I was sitting in front of a client one afternoon as she talked to me about the rape she had experienced a few months ago. As the tears streamed down her face, I began to feel my hands shake, not that she could see, but enough that I definitely noticed. She continued in details of what happened and I remember floating to the top of the room. As she cried, I could only observe her and watch without feeling as I had left my body and floated above myself. I could see my clipboard, writing nothing, see the steaming coffee beside me, hear her sobs and comments; what I could not do was feel anything…until I came back inside myself. The session was concluding and I was able to offer some superficial comfort as I escorted her to the door. When I closed the door behind her, I could see the bathroom door as I opened it. I saw my best friend standing there with another male friend of ours as they had this coy look on their faces. I recall thinking I was in trouble but did not seem able to react until they began to pull me along, down the hall, and into the bedroom. Once I was thrown to the bed and my clothes were being torn off, I could feel the tears on my cheeks, just like my clients. I slowly started to float above this scene and watched in horror. When I noticed I was still in my office and I was staring at the door, I came back to the present awareness, went to my desk chair and wept. I knew it was time to reach out for help. I could not control these memories, these feelings any longer.
I reached out to a colleague who was an EMDR therapist. She agreed to see me to help with anxiety issues I was having from work. My agenda was to be able to trust her enough to share this secret and work through it, but I remember being terrified to talk about it. The longer I met with her, however, the more comfortable I became and it did not take too long before I was able to tell her about the experience. That was hard enough, but as I sat in her office, I wondered how I would ever be able to release all the pain of the rape. How do you even begin to talk about this? How do you let go of this? How can you possibly ever trust again? Be whole again? She was very patient with me and, as I could, I began to share what happened with her. I was able to ask some of the questions I had been thinking and she began to tell me what she thought would help.
She introduced to me a procedure known as EMDR therapy. She explained that EMDR works to help resolve traumas and she talked about what we would actually “do” while in sessions. She said I would watch a light bar, following the light with my eyes, and this would begin to let these emotions process in my brain. I thought it was weird and probably would not work, but desperate for healing, I agreed to try. We talked about some of the negative beliefs I had about myself as a result of the sexual assault and how it had altered the way I see myself. I would have flashbacks and nightmares often and we talked about these as well. We took things slowly, as I could not handle too much at a time. She knew that and while pushing me somewhat, she also respected the boundaries, the lines I could not yet cross.
During the sessions, I watched the light bar and also wore headphones, which sounded a rotating “beep” back and forth in unison with the light. With both these forms of bilateral stimulation being conducted, I would picture things in my mind, feel what was going on in my body, and notice what memories or thoughts would come. Often a lot of emotion came out, sometimes I was not sure about what. This was all part of the process. We would target in on a belief due to a situation and then would let me “process” that, meaning I would watch the light, listen to the beeps and notice what happened in my body and mind. It only took a few times to realize something was happening with this process. I was beginning to deal with my past.
We continued to use this therapy to help process other areas of my life as well. Some of the other situations involved other sexual traumas I had not recalled with this great a detail. Although I was having these memories surface, I felt safe knowing we were working through this together.
I cannot say I enjoyed the therapy and remember many times leaving her office emotionally drained; yet I knew I was healing slowly. I recall one of the scariest times of the processing was when she had me hold the picture I was seeing of the rape in my mind and watch the light to begin to process this. Immediately I began to feel anxious as I pictured the scene. Although there was fear, what I realized was I was having these feelings anyway, but it was different this time. I could begin to feel myself releasing some of the pain through this process. I could feel some of the anxiety go from inside my soul. I was tearful as I followed this light and at times would sob. What was important to me, however, was that these images were beginning to change. I was able to see the incidents and not float away; I could stay inside myself and feel what I had pushed down for the first time in years. I was allowing myself to heal. Through the pain of the trauma, I was being led down a safe avenue to process this with the care and safety of my therapist right there, guiding me. I did not have to be alone in these memories anymore.
Sharing the story of the rape was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. To let someone else in to see my pain, shame, embarrassment, anger, and vulnerability was like an ache I had never before felt. But as my therapist always said, in order for true healing to happen, someone has to witness your grief. Until we can share that pain with another person, we will never truly be free of it. This made all the sense in the world to me as I had carried that grief around for years. Being free of it used to just be an unobtainable thought, but now through EMDR therapy, I could see real hope.
