What was said; What I heard

I read something that had a pretty big impact on me at a pretty important time which has led to the inspiration for this post. I have not spoken to my mother in a week. This would not generally be note worthy but this time it is. The last time we spoke ended badly and the space I thought I needed to take care for myself expanded from a half hour to multiple days to now a week.

During this week my Dad showed up in his normal role in our family: peace maker/mother fixer. My Dad picks up the messes of others so everything can stay neat and tidy and we can all pretend there is no mess. Dad also takes care of Mom, Mom comes first. Always.

The space has been painful. I feel like a terrible daughter, I feel like I am the problem, I feel like I am breaking my mother’s heart, I feel guilt, I feel shame, I feel like I will be a terrible mother. I feel self-doubt. I worry that my actions are manipulative, I am constantly second guessing myself. I feel unstable, out of control.

As the space has gotten bigger so has my truth; I feel rejected. I feel used. I feel blamed like a scapegoat. I feel resentment. I feel more stable. I am starting to gain clarity. I am starting to truly understand how much bigger than me this is. I am learning how to care for myself since the focus is not constantly on caring for her. My heart is aching. I feel let down.

Yesterday or the day before, I honestly cannot remember now, I was reading a blog that I have been following for a long time. It is a blog similar to my own; personal, searching, honest. I appreciate the honest part most. I admire and appreciate people who are willing to say out loud that life is hard, families are hard, relationships are hard. I see enough posed photos with perfect smiles, sometimes I need the honesty of how devastating losing a pet can be. This blogger shows up in her truth.

So I was reading this post that true to form was painfully honest and I definitely identified with parts of it. My truth is different from hers but I saw myself, my childhood self, in some of her writing.

I wasn’t sure I had the courage to be so honest but right now seems like the time. The only way for things to be different is to do things differently. That means honesty and stepping out from the shadow of denial. Last week my mother and I broke another vase, metaphorically speaking, and despite all his efforts my father was not able to sweep these pieces under the rug like so many broken pieces before it. So now I am going to stand here in the mess I helped make and accept Alma’s invitation to be seen in my truth.

What was said and What I heard:

Calm down: You are acting crazy. You are crazy.
This isn’t going to work: You can’t do this. You made a mistake. You did this wrong.
Your mother is really upset: Your mother is really upset and it is your fault. You need to apologize to your mother. Please fix this for me. I am scared.
Your brother _____________: I love him more. Your accomplishments, life, words, ideas, problems, are less important than his.
Mother-daughter relationships are hard: This is what it is, get used to it. Stop trying to change things. Stop upsetting the apple cart.
What is most important is that we love each other: Do you still love us? Are we good parents? Please don’t leave us. Family comes before everything, including your emotional well-being.
*Silence*: Fuck you. You are the worst. I will not bend. You will give me what I want. Who do you think you are? You owe me this. You are not stronger than me. Don’t make me angry. How dare you. I do not love you.

What I needed to hear:

This started long before you.
This is not your fault.
I own my part.
Take all the time you need, I will be here.
I am ready to really work on this.
The truth, the real honest truth.

 

There are a lot of ANDs that exist in this space of pain but this time I am going to keep my ANDs to myself. I know what they are and that is what matters. I do not feel compelled to make this mess pretty to make myself or anyone else more comfortable. Not this time.

mom

Coming Out

power

We just got back from the Women’s Rally downtown. It was incredible. We heard the music and crowd while we were still walking a block away towards the event, when we turned the corner and I saw the scene laid out before me I began to cry. It was like coming home.

It was so beautiful. There were families, and every different kind of person you could possibly imagine. I saw fellow social workers, and some of my professors, and even our PCP walked by us with cat ears on! It was so great to see so many people I personally know but also just the turn out in general. The messages people were carrying on the signs they made were love, pure love. Some were also sad, sad because of the truth they hold. I cried behind my sun glasses for the first ten minutes while we were there, I was so overcome by the energy of it all and what it meant to me personally as someone who has very real reasons to be afraid right now. I am sure I was not the only person who felt so moved.

