3rd time’s a charm

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I’ve started at least 3 posts recently and can’t finish/publish any of them. I think it’s because I keep trying to write something reflective of a bigger picture. Meh. Instead, I’m going to just tell you what’s been up.

I’ve been writing A LOT, both personally and professionally. Great, right? I’m pretty excited. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons podcast and new book Big Magic have been incredibly inspirational (you should check them out!) and really gave me the kick in the butt I needed to get started writing. I’m in the middle of two creative projects. I feel equally compelled to write both of them, so I work on the one that speaks loudest to me on any given day. It’s kinda fun. One seems to be a young adult fantasy story; I’m really fascinated by the little flashes of inspiration I receive, and I do my best to funnel those images onto my computer screen. The other one is about being a therapist and a human in relationships. I’m really intrigued by this one, because the themes feel very close to home. I also get to show people what being a real therapist is all about, without all the sensationalism and drama that the media portrays. Yes, we have intense moments, but the beauty of therapy is in the small moments, where compassion and authenticity arise.¬†That’s what I want to write about.

A few fun reflections on the process….

  1. My writing is fun and sucks all at the same time. ūüôā I’ve always been told I’m a great writer, and I’m grateful for that feedback. But man! Writing a novel is tough! Translating images in my head onto paper is like squeezing blood from a stone. Most of the time, I feel like I’m just trying to get to the next scene. The specific scenes themselves are great, it’s all the in between that sounds trite and contrived. But I just say, “that’s cool! I’ll figure it out later!” It’s the act of writing that I’m trying to accomplish. Not the act of writing the next best seller!
  2. Related to the first point….I wonder if I’m¬†good enough¬†to tell the story I want to tell. Can I actually find a way to describe to the reader the magical things going on inside me? I’m pretty interested in where these stories are going, and I want to write them in a way that keeps people interested and that makes sense. I choose to be irreverent here and not take it so seriously. Just write!
  3. I have no idea where these stories are going! But I love the characters I’m getting to know, and I’m enjoying the little snippets of their lives they’re showing me. I’ll have to embrace the mystery for a time, I guess, and hope they continue to reveal their paths to me as long as I keep plodding along. Keep moving, even if you can only see 10 feet in front of you!
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Rant

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Well I figured out what my lesson is for this lifetime – to learn to live without a sense of security. It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted – to feel like something that¬†is will continue¬†to be. Trust me, I know all about non-attachment and letting go and impermanence. And I’ve gotten so much stronger in my capacity to tolerate uncertainty. But the one thing I’ve dedicated my life to – being a healing professional – has brought me nothing but a feeling of fragility and groundlessness. The black hole in my income (aka student loans, aka those of which we do not speak). The sad excuse for management. The toxic work environments. The paradox of working in a field that demands so much of one’s emotional resolve but where one cannot find an ounce of support from those in charge. So I pay my dues and finally get to the point where I’m on my own and doing it my way – and then BAM! I get hit with another surprise. Oh that office you were going to have for 3 years – that you just transitioned your whole practice to – you have it for maybe 5 more months. What?

Yeah, I know – perhaps this door is closing so that another, even better one will open. But how many doors are going to get slammed in my face? How many new doors do I have to hope for before one just stays open for long enough for me to feel renewed and rested? I am not asking for forever – just long enough to take more than one deep breath!

Is this a sign? All of this pain I’ve experienced trying to be one of the good guys – is there another lesson here? One that’s telling me to try something¬†else? Fuck. What else is there?

Does this seem like a strong reaction to the news I received today? Probably. Will I end this pity party by the dawn’s early light? Probably. But right now, I’m feeling it¬†all. Every damned frustration, disappointment, and constant test of my resiliency. I’m tired of being resilient. Always having to pick myself up and dust myself off. Right now, I’m sitting right here, banging my fists into the ground, sending huge clouds of dust into the air and watching them swirl. For now. Because in a few hours, I’ll have to be calm, present, and available to heal all over again.