As I mentioned previously, I also began to recall with more memories and details a few other incidents that occurred in my childhood. Had I not been doing the bilateral stimulation that EMDR utilizes, I do not think I would have been able to recall some of the specifics that made all the pieces come together. I was able to remember what happened to me in that day care, in that school office and in that neighbor’s home. I was also able to share these experiences with my therapist and we worked through these as well. When I say working through it, it does not mean just forgetting and moving on. With EMDR, I was able to feel the emotions I had pushed down in regards to these events and begin to let the emotions go. It was as if all the years of pain came up and passed through me again. However, in order to be able to truly integrate this as part of me, this had to occur. I never knew what “processing it” meant until I discovered the EMDR journey. It was like a life saver to me. I was able to be free of the pain, not just pushing it away. I could recall the memories, but allow them to stay in the past where they belonged. I did not have to let them hurt me anymore in my present life. I could be free.
Not So Much of a Rebel: Making Peace with the Standard EMDR Protocol by Jamie Marich, Ph.D., LPCC-S, LICDC-CS, REAT, RYT-200
When EMDR clinicians learn that one of my specialties is addiction, I usually get asked, “Which protocol do you use? FSAP? DeTUR?”
I’m often met with surprised looks when I respond, “I use the standard protocol mixed with good common sense about how addiction works, which informs my preparation approach. I don’t find any of the specialty protocols particularly useful.”
I realize you may be gasping right now since, in EMDR circles, lots of buzz can be heard about the specialty protocols and methods that EMDR practitioners are developing. I participate in several Facebook EMDR groups and almost every day I read a question to the tune of, “What protocol do you use for addiction?,” “What about dissociation?,” or, “Is there a specialty protocol for condition x, y, z?”
So many times I have bluntly responded, “Um, the standard protocol mixed with clinical judgment about preparation needs and how to use appropriate interweaves.”
One of the reasons I decided to write this piece is so that I can cogently share my position as an EMDR therapy trainer, author, long-time clinician, and notorious EMDR therapy rebel. What’s funny is that when I wrote EMDR Made Simple in 2011 I called out many problems that I saw with party line EMDR. Yet as I’ve matured as a person, a clinician, and a trainer, I’ve realized that maybe I’m not so much of a rebel after all. For me, the standard protocol really is where it’s at. Learn the standard protocol well within the context of the client’s goals for treatment and know where to point the targeting sequences, and you really have all you need to do successful EMDR with a wide variety of presentations. The adaptive information processing model will guide you, as will the larger breadth and depth of what we as trauma-focused clinicians are learning about the importance of embodied, somatically-informed affect regulation skills.
In this piece I further explore my position by explaining my approach as a trainer to client context and adequate preparation. Then I explore my thematic perspective on client history, which allows me to direct the standard protocol in the direction it needs to go in order to work with a particular client presentation. Finally, I look at where interweaves and modifications may be appropriate depending on the complexity of the case involved. Since addiction and dissociation are my two main specialties in EMDR therapy (and the two main conditions for which I have been personally treated), I will draw on several case conceptualization strategies for these special populations.
One of the first pieces of wisdom I internalized from reading Dr. Shapiro’s early works is not to do EMDR with a client you wouldn’t normally feel comfortable treating anyway. In my interpretation, this means that the task falls on us as clinicians to learn more about a particular condition that may be stumping us as a general best practice. One of my biggest concerns with the rising popularity of addiction protocols is that well-intentioned EMDR clinicians who know little about addiction are simply pulling out the protocols and hoping for the best. When this happens absent the larger knowledge about the various models of addiction, the interplay between trauma and addiction, and the impact of the stages of change, inadequate care can be delivered. In one of her first books Shapiro wrote that “addiction should not be treated in a vacuum,” (Shapiro & Forrest, 1997) yet I fear this is what happens when EMDR therapists just pull out one of the specialty protocols without educating themselves more on the intricacies of addiction first. The same applies for dissociation and dissociative disorders, or any other specialty presentations that may puzzle you—start by reading up or furthering your continuing education on the generalities of that population and their needs.
Adequate preparation in EMDR therapy involves much more than just doing one Calm Safe Place exercise. Although I train the skill in my program, I discuss its limitations, and it’s one of only many strategies that I teach. While the classic skills of Calm Safe Place (which often involves changing up the descriptive adjectives to meet the client’s needs), Light Stream and Container are still very useful, they can all be very visually biased if not modified. Furthermore, to truly help a client manage affect, tolerate distress and be prepared for what may arise during trauma reprocessing (Phases 3-6), we must explore other skills.
