When I first met the person who would become one of my spiritual teachers, he told me that I wasn’t ready. I asked him a series of challenging questions from the crossroads at which I found myself in life. I struggled to make sense of deeper yoga teachings that would help me move from a place of doing to being. Ever the good student programmed to challenge what I was told at face value, I persisted with my questioning.
“You’re not ready,” he said.
On one hand, he had a point. I hadn’t been ready for quite some time—but I was there. Present. Doing the work. Asking the questions. Preparing myself in a manner that would allow me to become ready. Yet on the other hand, I felt incredibly insulted to be told I wasn’t ready when I was clearly willing and making preparations. It made me think of every time I’d told a client, “You’re not ready yet,” and I suddenly chided myself, realizing how demeaning and degrading that could have felt for them. Since that incident in the Fall of 2015, I stopped using the word ready in clinical settings with my clients or in teaching with my students.
A visceral reaction overcomes me every time that I hear the word ready. Maybe because I realized how ugly it sounded when pelted at me. I also became attuned to how often people say, “I’m not ready.” And I recognized how frequently my clinical consultees, primarily learning EMDR and other trauma therapies, worry that their clients weren’t ready to go further with their work. When they express this worry, the subtext is usually that they do not feel ready to take a client further. Folks that I mentor can doubt their ability to teach a class or accept a professional opportunity I present, claiming they are not ready. Why did I suddenly hate the word so much? In addition to it feeling like an insult towards me, it felt like others were using I’m not ready as an excuse or an easy word to express distrust in their own abilities within the natural flow of process.
For years I taught the importance of client readiness in moving forward with deeper phases of 12-step work or trauma therapy. Yet my experience caused me to reevaluate the word and everything I believed about it. Like I do at any crossroads in inquiry, I turned to word origin for some answers. The word ready traces to the 13th-14th century Middle English where it is largely conflated with the word prepared or preparedness. Although there is an element of the original word usage that also implies promptness; i.e., not dragging out the process. Ready and prepared may seem like synonyms, yet there are subtle differences that may offer some solutions.
I’ve been posing the question quite a bit lately—to my friends and to the hivemind that is my social media following—about the difference between ready and prepared. Most seem to association readiness as a state of mind or a mental quality whereas preparedness or being prepared is more logistical. There are plenty examples out there of people believing they are ready for something (e.g., marriage, a hike on the Appalachian Trial), only to find out that they are ill-prepared. For me, embracing the full meaning of prepare and all of its forms (preparedness, preparation) is where we find our freedom to grow and to realize our intentions. The Latin root from which we draw the English word prepare draws from the same root as to parent. To bring something to life! Taking the action to get ourselves prepared inevitably impacts our attitude of readiness. If we declare that we’re not ready and do nothing to get ready (i.e., prepare), we can find ourselves in an excuse-making loop for years. Moreover, consider that such a thing as perfect readiness may not even exist.
Amber Coulter, an artist I follow on Instagram, recently published one of her visual journaling pages that declared, “If we wait until we’re ready, we’ll be waiting for the rest of our lives.” My body rejoiced with an enthusiastic YES when I read those words. The answer to the question of why I held so much disdain for the word “ready” began to take shape. A few weeks later I taught a workshop on my Trauma and the Twelve Steps book. A participant posed a question about readiness to do the steps, especially the fourth and fifth step (the inventory and sharing the inventory with another human being steps).
“Who is ever really ready to do a fourth step?” I replied.
I offered that letting people off the hook from doing a fourth and eventually a fifth step is not the answer. Rather, how can we better prepare them for the challenges of these steps and guide them through the difficulty? I’ve heard too many sponsors tell people to “just do Step 4 and don’t come back until you’re ready to do the fifth.” With that lack of guidance, no wonder that people don’t feel ready and keep putting it off! To be clear, forcing people to do the steps is not the answer. I still believe there is value to not rushing any process. Yet playing the “I’m not ready” card, even if it is out of legitimate fear, can keep us stuck in the rut of life behaviors and emotional states that cause us problems. I have found that doing these steps are a lot less scary with proper preparation and guidance. Preparation and guidance can assuage the fear.
What if we could learn to replace the declaration of “I’m not ready” with the question “What can I do to get myself prepared?” There are other helpful questions too: “What kind of support will I need to grow into readiness?” or “How will taking action and making necessary preparations help me to get ready?”