on the verge…

I’m on the verge of on the verge of tears. It’s an odd feeling. I sense it creeping in. Filling all the little spaces in between the bones and the muscles. Deep inside the fascia where my breath struggles to reach to clear it out. If I forget to pay attention, it expands and I seize up, realizing what’s about to hit me. Then I get tunnel vision and tunnel thoughts all leading to the same fear. That it all¬†comes down to me. Even what isn’t mine becomes my responsibility. My life and your life and his life hang on my next choice. The weight of our collective futures constricts my ribcage and suddenly there’s no way for the oxygen to pass through. My lungs are starving and I’m a little dizzy. I don’t know how to take control of so much and so much is slipping through my fingers. I can’t get a hold of anything when nothing is tangible. Even these words blur before me. I can’t keep them straight, what I think, what I feel, what I need. So I back away. What else can I do? Just a few steps in another direction – if only internally – because I’m still frozen in the same position. Inside, I look away. The tears don’t come. But they’re there, lapping at my heels.

Reflections on the Self

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Seeking the refuge of the Self resonates with attachment theory. Our parents/caregivers create a secure bond with us that allows us to feel safe enough to explore the world. Whatever happens, we know we have a safety net to return to in our parents’ love. Psychologically, this creates a belief that the world and its people are essentially safe, despite the bumps and bruises we experience along the way. So we are more likely to take risks, be vulnerable, and be decisive in our lives. We internalize a secure attachment as a whole, grounded Self that we can return to throughout our lives. As we age, our Self provides a safe haven that travels with us no matter where we go. We become our own safety net.

On a pre-verbal, pre-intellectual level, the Self as it refers to the more essential quality of life, the divine spark if you will, begs to be uncovered and used as this refuge. It has been and always will be extant within us. Our early childhood experiences either cultivate or bury this innate knowledge. We are born to honor ourselves as we honor others. To love ourselves as we love others. In practice, we are either taught that we are loved and loving or we are taught that love is conditional. Sometimes we are taught both and enter the world confused about the true essence of the Self’s worthiness. My parent/friend/God loves me always‚Ķ..as long as I fulfill a certain set of conditions to earn that love. That certain set of conditions tends to be unspoken but is a prerequisite to deserving love.

On some level, this condition makes sense. It’s hard for us to love someone who is hurtful to us; the condition says that if you don’t treat us well, you are not worthy of love. I would question, however, how connected this person is to his true Self. Hurting others tends to arise from a place of insecurity as a way to disown our own pain. The perpetrator of hurt isn’t connected to a secure base or a strong sense of Self. Imagine being so connected to your own sense of Self that you can offer him loving kindness instead of scorn, that you can recognize his innate sense of worth, even if he does not! In doing so, the condition of worthiness breaks down.

For those of us who developed out of an insecure bond, the world is unsafe and not to be trusted. More than that, our Self cannot be trusted to provide a safe foundation in which to seek refuge. An insecure bond creates the idea of conditional love. My Self must perform in certain ways to earn love or to be deemed worthy of love. I internalize this insecurity and attempt to forge a life built on a broken foundation. Or – I should correct myself – a seemingly broken foundation. That’s what my clients tell me – that they are broken.

In truth, their foundation is unbreakable. It is the beliefs or lessons they were taught about themselves that create the illusion that they are broken. It amounts to the same thing though, doesn’t it? If I am taught that I am unworthy of love unless I fulfill a certain set of conditions, that I am inherently incomplete or not enough as I am, then I will form relationships and make decisions based on this need to find completion or goodness.

I will seek out relationships, activities, careers, and religions to define myself, assuming that I need something or someone to tell me who I am. We all want to find a purpose, even those of us who are connected to our deepest Self. But for those of us who feel broken, who are disconnected from our true Self, we want to merge with the action or the belief system or the person to become whole again. Ultimately, I need my partner or my work to validate my existence. No partner can do this consistently enough to fill in the cracks of a broken foundation. No endeavors in my work or creative life will ever allow me to define the darkest corners of my Self, because the Self is not a physical structure that can be reinforced with material things. Because material things are always imperfect, subject to others’ criticism, and finite. Eventually, we’ll have to keep working or keep creating or keep finding someone to love us to keep filling in the cracks. There is no end in sight to the revolving door of external validation.