We walked around and took it all in and then planted ourselves so we could listen to the speakers. The first speaker spoke of the importance of coming out and how the rest of the world could learn a thing or two from our LGTBQ+ brothers and sisters about coming out. She talked about the importance of coming out everyday; in the grocery when we see someone treated poorly, at our jobs when we are afraid to speak out against something we know isn’t right, in our families, in our relationships, in public, everywhere. We have to come out as the people we actually are and have the courage to be seen. She talked about coming out as feminists, and as allies, and in all these other ways. We have to be willing to come out and been seen as the people we actually are and then live in that power of wholeness and authenticity everyday. It is a big ask, I know this because as much as I was inspired by her words I was also afraid.

I was afraid for the same reason we are all afraid; how will this change my life? will being my true self negatively impact my life/work/relationships? what if _____ isn’t/aren’t okay with it?
An extra fear for me that has always kept me small is fear of my safety. It is a fear I know I share with many. Coming out means allowing those who hate us without even knowing us to see us. In the closet we are safe, those who claim to hate us can’t see us. Coming out means taking an enormous risk. For some of us the stakes are higher than just will this person stop being my friend? or will this family member disown me?
For some of us it is will someone try to hurt me?

I was inspired though in spite of my fear. And just being in the presence of all these amazing, open minded, loving people made my light feel all the way turned up.

I agree that we need to come out, it is the only way to accomplish real progress. We have to step out of our fear and into our greatness.

When I think about my own coming out I know I am still operating from a place of fear, but I am working on it, and maybe one day I will find that courage to turn my light all the way up.

The Double Standard

therapy

Last summer when I started my journey back into myself through therapy one of the last questions I asked my therapist before hiring her was, are you currently in therapy? Her answer to that question had a huge weight on my decision to work with her or not. Her answer was yes.

During one of our first sessions the topic of therapists in therapy came up. I believe that if a person wants to do therapeutic counseling as a career they should either be seeing a therapist at the same time or have seen one in the past (I prefer the former though personally). The bottom line is we all have emotional work to do and I think some therapists try to ignore that fact. They try to put themselves in higher position than their clients, they are the expert, they do not need help themselves. I call that denial.

My therapist during this session I referenced was saying how she was impressed that I asked about her being in therapy when we first talked. She said that when people in her personal life come to her for advice about choosing a therapist that is the very question she tells them to ask. She says that she would never see a therapist who is not doing their own work, I agree.

Even in the program right now, so many of us are in therapy doing our own work and you can almost pick out those who are not. You can feel the difference.

The thing that has always been baffling to me is the double standard that exists in this field as well as many other helping professions about seeking out therapy. There is something kind of shamey about it, like this feeling of, you have no business being a therapist because you are just as screwed up as the people you are wanting to help. News flash: WE ARE ALL SCREWED UP. Get off your high horse, no one makes it through life with out emotional bruising, and scarring, and worse. That IS the human condition. I want a therapist who is not in denial and who is making them self a priority, we all need to be modeling that behavior for our clients.

Side note: this rant has classist undertones and I know it. There are many clinicians and aspiring future clinicians who are not in an economic position that allows them to spend the money on their own therapy. I am not trying to shame anyone here, I am just saying that for me this piece is important. Really important. And some clinicians who can afford it still do not do it because of the double standard.

So let’s get back to that double standard for a moment.. How is it that a person can go through all the energy of becoming a therapist and not actually believe in therapy themselves? I want to be a therapist but I do not believe in going to therapy. OR worse:.I think therapists who go to therapy are broken in some way and should not be practicing.

