Sharing Love

As so many other people have expressed lately, I’ve been feeling inundated by the many complex layers of global and cultural unrest bombarding me at every turn. It is increasingly difficult to find respite to connect and recharge, as most conversations about virtually any topic find their way back to the pandemic, the financial crisis, politics, and social justice issues — all very important and relevant topics but highly polarizing and often divisive. It has been draining my battery at times, for sure. Fortunately, I have a high self-care IQ, which helps me navigate the seemingly endless waves of these current choppy seas.

I do trust in the bigger picture of what we’re ultimately creating together as a planetary community. With any major transformation, there’s necessity for many shifts that will propel us forward collectively to something greater…AND… I’ve been asking myself what can I do? What is my part? So far, these wonderings have mostly remained in the working-question stage and my reflections on them have yet to yield edible fruit. I always aspire to be a good human — someone who cares about others and demonstrates that aspiration through my intentions, words, and actions. I’ve been noticing a growing desire to deepen my participation and contribution toward something more.

One of the things that appears to have gotten buried under the weight of the heavy issues and the flinging-spitballs-back-and-forth climate we’re experiencing is intentionally sharing and expressing our love and appreciation of one another. Partly, that expression has been naturally pruned back by the inability for socializing in person. The rest is likely just a function of prioritizing that which is most pressing…adjusting, adapting, surviving…whatever that may look like for you and your family. As the saying goes, we can’t stop to smell the flowers when we’re running from a bear.

While walking in nature the other day (sans any presence of bears), I had an inspiring idea that felt like a wonderful way to reconnect with my loving heart. I’ve since decided to take it on as a daily practice. Perhaps you’d like to join with me or create your own version. For the next consecutive 60 days, once a day, I’ll be reaching out to someone to share one of the following: an appreciation I have for them, my love for them, or how they’ve made a difference in my life. I’ll mix it up a bit by using different forms of communication: email, text, video or audio message, a phone call, Zoom, a note or a card sent through snail-mail, or, maybe, an in-person connection, as conditions permit.

My hope for this practice is that it will lift our spirits and lighten the load — not to cover up or silence the real challenges of the times — but to breathe some fresh air into them and to invite us to share a moment of spaciousness and connection together, ultimately to cultivate greater unity within our human family. We truly do need each other.

Teaching Someone to ‘Fish’

An old adage says: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” So, how does this idea relate to clinicians in a therapeutic setting?

Well, when we, as clinicians, consider how to work with clients, we have plenty of therapeutic models and approaches to draw upon. Many of us may align with one or two models, using what could be described as a ‘purist’ approach. Others (myself included) adopt a hybrid approach, which flexibly combines several modalities. Whatever way you operate, be sure to choose your approach or model while keeping in mind the human being sitting across from you. No matter what challenge a client brings into therapy, holding the perspective that human beings are inclined to thrive is a helpful lens to acquire.

People are resilient and often need only a nudge to get themselves back on track. As clinicians, one of the best ways we can provide that nudge and help our clients is to recognize that we don’t need to “have all the answers.” We don’t need to give them all the ‘fish.’ Instead, we can hold a broader perspective that empowers our clients to catch their own fish — access their own agency, make their own connections, and find their own answers. Our role is to teach them how to fish.

So, what does that mean?

Remember, people are resilient. Resiliency is baked into us and can show itself in some surprising ways. Protective strategies and patterns — such as wanting one thing but doing another, negatively interpreting others’ intentions, struggling against what ‘is’, and participating in most addictive behaviors — are our efforts to adjust to something we don’t like or something that’s painful. In truth, these are all examples of resiliency, however misguided they may end up being. We can interrupt this ineffective pattern by exploring and, thereby, recognizing how we relate to ourselves, others, and the world.

What’s missing in these attempts at self-protection? Primarily, the awareness of how they’re not truly working.

Why is such awareness important?

Because, once we see what we’re doing — heading in the opposite direction from what we say we want or trying to protect ourselves when we don’t really need to — we can take a step back and say to ourselves, “Oh, isn’t that interesting?” With just that small breath or space of time, we can gain clarity about the situation and realize what’s not working for us. That space gives us the chance to regain our personal agency. And that means we can make a change. We can do the thing we need to do, the thing that will actually work.

