For as long as I can remember, people have labeled me the “smart” kid. Being smart was my identity that earned me a curious combination of respect and bullying from my peers in elementary school. My teachers would marvel, calling me a “walking Encyclopedia,” yet never quite knowing how to handle my social ineptitude, which I now know was a behavioral and emotional response to complex trauma. In high school I was voted the “class brain,” and there are several painful stories of people—both would-be romantic partners and friends—finding me too smart for them. Even the spiritual name that my teacher gave me, Pragya, means intelligent, wise one, specifically attributed to the goddess Saraswati’s holistic knowledge. I can acknowledge that my unique breed of intelligence allows me to do many big things in the world as it relates to my business, writing, advocating, training and mentoring others…all that jazz.
So why do I still feel so fucking dumb when it comes to navigating my own life and recovery? I’ve clocked more hours in trauma-focused therapy than I’ve spent working on my advanced degrees. You are never going to meet anyone more willing to work on her own shit, and I’ve done that from a variety of perspectives since I first got sober in 2002. Spiritual direction, intense yoga practice, reiki, Rolfing and the whole menu of bodywork, intuitive exploration… you name it, I’ve done it. I even gave some of the old fashioned religion that was the source of so much of my own trauma a try here and there, on the off chance that they were “right” all along. These last two months of 2019 revealed to me another profound layer of the deep damage that these experiences created, impairing my ability to function as I’d like to in the world. I’m still wading through what has been revealed with my village of helpers and may share more publicly at a later time. I will say this in the spirit of candidness that has come to define my approach to mental health advocacy: I still have a hard time shaking the core belief that I am stupid as it relates to trusting myself and my own judgment. Being hopeful as it relates to anything connected to personal happiness sets off an allergic reaction of sorts in me, sending me back to the I am stupid and I am cursed beliefs that were put there by a variety of abuses, especially the ones that deeply connected to spiritual or identity issues. I often ask myself, “How can a smart person be so dumb? When will I ever fucking learn?”
And in that second question rests a big part of the answer—I am not stupid, yet I can be foolish. Somewhere during this month from hell that was December 2019, it dawned on me that foolish is my one word intention for 2020. I’ve engaged in this ancient practice of embracing a word at the dawn of each year for almost a decade now, and foolish certainly is the most curious choice of a word to emerge. Yet it has, so I’m going with it.
There are many meanings of the word foolish dating back to Middle English, with many pejoratives like weak-minded, silly, or lacking judgment offered up as definitions. Yet one definition which is largely associated with the Holy fool archetype is “an ardent enthusiast who cannot resist an opportunity to indulge an enthusiasm.” That’s certainly me. Have you ever seen me dance? Or geek out about something that incites my interests and passions? Or bubble with an Anne Frank-like optimism that even with all of the shit happening in the world, people are still really good at heart?
One of my most precious spiritual influences, the Dutch theologian Fr. Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) cast a very beautiful light on what it means to be foolish in his complied reader Spiritual Formation (2015). Foolish means “slow to believe.” He goes on:
Foolish is a hard word. It can also crack open a cover of fear and self-consciousness and lead to a whole new knowledge of being human. It is a wake-up call, a ripping off of blindfolds, a tearing down of useless, protective devices. You foolish people, don’t you see? Don’t you hear? Don’t you know?
Wow. I’ve been in this process of my healing for quite a while now. And framing it this way allows me to offer a new compassion to myself. My hesitancy to believe beautiful things about the reality of my true self, my nature, and the non-abusive reality of the Divine is a legitimate response to the impact of trauma. It’s been slow going for sure yet when I look at the progression of my life since I first started questioning things at the age of 19, I can see that I’ve learned quite a bit. My belief about myself and my spirit have shifted immensely. Of course I can get tripped up when I fall into some of the same patterns or get tangled up in the same knots, especially as it relates to love and personal relationships. I’ve had quite a bit of shame to wade through being a public figure in the trauma recovery movement and ending up in a second marriage that was abusive on every level. Cops were called, the whole nine yards—in time, I may choose to reveal more publicly yet this is a big step for me saying this much out loud.
“How can a smart person be so dumb? When will I ever fucking learn?,” I cried out many nights as I scrambled for a way to get out and end up with my sanity intact.
Today, just over two years later, the important point to emphasize is that I got out, and more than that, I’ve forgiven myself for being human and maybe even a bit foolish. It’s taken me a long time to learn certain things, and that education continues. May I be kind to myself about this reality in 2020 and in whatever years I may get to live beyond that.
May I also recognize that being foolish isn’t all bad—teasing out the doubts and being eager to learn new ways of being in the world fuels my sense of curiosity that always keeps this life interesting. And the enthusiasm that comes with being foolish—every time I feel my own smile on my face I can tap into some sense of gratitude for not losing that child-like sense of wonder, even though I’ve felt battered around by the world quite a bit. One of my favorite artists, Krishna Das, wove these beautiful verses called My Foolish Heart into one of his chants:
My foolish heart
Why do you weep?
You throw yourself away again
Now you cry yourself to sleep
My foolish heart
When will you learn?
You are the eyes of the world
And there’s nowhere else to turn
It’s little wonder I embraced these verses as an anthem of sorts in the wake of getting out of my marriage. As I’ve listened to them over and over again in the past weeks, I’m hearing an invitation to trust myself more, to trust in the process of it all with greater abandon. There may still be some big healing projects that need to take place for this trust to fully crystallize, and I’m game. Like any holy fool, I cannot resist the opportunity to indulge the enthusiasm.
Photograph of Dr. Jamie by Mary Riley
I am having a very difficult time getting into the fullness of Christmas spirit this year, still very sad that this will be your first Christmas without us. I’m sitting on the couch right now, smiling so widely as I think about hanging out here on Christmas night in 2017. I was going through my divorce and knew it would be a rough one, and you took great care to make sure that we would have fun that evening—eating my mother’s leftovers, lots of desserts, singing songs, and indulging me in my holiday tradition, a viewing of Meet Me in St. Louis. Although not a Christmas movie in a classic sense, I always admired the Christmas story line in the film and Judy Garland’s performance of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas as the pinnacle of Judy at her loveliest. I weep whenever I take in that performance, thinking about how tragically she died and how bitterly the sting of addiction and unhealed trauma affected her. You held me that night as I cried; it never bothered you that I cry so much. Then (since it was your first time watching the film) you grew shocked as, shortly after the song ended, you saw young Tootie take a baseball bat and destroy the snowmen out of her own rage about the family move. “Wellll,” you said in your tenor of commentary, “That certainly changes the meaning of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas for me!”
This memory is everything I love about our friendship—deep laughs, deep tears, and the intimacy of shared experience. I wish we could have had even more of these moments, or that I could have more fully savored the ones we did share. Because of your struggles, somewhere deep inside, I feared that we would lose you young, and yet the reality is that more years is not a guarantee for any of us. When I was scrolling through Facebook on the day we cleaned out your apartment, I came across a meme with a quote from Kurt Vonnegut: “Enjoy the little things in life because one day you’ll look back and realize they were the big things.”