I am putting a lot of words in a lot people’s mouths right now, I see that. I making broad generalizations about attitudes felt towards clinicians who are in therapy themselves. Let’s be real, there is a whole middle area. In that middle area there are therapists who do not go to therapy but think no less of those who do. There are therapists in therapy that judge other therapists for doing exactly what they are doing themselves. This, like everything, exists on a spectrum. (If there is only one thing you ever take away from my blog it will be the idea of the gray area).

My truth is though that I have experienced some weird energy around my admission to being in therapy. I am not at all in any way in the closet about being in therapy. It is the best gift I have ever given myself and I refuse to feel shame about this amazing thing that is changing my life and helping me in a way I have never ever been helped before. Still, when someone says, Hey can you get together this day at this time to go over this project, and I say Sorry I have therapy at that time, I can do this time. I have definitely seen the other person squirm. And when in class we talk about self-care and I share that this is part of how I do self-care the class go silent like I just admitted I am a leper or something.

It is time for this to be normalized, for it not only to be acceptable but expected and encouraged. Some of my professors have straight up told me that when they were in college they had to go therapy, it was expected of them because counter transference is real and you need to work your stuff out before you go out and try to work with vulnerable populations, especially if the work you want to do is therapeutic in nature.

What I can tell you is that sense being in therapy and being so open about it I have noticed a shift at school. For example, the class where I disclosed that therapy is part of my self-care – the next week two more students disclosed the same thing – the week after, three more shared they were in therapy as well. In these classes we are there to learn from our professors but we are also there to support each other while we are on this last leg of our schooling. I am glad that we as a cohort are able to be more open with each other, and in turn decrease the stigma around asking for help.

There is so much stigma around mental health issues, how is that going to change if the clinicians who should be advocating for their clients are partially responsible creating that stigma. If we are judging our colleagues for seeking out help we are feeding the flame of stigma around mental health issues, because our colleagues are clients as well. If we cannot advocate for ourselves, for our colleagues, how can we do it for our clients?

On an airplane they tell you before take off that in case of emergency put on your own oxygen mask before helping your neighbor with theirs. That is all this is. Trauma, and conflict, and family issues, and relationship issues, and mental health issues are all part of the human experience. So we, as clinicians, need to be modeling the behavior for our clients. We need to be putting on our masks before we try to help them with theirs. AND we need to stop doing it in the shadows. My openness about being in therapy is one small step I take in my commitment to break down the stigma around mental health and seeking out help in general.

A Case for Personal Therapy in Counselor Education

Unconditional Positive Regard

unconditional

This is a concept we talk a lot about at school. It is part of the commitment we make to doing this work,treating our clients with unconditional positive regard. For me this, like so many aspects of social work, goes beyond my clients. It is a goal to strive for in life, treating others with unconditional positive regard. I’ll let you in on a secret though, it is not possible. It is not possible to treat every single person you meet and interact with in life with unconditional positive regard, not without completely abandoning yourself, and then you would not have succeeded anyway because unconditional positive regard starts inside.

So we start with our clients and then try to extend that concept out into the world as far as we can understanding that sometimes we feel other ways about people which is okay, that is when we make sure to turn unconditional positive regard inward to take care of ourselves in that moment.

I was thinking about unconditional positive regard on my drive home today because of a conversation myself and a fellow intern had during a break.

Today was a day for deep conversations in the intern office. Next week we start taking on our own cases so today was a lot about prepping. We cleaned the office and organized it the way we wanted. We went through all the different work books and tagged the worksheets we will want to use with clients, we did a few more trainings on the computer, and in between we chatted. We talked about religion and spirituality, turns out this intern and myself share a common thread in that we were both raised in Catholicism and walked away from it as soon as we were confirmed. We talked about some of classes. We talked about the importance of doing your own work (through therapy or in other ways) in order to be an effective clinician. We also talked about some of our fears, specifically as they pertain to certain populations.