Something relaxes inside of me, even as I write this, when I consider both myself and my clients from this perspective: that we are mostly doing the best we can. As the great poet Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, you do better.” When we’re curious to learn how we currently relate to the thing that’s bothering us (what’s causing us further suffering or discomfort), we begin to restore our agency over our experience of it. With that mindset, we also find new territory available, which means more possibility, more opportunity. In contrast, fewer options are available to us if we’re attached to having the other person or external circumstance change, because they/it may or may not.

‘Teaching someone to fish’ is about not working so hard to come up with answers for them or even to view what they want for themselves in service of adopting new behaviors. Rather ‘teaching someone to fish’ means assisting them in learning how they relate to themselves and their circumstances as they exist in their current form and then allowing the person to decide what changes, if any, they’ll make.

We can help our clients understand why they don’t already have what they say they want and how they can make changes that will help them get it. By learning to make their own decisions and take their own actions, they can own the ‘fish’ they catch and can continue to improve their ‘fishing’ skills. The outcome? Everyone maintains appropriate responsibility for individual actions and grows in personal agency and resilience.

Self-Care Means Loving Yourself

The degree to which we mistreat ourselves is mind-blowing.

In the name of trying to get what we want (inner satisfaction, love, safety, security, and more), we do a lot of different things that take us in the opposite direction. For example, we may choose repeatedly to put ourselves in the line of fire with people who don’t support us. Or we may judge ourselves harshly with negative self-talk. And we find other options that get us off-track, such as over-working to the point of exhaustion, harming our bodies with too much or not enough food, consuming too much alcohol or too many drugs, avoiding exercise, or using the internet to ‘check out.’ Perhaps we push ourselves too hard (think: perfectionism), try to control outcomes, or give our power away to endless other external things and/or people. We can find far too many methods to derail ourselves. And this is not an exhaustive list, by any means.

Have we lost our way? Perhaps. So, how does that happen?

Most of us — myself included — get side-tracked from self-care because we’re conditioned from childhood to locate our ability to feel satisfied outside of ourselves. As children, we’re literally dependent on the adult caregivers in our lives to provide what we need to survive, whether that’s food, clothing, shelter, emotional care, or acknowledgment, which often comes in the form of praise and attention. If we don’t get those aspects of basic care in our early development, we won’t learn how to be loving adults to ourselves and we’ll continue to look only outside of ourselves for that validation.

Can we change this unfortunate dynamic — our tendency to look only outside of ourselves for validation? Yes. Of course.

First of all, we can consciously fight against the strong current of societal norms and move beyond the expected default settings of faster-faster-faster, better-better-better, more-more-more. It’s kind of ironic to notice that we go balls out to achieve what we think will make us feel better, only to burn out along the way. Even globally, we are so tuned in to and concerned with the sustainability of our planet (and, therefore, our species), yet we’ve got blinders on regarding the day-to-day sustainability of our own well-being.

Then, when we remember Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy-of-needs pyramid, we recognize that tending to our own basic needs enhances our engagement in ‘higher levels’ of participation in life — including our ability to be of service to others and our capacity to practice spirituality.

So, what’s our next step? How do we reconnect with ourselves?

We must intentionally work to change our perspectives and actions, because that helps us stake out important boundaries and preserve our bandwidth for the long haul.

We must also relocate our sense of worth and well-being to the inner planes where it truly belongs. The shift from an outer-identified view to an inner-directed sense of self may take time, but the results are well worth the effort. After all, shouldn’t you be the one who decides if you’re good enough?

Being more present with ourselves — attending to our needs (our self-care) moment to moment — begins to allow us to live in real time with ourselves. These are the kinds of activities that add to our bandwidth rather than deplete it. What could be more loving than that?

‘Trust Fall’ Into Inner Work

Sometimes, doing inner work can feel like stepping into one of those trust-fall exercises. Just thinking about such a leap — let alone doing it — requires courage, faith, vulnerability, and trust in the other person (the therapist), so you feel you won’t hit the ground. At least, not too many times. Whether you’re trying a trust fall or your own inner work, you need to have a hearty appetite for the unknown.

Personal growth — and other paths to inner work — doesn’t come in the form of three easy, comfortable steps, although that’s what most of us desire. Instead, we need to be willing to move without knowing exactly what’s ahead for us. Because the path only opens up when we take the first step — when we show a willingness to shift our view — we can’t fully know what we’re signing up for at the time. Chances are, if we did, we’d probably opt out. But making the effort can bring actual beneficial results.