If we only knew that the Self is and always has been everything it needs to be. Right now. Already. That I can seek knowledge, improve in my creative and work-life, and develop loving relationships, but know at the same time that what I am at each step of my evolution is already enough. There is no condition or finish line I have to reach. I am both continually changing and continually good enough all at the same time. Most of us see this in black and white terms. If I’m enough, I’m done changing; or if I’m still changing, I’m not good enough yet. No, it’s both/and not either/or! This way of looking at the Self is rife with opportunity and self-compassion, while the other feels static and unforgiving.

I will end here for the time being. No monumental conclusions, just an ongoing study of the Self. My Therapist Self might use this as a jumping off point to write a therapy blog entry. And I will probably engage in further musing, especially when I think about dropping in to those moments when you feel most connected to the Self. If you’ve read this far, thank you for your companionship.

I also want to note that many of my reflections arose from my reading of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self by Stephen Cope and The Mindful Way to Self-Compassion by Christopher K. Germer, PhD.

Namaste!

Conditions

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During a yoga practice yesterday, while floating in savasana, I heard the teacher say that imposing conditions on your current experience will not help you. A wave of emotion swept over me, because I felt the truth of this message. It’s not the novelty of the concept that affected me so deeply, but more that it came when I was most receptive to its impact. Lying on the floor, totally vulnerable and open, drifting between levels of awareness. Nothing to stand in the way of really hearing his words.

I began to have flashes of my recent efforts to be more successful at work, to get more clients so that I can make more money. Money is after all synonymous with security. If you have security, you have freedom to devote your time however you choose. I¬†work to live; I don’t live to work. So if I can create that financial security, I can make time for and afford the things that really matter – visiting my parents overseas, spending time with friends and family, deepening my yoga practice through teacher training, devoting time to writing, trying to decipher my guitar…..fill in the blanks with anything that feels meaningful or joyful.

And yet, it’s not working. I still don’t care about getting more clients, increasing my income, or doing¬†more¬†of any of it! I still can’t motivate myself to do much more than I’m already doing. And even the strategies I’ve implemented feel somehow incongruent with what I really want. Because even though I’ve given myself a damned good reason to work harder, it still feels stifling. It still feels like I’m swimming upstream toward a goal that isn’t really my own.

Underlying my attempt at newfound motivation is that sickly little word¬†until. I can’t do what I love,¬†until……I earn it, I deserve it, I am allowed to do it.¬†Conditions. I have imposed conditions on my current experience to create a reality that would somehow be more comfortable, happier, more aligned with my spiritual/emotional needs. I clearly missed the mark.

Except when I do practice yoga, guitar, or writing. Despite how much money I do or don’t have – I’m quite content with my current experience. I’m present, in the moment, and enjoying my Self. It’s too bad that I still need to maintain a roof over my head, eat, pay off student loans, save for the future, etc….

There’s a dialectic in this life that requires us to have real world responsibilities and still be able to devote resources to what’s truly important. They are both valid but tend to pull attention from each other. I am still unclear how to balance these opposing forces or if a balance can even exist! Perhaps the lesson is to accept the seesawing. I focus on the external world and then focus on my internal world and then switch again based on the circumstances that arise.¬†As long as I’m actually devoting time and energy to both – whether evenly or not, or in a way that I like or not – perhaps that’s a way to drop into the flow of a life that feels manageable¬†and fulfilling. Perhaps.

Missed Opportunity

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It’s expected that clients will occasionally leave therapy abruptly. Even if I think things are going okay; even if the clients have told me that things appear to be going ok. It’s rare, however, for clients to return and tell you why they left. It’s definitely an opportunity for growth. I can learn where I went wrong and where I can improve. I would hope that I’ve improved already, in the time that’s already passed.

What’s hard though, is not taking the complaint personally. Recently, I was told that my clients left because I was not able to validate the importance of something they were talking about –¬†ouch! That one hurts. My goal as a therapist is to make people feel that their thoughts and feelings are important. How often do we tell ourselves that we are “stupid,” “silly,” “ridiculous,” etc., for thinking or feeling the way we do. A therapist is supposed to help you create space for those uncomfortable experiences, rather than to shame yourself for having them. That’s one of my goals anyway. I would never have wanted my clients to feel unheard or insignificant, and I am truly saddened that they did.