The founder of EMDR therapy, the late Dr. Francine Shapiro, made a brilliant move when she named Phase 2 of the therapy Preparation instead of Stabilization. While many other trauma modalities use terms like stabilization, I find that this word can frustrate clinicians and clients alike. Clinicians can believe that a client has to be totally stable before they can handle deeper phases of trauma healing. Yet it may be impossible to achieve stability in a total sense until the person whose life is ruled by unhealed trauma engages in some deeper healing that allows them to process the impact of their trauma. When new trainees pose the very common question, “Are they stable enough?” or “Are they ready?” to handle deeper level EMDR, I generally respond with, “What are you doing to help them prepare? Remember, the phase is called Preparation. The objective is for the client to acquire enough mental resources and skills so that they can reasonable handle or tolerate what may come up when the work gets harder.”
I assure my clients, and pass this along to my trainees, that if they begin the deeper journey and realize they are not adequately prepared, we can always take refuge back in the Preparation phase and work on more skills and strategies. To simply say “I’m not ready,” especially when you have a goal of getting better, is generally not helpful. True, some people just need some time. Yet I encourage people to productively use that time by taking proactive steps, no matter how small, towards their own healing.
Perhaps my overachieving, good student tendencies that I’ve carried throughout childhood have simply carried over to how I approach the healing process. I recognize that my tone in this piece may come with an air of “no excuses” and I am aware of my privilege. Since I decided to get sober and well 18 years ago, I’ve had the ability to access healing resources in the form of counseling, psychiatry, 12-step meetings and other holistic practices. I also had seasons of my life where unhealed trauma rendered me paralyzed and unable to fully take advantage of them. Yet realizing what I do have and mustering enough willingness to prepare myself has long been the key that’s opened the door to readiness. I’ve seen people without the resources I have access to make up for it the willingness to prepare themselves in whatever way is possible. Which leads to a final question: When we say, “I’m not ready,” are we really declaring that we’re not willing?
Maybe. Maybe not.
I’ve seen the answer to that question go both ways for people. And in both contexts, the lynchpin seems to be preparation. Taking action steps. Change will come as it is meant to when we put one foot in front of the other with a minimum of stalling. There’s a recovery saying that it’s easier to act your way into better thinking than to think your way into better acting. This approach is generally more trauma-informed than change the thinking, change the behavior mantra that can dominate cognitive-behavioral discourse. Acting your way into better thinking recognizes that our thoughts keep us stuck. Our thoughts tell us things like “I’m not ready.” Our actions move us towards a different reality and eventually a different attitude and outlook on life.
Sometime in the sixth grade, I first heard philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s wisdom, “Once you label me, you negate me.” I wish I could tell you that my exposure to this teaching happened while I was attending some kind of summer symposium for gifted children. But alas, I heard it folded into a joke by Mike Myers’ character Wayne Campbell in the 1992 comedy Wayne’s World. Because Wayne’s World is one of my favorite films and I watch it several times a year, I am often reminded of Kierkegaard’s teaching and am challenged to ponder its layers of meaning. As a woman in long-term recovery who works with others in recovery, and as an out bisexual woman who serves as an LGBT+ advocate, I often handle questions about what it means to label or be labeled versus what it me mean to define or identify. Moreover, discussions rage around me and within me about whether or not we place too much stock in identifying in a certain way or calling ourselves certain things. Do labels or identifiers help to advance recovery and advocacy, or do they keep us stuck in unhelpful pigeon holes? Do labels really negate us, and does it make it any better if we swap out label with the word identifier? And on a spiritual level, does the practice of labeling or identifying keep us cut off from the essence of our true nature?
Let’s begin by looking at the distinction between labeling and identifying, for exploring this distinction sets a foundation to answer these very important questions.
“I don’t like to label things,” is a line I’ve heard from many people around me, from wishy-washy people I’ve tried to date to employers who have been non-committal about issues like job descriptions, expectations, contracts, and titles. Just about every woman I’ve worked with or known has been hurt in some way by a potential partner saying they don’t want to put a label on something, when it is really just an excuse to buy time or not commit. Yet I have also experienced very deep friendships that can be hard to specifically label or define because the feelings and roles involved don’t fit into any kind of a neat box. And I’ve also accepted work gigs that seem to defy the gravity of definitions and labels. On any given day it’s hard to describe exactly what I “do.” In fact, it’s a bit of a running joke in my family as my brother has long asked me, “What do you do?,” and my stepson often asks, “So Jamie, how many jobs exactly do you have? I count nine.” In my view I only have one job, yet it’s composed of so many facets and segments I can understand where it would feel confusing to people who don’t get it.
