Adapt - to make suitable for new use or purpose; become adjusted to new conditions (merriam-webster.com)
COVID-19 has brought disruption to everyone’s lives in so many different ways. I never imagined my life and daily routines would be so drastically altered in a week. My kids are at home all day now instead of going to school and will probably finish up the school year interacting with their teacher and classmates through Zoom and being semi-homeschooled by myself and my husband. We can’t go to restaurants or workout at the gym, and a trip to the grocery store feels like a wild goose chase trying to figure out what store stocks when and who will have everything on my list.
My therapy practice has drastically changed as well. Hardly anyone, clinician or client, is in the office, which is normally bustling. We had to shut down our yoga studio, and I haven’t been able to practice in the space that has been my yoga home for years. In just a few days, I had to figure out how to meet with clients remotely in case either one of us is quarantined. Teletherapy never was a platform I wanted to use because of the nature of the trauma work I do, but at this point, it isn’t a choice; it’s a necessity.
In short, everything is turned upside down and what was the norm a week ago, feels like ancient history and who knows if it will go back to that way of life ever again. I spent the last few days grieving and feeling like I was living in crisis mode, trying to make sense of everything and finding a stable footing. I know my family is fortunate; my husband and I both still have our jobs and the ability to work from home, we have our health and endless resources. Our theme for life today is adaptation, and we must find new ways to adjust to these new conditions.
Take time to grieve and have a breakdown. There is so much turmoil and uncertainty now; acknowledging this can help you cope with these feelings. And it’s okay to be sad about the more superficial changes like not being able to stop by Target randomly or having a mid-afternoon cappuccino at Starbucks. Take the time you need to experience and process these feelings.
Be mindful and stay in the present moment. Even with all the stress and chaos happening around us, there are so many positive moments that we could miss. It could be your kids laughing and talking as they are playing Minecraft together or hearing the spring peepers at night. By being mindful and paying attention, we can strengthen the importance of these positive moments.
Limit social media and the news. It’s so easy to get caught up in minute by minute updates in the news and all of the commentary on social media. It’s beneficial to stay informed but do so in small doses to avoid vicarious trauma.
Find control in the things you can. There are so many restrictions being placed on us right now in regard to where we can go and who we can be around. Businesses and restaurants are being told to close, people are losing their jobs, and normal resources are scarce. This can trigger a feeling of not having control, and it is important to find control in the things you can. It may be as simple as setting a time to get up in the morning or when to eat meals. Take the initiative to turn off the news and limit social media and go outside for a walk.
You are not alone. No one on this planet is immune to what is happening right now. In different ways, everyone is affected by this pandemic. My hope is that we, as a global community, find solidarity in this. It is a time to come together and find strength in this shared experience. If you feel that you are the only one overwhelmed, anxious, angry, remember, you are not alone. We are all learning how to adapt, and we are all in this together.
You know it’s over when they let you enter without first scrubbing your hands.
This ends one of two ways. Only one means coming home with the one you love.
Safety precautions are no easier in intensive care, just clearer.
The ventilator, translucent skin, the unsteady beat of the monitors--all scream vulnerability and so, of course, of course you wash and gown and mask. That’s obvious.
The dying parent. The tiny babies. Every cell in your body wants to shield them from danger, even – especially – the invisible danger clinging to you from outside, hitching a ride closer to them. Looking for a way in; their vulnerability an invitation.
They can’t protect themselves.
Protecting them is obvious even when it’s not easy. You respect the barriers marking the threshold between the menace outside and the relative (hoped for, prayed for) safety here, inside.
When you can see blue blood rushing beneath translucent skin, it’s not hard to wash your hands.
The line used to be hard and sharp. Maybe it was imaginary, but it seemed straightforward. Safety is here: danger is there.
Now, the ink has smeared until that line becomes earth, becomes air encircling each of you and what does it mean to be safe now?
Ah, but you know what it means to keep a distance, so that you can protect.
You remember. It’s planted in the marrow of your bones.
How do you love through panes of glass? With a heart beating so hard you’re certain your tiny babies must hear it, too. When you touch them with a gloved hand, is it warm? Do they know it’s you?
Only your voice can touch without danger. The soft lullaby you sing into the incubators when you have to leave them. And the way his heart speeds up when he hears you coming into his hospital room.