It’s been two years since I saw these particular clients. It’s possible I missed something. I own my fallibility. I own that as much as I try to be astute and discerning, I am probably oblivious sometimes. This is why I frequently tell my clients to let me know how I’m doing, to stop me if I’m moving too fast, or to redirect me if I’m taking the wrong path. I can say with a fair amount of confidence that I am open to those conversations. I can also say with a fair amount of confidence that clients don’t always like to take me up on those offers – for a variety of personal reasons.

Here’s where I’ve landed:

If my clients share something important to them, and I miss it, I am genuinely sorry. If given the chance, I can and will do better in the future.

If my clients share something important and do not take the opportunity to let me know that I’m missing it when it’s happening – or shortly thereafter – I am still genuinely sorry, but I also have to play my human card. There’s only so much I can do to make people feel comfortable with my presence, my words, and my consistent requests for feedback. At some point, my clients have to be willing to tell me what they need and to give me the chance to do better.

If that doesn’t happen, we both lose out on the chance to be open with each other, to be really vulnerable and honest with each other, and to repair a tear in the therapeutic relationship. And that, in my opinion, can be so healing and so beneficial inside and outside of therapy. The relationships where we experience pain but make the effort to move through the pain together are the ones that develop the strongest connections.

I think I’ve thought about it enough. It is what it is. All I can do is keep the conversation going and hope that the people sitting across from me want to do the same.

2013

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I read this a few weeks ago and decided it would be a good exercise to reflect upon 2013 so that I may have a fresh outlook for 2014.

25 Questions to Ask Yourself Before the End of 2013

1. What am I most proud of this year?
Making decisions based on what is right for me vs what is right for others. This has been an exhausting and often painful experience, but in the end I feel at peace with my choices. This is the first year I can really say that.

2. How can I become a better _____________?
yogi, friend, girlfriend, aunt, sister, niece, human, etc…. I have to be careful with this one. The last thing I need is to shower myself with expectations so that I feel burdened by them. However, I do think the answer to any of these comes down to another question – how can I be more compassionate?

3. Where am I feeling stuck?
Motivation! I worked on understanding my seeming lack of internal drive last year. I can’t say that I have figured out how to be “more productive” but I have learned to be more accepting on the path to understanding. We’ll see what 2014 brings….

4. Where do I need to allow myself grace?
When I think I need to have it ALL figured out RIGHT NOW. I don’t. I can’t. I can be grateful, compassionate, and present.

5. Am I passionate about my career?
Yes. and no. I’m always struggling with the “purpose of my life” question. I must be living it, because I do get a lot of satisfaction from my work. And people seem to benefit from working with me, because I’m busy. But I also respect there are things I’d like to see change. And at the end of the day, I will have to make those changes; I can no longer wait for things to change around me. [see #3!]

6. What lessons have I learned?
To trust my instincts more.
To limit or just throw out my expectations of others, especially those I love. “Expectations are just premeditated resentments.” I heard that on LA Shrinks. Go figure. ūüėČ
To accept those who act in ways I don’t understand.
To make decisions that are right for me and no one else.
That communication is an exchange of gifts and I get to decide which gifts I accept and which I send back.
These are definitely works in progress!

7. What did my finances look like?
on track. not where I want them to be, but on track to where I want them to be. that is a good thing.

8. How did I spend my free time?
With my love. By myself. With a book. With my writing.

9. How well did I take care of my body, mind, and soul?
Overall, there were some great improvements in diet and activity level. I feel a little less connected to my spirituality, however, so that will be a focus for 2014.

10. How have I been open-minded?
I would like to say I have tried to be open to understanding the things I’ve seen that I disliked or confused me in the last year. I’m sure I’ve been somewhat successful but also could’ve exercised more of that acceptance and compassion stuff! I’ve tried to be helpful and thoughtful when others have come to me. I hope I acted without judgment. Or at least, with limited judgment. I think I’m working on reconciling what it means to be both self-ish and self-less.

11. When did I feel most creatively inspired?
After spending time with my creative friends and having inspiring conversations about their work. After hearing – and believing – that they have an interest in mine. After doing some work on myself and allowing myself to do different kinds of “work.” This all seemed to happen around the summer and fall.

12. What projects have I completed?
er….I did finally complete a draft of a couple/marital workshop powerpoint I’d been thinking about for ages. That’s about it.