In our program, we teach a wide variety of mindfulness strategies in a trauma-focused way (i.e., allow for modifications, emphasize not just reading the skills out of the book, rather, having a personal practice yourself as a clinician and teach from that experience). Mindfulness strategies can include traditional sitting meditation, moving meditations, mindful exploration of the expressive arts, and learning how to turn all activities of daily living into chances to practice present-moment awareness. Teaching a client breathing strategies and body scanning skills in a trauma-focused way is also imperative. Existing skills or approaches that you utilize in other modalities like dialectical behavior therapy, 12-step facilitation, or yoga can all be very helpful in teaching principles of lifestyle change and grounding. In the spirit of true trauma-focused care, the needs will vary from client-to-client depending on their existing experience with such skills and the intricacies of their presentation. I’ve learned that the more complex the client, attending to preparation in this total matter is more helpful than any specialty protocol just slapped into the treatment process. You can visit a comprehensive library of these skills and watch how I use trauma-focused language in apply them by visiting the resource site Trauma Made Simple by clicking HERE.
And no, I cannot give you a script about how many of these skills you’ll need and in what dosage. That is where clinical judgment and having done your own personal work comes in to make you as effective as possible. Personal work with these skills is important so that you know what it means to modify and adapt skills for your optimal benefit, which puts you in a better position to do this with clients. While scripts can help us build our skills, a practice that most adult learners need and that I endorse, scripts can rarely help you apply them in the absence of practice and context. To intone the wisdom of Jennifer Emch, one of my program graduates and director of Ubuntu Wellness in Chardon, OH, “Life isn’t scripted and neither are people.”
In addition to understanding the imperative of trauma-focused and enhanced preparation in EMDR therapy, we must also consider as EMDR therapists that taking a chronological history is not the best way to go. Although I agree with Shapiro’s essential position that targeting the earliest memories first is ideal for getting to the root of any given problem, due to the nature of how complex traumatic memories are stored in the limbic brain, taking a chronological client history may be impossible. Or at very least, impractical. Most clients I’ve worked with over the years cannot track a chronology, have blanked out significant pieces of time, or get very tangential when we try to take a conventional history due to the disorganization in the limbic system. When I was trained many years ago I learned the 10 best memories and 10 worst memories method for taking client history, and I’ve also found this ineffective. The most effective approach to holistic client history taking I’ve found over the years, and the approach I teach in my program, is to discover potential targets thematically. Let’s use an addiction-specific example.
For many clients new to a recovery process, there is a willingness to do EMDR therapy reprocessing and yet there may be insufficient affect tolerance to go to the earliest instances of abuse or trauma. For optimizing engagement, you may be better suited to work with their goals for recovery first, while respecting the trauma history that led to the problem in the first place. Many individuals struggling to get better, regardless of their specific goals, carry a negative belief like, “I cannot deal with my feelings without alcohol (or other drugs/behaviors). That is a negative belief that can be “floated back” using questions like, “Thinking back over the course of your whole life, when is the first time you got the message that I cannot deal with my feelings without alcohol.” You can also ask the question for the worst or most recent. What you get from the client all represent potential areas that you can target. Might these targeting sequences link in to earlier, more impacting traumatic experiences? Of course. Yet targeting them this manner is, in my experience, a kinder, gentler way to go and helps them to see the relevant connection of the EMDR work to what may be their biggest issue of concern in therapy. To see some examples of how I conduct client history in a thematic way, please visit the video demonstrations section of the Institute for Creative Mindfulness website by clicking HERE.
One of the wisest pieces of direction I received in my rather traditional basic training many years ago is that the greater the degree of complexity in the case, the more level of interweave you will need. I feel that learning the principles of cognitive interweaves (as described by Shapiro in her texts and further elucidated by other great minds in the EMDR community) is essential to doing EMDR with addiction, dissociation, and other special situations that may throw you for a loop. Yes, the classic directive in EMDR therapy is to stay out of the way as much as possible. Yet I was delighted to see Shapiro (2018) use the phrase proactive measures so much in the third edition of her text. To me, solid interweaves work as a plunger of sorts. When the flow of reprocessing is clogged, we can apply good open-ended questions, gentle pieces of encouragement or psychoeducation, and mindful or somatic techniques to get the flow going again. Although I teach a list of common interweaves in my program and Shapiro offers some solid examples of them in her text, the best interweaves are the ones that you develop through constant practice of EMDR and working with consultation to hone your craft.