In school we are taught that you have to be open to all different populations, different spiritual backgrounds, genders, sexual orientations, ages, cultures, races, etc.. For some people this idea is difficult for them from the very beginning, others do not think it will be a problem for them at all (me using my “I” voice I kind of wonder how honest they are being with themselves), many fall somewhere in the middle. I am one of the ones who falls somewhere in the middle.

What got my colleague and I on the topic of this particular fear/concern is a story I was sharing with her about a podcast I was listening to over the summer. Trigger warning I am going to talk about pedophilia on a superficial level.

I was listening to a podcast wherein someone who self-identified as a pedophile who had never acted on his thoughts shared his difficulty when seeking out a therapist to help him with his condition. He was young, maybe 20, and he had been having these thought since around the time he started high school if I remember correctly. He talked about the shame he felt, and he knew it was wrong but that he did not feel like he could control the thoughts. Not too long after it started (the thoughts) he went to his mother and told her that he needed to meet with a therapist, he did not disclose why just that it was very important. His mother scheduled him to meet with a therapist. Upon the initial meeting and after listening to his story and why he was seeking out help the therapist quickly told him that they would not be able to help him but they would refer him to a therapist that could. The therapist also told the client’s mother without his permission which I understood and at the same time my heart ached for the client because this deeply impacted their relationship. His story went on to tell how therapist after therapist turned him away, I am sorry I cannot help. Referral after referral was made, help started seem further and further out of reach. Feelings of shame and isolation grew, not even those trained to help could help him, who could?

I am sorry to say I do not remember how this story ended. I do not remember if he ever found the help he needed, I hope he did.

After sharing this story my colleague and I talked more about whether or not we felt this client would have been a problem for us. Would we have helped or referred him on? We then talked about other populations that are severely stigmatized and where we stand in those cases.

Then we talked about compassion. This is where the unconditional positive regard comes in. When we think about pedophilia a clear line is drawn between victim and perpetrator. One is shown sympathy, the other is demonized. I am NOT at all in any way trying to downplay or dismiss the experience of the victim in these situations, we (my colleague and I) did agree that there was still compassion to be had for this person who shared his story and others like him though.

unconditional positive regard

There is compassion to be had with all people. What I was thinking about specifically on my car ride home is how society creates stigma through fear; and what I may be doing in my own life to further stigmatize those already facing severe stigma and shame. What it came back to for me is something I say a lot and that is words matter.

Last summer I stopped using the word crazy as a filler word in casual conversation. Now instead of saying we are having crazy weather I say what I actually mean, it sure has been raining a lot. Crazy is a loaded word for a lot of people, myself included, it may be should not thrown around so casually without thought about impact to others. Another good example is replacing committed suicide with died from suicide. Committed has a negative criminal connotation that stigmatizes the bereaved. I took a training on this in the spring and have since been mindful of this.

One that really stuck out for me on my drive though was the term narcissism. If you go far enough back in this blog you will find I am guilty of throwing that word around casually  with deliberate intent to judge others.  Typically I would be using it to refer to society’s social media habits. Here is the thing though, this is a diagnosis that is already SUPER stigmatized, it carries a lot of weight. What does it say about me as a future clinician and my commitment to unconditional positive regard when I do this? Individuals who are on that spectrum are worthy of compassion and unconditional positive regard as well.

unconditional positive regard1

We are all capable of causing pain and harm, we are all also worthy of compassion. I am willing to bet that there will be times over the course of my career where I struggle with a specific client for one reason or another. I may even have to refer a client to another clinician. I will always be mindful of my commitment to unconditional positive regard though and mindful of what it means to practice it both professionally and as a human being.

Labels

My soul friend has arrived!

Yesterday evening Todd and I went to the airport and picked up his best girlfriend from college who also happens to be one of my favorites. My soul was dancing inside my body the moment she joined us. We immediately began talking about books, and life, and all other things that felt good and right in the moment.

When we arrived home Todd and Lucy went to bed, he still has to work this week, but she and I stayed up. We talked all night until today became tomorrow and my heart felt full.