13. How have I procrastinated?
see #12 and #3. Something is standing in my way. Old stuff. New stuff. I don’t quite have a handle on it.

14. In what ways can I re-structure my time?
Are you kidding? In what ways can’t I? After two years, I’m still struggling with my second shift schedule. The world operates for the 9 to 5-ers and god knows I’m not a morning person unless someone is telling me to be. I probably need to set aside time for writing and make myself do it. With a manageable goal in mind. I need to set aside time for yoga/spiritual practice. I need to stop thinking that the more I do, the less freedom I have. That one’s a long story, folks.

15. How have I allowed fear of failure to hold me back?
see #12? When I think of my most recent and in some ways most important project, I wonder if I’m still worried about failing at it somehow. I feel like humility is important here. If I can humble myself to the project, maybe it will open up to me….that just occurred to me. I think I need to meditate on that a little.

16. Where has self-doubt taken over?
I think I still question my own sense of reality, of what’s right or wrong. I assume that what I’m told is true and become angry when it clearly isn’t the case. But the more I have learned to trust my instincts, the more I can step back and be a witness. I’m not saying I don’t get angry or frustrated or sad. I just see a bigger picture and how I do or don’t fit into it.

17. When have I felt the most alive?
When I was actively engaged in the writing process and conversing with my friends about their creative processes. It’s clearly something I need to get back to.

18. How have I taught others to respect me?
By making my decisions and not letting myself be emotionally manipulated into backing down. I let go of what does not serve me. I try anyway.

19. How can I improve my relationships?
More compassion, acceptance, and kindness. Fierce loyalty. Less expectation. Less borrowing trouble. Less worrying.

20. Have I been unfair to anyone?
I would like to say that I haven’t, although others may have a different perspective. I feel like – whatever my emotional reaction to events – I have done my best to be respectful and kind in my handling of others.

21. Whom do I need to forgive?
Those who have hurt me. I need to let them go. and if they are still in my life, I need to accept that they are who they are, offer compassion, and examine and change my expectations of them. I would hope they’d do the same for me.

22. Where is it time to let go?
Expectations. I cannot expect people to be or feel the way I do. I wouldn’t want people to expect that of me. Anger. My overactive sense of justice.

23. What old habits would I like to release?
Lashing out when I’m feeling down or frustrated. Those are my feelings and I don’t need to throw them at anyone else. Not taking care of myself just because I’m down or frustrated. Not practicing yoga or exercising or eating healthy does not make those feelings go away any faster.

24. What new habits would I like to cultivate?
I want to be more compassionate, kinder, more fierce, and more driven. Which means I want to treat people well, treat myself well, and dive into my passions. Just writing that made me tired. I’ll have to work on this, clearly.
I want to give time to my writing. I want to maintain consistency with any good habits I cultivate – yoga, exercise, eating whole and raw foods… I want to offer gratitude. To pray. To give of my time.

25. How can I be kind to myself?
When I occasionally falter in #24, which I will – let’s just be honest! – I want to be compassionate and accepting and non-judgmental to myself. I want to look forward to taking care of myself, rather than feeling like it’s a chore. I might have to fake it till I make it for a little while ūüėČ

My Last Cry of Agony

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it’s heavy and quiet in here. the air is thick with sorrow,¬†and i feel it like tar on my limbs. my breath is labored but full. i walk softly, not wanting to disturb the others. i feel them near, their blood in my blood, giving life to the sickness.

i am strong but there is pain.

my head turns slowly from side to side. i see their eyes all around me, glistening, slicing through shadow like steel. orbs slick with tears bear witness to their horror. i lower my gaze.

i am strong but ashamed.

i hear it. quiet at first, a low rumbling rises from beneath my feet. i struggle to maintain my balance as the earth begins to quake. i fall to my knees as it intensifies, clutching at my ears to keep the sound from going too deep. laughter, rank and cruel, climbs the walls and fills my lungs with dread. i’m choking on the acrid taste of lies. my onlookers squeeze their eyes shut, as if to keep out the madness that runs like fever through my veins.

i am strong but helpless.

