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.
I’m sitting here…
And I am not having any palpitations in my chest; my heart is not beating fast.
I am not having any fluttering in my esophagus or my thymus.
I don’t have any painful little bumps underneath the skin on my stomach.
I don’t have any muscle spasms.
I am just sitting here.
It doesn’t feel like someone is choking me. There is no feeling of a hand clasping my throat.
It is not hard to swallow.
There is no electrical impulse near my left shoulder.
And there is no sharp pain in random places in my arms.
My eyes are not seeing double.
I have no vision disturbance.
It doesn’t look like the background is in front of the foreground.
People have only two eyes, not four.
I’m sitting here and I’m not dizzy or disoriented.
My eyes are not rolling back in my head; I don’t see lightning flashes when I close my eyes.
My lungs don’t feel like they are being crushed and sticking together.
I’m not struggling for breath and I don’t have a fever.
I’m just sitting here and there are no rising explosions in my chest.
Nothing feels like it is blowing up; there is no fire.
It doesn’t feel like I’ve broken my jaw, my nose, or my cheekbone.
I don’t have a rash that looks like stitches on my eyebrow.
And I don’t feel like I’ve been beaten up.
I’m sitting here and my whole scalp isn’t broken out in rashes either.
My cheeks don’t look chemically burnt.
It doesn’t feel like someone punched me in the stomach.
And there is no loud ringing in my ears.
There’s not a feeling of water flushing down my neck and back.
My brain doesn’t feel like it’s swollen or floating around.
It doesn’t feel like it is getting so big that it is ready to burst through my skull; there is no pressure.
Every individual hair follicle doesn’t feel painful and sensitive to the touch.
I’m sitting here and I don’t feel too tired to stand.
It doesn’t feel like something is vibrating in my pelvis.
It doesn’t feel like my chest is caving in.
And it doesn’t feel like every breath will be my last.
I’m sitting here and I don’t have a migraine or a headache.
It doesn’t feel like I have black n’ blues where there are none.
There is no feeling of a lightning bolt in my foot; no electrical impulses in my body.
It doesn’t feel like something is crawling under my skin; there is no “bug” on my lip.
I’m sitting here and I don’t feel overstimulated by everything I see, hear, taste, feel and smell.
My shoulders are not rounded forward for protection, nor are they creeping up to my ears with fright.
My neck muscles are not tense and painful.
My lymph nodes are not swollen.
There is no phantom pain moving all throughout my body.
In fact, I have no pain at all…I’m finally just sitting here.
There were so many different doctors. So many tests. They all said nothing was wrong; that it was all in my head. Now I know why. These were the effects of Psychiatric Drug Withdrawal. Many do not think it is serious or believe it exists. I wish I knew then so that I didn’t worry.
I wish I knew when I could barely even sit there.
One of the most common questions I receive from consultees is how to make EMDR therapy their main modality and transition into being an EMDR therapist. They see the ease and comfort I have in my own practice as an EMDR therapist as well as in the group practice I co-founded. They want to emulate this and are stuck, not knowing the steps to take. However, what they don’t see are the years of work, education, training, consultation, client sessions, blood, sweat, and tears that went into building my clinical practice into what it is today. Cultivating a culture of EMDR therapy in your individual work with clients as well as your clinical setting is possible by being mindful of the following considerations.
Jump right in. A challenge I hear from new EMDR therapists is how to get themselves on board with EMDR therapy. Especially after part 1 of the basic training, many clinicians are completely overwhelmed by all of the new information presented and have a difficult time shifting their clinical framework from the old way of doing things to this new, seemingly mystical clinical framework. My best advice is to not wait. Jump right into to it as soon as you leave the training. Come Monday morning, start phase 1 with your clients and look for targets you can process. Also, schedule consultation soon after part 1 to further discuss and consult on how to implement the 8 phase protocol with your current clients. Schedule part 2 within a few months of completing part 1 even if you haven’t completed many consultation hours or started really using EMDR therapy much within your practice. If you wait, you will lose momentum as well as get lost in the new information. Months may pass before you tiptoe into using any bilateral stimulation, even just for resourcing. It’s okay if you have to read from a script during the first 100 sessions or ask the steps out of order periodically. Your EMDR sessions will be messier than what was demonstrated in the trainings; just keep jumping into it over and over again. Practice makes perfect and your clients will forgive you or not even know the difference if you asked for the VOC before the SUDs.