So many little things that I would love to experience again—comparing our rough days back at YSU over dinner at Christman Dining Hall, road trips in my car singing at the tops of our lungs, time spent dancing mindfully—especially receiving your beautiful teaching at your 2018 facilitator training using a bagpipe version of Amazing Grace to get us more viscerally attuned to our breath. Our last formal Dancing Mindfulness experience together included bringing you to Mill Creek Park where I taught a class at the end of August, then I drove you around the west side of Youngstown to show you my sites—the house I grew up in as a kid, my high school, the first place that sold me cigarettes underage. As much time as we spent in a car together before, something inside told me to show you those places, and you wittily called our drive the “Dancing Mindfulness Founder’s Day Tour.” We sang the Sunset Boulevard soundtrack all the way back to Warren, particularly relishing in “As If We’ve Never Said Goodbye.” You bought me better Valentine’s gifts than any straight male I ever actually dated, gifts that usually involved sparkle, glitter, or flowers. Gifts that evidenced how well you knew me. Waking up to your awesome messages and Bitmojis when I was on the road training, encouraging me to keep taking care of myself while working my brand of magic, as you named it. You often called me “tender trainer” in these messages and that is one of the loveliest compliments I ever received. The two of us exchanging boy talk, which usually consisted of you making many points about how I was shortchanging myself. The two of us dancing to Jesus on the Mainline at the Krisha Das kirtan/concert just after your 40th birthday. When we sat down for the final meditation, you kissed your hands and then kissed my feet, as this is a common sign of respect one shows their teachers in India. I cried at the meaning of the gesture and cried even more deeply when you said, “I just wanted to touch Maharajji’s foot.”
Maharajji… the term of endearment for our beloved Neem Karoli Baba; the great Indian saint who left the body in 1973, the teacher of Ram Dass, was the subject of many conversations between us. As kids who grew up largely tortured by Christianity yet still fascinated by all aspects of spirituality, the teachings of Ram Dass and Maharajji were balm for both of our souls. We reveled at what it meant to walk each other home, long seeing each other as guardian angels brought into each others’ lives. We marveled at the simplicity of Neem Karoli Baba’s teachings, namely that if you want to see God, love people. When I helped to clean out your apartment a few days ago, chills overcame me when I saw a card on your fridge; I sent it to you this summer while you were incarcerated. I forgot that I wrote this Maharajji teaching on the inside: “Love is the most powerful medicine. Meditate like Christ. He lost himself in love.”
Jason, this is who you really were and still are in your eternal state. You are a sweet, precious wave who returned to the ocean of eternal love. You understood that this love is who Jesus really is, and the miracle of in the Incarnation that we celebrate this Christmas season is that God shows up in human form. Not just in Jesus, in all of us. I am so sorry that the shame gremlins you could never quite shake kept you from knowing the fullness of this truth in your lifetime, as desperately as you sought this truth. When you told me this Fall that after all of these years you still experienced such great shame about being a gay man, I wanted to just wrap you up in Maharajji’s blanket and tell you how perfect and beautiful you are, exactly as God made you. I did my best to convey that with my voice and hope that in your eternal state, you now realize the truth. I see you and Maharajji hanging out together in Kainchi, chanting to Ram and sharing the love of God with everyone who comes to see you. Ram Dass is now there with you, I'm sure. After I visited Kainchi earlier this year, I so desperately wanted to take you to India with me some day and am sorry we will never have a chance to visit there together in this lifetime. Yet I smile when I see you there with Maharajji and our beloved Ram Dass now.
Because you are universal, unchanging, and timeless my sweet friend, I also hear you singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas with Judy Garland in stunning harmony, reaching me like a lullaby in these very difficult days. I promise you, Jason, that I will carry out your wish of making more music. I cherish the beautiful compliment I received when you said, “I’m glad you didn’t go to music school. They would have squashed out the natural organicity of your voice.” Maestro, I was and am truly honored that you regard my spirit so highly, and vow that I will never let anyone squash out this natural me that you loved so much. I promise that I will cherish these little moments of friendship, grace, and wonder in my life even more and never let my working drive override them again. I know you worried about my tendency to overwork and you, more than perhaps anyone, knew how hard it’s been for me to balance my public life and my private, inner world. You love/d Jamie, Dr. Jamie, and Pragya with equal force and in doing so you’ve laid a path for how I can better love all of me too. The other night when I talked to you in prayer, you told me to keep listening to Journey Blind, my song that you loved so much and that we had the chance to perform together.
And speaking of music and moments… that night in the church when we rehearsed Journey Blind in preparation for your show in February 2018; for me that memory rings on as the fusion of art, friendship and love. I’m so glad we were able to receive that on video (yay for Facebook Live and me being a champion networker). I adored that experience even more than us singing it at the show for it is the very essence of being in process, the glory of art as experience. May I create more moments like this with people in my life as long as I remain in this body. For if I were to die tomorrow, it wouldn’t matter how many books I wrote, how many courses I taught, how big my company got, or how many people knew my name… these moments, these Journey Blind rehearsals on a cold Wednesday night at a church in Warren, OH is what I would cherish the most. Thank you my sweet Jason, beloved member of my family of choice, for helping me to finally and fully realize it.
With love forever,
Speaking truth to power is not easy. I recently spoke out from the depths of my soul to a male public figure whose teaching style is—in my professional viewpoint—far from trauma-informed. I’ve listened to this teacher for quite some time as there has been enough good stuff to keep me engaged. Yet I reached a boiling point when some of his rhetoric crossed the line into what I assessed as victim blaming and making excuses for upholding abusive systems and power structures. To stay silent and passive would have been tantamount to tolerating abuse. With other female sexual assault survivors in the room, not speaking up seemed enabling.
Any previous interactions I had with this teacher attempting dialogue could be described as a barrage of interruptions and mansplaining as a response to my questions. On the day I finally spoke up with the fullness of my voice, I first asked to be listened to without being interrupted. When he nodded his head in agreement, I launched into my criticism, addressing trauma dynamics from a personal, professional, and spiritual perspective. After the very intense course session ended, many women approached me and remarked on my bravery and courage by speaking up in that way. One even called me heroic.
I appreciated them honoring me with their compliments and realized that giving voice to many of the things they also wanted to say may be the only good that came out of publicly challenging this man. Yet something bothered me—why do we still conceptualize it as brave for women to speak up to men? Especially when we are challenging their inaccuracies or blind spots in public discourse? Bravery suggests staring fear in the face when taking on a task that is new and radical. I long to live in a world where how I spoke up to a male is regarded as the norm, not as a groundbreaking act or heroic feat of courage.
How do we, as women, make this happen and continue a very necessary paradigm shift that the #MeToo movement and the work of other advocates began? To be proactive, it is not enough to look up to the outspoken women that we admire, especially those that have a public stage. We must also begin to make small changes at a micro level, in the theater of our daily lives, if significant change is to happen culturally.
A first step is to begin examining our speech on our day-to-day basis—are we speaking like we have something to apologize for? Are we constantly tentative, inflecting our sentence endings, making everything sound like a question? Do we insert nervous words and phrases such as like, you know, you know what I mean?, we’re gonna, okay, just wondering, but anyway excessively? Do these patterned ticks hamper the impact of what we need to say? Does sinking into a higher pitch feel comforting when we are uncertain? Do we say what we mean at the appropriate times, or are we constantly censoring ourselves?
Sure, holding the tongue may be appropriate in certain societal contexts, and speaking with kindness may be an important part of our value system. Yet what do we do with the thoughts, feelings, sensations, and words that we’re holding on to? Do we swallow them, allowing them to fester, playing out in the body or in a variety of other emotional distress symptoms? Or do we find another outlet at a more appropriate time to express them? And if we are constantly censoring our expression, especially in speech, what is the reason? Are we afraid of being perceived a certain way (e.g., disrespectful, unladylike, aggressive, bitchy)? Do we fear that others may withhold affection and regard from us if we speak up and claim the fullest expression of ourselves? Does the high, demure pitch seem to get us somewhere, especially with men? Men who we want to love us, admire us, respect us, or perhaps simply take us seriously?