On that final morning, they let you in without scrubbing. You touch your father’s hand with yours, unwashed and ungloved, because that line doesn’t matter anymore. It’s how you know it’s over.
All those years before, you got to take your babies home, drawing a new line around them, hard and strong for as long as you possibly could until you cracked it open to take them out. Out there. Unwashed hands and air travel leave them with bronchitis, but they’re stronger now and recover. You gave them time to grow and for their lungs to heal.
And you know it isn’t over.
It’s planted in the marrow of your bones.
And now? Now you will stay away for as long as you must if it means they will be safe.
You will love them again through a pane of glass (or a computer screen) when they are six-thousand miles away instead of in your kitchen, cooking and bickering, where you wish they were (where they’re supposed to be) instead.
You will send your voice through the telephone and hug over a video link and listen through a window for the music you know is out there because the line defining dangerous and safe has shattered, and you will protect them with the distance that you keep because this is what you do when you love.
- Visual Media and Poem by Dr. Mara Tesler Stein
The response to COVID-19 is unlike anything I’ve witnessed in my forty years on this planet. Seeing so many events and yes, even whole sporting seasons being suspended, has me wondering if I’m living in some kind of twilight zone. Or in one of the apocalyptic movies that I love so much. While I appreciate the arguments I’ve read about mitigating risk and slowing the spread of the potentially deadly virus, my mixed emotions about everything are boiling over, prompting me to write this piece and share something I want to scream from the rooftops. Why don’t you care this much about risk and contamination when it comes to trauma?
There is so much rhetoric out there, much of it legitimate, about putting the vulnerable at risk by exposing them to the virus. Even though I’ve soldiered on to finish some planned events this week, a concern exists over how people may judge me for potentially putting others at risk. Where is this same level of concern in a country and indeed a world where violence against women and children is the most brutal pandemic of them all? What about the endless stream of brutality and invalidation that developmentally vulnerable children can be exposed to on a daily basis from parents, other family members, teachers or peers? And have you ever stopped to consider the systemic injustices that the poor, underprivileged, and underrepresented minorities in our society have to battle consistently? All of these are a short list of risk factors living in our midst every day that, if left untreated, will tragically blossom into complex post-traumatic stress disorder, addictions, “personality disorders,” dissociative disorders, and cause or complicate a whole host of other physical health conditions like heart disease, hypertension fibromyalgia, or cancer. Read the Adverse Childhood Experiences study and the public health initiatives from that study for a primer if you don’t believe me.
The heart of my teaching as an author and clinical specialist in traumatic stress disorders is that to truly understand the human phenomenon of unhealed trauma and how to treat it, you must break down the word origin. The English word trauma is a direct translation from the Greek word meaning wound. My working definition of trauma is any unhealed wound. You can check out my TEDx talk on the trauma as wound metaphor from 2015 on YouTube for the full teaching. Here are the highlights: understanding how physical wounding, illness, and injury works is the key to understanding all other kinds of trauma—emotional, sexual, spiritual, etc. Think of everything you know about physical wounds. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some may require more urgent care than others or they can be fatal. Whether you are talking about a scrape or a gunshot wound, all wounds need care. Sometimes that care is to wash it out and then give it time and space to breathe, and other times the care needs to be professional. Of course, people with compromised immune systems or other health problems are naturally more vulnerable and professional care may be imperative.
Wounds generally need treated from the outside-in to stabilize, although true healing occurs from the inside-out, over time. Check out the talk if you want even more of the metaphorical parallels between physical and emotional wounding; believe me, I can’t shut up about them. A major point to highlight is that it can feel easier to deal with a physical injury or illness, especially one that is visible like a broken leg or an audible cough. Because they are visible in the realm of the five senses, they are more likely to be validated by others as problematic. And if the risk of a more immediate fatality looms, the concern is generally worse. I argue that this is due to humankind’s overall fear of death and dying, but there’s not enough room in this blog to even begin to go there. Maybe the next one…
Yet if wounds are unseen, like the kind we experience in our hearts, through our emotions, and in our souls, we are more likely to get told things like “get over it,” or “pick yourself up by the bootstraps.” Or my favorite: “You’re triggered all the time! Enough already.” Usually it’s the people who complain about our triggering that are the ones who have done some, if not most of the wounding. Let me be clear—we’ve all hurt other people and we’ve all been hurt by other people. The severity of some wounds may require professional intervention, just like with physical wounding, while other wounds may simply need a little space, time, and tender loving care from another human being like a friend or confidant in order to heal. Having an awareness of how we are wounded and how we’ve wounded others is the key to understanding the risk of contaminating others with the blood of our own unhealed trauma. Hopefully this awareness can inspire willingness to proactively heal ourselves so that we do not contaminate others with our words, actions, behaviors, and the sordid fruit of our own unhealed wounds. Because it is often those we love—our partners, our children, other members of our family, and our friends—that we can harm the most. Until that widespread awareness happens, perhaps we can at least do less harm. In physical healthcare there is a greater sense of awareness that safety measures must be taken to minimize the spread of bodily fluids and pathogens in order to prevent disease. When we heal ourselves emotionally, we engage in similar prevention and initiative for mental health…see the parallel?