Sometimes we can get nervous talking to consultants or other EMDR therapists about modifications, fearing that we’ll get “called out” on deviating from protocol. Yet consider how all of these specialty protocols that we can get so excited about in the scripted books or special trainings are really just twists and turns on the standard protocol anyway. They are proactive measures. One final modification tip that I can offer from my clinical experience on working with complex issues like addiction and dissociation related to the part of the standard protocol where we are asked to get an image (or worst part) from the client. I’ve always liked the language of worst part because it recognizes that some memories, especially pre-verbal ones, may not be stored with an image. With folks who may not have sufficient affect tolerance to handle going to the “worst part,” yet who have done all they can with preparation skills, you may be better suited to ask, “What part of this target memory are you willing to work on today?” Then proceed with the standard protocol from there. This may make reprocessing more digestible for the client in the spirit of EMDR therapy Phase 2.5. Yes, you will likely have to go back later and check to see if there is an image or worst part in a separate targeting sequence in order to achieve completion of the target in a technical sense. Yet consider how this modification may be more tolerable for individuals.
If you are the type of adult learner who needs more of a scripted protocol to learn new information, that is more than okay. I know that as a trainer I could not survive without using scripts with my students. And yet there comes a point in your development as an EMDR clinician when you must realize that the scripts are just modifications. These specialty protocols we can all get excited about are just very necessary modifications. No, modification is not a dirty word as long as you are able to clinically justify why you are making the modification or, in the case of Phase 2 preparation, enhancements. Doing this well and in the most trauma-focused manner will eventually involve you moving away from scripts and other peoples’ protocols and working to hone your own clinical common sense.
Shapiro, F., & Forrest, M. (1997). EMDR: The breakthrough “eye movement” therapy for overcoming stress, anxiety, and trauma. New York: Basic Books.
Shapiro, F. (2018). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy: Basic principles, protocols, and procedures, 3rd ed. New York: The Guilford Press.
In her recent work, Process Not Perfection, Dr. Jamie Marich described the “call and response” technique in several different modalities. So, this article is in response to the call of her article “The Popular Kid Complex.”
“I am not enough” has been an ongoing target for me in EMDR. You name it, I never felt like enough. Whether it was sports, music, friendships, I was good, but I was always 2nd. I can’t think of a time I was “the best.” And yes, everything has been a competition to me. I did not know how to play as a child, only compete. As a child I felt like I had friends as long as others were not around, but if others were around, I quickly felt invisible. I thought these feelings would go away as an adult. But, the popular kid complex lives on in all its glory, constantly wondering when someone is going to realize I am “not enough” to be in my field or doing anything else and shame me for even trying.
While completing step 9 in my 12 step program, I received a glimpse of a new idea. Maybe, just maybe, we all have quirks, fears, and our own damage and we are all doing the best we can. Being equals was a new concept. For example, I always thought I had to have the gift of speech or I was not smart enough because I compared myself to my brothers. I then realized I don’t want to be a speaker like my brother and that speaking is not my forte. I prefer the one-on-one contact with others and maybe this is my gift and my Higher Power’s will.
Jamie writes, “My meat suit and all its programming can get the best of me. In the language of recovery, I can still get in my own way.” I once heard a stat in recovery that every alcoholic (or addict) directly affects 54 people as a result of their addiction. As I read Jamie’s article I thought of this stat and my math brain took off. Yes, maybe Brene Brown quoting “The Man in the Arena” encouraged me to further my training, but Jamie have you thought of your stats? In my EMDR training there were 25 clinicians that work in community mental health. We average 150 clients on our caseloads. If we all average that number, 3,750 clients have been introduced to EMDR from that 1 training. You hold how many trainings a year? Then you have a large team doing their own trainings in either EMDR or Dancing Mindfulness. At this rate I estimate Institute of Creative Mindfulness will affect 500,000 clients just this year. This does not count book sales and advanced trainings. Who is the popular kid?