How can you tell if you’re ready to take that first step? Maybe, something in your life isn’t working the way you’d like. And maybe, you’ve sought professional help. That means you’re on your way. Then, in your therapeutic sessions, when you name what you want for yourself and explore how to have it, you’ll discover new territory. You’ll realize that the once-necessary but now-outdated ways you identified yourself, and the accompanying patterns and strategies you employ to support your identity, are often the very things that stand in the way of having what you truly want.

Your ability to discover ‘new territory’ typically takes two forms. First, you recognize what role you play in the situation. Second, you explore how and what you need to change to have what you want. Then, the process of establishing new territory for yourself means you’re able to increase your threshold for discomfort and remain calm and curious in the face of it.

We make such shifts not just for the sake of changing. We make them so we can live with more agency as adults and improve the way we identify and relate to ourselves, others, and the world at large. As we stretch into making new choices and begin to incorporate different ways of relating to old patterns and issues, we release their hold over us. We also feel more flexibility in our responsiveness to life, with all its challenges and its possibilities.

So… Okay. If creating new territory includes some degree of discomfort, is it worth the effort?

As both a clinician and a lifelong participant in inner work, I say yes. I know firsthand the power of taking the leap of faith when guided by the right person — a mental health professional whose life experiences include an ongoing investment in their own inner work. Even with its discomforts, the effort of discovering new territory within myself has been an invaluable part of my personal growth and has helped to build my own chops as a clinician. You can make that leap, too!

The Upside of Counter-Transference

No matter what experience level you’ve achieved as a clinician, you can always benefit from discovering and engaging in ongoing inner work. This vital aspect of being a great clinician is both an important wellness practice and a professional tool. When you participate in my Avenues For Inner Work programs, you’ll explore key issues — such as how you can work more effectively with counter-transference.

Knowing how to work with counter-transference strengthens our ability as clinicians to serve as a therapeutic presence in our interactions with clients. That, in turn, helps their personal work move forward more quickly. If dealing with it can be helpful, why is counter-transference often at or near the bottom of the list of important issues we address?

Many of us hold a negative association with the word counter-transference. That’s because we were probably taught that it has to do with our own unhealed issues and the negative triggers that can arise within us toward our clients. We were strongly advised not to ‘have’ any counter-transference — and, if we did, we were to avoid letting it seep into the therapy room. End of story. Such a mentality, however, often makes counter-transference a taboo subject within the therapeutic setting. And that stashes it firmly in the ‘uncomfortable to talk about’ corner of our profession.

Most of us — myself included — weren’t trained in how to work with counter-transference, let alone given any validation that it’s a natural part of our humanity and doesn’t need to be pathologized or feared. So, do we just pretend counter-transference is not part of our authentic experience as wounded healers? Such an approach often breeds ‘imposter syndrome’ and perfectionism within us. We can become over-focused on finding and using the latest techniques, interventions, and skills — the ‘doing’ aspect of our role. And that can keep us feeling inadequate and involved in a seemingly endless cycle of accumulating more and more professional training credits. All the while, we bury and deny what we’ve deemed as the less-than-desirable parts of ourselves, afraid they might pop up around a client. That’s a recipe for burnout.

By noticing only the negative and fearful aspects of counter-transference, we may miss seeing its positive elements. (Yes, we can find good things about this topic!) For example, when we’re willing to reflect on what a client’s ‘stuck-ness’ in therapy brings up in us (such as feelings of helplessness, frustration, or inadequacy), we can work through our end of the dynamic outside of the therapy room and with support. Often, we’ll find when something is no longer being re-enacted within us toward the client, the client’s stuck-ness releases and their process moves forward. This is a very useful and positive aspect of counter-transference. If we think of counter-transference only as something negative — if we’re afraid of it, or we haven’t learned how to work with it — we’re likely to ignore the great potential of these positive events.

Like most things that feel difficult or challenging, when we bring an issue out into the open — within the context of a healthy support system — we begin to loosen its grip on us. Surely, we want that for ourselves, as well as our clients! As clinicians, we can choose to address, collaborate, and support each other in working with and through our experiences of counter-transference in a community of like-minded and like-hearted professionals. Such an approach can make all the difference to our success as we learn how to harvest golden nuggets from the places that scare us.