There’s another angle for me to share this week, this one much more personal. Like many in the clinical professions, my own struggles with trauma, mental illness, and addiction led me to this work. In recent years I’ve been much more public about my seventeen year journey in recovery from addictions, a dissociative disorder, and bouts of persistent depressive disorder (formerly called dysthymia). Due to reasons having nothing to do with the Corona virus, the last three months have been hell. I’m struggling to date again after an adulthood filled with poor romantic relationship choices resulting from the impact of childhood and adolescent trauma. Just before Christmas, one of my best friends died by suicide and I’m still dealing with a flurry of emotions stemming from his loss. And the mounting pressure of growing a business and becoming a more public figure in my field, I have to admit, is getting to me. I am privileged to have access to the best possible mental health care. I have the most kickass recovery support system in the world, an inner circle of friends that would walk through the fire for me or with me, a daily wellness practice, grounded spirituality, and a solid commitment to self-care. Yet the sheer volume of work and travel, coupled with a growing disconnect from relationships I value, is causing a level of exhaustion unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
Two weeks ago, I experienced my first significant suicidal impulse in years and earlier this week, it flared up again. There are plenty of factors that keep me protected, yet the reality is that I just want off the fucking merry-go-round. Exhaustion was the main culprit, coupled with a persistent conflict I’ve been feeling over having such success in my professional life while still struggling with interpersonal relationships and my inner world. I hate that the more honest I can get about my suffering, the better that I teach. People draw strength from it, and it can also make me feel like all I was put on this earth for is to teach and to help others. I struggle knowing that so many people see me as someone who inspires them when I still feel like such a train wreck who has been having trouble getting out of bed in the morning on more days than not. On the day of the second major bout, I told my manager and friend that when I meditated and listened to my body, the one word that came up was, “Rest.” I had this overwhelming sense that my body needed a good few weeks to rest and reset herself, in the larger scope of reevaluation I’ve been conducting about my life, my work, and how I spend my time.
Of course, Dr. Jamie the public figure was hesitant to cancel anything—I have commitments and a reputation and a business! Although I have taken time off for my mental health in the past, I feel like I’m in a whole new territory now regarding my schedule and how many people rely on me. I’m not proud to admit this, but I actually said to my manager, “Maybe if I get this Coronavirus thing, I would actually get some rest and nobody would question it.” That was a wakeup call. And when widespread suspensions forced me to cancel my upcoming teaching tour of the UK and Ireland, it was even more of a wakeup call for me that I wasn’t really disappointed. I adore traveling and teaching abroad. And yet my body, mind, and soul needs the rest more. I’ve been granted it due to the risk and contamination precautions around a physical virus, and yes, I feel less guilty taking the time because of this physical manifestation of a disease and its implications for spreading. Yet would people in my work world—the people who book me, the people who come to my trainings, the people who depend on me in my life—have been as compassionate if I needed to rest citing a preventative mental health concern?
Maybe yes, maybe no.
The bigger problems is that me—Jamie—wasn’t even compassionate enough with herself.
Could this be the result of some healing in me that I still have to let happen? Of course. Yet I also believe it’s the result of societal conditioning that none of us are immune to—this idea that physical health care will always take precedence over mental health care. That the medical model trumps the holistic model. And that what shows up in, on, or through our physical bodies and appearances is more important than what is inside.
Enough of this already.
Let’s connect in a way that honors the physical in a healthy way, yet values that who we really are as people is so much more.