So an argument to be made for labels is that in many contexts, they can keep people safe (especially in work settings and in certain interpersonal relationships) and minimize confusion. Labels can work very much like boundaries and expectations in this sense, so it may feel better to many to call it a definition. Yet we’ve all run into cases where once somebody gets labeled as something, especially in a binary context, it creates a limiting and maybe even discriminatory tone. In this day and age, we only have to look to how political affiliations have divided us to see how this plays out. Many Democrats don’t trust Republicans, especially if they find out they are supporter of President Trump, and immediately shut them down as people as a result. The opposite can also happen, as I know many people (especially those who knew me when I was younger and more traditionally religious) don’t want to hear what I have to say because I’m now rather liberal. The devil’s advocate response I’ve heard, especially from others in the LGBT+ community, is that knowing if someone voted for Trump or not is a sign, a mark that helps them know if they’re really safe with that person. Although I heavily relate to this sentiment and even experienced a great deal of it myself after the 2016 election, for me it is not that black-and-white.
The issue of labeling comes up quite a bit in the recovery and LGBT+ communities in which I live and work. My Trauma and the Twelve Steps work is brilliant to some because it is integrative. Yet my perspective confuses many because even though trauma-focused in my orientation, I still introduce myself in appropriate contexts as, “Hi! My name is Jamie, and I’m an alcoholic and addict in long term recovery.” For me, this is an identifier and not a label. And it is my choice to identify publicly in this way, which makes it very powerful for me. Saying this identifier out loud keeps me grounded in the reality of my story, and I take great pride in being able to introduce myself in this way. Where it can feel like a label, in a negative sense, is when people judge me by this identifier, or if I completely define myself by this identifier. For me, identifying opens up possibilities where labeling connotes being limited by the way in which I identify (or by the way others try to identify or label me).
I recently put the question out to my hivemind on social media and there seemed to be a general consensus that identifying has a much more positive connotation in the English language than labeling. Another common theme is that labeling is more likely to come from without whereas identifying is something that is very personal to the individual doing the identifying—it comes with within. Skeptics or critics may roll their eyes at me when I say things like, “I am an openly bisexual woman in long-term recovery from addiction and dissociation.”
More PC bull crap. Why does everyone need to label themselves? Or be special?
I offer this response: Being open an honest about these things has allowed me to heal and be able to say and claim other parts of my identify like I am a deeply spiritual person, proud of my Eastern European ancestry, and I live each day to the fullest, enjoying life as much as I can and helping and serving others who my Higher Power sees fit to put into my path. I am a yogi, a seeker, a lover, a mystic, a sister, a daughter, a surrogate mother, a friend, a teacher, and author, a guide, a movie lover, an expressive artist… Shall I go on?
I can celebrate the fullness of my human identity because I’ve learned to be honest about my story and what it has meant to shaping my identity. Robert Ackerman, the teacher and recovery writer, said in a 2015 talk: “You cannot expect yourself to become a fully functioning individual (physically, emotionally, spiritually) if you deny a part of yourself. The key is integrating all of who you are.” I felt like he was talking directly to me, and in the months following this message circumstances allowed me to come out fully (not just to my close friends and colleagues) about my bisexual identity. Doing so was a game changer not just for my mental health, but for feeling more authentic and genuine in my professional work. I feel now that no one can label me, and if they do so pejoratively, it’s lost any power to affect me.
The yogic perspectives and teachings from other spiritual paths may offer a slightly different angle to the challenge. Teachers I’ve studied with contend, “As soon as you say I am…, then you are limiting yourself. Because you are really your soul and the pureness of consciousness.” In fact, in many yoga settings, it’s common to introduce yourself by saying, “I’m called Pragya,” instead of “I am Pragya.” Even saying things like “I am anxious” can be discouraged because you are identifying yourself with your anxiety.” It may be preferred to say “I have anxiety.”
Ever the bridge builder, my feelings are that both perspectives are true. I know that when I look at the bigger picture and my Divine essence, it is very limiting to label or to identifying myself in any way. Who I really am exists at a soul level that cannot be damaged or affected by anything on this plane. Yet I also live on the human plane for the time being and to know who I am in this body, a knowing that is empowered by the ways in which I identify, helps me to thrive while I’m here. Knowing the communities to which I belong and where I stand in work or relational contexts is important. Important, yes; everything, no. Like many answers to existential questions answered through the yogic perspective, the key is to not be attached. Freeing myself from the grip of attachment—to outcome, to definitions, to identifiers, to labels, to anything is the key to health and happiness. And this detachment I practice while also being honest about what matters to me is what allows me to be fully human and fully Divine, dancing as One between the worlds.
Institute for creative mindfulness
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