Practitioners: Improve Your Therapeutic Presence to Benefit Your Clients

Now more than ever — amid the latest innovations for guiding clients toward lasting change that currently flood the field of psychology — we are being called upon as a profession to lead the culture in resolving our individual and collective trauma. Yet, our own trauma as wounded healers rarely receives enough attention as a valued focal point. It’s not so much that, as clinicians, we don’t recognize the fact that we’ve experienced trauma. It’s more that if we’re not addressing our own unhealed trauma in an ongoing and responsible way, we may not be able to truly help those who seek our guidance. What will happen when we sit with our clients during their darkest moments? How will we shepherd them wisely if we don’t “know” — personally, and in an embodied way — the power and healing potential of the latest and greatest therapeutic modalities?

The fields of psychotherapy and, especially, trauma healing have recently experienced one of their greatest growth periods to date. However, the well-being of the practitioner remains sorely under-addressed. In particular, a gaping hole exists around the issue of how the attention to practitioner well-being directly benefits our work with clients. The therapeutic relationship is continually being recognized as the strongest healing agent for the client. Healing can happen within this framework because it carries a unique ability to provide corrective lived experiences in the here-and-now. Through these improved real-life experiences, clients can be empowered to relate differently to themselves and their world.

Cultivating therapeutic presence as a clinician means showing up in real time, unencumbered by our own unhealed stuff. We need to recognize our personal triggers, our personal reaction to a client, and how we may project our stuff onto a client. Such counter-transference will always happen within the therapeutic setting. But when we get stuck in it or avoid dealing with it, we’re unable to show up fully for our clients and for ourselves. Because counter-transference is a normal part of the therapeutic process, we need dedicated resources specifically for working through our own issues outside of the therapy room. And we need to leverage all aspects of our humanity and our own situations to get counter-transference working in our favor.

But how do we, as practitioners, develop the skills, resources, and mind-set that supports us in becoming an effective therapeutic presence? Very few graduate programs require a defined personal healing component as part of the rigorous curriculum. Why not? Because the valuable experiential context of inner work can be challenging — but not impossible — to address within an academic setting. Regardless, we must work toward this goal. If we don’t — if the theoretical and clinical application pieces do not build upon a foundation that includes a component of experiential inner work for clinicians — how well-equipped are we to address our client’s needs?

I’m suggesting we include personal healing alongside the academic portion of all graduate clinical training programs, but not in a check-the-box sort of approach. We must address these issues at more than a surface level. Otherwise, it’s like the difference between reading about a place you’d like to travel to and actually traveling there. You can capture the flavor of the location by reading about it, but when you experience it firsthand, with all of your senses, the place actually comes to life. If that’s what we desire for our clients in their personal healing journeys, we must learn to do it for ourselves, both within the academic setting and beyond the classroom.

As our profession begins to openly address the necessity of inner work for clinicians and starts to build it into our academic programs, ongoing conversations, and professional/post-graduate training, we begin to shift away from the mentality of putting ourselves last. That also helps us break the stigma of needing to “have it all together” or to somehow be “perfect” in order to do good work with the people who seek our counsel.

Programs and services from Avenues For Inner Work are designed for clinicians who want to begin or continue their journey toward becoming an effective therapeutic presence.

Wisdom

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We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.

-Marcel Proust

Being a Therapeutic Presence

What is our role as a therapist? And, as clinicians, what do we provide our clients? I heard Bonnie Badenoch, therapist and author, describe these key offerings as “being a therapeutic presence” during a recent interview with Tami Simon, founder of SoundsTrue, on the free podcast series Insights at the Edge.

In the podcast Trauma and the Embodied Brain, Bonnie describes the notion of ‘agenda-less’ therapy and how connecting relationally from a deep presence makes all the difference to our autonomic nervous system as it continually scans for a ‘safe/unsafe’ other. All of this, of course, is occurring below the level of consciousness.

Bonnie elaborates on our inherent bent toward healing and well being. She says that the easiest way to change our state is to be with someone who is in a state that we want to be in because it helps us register a sense of safety within. This validates the ever-important therapeutic relationship as the primary agent of healing within the work between therapist and client.