The healing power of human connection rests at the center of my work, and this week I’ve been given multiple personal reminders about how this power is where our hope rests. Nothing is more important to me than human connection, and I want to reestablish this primacy before the endless grind of touring and “being public” makes me resent it. My manager and long-time friend Mary, my best friend Allie, and countless other people in my kickass support village have breathed me back to life this week. Whether in person, on the phone, or even through the sometimes cold medium of text, my people were there for me and I am grateful beyond measure for their time and their love. Allie, who lost her own father to suicide, reminded me that in order to get through this I would have to be fully honest about what I am feeling, especially with the inner circle. I teach this stuff all the time! It’s not lost on me that the teacher can be the most likely to forget, especially when she’s flirting with burnout. In those moments, the healing power of friendship and being rigorously vulnerable helped me to hear my own lesson.
I wasn’t expecting to share this vulnerably with my readership this soon, and yet here it is. With the healing power of human connection a potential casualty on the COVID-19 chopping block, a reminder is in order. If my story as its unfolding this week has done this in some small way, I’m truly glad I shared it.
Interactions With Vicarious Trauma: The Healer's Search for Absolution by Jennifer Harwood, LCSW, LCAC
After 30 years of working in the field of behavioral health in various capacities, I’m owning the fact that I have dealt with vicarious trauma and PTSD related issues for many years. While I can joke and discount many of the encounters I’ve had through the years as “part of the job,” I wasn’t counting on was the physical and emotional toll the job really had on me. Had I heard some of these stories from others, I wouldn’t hesitate to be concerned at the symptoms and events; but for me, I could handle anything. After a while, I had to discard my cape and realize I was not a superhero with powers to deflect the toxins that had been thrown my way. As much as I dove in and stayed in the trenches to help people overcome their disturbances, I had to pull myself out of those same trenches to find my own healing.
So, what is vicarious trauma, clinician burnout, compassion fatigue? Vicarious trauma occurs when we have been exposed to, experienced, witnessed, or listened to other’s experiences of traumatic material, usually over a period of time. When someone shares their traumatic stories with us in such a way that we can visually experience it with them, we are at risk of activating our own trauma responses. This leads to what some refer to as “burnout”, but what I call vicarious trauma. It is being personally traumatized through the eyes of someone else. Vicarious trauma has a host of signs and symptoms, such as disconnection and/or depersonalization, lack of energy, social withdrawal or isolation, cynicism, despair and hopelessness, sleep and appetite disturbances, disrupted frame of reference, such as an inability to trust our own decisions, minimization, hyper-vigilance, self-loathing, emotional numbness, feeling overwhelmed, intense rage or bouts of crying, anxiety, nightmares, resentments towards others, including clients, feeling unsafe, poor self-care, concentration problems, and feelings of being on an emotional rollercoaster. This list could go on and sounds in large part like the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. They are indeed trauma reactions, even if we did not directly witness the trauma, and have been a large piece of my life for quite a while now. I’ve worked to gain an understanding of my own vicarious trauma reactions and feel lead to share this with others. We are not “burned out clinicians” who need to retire; on the contrary, we are wounded healers who understand some things so intensely. Our clients are actually in the best hands they can be in, when we are well ourselves.
When the whole of your work is to help others bear the weight of their souls, the pressure of their pasts, and the anguish of their current situations, it bears on us in a profound way. We dissociate from our emotions just enough to show compassions and empathy but be still able to cut off from those feelings in order to help clients heal. We may find ourselves subject to this pendulating force regardless of the situation, including in our own personal lives.
I have come to believe in the practice of self-care. For me, it’s more than just compassion and healing – it’s survival. When I am in a spiral of negative cause and effects related to the vicarious trauma I’ve witnessed, the replay of my own demons, or a combination of the dark side of the world in which we live, I have to have the escape, the outlet, the life that still exists. Expressions of art, music, prose, or meaningful conversations help me to share that emotional wound. When I write, my soul unburdens itself without fear of judgement, accusations, or denial. What I have inside me needs to be expressed from a place of non-judgement or I will not allow it to purge, and, not purging those feelings is disastrous. It can mean the shutting down of emotional regulation, the disregard for others and myself in a variety of areas, and a general sense of mistrust with the world around me. I need to have light in the times of darkness, for if the cold dampness is allowed to fester, the beauty within is left to ruin. Expression is my escape from the center of my mind which I so desperately need at times. Without the escape, I become tainted and ineffective as a clinician and as a person. And so, my hope in writing about this is that this act of self-expression and owning my experiences with vicarious trauma will help others find an outlet to express their own feelings and experiences. What is left alone too long no longer serves any purpose, except to destroy.