This breakdown can be done by all of us with our own stats when we are feeling like we are “not enough.” For me these numbers did not save my sanity or alter my clinical practice, but the examples my Higher Power has put in my path. We never know who is watching our example. Jamie speaking her truth, Rachel extending the invitation to come to retreat, Jennifer helping me to not take myself so seriously, and Mary always offering a positive word of encouragement. Watching Rhonda and her husband dance like the world disappeared also influenced my desire to let go. Peyton, Lexi, and Michelle dancing, painting, and confidence in their convictions and Adam continuing my training in EMDR. Yes, we are all the “popular kid” to someone and yes we are healers. Anyone that is “in the arena” inspires a “unique expression of Divine flow.”
Feelings are not facts. When those times arise that we feel what we do is not making a difference or we are “not enough”, maybe we would benefit by stepping back and looking at the big picture and thank those that have touched our own journeys. Maybe I should take my own advice.
Metaphors are conventionally regarded as literary devices: they are the weightier cousin to the simple analogy. Whereas the humble analogy claims, “Sally is like a brick wall in the face of adversity,” the metaphor boldly states, “Sally is a brick wall in the face of adversity.” Often the difference is described in terms of the literal veracity: the analogy is literally true, while the metaphor is not. It is not literally the case that “Sally” is made of brick and erected as a permanent barrier. But the omission of an explicit simile gives the metaphor more punch as it drives home its point.
Metaphors have gained popularity in some academic circles as we continue to rethink the function and constitution of cognition. Lakoff and Johnson first kicked off talk about conceptual metaphors only to have Slingerland, Wu and others join the bandwagon in the last 30 years. The basic premise of these discussions is that metaphors are not strictly literary devices, but in fact have their roots in sensory-motor experience: Sensory-motor “schemas” organize our concrete experiences. These are primary metaphors that can then be mapped onto hazier concepts, providing them with greater structure. For example, I understand the concept ‘life’ by mapping onto it structural elements of the concrete somatic experience I’ve had of ‘taking a journey.’ The source metaphor of ‘taking a journey’ helps me understand ‘life’ in terms of arriving at a destination, planning an itinerary, enjoying the ride, and so on. The somatic nature of metaphors means that conceptual knowledge is dependent upon physical experience.
So where literal language is descriptive and unambiguous, metaphoric language is much more open ended. It invites us to draw on our experiences to fill in the blanks and understand life as taking a journey in a way that is more personally meaningful. Moreover, it affords us the opportunity to reorganize a lived experience in new ways. My understanding of ‘journey’ is changing as I continue to encounter new ways of traveling through space and so too does my idea of ‘life’ as I continue to correlate it with the journey metaphor.
As an aspiring academic I found the power of metaphoric thinking to effect personal change and self-transformation utterly fascinating. I spent a lot of years trying to unravel implications of the idea that enlightenment of some sort required us to bypass or at least reduce the reliance on intellectual or literalist thinking, instead allowing the mind to wander through metaphoric correlations that help open us up in new ways. And yet, I’m not sure that I ever once allowed myself to reconstitute my own narrative in this way.
I have had many literal identities: academic, wife, employee. These literal identifiers organized my life in a way that allowed me to set and achieve goals making me master of my own destiny. Then, as so often is the case, things changed, and large swaths of my identity began to cleave. Frankly it wasn’t until I felt stripped of all those literal identifiers, and consequently stripped of my identity, that I began to approach and interpret my life in the metaphoric terms that had so deeply fascinated me for all those years.
The first metaphor for understanding myself happened quite by accident. I did not intentionally set out to change the narrative of my life based on the academic scholarship surrounding conceptual metaphors. I never sat down and asked myself, “in what ways are you an animal?” But I became an animal. Little by little I had been letting go of the old ideas about propriety and what constituted “good behavior”. I began to eat with soil from the garden and paint still on my hands. The sustenance was important as I pushed back into painting at break neck speed. The propriety of a knife and fork was not. I was voracious in the way I consumed different artistic mediums, crashing through my artwork. I began to identify with the creaturely existence described by John Dewey in Art as Experience, and when someone began waxing about their spirit animal I could not wrap my head around any animal that I resonated with. Instead I scrawled out, “I am my own goddam spirit animal.” For the first time in a long time, I felt alive and natural and connected without pretense to my environment.