I realize that I am asking many questions here and not providing any concrete answers. As a professional speaker, I’ve learned to constantly engage in self-inventory using these questions. At least once a year I make sure that I listen to a public recording of myself giving a talk and notice what I notice about my patterns of speech and expression. About five years ago, I was horrified to hear how much I used the phrase you know in a day-long course. The constant use of this nervous phrase made me seem less sure of myself and my message. I made a point to look out for it in future talks. I still have a tendency to slip into the you knows from time to time, and now I have the awareness that it’s typically a sign that I’m nervous or I’m doubting myself. To combat this issue, I make sure that I take more time to ground every morning before I face the day, especially if I’m teaching or giving a talk. I also make more spaces to deliberately breathe when I am speaking, as it keeps me in a calmer flow and less likely to sink into the uncertainty…which inevitably translates into my voice. Of course, the deeper work of therapy, other healing practices and setting boundaries in my life has also facilitated a greater sense of flow and strength in my speech.
As a writer, I’ve also noticed and actively addressed similar patterns. In 2012, I wrote the first edition of a book called Trauma and the Twelve Steps: A Complete Guide to Recovery Enhancement. A publisher contracted me to write a second edition to this work, which is due out in 2020. As I went back through the first edition of the book to make edits and conduct rewrites, I was shocked by how apologetic I sounded in so many places, and how many qualifying phrases that I used to cushion my points (e.g., “This is just my opinion,” “In my personal experience, etc.”) Even though my writing is known for its bridge-building quality, it seemed as though I played it too safe, afraid that I would piss people off. I believe there is an art to not tearing into people. After all, if I chew off their heads, metaphorically speaking, how will they have ears to hear me? Yet in this second run through the book, which also reflected an additional seven years of healing, recovery, and standing up for myself, I was able to take out so many of those qualifying phrases and simply present my position. The book is filled with my personal experience, opinions, clinical perspectives, and voice. There is no need for me to keep saying that in order to soften the power of my message. A second step that we can take as women is to give our emails and written communication a closer look before clicking send. The same questions I offer for speech can also offer us insight for the written word. You may find that practicing with writing is a good training ground for addressing speech.
The more I’ve deepened my awareness about these issues of presentation, the more difficult it is for me to listen to other women speak to each other. Even as I write this piece at an airport during my travels, I can hear two professionally dressed women talking to each other from the row of chairs behind me. Even in casual conversations with each other, the pitch is high, there is an overabundance of like and just to cushion what we are saying, and every sentence can sound like an apology for existing, like we are walking on egg shells. In being attuned to this throughout my travels, I notice it from women of all backgrounds. Sometimes it’s so painful I have to put my earphones on at the airport or on planes just so I don’t have to listen to it. And before I come across as a totally judgmental human being, I admit--I still catch myself doing it with my own girlfriends. These tendencies are that ingrained. These tentative, feminine tropes are how we have been socialized to communicate with each other and the world.
Personally, I’ve had enough, and I make a commitment to stop talking to myself, to my fellow sisters, to men, and to the world like I have something to be sorry for. I deserve to say the things I must say, and I can release expectations of how other people will receive me. I know that this commitment will be a work in progress and I will slip into old habits. When this happens, I will be compassionate with myself and recognize when my friends and I may just be lighthearted or joking with each other. Yet I will take it seriously if it feels like I’m apologizing for speaking or taking up space. If more of us are willing to commit to this at some level, I believe a day will come that speaking up to men in power like I did to that teacher will be just another thing we do because we know that we are worthy and we will be heard.
Photograph of Dr. Jamie by Brandy Llewelyn
Practicing Ahimsa in EMDR Therapy: Yoga Skills for EMDR Therapists by Anna Schott, MA, MSW, LISW-S, ERYT-200
“Violence is a reaction to fear - a key symptom of the dominance that egoism and ignorance have over mind. Violence is not defined by any destructive act but by the desire to see another harmed. That is why nonviolence includes refraining from harm in thought as well as deed...Perfecting nonviolence requires patience, courage, strength, faith, and deep understanding.”
- Inside the Yoga Sutras
“We spend our days badgered by voices that tell us to judge others, fear others, harm others, or harm ourselves. But we are not obligated to listen to those voices, or even to take responsibility for them. They may be where we come from, but they are not where we are going. There is another voice, a voice that shines. Ahimsa is the practice of listening to that voice of lightness, cultivating that voice, trusting that voice, acting upon that voice.”
- Rolf Gates, Meditations from the Mat
Practicing ahimsa, non-harming, is intrinsic to EMDR therapy and can be woven into the 8 phases of EMDR therapy as a tool to help clients re-regulate and treat themselves with loving kindness. Ahimsa is defined within the context of yoga as having respect for all living things and avoiding violence towards others and self. Ahimsa falls under the Yamas, or moral restraints, in the eight-limb path of yoga. Yoga includes not only the physical postures, but also mindfulness, mindful breathing, meditation, and a moral guide to use within the context of yoga and in life in general. The Yamas are part of this moral guide and are yoga’s self-regulating behaviors that teach us how to relate to others and take care of ourselves. Yoga, as a whole practice, aids in healing trauma and when used in conjunction with EMDR therapy, miraculous changes can occur.
Ahimsa does not just inform our work with clients but also how we take care of ourselves as therapists. In the clinical setting, we practice Ahimsa in the words and actions we use with our clients to create a trauma-sensitive setting. We also counteract the effects of our own countertransference, vicarious trauma, and burnout as we take a non-harming approach with ourselves. The whole framework and modality of EMDR therapy embodies Ahimsa as we help our clients heal from trauma and cultivate a peaceful therapeutic setting.
Practicing Ahimsa in phase 1 of EMDR therapy influences the process of history taking with our clients. As clinicians, we must be mindful of how we conduct a mental health assessment and talk to our clients about their past to avoid retraumatization through asking about unnecessary details in regards to their traumas. Because of the fragmented nature of how trauma memories are stored, clients may not be able to identify an accurate timeline, or when they do start recounting specific memories, the proverbial can of worms opens and clients become flooded with trauma memories. We can avoid this by slowly exploring clients’ histories and not worrying about getting the exact historical details. We must remember what matters in history taking is the client’s perspective of their experiences and how they’ve integrated these memories into their view of themselves. Because of the triggering nature of our clients’ pasts, we may need to wait to obtain a full history (and this may not ever come to full fruition) and allow the conversation to be client directed. Though there are certain nuggets of information necessary to obtain to form a diagnosis and identify a treatment plan, it is more important for the wellbeing of our clients to practice Ahimsa by not asking for too much information too fast.
As we move into phase 2 of EMDR therapy, we can work with our clients to identify resources they can utilize throughout the therapeutic process and which embodies a way to direct our clients to practice Ahimsa. This can start as early as the first session as we explore the resources clients already have in place and can utilize in therapy. Exploring resources in addition to history taking can help counteract possible retraumatization in phase 1. The main purpose of resourcing is to help clients tolerate processing the traumas identified during history taking. During this phase of treatment, we can teach our clients coping skills and resources that will help them stay in their window of tolerance without self injury in thought or deed. Through guided visualizations of the Light Stream, the Calm Safe Place, and the Container Exercise installed with BLS, we strengthen our clients’ internal resources to enhance Ahimsa. As a further way to practice Ahimsa, we can also offer to install other individualized positive resources with bilateral stimulation, such as positive experiences, relationships, and achievements.