And so, this writing comes from a state of necessity. I am now noticing that the depth of the pain of what I hear all day has had a tremendous effect on me over the course of 30 years, and I’m sure other clinicians feel this way as well. By sharing this experience, I hope we are all able to find the core piece of ourselves that was what started our paths on this journey again. The times of wanting to cancel clients and take the day off, sleep disturbances, experiences with hyper-vigilance and intrusive thoughts were creeping in again like a familiar, but terrifying, old friend. The ghosts of those past mentors, clients, clinicians, and eras had been overtaking each other until I no longer heard the words which needed now be spoken, to me or others. When I can no longer distinguish between clinical appropriateness, my own bias, therapeutic boundaries, and personal fears, it’s time to pull back the reigns and allow some healing to occur. So, as I offer these perspectives to my colleagues, I should also note how very personal this is for me. My life’s work in the field of behavioral health has taken different avenues, but I have never lost my desire to be a guide to those who may need a light. By shedding light on this issue, I hope to find my own light source again in a way that it no longer burns down quite so far. This is how I make amends with my own past mistakes and come to a place of true trauma-informed care, that starts, inevitably, with me.
They’re doing it for the attention.
It’s a refrain uttered everywhere, as people attempt to explain why troubled adults, adolescents, and children behave the way they do. Overused and indiscriminately applied, doing it for the attention has bothered me since I was a trainee in child psychology. Surely, humans do what they do for a wide range of reasons. And if someone is crying out for attention, don’t they deserve—need—us to notice? To attend?
Instead, seeking attention from others is all too often reviled. It’s dismissed as indulgent, considered a reward for undesirable behavior, a reinforcement of disavowed emotion. So, we stop being curious about others’ internal experiences — disconnecting from what they know, feel, need, want, fear — and, necessarily, we disconnect from our own. Rather than noticing, bringing attention to what’s happening inside no matter how confusing or intense or messy, we learn to turn our attention away. We numb, avoid, put aside. It feels safer to stop noticing. If we don’t give it attention, we can make it disappear or pretend it’s not real.
Not so in the process of EMDR therapy. There, the words, “Just notice,” are the foundational guideposts.
“Just notice,” we therapists say. “Let whatever happens, happen.” We may repeat this mantra countless times a day-- a reflex woven into procedural memory as we support clients dealing with trauma.
Just notice? The mother wonders, just notice what?, as she stands over the warming bed of her two-pound baby in the NICU. She tries desperately, silently, to notice what the nurse is showing her about her newborn baby’s skin tone. What if I never get it? she thinks. What if my ability to notice what’s important is broken?
“…and let whatever happens, happen,” we say, as the newly bereaved parent of a baby who died at birth looks at us with wide eyes.
“Let whatever happens, happen? I can’t just notice. I can’t trust my judgment. Just look at this baby, who my body failed, who I have failed…”
We say these words because we know that the key to healing begins with simply noticing. Pay attention. Be curious, see what happens next.
But it’s a catch-22. Trauma fractures our natural ability to notice. It disrupts our capacity to access that calm curiosity that allows us to stay connected to what’s happening inside. Bringing our attention to pain, even though it’s uncomfortable, seems to be essential to recovery. It’s as if we need people to be healed in order to access the healing.
Fortunately, as in all relational psychotherapy, EMDR therapists offer our attuned presence as scaffolding and support as people begin to turn their attention to their internal world. With EMDR therapy, we provide precisely the sort of nuanced appreciation for the ebb and flow of thought and feeling, somatic sensation, and memory that parents must bring to their babies and that, especially in the face of disruptions on the road to parenthood, can seem both frightening and out of reach.
It goes something like this:
As you bring your attention to yourself, just noticing, I will help you. I will notice with you. I will notice the subtle changes in your skin tone, as your cheeks redden and clear, as the tears rise and fall. I will note your breathing and breathe with you. I will not turn away from your fear or your pain or your anger. My nervous system will listen to the rhythms coming from yours. I will notice and then you can notice, too.