and then the wailing begins. a world of torment rings in my ears, drowning out the laughter. agony made flesh as the sound reverberates through my body. a primal call into the darkness for healing, for death, for reprieve. it resonates so strongly, i feel hollow and alone. i am losing my grip, doubling over, desperate. i sit back on my heels, hold my head in my hands, and turning in every direction, implore them to stop, their anguish is deafening. it is killing me. flying back and forth, searching for the source of my pain, my gaze catches only their eyes. and they watch me in awe.

i am strong but overcome.

their eyes shine through the black, and i see myself reflected in their light. my agony, my torment, my wildness unleashed. it is my cry that repels the scorn. it is my voice that frees them and offers them hope. suddenly, i am without breath. instinctively, hungrily, i draw in air. heaving, gasping, i raise a hand to my chest, feeling it rise and fall. my heart beats. and it is all i hear.

i am strong.

i feel a surge within me, unfurling electric from my core. i still hear the drumbeat in my chest and feel the breath pulsing through me. i stand in my strength, palms open, heart lifted. i find the sound once more, this time with purpose. breathing in power and resolve, i throw back my head and release a howl that rises from my center and expands outward. it connects me to a universe where there is pain but also healing, where there is hurt but also forgiveness. chains shatter all around me, and i hear my voice lifted higher by those around me. they begin as an echo but find their own way. traveling skyward, they relinquish the bonds that were never their own.

the air is light with our song. i feel it like feathers dancing on our skin.

The dangers of Axis II

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When I was in graduate school, one of our most seemingly prestigious instructors warned my class against the potential evils of Axis II (personality disorders). He said that while he didn’t want us to pathologize our clients, he needed us to know that some people in this world are truly dangerous, that we must be aware of those clients who would manipulate and cause harm. As students, many of us were intrigued and not just a little terrified.

Ten years later, my colleagues and I have worked with our fair share of “borderlines” and “narcissists” and have been in the presence of some scary individuals. Let me be clear, however, that not all people with personality disorders are scary. Many of them are good people who struggle – with self-regulation, with relationships, with understanding their own internal processes. You offer them a chance to develop self-awareness and other “life skills,” and just like any other client, they can achieve some amazing things.

So there are the people who lack empathy and remorse. And there are the people who just want the opportunity to feel comfortable in their own skin and live “normal” lives. And then there are the ones who exist somewhere in the middle. Whose intentions and motivations remain a bit of a mystery to me. Are you a sadist? Or are your struggles with self-regulation so deeply ingrained that you just look like a monster, despite your actual desire to be a good person? Or is it a little bit of both?

It’s not often that I sit in a therapy session and flat out tell someone that what he’s doing is wrong, that his outlook is incredibly skewed. Usually, I can find the positive intention within the poor execution. I can empathize with the need and coach someone on achieving the goal via more appropriate behaviors.

In the last year, however, I’ve had to make very clear the destructive nature of one of my client’s behavior. Several times over. I’ve had to help him understand why no one can see the few changes he’s made nor his supposed good intentions, because the devastation has been too great. He has laid waste to his family’s sense of safety and still wonders why no one will give him the benefit of the doubt. His behaviors have been so reprehensible and his explanations so unreasonable that I often want to slap him across the face with the same hurt his wicked tongue has inflicted on others.

Of course, shaming him into submission only further perpetuates the abusive cycle. So I remind him again and again. I thwart his defensiveness with images of the wreckage he seems able to deny. And that’s what I wonder – is it extreme denial? Despite his regular admissions of guilt, has he still not fully accepted the gravity of his situation? Despite his begrudging agreement that he has indeed dug his own grave, has he not really allowed himself to take it all in; to acknowledge the immensity of pain he must overcome to even begin to convince his family that he’s worth the risk? And maybe it is his own immensity of pain he denies, an unutterable shame that he keeps at bay, so overwhelming that it would consume him if he approached true acceptance. I have witnessed glimmers of this shame and remorse and that allows me to continue working with him, to continue reminding him that there is another way.

At the same time, though, I have to remain cognizant that he could just be a monster, one of those dangerous people I was warned about, one of those people who just needs to be left alone with their narcissism.

None of this is that simple. There are many aspects of this case that I have not discussed here, but this is not a case presentation. This is just my reflection.