Shift your focus from clinical tool to clinical modality. Since its conception, the view on EMDR therapy shifted from a tool to use within therapy to an all-encompassing treatment modality. By viewing it as such, the approach is altered from having specific EMDR sessions in which you wave your fingers in front of your clients to engaging in EMDR therapy from day one with a client even without bilateral stimulation. Working through the 8 phases of EMDR therapy and understanding the effects of traumas/adverse experiences, further integrates EMDR therapy as a clinical modality. There are many insights and breakthroughs that occur in identifying the origins of negative beliefs and their associated traumas/adverse experiences. Knowing the power of these insights takes the pressure off of rushing into phase 3-6 when a client is not fully prepared and resourced and further highlights the benefits that occur even outside of reprocessing sessions emphasizing a culture of EMDR therapy within your practice.
Have the motto “we can process that!” I constantly have my ears open to potential targets and am known to say, to a bit of chagrin of my clients, “we can process that!”. Not all traumas/adverse experiences are disclosed at the beginning of treatment. Sometimes they are slow to reveal themselves because a client isn’t ready or is just ignorant that these potential targets are affecting their current functioning. With all the advanced EMDR topic trainings targeting specific symptoms and issues, there is potential for an endless number of special protocols. However, you do not have to be specially trained if you have a strong understanding of the basic EMDR therapy protocol and are competent in working with the specific population. Though there may be special considerations with different populations, you can target and process anything that proves to be a trauma/adverse experience. Attend consultation sessions and EMDR networking groups to listen to other clinicians’ experiences in identifying shrouded targets. The more you practice your EMDR skills, the more you will hone your intuition about what constitutes a good target.
Identify yourself as an EMDR Therapist. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy; if you identify as one, you are one. Introduce yourself as an EMDR therapist, which will give you ample opportunity to discuss your treatment approach with potential clients and referral sources. As you become more established, clients will seek you out specifically for EMDR therapy further cultivating the culture of EMDR therapy within your practice. I regularly receive requests from potential clients looking specifically for EMDR therapy indicating a familiarity with this modality. Initially after being trained in EMDR therapy, however, I had to convince all my clients to try this new-fangled therapy. It was a shift from their conceptualization of traditional talk therapy to a culture of EMDR therapy in which we identified potential trauma targets and used bilateral stimulation to desensitize and reprocess these targets. Despite my immediate enthusiasm for EMDR therapy, not all of my clients were as convinced, and it took some time, effort, educating, and demonstrating to create a culture of EMDR therapy within my own practice.
Get the word out. The more publicity and discussions about EMDR therapy, the more mainstream it becomes as a treatment modality. We can cultivate a culture of EMDR therapy in our clinical settings by addressing the effects of traumas/adverse experiences on the brain and explaining the Adaptive Information Processing model. Share the EMDR love with your friends and family. Post information and articles about the effects of trauma/adverse experiences and EMDR therapy on your social media. Host informational sessions at your practice or place of employment and work EMDR therapy into any presentations you are giving as a mental health provider. Network with other EMDR therapists by joining EMDRIA and regional network groups. If you are at an agency, hosting an informational session as a brown bag lunch can help education your colleagues in EMDR therapy. Also, ask your clients to provide testimonials about their experiences with EMDR therapy to their other healthcare providers..
Cultivating a culture of EMDR therapy can be an arduous process. You will constantly have to explain, reinforce, and reframe people’s beliefs about EMDR as a whole therapy framework. By jumping right into the 8 phases and identifying yourself as an EMDR therapist though, you will quickly begin to shift your practice to an EMDR therapy framework. Looking for potential targets within the therapeutic setting and getting the word out about EMDR therapy whether it is within your personal circle or at your practice or agency further cultivates a culture of EMDR therapy within your individual clinical practice as well as within your practice or agency. It will be well worth the effort as you process your clients’ traumas/adverse experiences helping them to achieve a higher level of healing.
The study of subjectivity is broadly concerned with what it means to be an experiencing subject in the world. When I touch the book, “I” am the subject doing unto an object, namely “the book.” This subjective “I” touches the book, reads the book, has the book fall on her head, absorbs the ideas in the book, discusses them with another human being. So, when studying subjectivity, we ask questions about who I am, how I experience the world, and what gives me meaning as a being in the world. It invites us to think about the way in which we relate to the world around us and how we understand our place in it.