In phases 3-6 in EMDR therapy, we help clients practice Ahimsa by identifying targets to process and then engaging in bilateral stimulation to desensitize the memories and reprocess the associated negative beliefs. These beliefs perpetuate internal self-injury in the messages clients tell themselves and external self-injury in the form of harmful coping mechanisms, drug and alcohol abuse, and even cutting. Flooding and abreactions can occur during processing with clients who are extremely traumatized, pushing them outside their window of tolerance. Though we want to keep pushing forward to help clients move through these memories, we must practice Ahimsa to help them stay within the space of being comfortably uncomfortable. This can occur by drawing upon their previously installed positive resources, utilizing different cognitive interweaves, and knowing when to slow the processing train down. It also involves an understanding of when to integrate modifications into phases 3-6, such as having a client open their eyes during processing, integrating grounding techniques in between sets, and utilizing the container when clients are flooded by memories. By desensitizing these target memories, our clients practice Ahimsa by living peacefully in the present instead of through the lens of past traumas.
Traditionally, in the practice of Ahimsa, we tend to think of non-harming in the physical sense. This is certainly a reality for many of our clients who engage in physical self-harm through cutting, drug and alcohol addiction, and eating disorders. However, self-harm can present as an internal self-injury through negative self-talk. As clients desensitize their traumatic memories, the associated negative cognitions reprocess, allowing for the integration of positive cognitions, which is then installed with bilateral stimulation. This allows clients to let go of negative cognitions that do not serve them and minimizes negative self-talk and coincidental internal self-injury. Through this, our clients are actively practicing Ahimsa by listening to their positive internal voice.
A further practice of physical non-harming occurs in the body scan phase in EMDR therapy. We ask our clients to scan their body and notice any disturbances while thinking about the target memory and positive cognition. Any residual disturbances they may report can be lingering somatic experiences of the traumatic memories, and reprocessing these can lead to further healing. Though this phase of EMDR therapy may seem extraneous, it allows for some of the deepest processing due to trauma memories being stored at a very base body level. It is often the very last fibrous roots of trauma memories that need to be weeded out. The body scan offers an in-depth way to heal physically from the traumas, leading to a continued state of peace and calm in which to continue practicing Ahimsa.
EMDR therapy is based on the three pronged model of addressing and reprocessing past, present, and future targets to help clients reach optimal functioning. Reprocessing past and present targets offers a way for clients to heal. Installing a future template lays the groundwork for an ongoing mindset of practicing Ahimsa. By visualizing positive ways to handle related situations, clients automatically create an internal positive environment to respond to new and different situations. This is also a way to carry their installed positive cognitions into future scenarios to which they will respond. This will help them to strengthen their practice of Ahimsa as they continue to install and strengthen their positive cognitions and strengths.
As EMDR therapists, we hear trauma all day long. Reprocessing these memories leads to so much healing for our clients but can take a toll on us as therapists through countertransference, vicarious trauma, and burnout. It is imperative as clinicians to practice Ahimsa ourselves. This may manifest as taking a mental health day, limiting the number of clients seen back to back, making sure to take a quick break in between sessions to eat, drink water, and to answer the call of nature. It should also include a rigorous self-care routine outside of work in which you engage in activities that ground and replenish you. In sessions, staying grounded and mindful while practicing Ahimsa will help you to stay present with your clients without absorbing all of the emotions and energies they are outputting as they process their own trauma. Having a self-practice of Ahimsa will enhance your abilities as a clinician and assist in staying engaged with your clients.
Practicing Ahimsa guides us in living in a peaceful way within ourselves and within the world. Not only does non-harming refer to refraining from physically and verbally hurting someone else, it also applies to how we treat and speak to ourselves. As EMDR clinicians, we are teaching our clients to practice non-harming through reprocessing their traumas in the 8 phases and installing positive cognitions that inform how they live their lives moving forward. Through Ahimsa we discover the light within ourselves that directs us in our lives.
To Write or Not to Write: Utilizing the Future Template to Manifest Our Dreams by Anna Schott, LISW-S
I know I’m not the only one grappling with transitioning from full time therapist to other professional pursuits, such as consultation, training, writing, etc. I’ve had plenty of conversations with friends and colleagues about this very topic and our woes are very similar: there are too many clients to see, too many family obligations to juggle, not enough time in the day, etc. I don’t have the answer, but I figured the more I share my intentions for this transition, the more likely it is to manifest (and please feel free to share any ideas you may have in the comments section below!).
I feel an internal drive to grow professionally by developing trainings and writing, but this conflicts with my present obligations. As I think of all the challenges I face in making this transition, the biggest one is the overall feeling of guilt. I have a full caseload of clients, and they need to see me. If I schedule time out of my workday, which I have tried to do with little success, I feel like I’m not doing enough for my clients by not seeing them as often as needed or not taking on new clients. About three months ago, I blocked off Fridays on my schedule to dedicate time to manifesting my goals; ask me how many Fridays I haven’t seen clients, and the answer would be not very many. If I try to set aside time at home in the evenings or weekends, I wrestle with the guilt of not doing enough for my kids and family. If I tell them to leave me alone for an hour...well, it’s just not feasible. I get one or both of the kids looking of my shoulder, asking me what I’m doing and am I done yet - that was my night last night. Again, it brings up the feelings of guilt and the belief “I’m not doing enough”.
We do have this amazing ability as EMDR therapists to process through blocks that keep us from realizing our greatest potential. We can come up with every excuse in the book not to take steps forward, but at the end of the day, we have to push out of our comfort zones and address the fact that we are scared our greatest fear will be realized and reinforce the negative beliefs of “I’m not good enough”, “I’m a failure”, “I’m not doing enough”, etc. By using the three-pronged model, we can identify and reprocess the origins of our negative beliefs, reprocess any current triggers, and install a future template to help us push through to achieve our goals. Installing a future template is often a part of EMDR therapy that is overlooked and minimized, but it can be extremely transformative. By being able to visualize an image of how you want to handle situations in the future, such as writing a book or conducting a training, with a positive cognition, such as “I am good enough” or “I am successful” can open us to manifesting these positive visualizations. It allows us to have a firm grasp on what we want in our future moving forward and gives us the momentum to take the first tentative steps.
This feels like one of those leap of faith moments, and I have to remember that I’ve been here before. I took a leap of faith when I went into private practice after working at a nonprofit with salary, benefits, vacation time, and a sense of stability. Though working at the agency was beneficial in many different ways, I outgrew it and knew I had to let go of that old familiar sense of safety to venture out to start my own holistic private practice. It’s the same driving feeling now as before - this is just something I have to do in order to be true to my authentic self. When I went through that transition before, I had to trust my instincts that this is the right move and remember that new opportunities won’t present themselves if I’m still holding on to old stuff. I have to take my own advice, let go of the old to embrace the new. This is my promise that I make to myself, to be intentional about my goals and not waver in the face the fear, and I hope you make this same promise to yourself. We counsel our clients to trust the process and learn to let go. Now it’s our turn.