As I mapped my life through an animalistic lens, I honed my ability to listen to my instincts. Animal reflexes are flexible and adaptable in response to the changing world around us. As animals, we aren’t tied to plans or strategies, but rather focus on following the instincts that make us aware of our needs in a particular moment or time. This kind of authenticity in reflexes led me to the another metaphor: the pirate.
Pirates, as a dear friend once told me, take what they want. They are not tied down or overly concerned with what others think of them. They roll with the tides striking out when the opportunity presents itself and scrappily surviving in times of scarcity. We pirates choose authenticity, survival, and camaraderie with our shipmates over civility any day.
The third metaphor came after sharing a photo of a batch of jam I had been making in my prized copper jam pot. A friend commented on it referring to my pot as a “cauldron.” Cauldrons, I realized, are vessels for alchemical transformations. What other way could one refer to the molecular reorganization of water, sugar, pectin, and acid that results in the magic of jam? As I carried on house hunting, without much thought I told my realtor, “I’d just like to live in a house where a witch might live.” Witches lives in crumbling homes, perhaps covered in creeping ivy – both decaying back into and rising up from the earth – at the edge of civilized society and in commune with nature. We witches witness passing seasons, the cycles of life and death, and transformation of all things. Living among the witchy merely means creating a space for both decay and growth, death and rebirth, and dancing with the transformations these cycles bring. It means we are live creatures, alchemically transforming past experiences into magical and at times unpredictable possibilities.
These metaphors began by resonating with something that was already occurring in my life. A voracious appetite for expressive arts, a swashbuckling attitude to follow my gut, and an instinct for the power of transformation in a cauldron. They were rooted in concrete lived experiences. But they also helped me to understand myself in new ways. These metaphors reorganized my narrative and facilitated greater change still by opening up new ways to understand what I had lived through and what I was moving towards. Allowing myself to conceptually play with metaphors has helped me to let go of old ideas that no longer work for me while remaining open ended in terms of where I am going and the person I am growing into. Replacement of one metaphor for another offers a fresh perspective in understanding my own identity rather than the catastrophic loss of who I am as held tight to literalist idea of who I was supposed to be. And so for now, I will carry on with a broom stick over my shoulder, rather than focusing on the letters at the end of my name. Because I have never heard of letters and titles giving anyone the power to fly.
Parental Leave and Parenthood in Private Practice: 20 Ways to be Trauma-Informed by Suzanne Rutti, LISW-S
I have had a lot of people reaching out to me lately for some advice and insight on balancing private practice work with parenthood, and more specifically, how to handle parental leave. In the spirit of developing an open dialogue, I have decided to share my experience in the hope that it may be helpful to others. For some background, I am an EMDRIA Approved Consultant and Certified Therapist, focused primarily on trauma therapy. I have been in the field of social work for almost twenty years and started my EMDR therapy journey in 2008. I am a faculty member with The Institute for Creative Mindfulness, and own a small private practice in Columbus, Ohio where I work with clients of all ages who have experienced some form of trauma or adverse life experiences. I live with my husband, dog, and beautiful one-year-old daughter.
There are days I feel like I am really succeeding as both a business owner and a mother. There are other days it seems I am frantically trying to juggle all the pieces of my life, without feeling confident that I am successfully managing any of them. This has just become part of my personal journey. Self-care and balance are hard enough concepts when we are solely dealing with being mental health providers in the field. Add to that a relationship with a partner, and the responsibility of caring for a child, and it’s easy to see how self-care can be pushed to the back burner. As we preach to our clients though: if we are not taking care of ourselves, we will not be able to care for others. So here I am, putting on my oxygen mask first and finding ways to balance my sanity, in order to have time and energy to devote to my family and my work.
I’ll start off with some of the things to think about as you prepare for taking some leave from work. Whether you are giving birth, adopting, or your partner is having a baby, there will be a period that you will need to be home with your family.
Things to consider before your leave:
1. Think about how and when to tell clients about your baby: The timing of this is completely your choice. Some people start telling everyone they know as soon as they get a positive pregnancy test. Others wait until they are as far along as possible to minimize the risk of having to disclose a lost pregnancy. Just be sure to think through all of the options before going to one extreme or the other. If you are pregnant, you cannot assume that your clients won’t notice a growing bump or other symptoms. This is particularly important when working with trauma survivors; many trauma clients pick up on any small changes. Their brains have been programmed to attune to others as a form of protection and defense. So, if you are experiencing extreme fatigue, nausea or other symptoms, you may want to let clients know what is going on so that they don’t form any of their own conclusions.