Our conversation was everything I love about a good conversation, it was deep, it was authentic, and it was limitless. One of the topics we broached had to do with how labels are problematic and how we both struggle with their existence.

It is the idea that instead of saying someone is a bad person it is often more accurate and kind to maybe say they had a bad moment. You did something bad, that does not mean you are bad. One is probably most compassionate just not to make the judgement at all, to maybe say nothing, or if you must say something let it be some form of I love you.

As a person who has been prescribed many labels without my permission I am well aware of how problematic labels can be. That does not mean I am always as mindful as I  could be though when it comes to placing labels on others.

Last week I deleted two people from my FB account because in my head I labeled them. Here is what is maybe closer to the truth in both of these cases, neither of these people are racists or homophobic, they did express privilege and prejudice that was a problem for me though. It was more than I could sit with. But still it is recognizing the difference between this person is a racist and this person is struggling with prejudice thoughts.  And the truth is maybe they are not struggling with their thoughts, maybe it is me that is struggling with their thoughts.  All I can do is be honest that those thoughts and comments made me uncomfortable on a level that was more than I could tolerate and rather than look at them as a problem I need to look within myself for what opportunity for learning and growth exists in this place of discomfort.

This is absolutely a growth piece for me. I say that in my career as a social worker I am not comfortable with diagnosing clients and that kind of centers around this idea of not wanting to label people but then here in my personal life I may do it without much consideration. I do not know that I will ever be completely without judgement, it is a lofty goal, but it is one I will work towards.

I will try to make a conscious effort to be more mindful of labeling which means recognizing that the men I encounter in life may not be sexist as much as they may hold some gender prejudices, and people on social media who I have previously looked down on as narcissists or vapid ninnies are just regular old people who hold different values than I do.

I guess that is what this really comes down to. People hold different values than I do and for some reason that makes me feel that I have the right to label and judge.

You are sexist. You are a narcissist. You are a bigot. You are homophobic. You are wrong. I am right.

I need to step back from this pattern of thinking. How can I really have compassion for others when I am playing this narrative in my head? I know I have made major progress in this area but there is always room for more growth. I think many of us have room for growth in this area if we are willing to look critically at ourselves rather than remaining critical of others.

I will be honest that this may be an uphill battle for me at times. I am an activist and a feminist and I have a tendency to get fired up and want to call things out. If I can learn to channel that energy in a truly positive way I bet there would be no limit to what I could accomplish.

This morning I grateful for time for quiet reflection, I am grateful for my soul friend and the lesson she brought me last night, I am grateful for time off this summer to recenter, and I am grateful for my ongoing journey.

labels

Finding Light in the Dark

dark spaces

Counseling has been a delicate balance for me this time around. A balance between the life I have now which makes me feel nothing but gratitude and love, and a life from before that was darker at times. Last week I felt like I was dwelling in those dark spaces with ghosts. Phantoms of people I used to know, and people I used to be. I felt overwhelmed. And much like a child, I was afraid of the dark. After a few days of dark I discovered maybe it is not quite so scary as I had originally thought, maybe there can be love and gratitude there as well.

Among the broken pieces of a past life I found inspiration. Drawing, painting, creativity seemed to flow out of my finger tips.

lucy blank canvas          painting          screaming            jill art backyard view

I did start to feel a little lost though so Todd came and sat in the dark with me and helped guide me back out. Whats more, he wasn’t afraid of my dark like I was. The journey back out of the dark started slow with talking and hugs. Then came little adventures like walking to the nearby park for a picnic and going to the nicer grocery to wander around and marvel at the enormous produce section. In the end we were cuddling on the couch eating dehydrated okra and it was as if the dark was never there.

While we cuddled on the couch I started to think about the lyrics from our wedding song and suddenly they took on a much deeper meaning,

“Bring me your Love Tonight,

No I am not Where I Belong,

So Shine your Light and Guide me Back Home.”