I have lived the expressive arts since I was born. In my childhood home we had very few rules. At any given time, you would find one sister painting a mural on the wall while another sister was playing the mandolin and making cheese in her closet. Mom would be making our fringe vest in the breakfast nook and another sister would be making jam… all before taking the bus to meet my big sister’s guru for chanting. Don’t forget to drink the sassafras tea my mom had brood... got to keep the immune system strong. I remember my first journal was a Virginia Slims blank book that I got for free by collecting my mom’s cigarette cartons and sending them in to the company for the prize of a lovely maroon book with a fancy woman on the cover. I would write the story of my life deep into the night while my sister hurled shoes at my bed so I would turn off my flashlight. My mother never put a border around what our souls wanted to do. There were no boundaries….no walls and no safety. Our creative expression was respected and indulged. It was simply our way of life. I would invite friends over for sleep overs by candlelight, makeovers and Mickey Mouse club. This was all pure joy in the middle of inner-city Cleveland nestled between drug deals and frozen pipes... the magic of pure no holds barred self-expression was my sanctuary.
The highlight of junior high was playing Tina Turner and singing Proud Mary, swinging my hard pressed hair, dancing wildly and rolling on the river. Expressing myself through music, writing, dance and potion making saved me from the pain of poverty, sexual assault, and eczema. When I went to college, I wanted to be a dance therapist. Not because I was a trained dancer but because dancing saved my life. As a child I would put on the Motown Christmas album and spin around until I was so dizzy with joy that it did not matter that we had no gas or lights or food in the refrigerator. As a teen I would leave work at McDonalds at 2:30 am and go out dancing until sunrise…6:30am when the club closed. It was called night flight and the rhythm would fly me to another world. I did not know at the time that I was putting myself in a trance. I simply knew that moving my body to the pulsing beat made me feel joy: I could breathe, I could do life as it showed up. So of course, I would want to dance my way through college. The catch was that they had no such major at my school. I settled on psychology as my major and fit in all the other treasures I wanted to learn and experience outside of my formal academic training.
My challenge academically and professionally was always the quandary of how do I blend my love of dance, therapy, service, travel, metaphysics, health, teaching, healing arts into some professional identity? Eclectic is how I had described myself. Holistic became a term I began using 20 years ago when I participated in a Crone/Sage ceremony (Initiation into the Wisdom years of a Woman) for a friend’s 60th birthday. The facilitator of the circle was a holistic psychologist and she embodied the sacred expressive arts. I began to see the blending of my worlds. Yet, the practicality of blending all of these aspects of myself into my daily professional life remained somewhat of a challenge.
It was 2011, I remember getting the call from Dr. Tanya Edwards at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Integrative Medicine. “I hear you are a wonderful hypnotherapist,” she said…come join us. At the time I had not heard of Dr. Edwards so I thought it was a friend from Cleveland pranking me. I would receive 5 more messages like that before calling her back. It was not until I saw her on the Dr. Oz show that I realized this woman was real, not a prank and we looked like we could be cousins! When I returned her call she simply said, “I have been waiting for your call.” I asked did she need me to send my resume and she simply said, “I know everything about you I need to know. Come do what you do.” Perhaps I stopped breathing for a moment when she said these words because doing what I do, in the way I do it had always been a challenge in most therapeutic work settings. Dr. Tanya Edwards told me that she did not bring me to Cleveland Clinic to work with individual patients but for the creative ability and spirit I carry. “You are a Goddess High Priestess….do what you do.” Well I simply thought I had dropped into the 5th dimension of some other universe. Dr. Edwards became my dear sister friend mentor and beloved colleague. I had the pleasure of training and working with her until her death in March of 2014. My use of creativity in my work is a way of also honoring her light and life. Dr. Edwards helped me stoke the flames of my creativity and to share it with a larger audience.
When I received that initial call from Dr. Edwards I was on leave from my tenured position as a Professor of Counselor Education. I was worn out. The Chair of my Department was chronically displeased with me and would lobby against my promotion at the University. He would tell me that I was too creative and relational, and he needed someone who was methodical and organized. I was not that person. I am the one who tries every key on the key ring until I see a crack in the door… a glimmer of light shining through the darkness. Essentially, as a therapist (and a human) I have always believed in using a variety of tools to unlock the emotions hidden within a person’s heart and soul. This is how I taught, and this is how I live. Don’t do yoga they would say. Why are you meditating with your students they would say. It’s a hazard to burn that oil or hypnosis opens the door to the devil they would say. What are you doing with bubbles in your practicum class…Turn your music down...are you drumming again? Did I see you and your client hugging a tree? Creativity has been the foundation of the therapeutic process for me. The fluidity of expression is my elixir.
The expressive arts therapist certification program has given me the long-awaited structure, scaffolding, philosophy and supportive community to truly be the creative holistic practitioner that I am. I have been lovingly challenged to stretch myself far beyond my comfort. This journey has given me a firm foundation to gather the broad palette of my services under an umbrella with a solid base. When asked what my work with bees has to do with therapy and healing….I say it is a part of expressive arts therapy and certainly it is. My journey into the certification process has given me the empirical support to relay to others the methods of my practice. I was born an expressive arts therapist because it is a part of my indigenous, tribal nature. This is how my ancestors healed. This is what we do naturally and some academic and heart wise people were able to observe and research these healing ways and put it into a form. Growing up my father would always tell me not to let people know what I really do because no one would believe I had an education. He felt that my true way of practicing therapy was not legitimate because it was not a part of mainstream culture. Working roots or someone getting the Holy Ghost through sound and movement, shaking, rocking, tapping, clapping, wailing all a part of healing. Don’t tell he would say. I always know who is open to working in this way…don’t worry Dad.
My father is no longer concerned. When I began working at The Cleveland Clinic Center for Integrative Medicine, he said he wished he had taken hypnotherapy serious years ago. We now drum together, do yoga and sound healing together. He is open and the closet door is wide open. All of the expressive arts healing modalities are on the table for use and exploration. In my certification journey I have gathered courage to sing in public, I have begun to use paints and not fear the blank page as much. I have gathered my napkins and old envelopes and published my first book of poetry. I have fallen into the arms of an amazing community of expressive artist and healers. I have danced more in public and shared a specific therapeutic dance within the African American community as a healing ritual for the 400 years of trauma caused by slavery. I am more intentional and clearer about using movement to heal generational trauma. Freeing my creativity and exercising new ways of self-expression has inspired more creativity and courage to go to the edge of my creative desires. All the doors are open to me and the key is in my hand. The Expressive Arts Community is a circle of healers I am forever grateful to be a part of. Ase, Amen, Amin.
Addiction is a dissociative response. Sounds like common sense, right? For many years we’ve operated in our practices fueled by this assumption. As individuals in personal recovery, the link between unhealed trauma/dissociation and addiction has been blatantly obvious. Even when we share our work with people on developing this new model of Addiction as Dissociation, we are met with a great deal of, “Well yeah, obviously.”
Yet the reality is that no contention in the literature has been directly made addressing this link… until now. The connection between unhealed trauma and addiction has been well asserted, with giants in the field like Gabor Mate, Bessel van der Kolk, and many others speaking to this link. What about dissociation? Dissociation comes from the Latin word meaning to sever. When an experience or a moment becomes too overwhelming for a person’s system to handle, we have a tendency to sever from that present moment, or from our core self. Dissociation is a very normal response of the brainstem that can activate when we are met with overwhelming distress. Dissociation can be adaptive (e.g., spiritual pursuits, proper use of guided imagery, daydreaming, the Netflix binge when you need to decompress) or maladaptive. When the manifestations of dissociation are maladaptive, they are likely to cause functional impairment. The various signs and symptoms of addictive responses can be examples of this phenomenon. Moreover, maladaptive manifestations of dissociation result when traumatic experiences or stressful events have not been processed and reconsolidated.