2. Consider that your situation may be triggering for clients: While you may be bursting at the seams with your exciting news, please keep in mind the impact this could have on your clients. Some of your clients will be overjoyed for you. Some clients will immediately start to panic in anticipation of your absence, or even the possibility that you won’t be returning to work at all. For others, they may have dealt with infertility, had an unplanned pregnancy, had a miscarriage, lost a child, or have a history of terminated pregnancy. Think about each of your clients carefully and consider how you will deliver your news.
3. Decide when to stop taking new clients: You will need to decide on a reasonable date to ethically stop taking new clients on your caseload knowing that you have an upcoming period of leave. This time frame should depend on the nature of your populations and scope of practice. If you have started telling existing clients on your caseload, then you also need to inform potential new clients before they start investing time into coming to see you. You will also need to consider the type of work that you are doing with clients as you approach your baby’s arrival date. Be sure to allow ample time to work with your clients on planning their transition. With some clients, it is not responsible to continue to do trauma processing up until your last day, because of the possibility of destabilization and your inability to be available to support that client. You also need to consider the possibility that your leave will begin sooner than anticipated.
4. Have a plan for coverage while you are on leave: What you do with your cases while you are off is something that you will need to decide with some input from your clients. Some of your clients will be able to manage a period without attending counseling. There are some clients that you may think would be able to manage without counseling but will elect to see someone anyway, and vice versa. Finally, some clients may be required to see a counselor during your leave due to safety reasons. If you work in a group practice or with colleagues, reach out and see who would be willing to cover your cases while you are on leave. If you work alone and don’t have many colleagues, reach out in some networking groups to see if anyone is available, or do some of your own research and find some referral sources for your clients. You can link clients with specific clinicians, or you may provide a list of a few therapists that are available and willing to see them while you are off and leave it up to them to make the contact.
5. Clean up your caseload: I do not recommend leaving any cases open on your caseload while you are on leave. Complete a discharge summary for each client that outlines your recommendations while you are on leave. You can always re-open cases when you return to work. However, this will relieve you of any liability while you are off as well as compensate for any potential delays returning to work or issues that could prevent you from returning to work. I also recommend creating a form letter that lets clients know that you will be going on leave with general recommendations. Provide a copy to your clients and keep one in their file. This can prevent any claims later that you did not provide ample notice or planning.
6. Plan how long you intent to be off: Think about how long you plan to be off and begin financial planning as soon as possible. If you are in private practice, you may be an independent contractor and not have access to paid time off. If you plan far enough in advance, there are some short-term disability insurance plans that may fit your needs. You will need to start paying into the plans before you or your partner are pregnant. Remember that babies are not always on the same timeline as we are, so consider a window of time that allows for the baby to come earlier or a little later than expected, and consider how you will handle any situations that may require extra time off. Consider alternative strategies for income to make up for your time off. If professional development or consultation are within your scope of practice, consider scheduling some trainings before and/or after your leave to bring in some additional income. Think about hiring someone part-time to supplement your time off (and as an added bonus they can start off by covering some of your cases while they build their own caseload). In my experience, trainings allowed me to supplement my maternity leave and enabled me to come back to work seeing clients part-time. I invest about one weekend a month to training, but it allows me to spend more days at home with my daughter overall. Consultation groups for EMDR therapists have also allowed me to make income in a shorter block of time than seeing a full day of clients. Balancing a schedule of trauma therapy with consultation and training also facilitates self-care and secondary trauma prevention.
7. Identify how you will communicate the start of your leave: Figure out a plan for how you will communicate that your leave has started. You may want to pick a date a few days before your baby’s due date as your last day to see clients. You do not want to be thinking about calling to cancel clients while you or your partner are in labor or arranging plans for the immediate arrival of your child. If you need to work until your baby comes, create a new voicemail each day that states whether or not you are in the office. Let your clients know to call the voicemail before heading in for their appointments. When you start your leave, be sure to change your voicemail and email responses to communicate that your leave has begun, as well as the steps clients should take if they have a clinical need.
8. Have a backup plan: As mentioned earlier, babies do not always follow the plans we have set in our heads. Some people also fully intend to come back to work but things change while they are home snuggling their new squishy babies. Be sure you have a strategy for communication of any changes to your schedule to clients that are hoping and planning on coming back to see you when your leave is over.