That subtle sensation, that flickering emotion, it all matters. “Notice that,” we say, inviting gentle curiosity, remaining just as engaged and attentive as when tears are flowing. “What are you noticing now?” we ask. So often, language is elusive but the emotion, the emergent shift, is palpable and so we lean in. “Just notice it,” we say, affirming that it exists even when it can’t yet be articulated. “That blossoming warmth? That stab in your chest? Just notice it. And when you do, when you let whatever happens happen, we will notice together. We will know its truth and meaning together.”
This is how we walk with our clients into the process of EMDR therapy where everything they notice, no matter how subtle, counts, not just the sobs or the searing flash of memory. It’s also how we accompany bereaved and traumatized parents into the new world born in the face of perinatal trauma. We notice the shrapnel causing pain and blocking healing. Just as important, we nourish and support the gradual creation of connective tissue that forms the foundation of a new sense of self: as a parent to this baby within the matrix of relationships, within this family.
All of it, every single nuance, counts.
“My baby only spent a few days in the NICU,” said one father to me in response to a call for interviewees for our book. “Are you sure you want our story?” “Our baby died,” whispered another. “Do you really want to interview us?”
It’s a common concern that parents express to therapists. Does it count? Does our experience really matter? Even if my baby is fine now, or if there are no marks on my body to prove that we’ve walked through the fire or no living baby to parent after all we endured? Do I have permission to notice what this means to me, how it actually feels? And if I do notice where it hurts, can I show you? Will you pay attention?
So we sit across from the families who land in our offices-- parents unmoored from what they used to know about themselves, about babies, pregnancies, and the way the world is supposed to work when you’ve followed all the rules, and we pay attention. We notice and most importantly, we trust what they notice. We show them with our engaged, calm presence, staying out of the way but staying.
If we’ve been fortunate to become a parent to a full-term, healthy baby, conceived, gestated, and born without incident, it can be challenging to learn to decipher these signs of dislocation and the consequences. When the road to parenthood has been pitted with earthquakes and storms, parents cannot trust in what once seemed natural and easy. Without that steady sense of “I can figure this out,” or “everything will be okay,” parents feel unmoored and may desperately turn to others to steady themselves.
They often turn to professionals, like us.
And yes, they are doing it for the attention.
And in fact, they benefit when we pay attention-- when we see them as they are, validate their experience of their journey, acknowledge their pain, and accompany them as nonjudgmental witnesses. Our attention is what helps them learn to notice both the obvious and the nuanced and let what happens happen. Our attention is what helps them regain feelings of confidence and competence. Gradually, they begin to believe in themselves as parents, including, “I can learn to read this baby’s cues,” or, “I can trust my sense that something is wrong (or right) with myself or my baby,” or, “My pain counts even though other parents are experiencing a grief and fear I can’t even fathom.” Or even, “I feel love and hope and joy even though strangers glance at my baby and turn away,” or, “I am a loving parent even though my baby died.”
Our attention validates these truths. Noticing them guides our clients to turn their own attention back to their lived experience in all its mess and meaning. Only then can they weave together the strands of their experience, appreciating them all as part of a larger whole.
In the last two weeks I have suffered three injuries. None of them so terrible that I required major medical intervention, but bad enough to leave me generally pretty bruised and crappy feeling. It was on the heels of some bruised ribs and a fall down the stairs that my partner invited me to attend a woodshop orientation workshop in which we’d be introduced to various saws and machinery and how to use them correctly. You can see where this is going…
The second saw in, the instructor casually referenced the availability of a safety mechanism and cavalierly noted that most people find it a nuisance and moved along without showing us how to use it. Naturally, when it came to my turn the saw spit back a piece of wood at me which rocketed into my hip at what felt like 8,000 mph. The pain shot down my leg and my body went tingly then numb. I could barely stand. The instructor and other participant just looked on in silence and moved on to the next machine. My partner, who’d invited me, looked at me with genuine concern and whispered, “are you ok??” I clenched my jaw and nodded and hobbled along behind the group to the next machine where I put on a brave face and completed shaving off an eighth of an inch of a piece of wood on a drum saw. Afterwards, I began to feel overheated and a little faint, so I turned to my fella and said, “I think I’m gonna sit this one out, you stay here!” It was at this point that I exited to the parking lot and proceeded to cry my eyes out. Every part of my body hurt, and I was so tired and overwhelmed there was no way to keep it in. Awhile later, I sent him a kindly text explaining that I was not feeling well and I’d walk back home and for him to enjoy the rest of the workshop. My partner responded in the sanest way possible by immediately calling me, asking where I was and if I was ok. After admitting that I’d been crying in a parking lot by myself, he said rather plainly, “you sitting in a parking lot crying by yourself is more important than me learning to use a band saw. You hide what you’re feeling really well.”