Both of us have been working very hard in 2019 to scour the literature and create a model that we are now calling Addiction as Dissociation. Regardless of your adopted stance on addiction (e.g., a disease, a response to trauma) or whether you even like the word (i.e., you may prefer behavioral compulsivity), this model will likely be relevant to your practice. We’ve prepared a table version of the model that you can examine in this blog. You are welcome to share it and we also value your comments on what resonates and what may still need refinement. Our scholarly paper that fully supports the contentions and flow of the model is currently under review and we will keep you posted about the more formal debut of this model to the world.
Too Cautious or Not Cautious Enough: Thoughts on the Need for Dissociation Training for EMDR Therapists by Teresa Allen, MFT
Since dissociation is the essence of trauma, it’s not possible to treat trauma without understanding dissociation. As EMDR therapists, we need to understand it. In my view, there are two opposite issues with EMDR therapists and dissociation, and therefore with how to approach education about it.
Some of us find dissociation intimidating and see it as too risky to work with, to the point of being spooked when it emerges in training practicums or in a session. Some of us refer out immediately when we see it. I’m calling this the Too Cautious group, sending clients to another clinician at the first indication of dissociative process, and thus missing an opportunity to help people with all that we know about the Adaptive Information Processing model and EMDR.
While some may be too cautious with dissociation, others know too little about it and so are not cautious enough. This group is not always aware of the potential risks that come with inadequate history taking and preparation. I’m calling this group the Not Cautious Enough group. While I realize there are different views on this subject, my belief is that premature, unprepared processing of memories can result in destabilization and put a client in serious jeopardy resulting in the need for significant therapeutic repair.
Both the Too Cautious group and the Not Cautious Enough group--all of us--need more information about working with persons with dissociative symptoms. What’s needed is training that normalizes and demystifies the subject, while at the same time informing us about ways to recognize and effectively work with it, using Adaptive Information Processing principles and EMDR Therapy Standard Protocol modifications.
Dissociation training should include direction in learning about our own dissociative tendencies and ego states. Reflecting and learning about ourselves in this way can help to make this important subject less “other.” In this way, we can approach learning about dissociation with much less fear. It is after all, something our brains were built to do. One problem is the question of what exactly is dissociation.
One group of authors in treating complex trauma, describes dissociation as “a continuum of non-realization: not real, not true, not mine, not me.” Kathy Steele identifies four ways dissociation is defined in the literature.
Steele points out that alterations in awareness and consciousness are treated with mindfulness; shutting down is treated with physical reactivation; and depersonalization (the most challenging) can be treated with mindfulness. Dissociation of self is treated with mindfulness, reactivation, and system, or “parts,” work.
So, I’m proposing that, as EMDR therapists, we find ourselves sometimes too put off by dissociation and think we cannot work with clients who dissociate. Or, in the opposite direction, a lack of caution with dissociative clients can lead to significant risk, since memory work might be done without proper preparation and stabilization.
Training about dissociation is needed for both groups of us--and everyone in between. The question is how to deliver training in a way that normalizes dissociation as something we all do, and in a way that empowers clinicians to feel we are competent in assessing and treating more serious dissociation and its many attendant issues. With proper preparation and modifications, EMDR Therapy and the Adaptive Information Processing model are powerful tools for helping persons with dissociative symptoms to heal and lead healthy lives. With adequate attention paid to preparation techniques and Standard Protocol modifications, we as EMDR therapists can more effectively treat clients with complex trauma backgrounds and dissociative symptoms.
Gonzalez, Anabel and Dolores, Mosquera, EMDR and Dissociation: The Progressive Approach, First Edition (Revised), 2012.
Knipe, Jim, EMDR Toolbox: Theory and Treatment of Complex PTSD and Dissociation, Second Edition, 2019.
“Dissociation: Sharing From a Personal Place, An Interview with Jamie Marich,” in Go With That, EMDRIA Magazine, June, 2019, pp. 5-6.
Jamie Marich, “Session 424: Demystifying and Humanizing Dissociation in EMDR Therapy Practice” EMDRIA Conference, 2019.
Kathy Steele, Suzette Boon, Onno Van der Hart, Treating Trauma-Related Dissociation: a Practical, Integrative Approach. W.W. Norton & Company, 2017, p. 4.Kathy Steele, “Advanced Issues: Chronic Shame, Resistance, and Traumatic Memory,” Presentation at EMDRIA Kansas City Regional Network, March 1-2, 2019, Kansas City.
Kathy Steele, Webinar on Dissociation, May 25, 2019.
Mosquera, Dolores, Working with Voices and Dissociative Parts Disorders, Institute for the Treatment of Trauma and Personality Disorders, 2019.
“EMDR Adult, Complex Trauma & Dissociation Specialist Intensive Program
An Integrative Progressive Approach to Developmental Trauma: Working with Complex PTSD and Dissociative Disorders,” Dolores Mosquera and Kathy Steele, Agate Institute, Phoenix, July, 2019.
Over the years I’ve been met with, “Oh, you do qualitative research,” in a tone that suggests: That’s cute, but what does it really prove? The findings from qualitative research won’t really help to advance the scientific aspects of trauma therapy. The field and the people making the decisions about what constitutes evidence-based practice want the numbers, the empirical data. Especially when we promote approaches like EMDR therapy. We have to prove it works with science to the naysayers!
What if the important things just can’t be measured with numbers?
At heart, I am a phenomenologist and I believe that they can’t be. Phenomenology is more than just the study and observation of “phenomena,” as people often surmise. Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), the father of phenomenology, emphasized the importance of lived experience. He rejected the Galilean notion that the human experience could be quantified. When I first studied Husserl during my doctoral program, it seemed as though my whole existence had been validated. When I absorbed that specific teaching, an audible, “Yes! This!,” came out of my mouth during a late night reading session on the couch. My declaration was so loud, it woke up my partner at the time.
Having been raised by a math teacher mother and cheered on by her math teacher father, I was encouraged to study science and math with top priority when I was in school.
“That’s where all the jobs of the future are,” my mother reasoned.
I advanced to organic chemistry and calculus II in my undergraduate studies, forcing myself to get A’s. And yet I truly failed to see how any of it mattered in making me a better person. To be clear, I’m not one of those anti-science types. I recognize the massive importance of empirical inquiry and believe that quantitative thinkers are necessary in an enlightened world. Yet they do not hold all the pieces of the puzzle as the black-and-white ethic that keeps us stuck in the fearfulness of modern times would have us believe. Sometimes what they measure in numbers doesn’t reflect the reality of others’ lived experiences. Intoning the wisdom of a professor in my doctorate program, quantitative inquiry may be like the skeleton of a system, but qualitative offers the muscles, the blood supply, and the vital organs. We need the entire system in order to move forward.
I’ve always seen the world in themes, colors, emotions, and stories. Savoring and reinventing communication is my favorite art form. When I was in school trying to make people believe I was good at math and science, I excelled the most in social studies, English, and the performing arts. They seemed to make my miserable life brighter and worth living. Oddly, I managed to qualify for the International Science and Engineering Fair my junior year of high school. Even my teammates wondered how the content of my project was strong enough to make it through the Ohio selection process. Quite frankly, it was on the power of my presentation skills and connecting the dots of relevance of the science to modern consumers. Indeed, in the field of counseling studies, empirical inquiry is often described as being able to prove that something works, whereas qualitative inquiry shows us how something works. Even as a kid, that was my strong suit!