So today I sit here feeling like myself again, living in the light rather than dwelling in the dark, and I am grateful. I am grateful for the work I am doing on me so I can finally feel whole and not haunted by my dark and the ghosts that dwell there. I am grateful for my life as it is now and the path I have been walking down for the past 5 years. These last few days have really given me new gratitude for my husband though. While he knows of my dark and my ghosts I have never wanted to let him in to actually see it, I was afraid it would be too much. It is not his job to save me from it or try to fix it, that is not what I want, but I appreciate it that he is not afraid to get in there with me when that is where I am. I appreciate that when I am ready to come out from under my cloud he will hold my hand to steady my footing. He said that I will never be alone, I realize now what he meant and I am grateful.

Building My Support Team

shame

That first little step I took towards owning my story and finally letting go of the power it has over me was a powerful one. I received empathetic, honest feedback that I needed to hear. It was hard because I knew it required me to stop being in denial, to stop hiding and to face my fear head on. That first step left me with a major vulnerability hang over, one of the worst I have ever had. Brene Brown talks about the vulnerability hang over in her talk about shame. It is the feeling after you allow yourself to let your guard down and then you regret it and want to take everything you said back!

I am very familiar with the vulnerability hang over. For me it is the terror and intense feeling of needing to hide once I have shared my story with someone new. It is also the shame that resurfaces and fear of judgement and ridicule.

When Todd and I talked about what it would mean for me to take this first step a suggestion he made was for me to share my story with my brother. Part of the trouble I have with sharing my story is the shame and stigma attached which is why very few people know, that includes even my family.

Todd felt very sure that my brother was safe. Safe for me means someone who will understand, accept me and love me. Brene Brown talks about the importance of being loved not despite your story, but because of it.

Last night my brother and I were talking about difficulties both of us are having with various things. My brother feels stigma about a certain aspect of his life as well and we talked together about how these stigmas make us feel. My brother never asked what part of my life caused me to feel this way so I asked him, “do you know what my stuff is?”

The truth is I don’t know if he knows. I certainly never told him and I cannot imagine he would have found out any other way but I cannot be sure. He said he did not. I asked him if he wanted to know. He said that if I felt comfortable talking about it that he absolutely wanted to know.

We sat together for an hour and talked. I was afraid to tell my brother for a different reason. I was afraid because I am his little sister and I did not want to spoil any idealistic image he might have of me. I did not want to burden him with my story, I did not want him to feel bad for me. While I understand that as I work through this I need the support of others I have trouble asking for it. In this part of my life I have always been an island.

Our talk was healing. This is one more person I love in my corner, one less person I love that I have to hide from. A wall came crashing down last night. He completely supports me and as one of the only members in my family who knows and the only one I actually feel like I can talk to about this he may be one of the most important allies I have.

I do still have a small vulnerability hang over this morning. Even though that was one of the best experiences I have ever had when telling someone my story it is still hard. I still feel shame and a want to hide, it is just less than usual.

Baby steps. The next step is trauma recovery counseling. The few times I have been in counseling I have never allowed this area to be a focus. I did not want to touch it, I down played it’s significance and opted to stay in denial. It is time to make it a focus.

I am nervous about what comes next. I have tried to disconnect myself from this for so long that I know it will be painful to focus on it in counseling. I have my small support team though headed up by my husband and brother. It feels good to have them both in the background cheering me on and offering support in whatever form I might need as I go through with this next step.

It is not easy to truly give way to vulnerability like this. Even talking about it in the shadows like I am doing here is hard. I don’t want to admit the areas in my life where I struggle. I do not want to feel exposed. I have to believe though that doing this will lead me to a healthier place where I can be the most authentic version of myself. A place where I am not crushed under the weight of secrecy and stigma. A place where I am finally able to give and allow myself to receive real love. A place that has no room for shame and where I feel worthy.