There is a long tradition of western philosophy that talks about how we can never really know the things external to us. Sure, I may touch the book, but my sense perception filtered through my brain is all I really have access to. I could be living in the Matrix and the book may not even be real. The outside world is of course experienced, but in some ways, it is always a bit of a mystery. This tradition presupposes that subjects and objects are fundamentally distinct – that I can never know the “truth” of the external world. They suggest that the subject, that I, am reducible to my brain’s processing power of figuring out the external world.
This has always struck me a very disconnected an unsatisfying way to look at my place in the world. The few memories I do have of my childhood are characterized by that feeling of disconnectedness and inability to make contact with the “external world.” Like many, my adolescence was characterized by a chronic striving to “fit in” with the popular kids, with the ever-present anxiety that accompanied a lack of knowing what they really thought about me. Even now, I have very few memories of my childhood before the age of fourteen, which incidentally coincides with the age at which I discovered the ability of alcohol and drugs to manufacture a sense of connectedness to the world – a pastime which would temporarily cure that sense of longing, but ultimately exacerbate the feelings of disconnect and loneliness. Even as an adult I have few belongings that suggest I even existed more than a few years ago. And so, with a lack of history in terms of geographic location, memory and material possessions, save for the ephemeral sense of disconnect from the world around me, I stumbled into this philosophical tradition that reified every negative cognition and somatic discomfort about my lack of fitting into this world.
But there’s another way to think about our place in the world. Maybe we aren’t just minds functioning as detached observers. Part of what it means to be human is to have experiences in the world. To both contribute to shaping the world and to be shaped by it. To bring an amalgamation of life experiences to bear in our interactions with it. Everything we know, we know from a place that has been informed by a geographic, historic, and cultural context that we bring to the table when making sense of a situation or experience. Such an approach to understanding the subject or self means that we are fundamentally evolving, unfolding and growing with each encounter in the world. We are part of the world, connected intimately to it, and it is part of us.
So, what does this mean for the kid with no memories and a chronic sense of isolation from the world? What has it meant for the girl from nowhere? It means the way I understood myself has shifted over time away from the desire to figure out what others think of me and how I can access the inaccessible. Treating the world like an object to be figured out or analyzed as means to manufacturing a sense of connection with it, somehow only puts greater distance there. But in embracing my own unfolding story and honoring oneself as an evolving, growing, and emerging creature responding to the world around her, rather than trying to figure it out, has paradoxically resulted in a deeper sense of connection and intimacy in relationships and with the world at large. The ironic twist here, is that in my experience when I let go of striving to figure it all out and instead am mindful of my own experiences and responses to the world, I actually somehow become part of it rather than a detached observer.
Moreover, if in every interaction with the world I bring with me a history of experiences that help me to make sense of those interactions, then I also bring those experiences with me as I look back at my past. This means I get to look back at a childhood and adolescence that I don’t fully comprehend, that is missing large pieces, and characterized by a sense of not belonging with the wisdom of experiences and memories acquired later in life. For the girl from nowhere, understanding myself in hindsight with the full weight of the experiences I do have, means I get to weave together a new story and claim that history for myself – to rewrite my own narrative.
There is one last important consequence that results from understanding subjectivity as evolving in response to a world with which we are intimately related and in communion. An intimate connection with and sense of belonging to requires responsibility. If we are connected with the world and therefore one another, we are responsible for both validating one another’s unique experiences and histories and challenging one another to continue to grow and evolve. It is not enough to simply honor from whence we’ve come. Comfort with self, community and other, means we must continue to submit to new experiences that challenge us to discard old ideas that are no longer productive and avoid becoming stagnant.
Understanding subjectivity as the embrace of one’s unfolding story in response to the world about her sounds lovely. yet even as I write this, I am keenly aware that I don’t always live in this space of communion with the world. I would be lying if I said I never gave a damn about what you thought about me, or how even this piece of writing might be received. I want you to like it. I hope you do. But it’s not something I can figure out how to make happen. Even with the full recognition that my striving only feeds my discomfort, I readily admit I still fall into these patterns, defaulting to my analytic brain. I have a choice today about how I want to engage the world, and it’s not always an easy one as I slip into old ways of thinking. So if you see me on the street, feel free to remind me that my own history, experiences, and insights are worth honoring or perhaps need challenged so that I might continue to grow and feel a little more comfortable in this world, and I’ll try to do the same for you.
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.