When I “came out” to my mother during college to tell her I was not going to go the pre-med track, but rather, had decided to study History and English/Pop Culture, I thought she was going to have a heart attack.
“But math… science… that’s where the future is at.”
I told her I was willing to take the risk.
The flow of life brought me to a career in clinical counseling and I became a doctor, although not the type she wanted me to be. I quickly became the kind of counselor who knew I could not be guided by research alone. Client preference, context, culture, and clinical judgment emerging from my own lived experiences (all components of evidenced based practice according to the American Psychological Association[i]) also guided me. Working to heal and to understand myself translated into my enhanced clinical efficacy, as shown by more favorable client outcomes. I took to qualitative phenomenological research like a duck to water. Especially as someone with a mind that has always felt like a mosaic, in it I found beautiful lenses through which to study the world and the people in it.
During the 2008 EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) conference, I won first prize in the research poster competition for my dissertation pilot study on the use of EMDR therapy in addiction continuing care. I was the only qualitative study in the competition, and both research committee chairs, almost through gritted teeth, told me that I was the first qualitative project to ever win the award.
“What can I say, the methodology was solid,” one of them said.
That is an important point to emphasize. Qualitative research is not about pulling concepts out of mid-air or fishing for the lived experience of others’ just to prove your point. There is a systematized way to analyze themes in order to draw conclusions. For instance, Amadeo Giorgi’s Descriptive Phenomenological Psychological Method is a simple yet effective process for reading data—people’s descriptions of their lived experience with the phenomenon being investigated—to extrapolate the common threads. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross used a similar style of research in her work. Brené Brown, who is single-handedly changing the world with her teachings of overcoming shame through vulnerability and courage, is a qualitative researcher known for using such methods. The rich lessons of humanity reveal themselves in themes and stories in a way numbers may never do them justice.
So, that dissertation research went on to get me two publications in major journals of the American Psychological Association, Psychology of Addictive Behaviors and The Journal of Humanistic Psychology. Yet these studies from 2010 and 2012 are rarely, if ever, cited in literature reviews on EMDR therapy. Indeed, one of my major criticisms with Dr. Shapiro’s final edition of EMDR Therapy: Principles, Protocols, and Procedures (2018) was that aside from mentioning a few case studies in passing, not a single, substantial qualitative study was cited. And a lovely collection of qualitative literature exists on EMDR therapy that goes beyond case studies, yet the community at large rarely seems to look at them. In our desperation to prove that EMDR works, we may be missing vital information on why it works and how it brings about transformation in the lives of people we serve. I venture to guess this experience is not unique to the field of EMDR therapy.
Indeed, in another area of psychology that interests me greatly, the study of dissociation, I observe similar problems. My lived experience with dissociation is truly lived experience. As followers of my work know, I’ve talked and written openly about my own struggles with dissociation. I gently tested the waters as early as 2011 and in 2018, I came out very fully and unapologetically. I challenged people interested in dissociation to look beyond the heavy textbooks and the numeric inventories like the Dissociative Experiences Scale (DES) and the clunky Multidimensional Inventory of Dissociation (MID) and into their own lived experiences as a treasure trove of inquiry. Being dissociative is a fundamentally protective mechanism of humanity that we’ve all experienced in one form or another. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with using quantitative measures and other people’s scholarly writing to help yourself and the people you work with better understand dissociation, especially if it helps the client. Yet if you are only using the quantitative and other people’s citations to advance your study, you are missing big parts of the picture.
At the 2019 EMDRIA Annual Conference, my identity as a qualitative thinker connected to the beautiful circle that began eleven years earlier as an eager doctoral student. I won EMDRIA’s Advocacy Award for my willingness to be out about my own struggles and use platforms like YouTube and blogging to translate the how and why of EMDR therapy to the masses. Two other happenings at the conference, however, helped me further connect to why I love being a qualitative phenomenologist so much. First, Dr. Derek Farrell, an English EMDR scholar and only EMDR trainer in the world to offer a master’s degree specific to EMDR therapy, endorsed the importance of qualitative research during his Sunday keynote address. He expressed that quantitative research is very top-down in its orientation, whereas qualitative research is bottom-up.
I squealed with the same enthusiasm that woke my partner up back when I first read Edmund Husserl. Finally, a member of the EMDR establishment was making such a bold pitch for the necessity of what thinkers like me can do. In trauma therapy, we generally teach that top-down interventions are very cerebral, whereas bottom up interventions primarily address the body, emotions, and visceral experiences. In sum, we need both top-down and bottom-up, yet what EMDR therapist have long identified as missing from traditional talk therapy is the bottom up. This bottom-up has also been missing from psychotherapy research or dismissed as not that important. That attitude must change if we are going to maintain the soul of our work while also pushing for empirical data. People are holistic beings, so why can’t science be total and integrative as well? Qualitative is artful yet it is not just art. Rather, it is art with power to illuminate the science and make it more relevant and applicable to the people it serves.
Later that day I went on to give a ninety minute talk on my own lived experience as a woman in recovery from a dissociative disorder and how that’s informed my work as a clinician. Every other time I heard a presentation on dissociation at the EMDRIA conference, while not doubting its content and relevance, I felt offended that people like me were being talked about in such cold and technical terms. Something vital has been missing that couldn’t be measured by any score on the DES or the MID, both of which can be very difficult and even impractical for people with dissociative minds to take. Not only that, they attempt to measure in numbers a phenomenon that is experienced in qualitative layers. During the Q & A period I fielded a criticism that my presentation did not rely enough on the citations of others and that perhaps I misunderstood the intent of someone whom I did cite. I answered that by framing this presentation as a true sharing of phenomenology, I wanted to shift the paradigm, or at least open up another portal of inquiry. Some people are not ready for that, which I expected. And yet for the people who are, you are in for a treat.
A few questions later another individual came up to the microphone and asked about a case he was working on where an emerging seven-year old part perplexed him. I asked him a few questions back about his own lived experience as a seven-year old and as the parent of a seven-year old. I wish that other members of the audience could have seen on the big screen just how much his face let up when he realized the answer was with him all along. And when he realized that, he knew exactly how to proceed with his case.
In response, I said, “No citation will teach you that.”
While citations and research, even qualitative research, is important, what life as a phenomenologist has taught me is that your own lived experience have more to teach you than you’ve ever imagined. Learning about the lived experiences of others, with an open mind and heart, and letting them communicate with your own will change the world. That is the future of which I want to play a colorful, thematic, multifaceted, holistic part.
So Mom, I love you, and I respectfully disagree with your career guidance. My present—and my future—is qualitative.
[i] American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Evidence-Based Practice, “Evidence-Based Practice in Psychology,” American Psychologist, 61, no. 4 (2005), 271-285.
Photo Credit: Paula Lavocat
Even though I do my best to take off the clinical cap outside of session, friends often ask for my opinion about all things mental health. When a friend recently talked about their long-term struggles with anxiety, I mounted my usual soapbox about the importance of feeling your feelings fully and not stuffing them away. As a trauma-focused therapist and a yogi, I believe that most of the symptoms that trouble us are the result of unhealed emotional wounds that never got a chance to heal at earlier points in our lives. Until we permit ourselves to feel what we weren’t able, willing, or allowed to feel at these earlier points, we’ll remain in a loop of distress that manifests in a variety of symptoms.
