and size and competition for resources. Only one thing in one space – the next one has to be moved over at least a bit. This is why I want myself, my clients, everyone I know to have many, many dreams. Some won’t grow, and you may never know why. Some may be perfect for the space under a tree, next to a squash, or in a sunny corner; but those things can change.  Dream many, many dreams. Collect spare ones from books and music and conversation. Harvest new dreams from successful ones that are thriving.  Toss them into your life now, or wait until the time seems right, or carefully nurture them on sunny windowsills until they’re big enough to make it on their own. I don’t want to have nothing left to plant if my career became unmanageable, or if someone close to me passes on or moves away –  I’d rather be able to mourn the loss but still be able to plant more seeds.  Always plant more seeds… always plant more dreams.

 

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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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Wow! It’s been a while :)

Wow! It’s been a while :)

Hello everyone.  So it’s been nearly a month – oh my!  I’ll get some longer posts out soon; but for today, no, I haven’t forgotten everyone.  I’ve been adjusting my schedule, I’ve had the opportunity to go to some workshops and trainings and similar things (most counselors go to several trainings, workshops, symposiums, and similar gatherings ever year.  We want to know more, we want to treat our clients more effectively, and, yes, I thin every state and country requires ongoing education – although most of us would go even if it wasn’t required. We really do like this or we wouldn’t be doing it!.

So I’ll pull myself back to my computer a little bit more frequently in the upcoming weeks and continue with posts on trust, tell you what’s going on with me, and write about anything else that comes to mind 🙂

 

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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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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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