He’s not wrong. I grew up in a feelings phobic household. Sure, my parents cared for us and treated us well, but I don’t even need one hand to count the number of times I’ve seen family members cry in front of me. Sadness was treated as a medical problem, rather than a natural emotional response. So many people have it worse! Pull yourself up by your bootstraps! And power through! Were the well-intended mantras of our household. Sadness was something tucked away and saved for the medical professionals. And to be clear, I have dealt with diagnosable depression that has required medical intervention. But I do wonder if the inability to express sadness only compounded those feelings.
It wasn’t until the day after my woodworking injury when talking with a friend that I realized how insane my response had been. My natural response had been to save those feelings until I was by myself and walk home on a crippled hip so as not to bother anyone. In that moment I did not believe that my pain and experience might be more important than someone else learning to use a dumb saw. I did not realize that it might be a little out there to suppose I needed to keep it together in front of an instructor who clearly wasn’t interested in my safety, a stranger, and a person who cares deeply about my well-being.
These are the lies we tell ourselves: my pain isn’t important, or least not important enough to bother anyone. I cannot show what I’m feeling. It’s better to suffer in silence. No one likes someone who’s always complaining. I cannot look weak. I need to have it together. It’s always a little funny when I become aware of this stuff, because like hey, it’s literally my job to help people process feelings in a variety of ways. And as much as I write about it, and give talks, and work with others, I’m still a human for whom this exists. Honestly, it kind of makes me feel like a fraud sometimes. I guess that’s the other lie: you’re not good enough.
I think it takes most of us awhile before we even realize that some of the beliefs that underpin the way we operate in the world are lies – mostly, we just think this is the way we are, and the way we handle things without subjecting those beliefs to any litmus tests. It usually takes someone else asking me, “how is that serving you?” before I put those beliefs to the test. How does it serve us to buy into these beliefs we have about ourselves, what we deserve, and what we should do? Are these beliefs and the actions that extend from them benefiting us? Or are they hurting us? Do they make my life better? Or worse? I’m going out on a limb here, but in retrospect it seems like deciding to walk home on a busted leg because of the belief that I cannot show my feelings wasn’t making my life any better.
But seeing the lie still isn’t always enough for me to do things differently. It’s hard to get away from that initial gut reaction to default into the same old way of doing things. There are a million reasons we find to not do things different. It’s hard. It might not even be better anyway. It will definitely be uncomfortable. These are just a few that I can buy into. I mean if you grow up in a household where crying in front of another person is never experienced, how do you even begin to test out that kind of vulnerability? Truthfully, I’m not sure. But I know this, after I let it all out to someone I care about and whom I trust in return, I went home, was tucked in under some blankets and fed chocolate in front of the TV until I fell asleep. And you know what? I felt better. I’m not always sure I know the answer, but I am fairly sure at this point that if I don’t try being vulnerable with the right people in the moment, I will always end up crying by myself in a parking lot. And at this point, that just isn’t serving me well anymore.
"How am I to know the good side from the bad?"
"You will know, when you are calm. At peace, passive."
―Luke Skywalker and Yoda (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back)
There’s a running joke in my family: “Jamie, what do you do?” My brother first asked it when I moved back from Europe and worked several part time jobs during graduate school. I gigged in coffeehouses for tips, taught a little guitar, picked up some writing and research work, served as a substitute teacher, and I coached speech and debate. Over fifteen years later, I can still get that question. My stepson once asked me, “Jamie, how many jobs do you have? I count eight. Or is it nine?”