“But I thought the point was not to engage my feelings? To not let them get the best of me?,” my friend replied.
My eyes rolled and my fury rose, knowing that they heard this from either a cognitively driven therapist or a psychiatrist. And in the spirit of feeling my feelings through, I am not afraid to disclose that I get incredibly angry when I hear that feelings phobia is alive and well among mental health providers. Once, a student reported to me that his psychiatric medical director was so nervous about clients not being able to handle feelings, she forbade any treatments at their clinic that might make patients cry. Even as I type this, I feel the Hulk rising up in my chest about to bust out, so infuriated that providers—either due to their own fear or restrictions that systemic forces placed upon them—are deliberately keeping people stuck in a rut when they offer such direction.
The major lesson that I have learned from people I’ve served in the last fifteen years as a trauma specialist is that our feelings are not the problem. Everything we do to keep from feeling our feelings and experiencing our emotions—even the dark and heavy ones—is the real problem. We engage in addictive behaviors, we isolate and cut off connection, and we begin to accept phenomenon like panic attacks, nervousness, persistent body distress, and dissociative numbing as the norm. As my friend Esther describes it, “I’ve parked diagonally in the depressive position as the lesser of evils for most of my life.” While I am not opposed to psychiatric medication that is responsibly prescribed within a larger context of care, I get concerned when people become so fixated on getting their medication type(s) and dosage just right. We believe that finding this medical solution will help us to survive the rigors of daily living, and for a time, it might. There are even some conditions and organic brain structures where psychiatric medication may even be necessary for survival.
But are we only meant to survive?
Or by refusing to listen to what our feelings, experiences, and sensations have to share with us about what needs healed, are we cutting ourselves off from the deepest well of healing that is available to us?
My answer to this question is obviously yes, and it may seem like that resounding affirmation comes from a place of tremendous privilege. True, I have extensive training in both EMDR therapy and classical yoga. I’ve invested a great deal of my own money in my therapeutic process and have gotten to a place where if I feel an emotional wave coming over me as I drive down I-80, I’m not afraid to cry until it passes. I take Rumi’s teaching in The Guesthouse to heart by welcoming and entertaining them all—the joys, the sorrows, and the meanness.
I also know how to put such waves of feeling into what therapists sometimes call a container, a visual or sensory strategy we can work on to hold the full expression of the feeling until the time and place is more appropriate. If I am still crying when I arrive at my worksite, I know how to use my container to keep it together in order to get through the day. Yet because I ride the waves as they come, I usually don’t need to use the container. The feeling will pass and I can get on with my day. If the same feeling keeps coming up as a pattern, I know to take it to my therapist, sponsor, spiritual teachers or friends, and they help me identify where I need to do the work. And as a woman in long-term recovery, I’ve had over seventeen years of practice in cultivating this art.
That is my privilege—yet remember, there was lots of stuff I needed to heal from in the first place! So many of my early childhood memories center around being made to feel weird because I felt things so intensely. I am the girl who cried for days when the bad people painted Big Bird blue in the 1985 Sesame Street film, Follow That Bird. I am the girl who was constantly told that she was too sensitive, whose caretakers didn’t really know how to handle her. I am also the girl who knew that if I expressed what I felt about many of the happenings of my childhood, my safety would be threatened. I still experienced emotions like fear, anger, disgust, and shame about the things going on around me over which I had no control. They just had nowhere to go or no healthy outlet through which to be expressed. So, I turned inward, first with eating. The arts eventually gave me an outlet that served as a bit of a release valve, yet when my perfectionistic tendencies shut those down in my life, drugs and alcohol became the natural way to temper my tendencies to feel things so damn hard. Fortunately, my recovery path led me back to the expressive arts as a healthy outlet for expression. And I can now embrace my sensitivity as a character asset. Yet getting to this place required time spent in healing practices and learning to remove the scripts of judgment around my feelings.
My clients, friends, and my own lived experience have also taught me a great deal about what makes it so commonplace to block the feeling and expression of even the most natural of emotions. The greatest hits of reasons include fear that I won’t be able to handle what comes up, fear of being judged, fear that I’m a bad person for feeling what I do, fear of being rejected, fear that they will never go away and so they’ll end up destroying me, fear of hurting others, fear of people taking advantage of my vulnerability, fear of doing the hard work, fear that no one will understand or get me, fear that my sense of safety or connection to people I love will be taken away, fear of being seen, fear of making real changes in my life…. With all of these fears, of course medicating alone seems appealing!
Consider, however, that these fears do not develop in a vacuum. We generally learn them from somewhere—from our families of origin, from society, from the systems in which we are educated and eventually go to work. For many of us, it’s literally the “systems,” like foster care, incarceration, and yes, the medical and mental health fields, that can teach us these horrid lessons. No wonder that so many of us are afraid to feel when people in positions of power, even people who we are told are there to help us, can literally be the source of our feelings phobia.
I’m not here to analyze whether your parents, guardians, teachers, or care providers had malicious intent when they first told you, “Don’t cry.” I do ask you to consider how this and other messages around feelings and emotions shaped your early experiences. A common thread for many of us is that some of our earliest wounding was also paired with damaging messages about what it means to express feelings, let alone have them. So whether, as a young man, you were taught that boys don’t cry, or whether you learned that crying only got you into more trouble, regardless of your gender expression, these source messages must be explored if it is your intention to overcome feelings phobia.
When I worked in addiction treatment, I offered this rather crude metaphor. Consider that trying to stop yourself from feeling your feelings is as futile as trying to stop the flow of a river, the waves of the ocean, or yes—as futile as trying to stop yourself from doing your business when your body signals that it’s time to find a toilet. Or at least somewhere to let it out, even if it’s a roadside bush or a makeshift litter box (which I once had to create on an overnight bus through India where no toilet was to be found on board). All whimsy aside, think about the last time you had to “go to the bathroom.” What if you were told, or even told yourself, I have to hold it in—indefinitely! Consider the level of pain and distress that would ensue, and how eventually what needs to come out will come out in an even messier, uncontained way.
As gross as it sounds, this is what we do when we do not allow ourselves the proper outlet to feel through our feelings, an experience of human living that is as natural as needing to do this physical business. Bringing this metaphor full circle, consider how most of us were toilet trained to be able to take care of this physical business in a safe and sanitary way. And yet most of us never received the same level of patient training and instruction about the naturalness of feelings and how to express them healthfully. So, show yourselves some compassion as you identify what’s kept you stuck and learn a new way of being in the world. Be kind to yourself. It may feel like you’re in toilet training all over again. Seek professional help with a provider who seems willing to do the deep digging with you in a supportive context. It’s not ridiculous to do a phone screen with a potential provider and ask them what their stance is on feelings and how they work with them in clinical practice. You can also turn to your friends and people in your life who relate to the struggle. In my experience, the daunting prospect of letting ourselves go there can feel less scary when someone can validate and affirm, yet also have the willingness to challenge us appropriately.
Every time you let yourself feel a feeling is a victory in this healing process or experiencing the world, not just surviving it.
It’s all training ground.
Institute for creative mindfulness
Our work and our mission is to redefine therapy and our conversations are about the art and practice of healing. Blog launched in May 2018 by Dr. Jamie Marich, affiliates, and friends.