Yes, my primary vocation is as a trauma therapist. Yet this work enables me to also work as an educator/trainer, author, advocate, media producer of educational content, mentor of others and leader of a training organization. My interest in holistic healing also drives me to work as an expressive arts therapist, musician, dancer, yoga teacher, and reiki master. And while collectively that’s many roles and numerous tasks, they all fuse together in helping me to realize my ultimate vocational purpose—to facilitate transformative experiences for myself and others. At least that’s the line I’ve been testing out in the press bio. Yet if I’m keeping it very real and true to my pop culture nerdiness, I vocationally identify as a Jedi knight. Or perhaps even a Jedi master…
This connection struck me so potently during my second viewing of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker over the holiday season. So as to not give away too much for those who haven’t seen the film, let’s just say that the heroine of this generation, Rey, kicks some major ass. And these feats come after her training takes her to a new level of depth and thorough exploration of her own dark side. I am a Jedi knight because I fight for the good of humanity that is represented by the light side of the force. My mission is to paint light in this world, and by doing so, illuminate people’s ability to connect with the light of their own true nature. I also teach people not to be afraid of their shadows—the dark side of the force that may lure them or even take root within them. I can do this work because I’ve met my dark side face-to-face and I am fervently committed to deepening my training.
The Force as we call it in the fictional Star Wars canon is very real indeed. Call it reiki (the movement of life force energy), chi, prana, shakti, nefesh, universal alignment, or the Holy Spirit. You can even see it as the enthusiasm that is generated when people come together for a common cause. We’ve witnessed that collective power manifest for the dark side (e.g., hate groups of various brands) or for the light side of the force (e.g., charities and advocacy organizations, mutual help movements). We are called to be in attunement with and to work with the life force that dances through us every day. Our training—combined with our motivation—decides where the energy will flow.
There’s a yogic teaching which states that energy follows attention. So where we place our mind and our efforts, there our life force will flow. In the tradition I study, we teach that eventually a conscious crossover happens. With enough training and patterning, attention follows energy. In other words, the force will guide us. I’ve lived through many crossover experiences where my attention could have been pulled either way. Yet enough training in the light side of things has made it more likely that the light will triumph. That’s why I am sober. That’s why—despite my difficulties—I’m living the most adaptive life that I can. And that’s why I relish helping others connect with their light.
Master Yoda is my true role model and teacher as a clinical professional. During my doctoral studies I reconnected with the Star Wars films as an adult and thought, “Why aren’t they teaching Jedi in graduate techniques courses?” Indeed, it’s the same frustration that I voice about we our graduate training doesn’t involve the vast wisdom of yoga (not to be confused with Yoda, yet the similarity is revealing) and Eastern philosophy.
I advised many clients in recovery over the years that they could use Yoda, or the Force itself, as their Higher Power. Yoda’s famous teaching, “Do or do not, there is no try,” explains why daily practice and routines allow me to dust off and clear my ego enough to connect with the light side of the force. I have a Yoda statue on my altar and puja table at home where I keep other spiritual pictures and statues. That’s how much his archetypal wisdom feeds me, clearly inspired by Star Wars creator George Lucas’ penchant for Joseph Campbell. Yoda’s teaching that “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering” is the perfect blend of Buddha and 12-step teaching on resentment that I need reminded of on the regular. When I think of Yoda imparting this wisdom to Anakin Skywalker before he became Darth Vader, I’m reminded that I do and will always have the potential to turn. For the Force is one—it’s not separate and it’s all encompassing. It’s the ultimate polarity. How I practice and choose to heal determines where my energy will flow and how it will serve me… and the world.
As Rey proudly declares in The Rise of Skywalker during her fiercest battle, “I am all the Jedi.” She is my beacon for realizing the healing possibilities of oneness. So today, and I hope that for all the days of this life, to remain a Jedi knight. My sweet friend James, who geeks out with me about many things, recently called me a Jedi master, and this may have been the greatest compliment I ever received. He challenged me to look at all of the areas in my own life in which I have gained mastery and I’m grateful that today I can see it, even as I train for a greater sense of mastery over the perils of my ego and the lure of the dark side. Moreover, in this life I live I am privileged to be a mentor, teacher, and guide for others in their quest to be led from the darkness to the light. If those thing make me a master, I accept.
May I do Yoda proud in my vocation.
So as my brother might ask, “What do you do?” Share in the comments here in the blog or wherever this gets shared on social media. Go to your favorite movies, books, or art sources for meaningful metaphor or allegory. Let’s investigate the marvelous interplay of how people are living their purpose out there in the world. Or, if you believe you have not yet tapped into this purpose, how would you like to identify?
Have fun and go with it…
Photo Credit: Christina Dine
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
Institute for creative mindfulness
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