9. Identify how you will communicate your return: Just like the form letter that you sent to clients to notify them of your upcoming leave, you will want a plan for how to announce that you have returned to the office. If you have a social media account for your business, you could direct clients to check there and make a post when you have a return date. You could also send a general announcement to your former client load.
10. Establish a plan for working during your leave: If you plan to do work while you are on leave, I would encourage you to think about how crucial that is. In my case, I was running a small practice without an office manager, so I didn’t have a choice but to continue to do billing and payroll. Decide whether any of your tasks can be delegated, and if not, identify specific times in your week to allot to doing work. You only get parental leave one time with your baby and you want to make the most of it.
Things to consider with your transition back to work:
11. Don’t plan on continuing to work as effectively at home as you do in the office: I thought I would be able to get a lot more work done from home. As I look back, the time period I probably could have gotten the most work done was the first several weeks of leave when my daughter was mostly sleeping. However, that was the time I soaked up the most and really bonded with my new baby. Once they start becoming interactive and eventually mobile, you will need to be more deliberate in delegating a time and space for working in the home. Fortunately, I have an amazing partner and a lot of family and friends that jump at the chance for some baby time.
12. Ease back into your schedule: Some of you will be itching to get back to work by the time your leave is done, and some of you will be dreading it. Either way, make sure you plan for a transition back to work. Not only will you be making the adjustment back to seeing clients and using your brain in a new way again, you will also be adjusting to a new schedule and being away from your baby. This doesn’t have to mean a very gradual transition, but I don’t recommend planning to see a full day of clients your first day back.
13. Expect to be sleep-deprived: Sleep deprivation is a real thing. I know people joked to me about it all the time, but it is the real deal. I have not slept through the night in almost two years, counting the sleepless nights that started while I was expecting. I don’t have any good advice here, but I wanted to normalize and validate this for all of you. You are going to be tired. There are going to be days you have a full day of intense clients and your child is also teething, has a fever, or just didn’t sleep the night before. Take care of yourself. And coffee. Sweet, sweet coffee.
14. Prepare for a range of emotions: As I mentioned earlier, you are going to experience a lot of emotions as you return to work. Whatever those emotions are, notice and pay attention to them. Take care of yourself and your needs. If you feel you need extra support and you don’t already have a good therapist, find one! EMDR therapy can work wonders for postpartum depression and anxiety. There are also some great groups on social media if you are looking for some camaraderie with other working parents, such as “Moms in Private Practice (Mental Health).”
15. Think about countertransference: As trauma therapists, you may find that you experience some new countertransference now that you are a parent. As a clinician, I validate to my clients that as their own children reach certain developmental stages, they may find themselves newly triggered by their past experiences at those ages. The same can happen as clinicians. Hearing about trauma and adverse life experiences your clients experienced as children may feel different to you now that you have your own child. Just be aware of what you are experiencing, and find someone that you trust and that you can process these feelings with: a coworker, supervisor, consultant or even your own therapist.
16. Establish a self-care plan: Establish a self-care plan, and don’t minimize it. As a new parent, I have to schedule time that is set aside for myself. I make an extra effort to go to bed at a certain time, drink water, and eat healthy meals. I also schedule purposeful social interaction with other adults. Identify self-care strategies that are small and some that take more time, and figure out how these can fit into your routine. If we just assume that it will get done, it won’t. You need to be purposeful about this. I have found bullet journaling to be especially effective for tracking my daily, weekly, and monthly goals.
17. Prepare for pumping needs: If you will be breastfeeding, you will need to think about your pumping needs. Be sure to schedule time for pumping. Because of the nature of our work, most of us already have a private office, but if not, find out how to establish a private space for pumping. Kellymom has some great articles for support with pumping at work.
18. Re-examine your boundaries: The biggest change for me since going back to work as a mother has been my boundaries with my schedule. If you ask any of my colleagues, they will be the first to tell you I used to work a ridiculous schedule. I was known to see nine or ten clients in a day and work sixty hours a week. As a new mom and recovering workaholic, I am now forced to say “no” to appointments that are outside of my scheduled week. Primarily because I would need to arrange additional childcare, but also because it intrudes on my time with my family. I learned the hard way that coming home right at my daughter’s bedtime to put her to bed didn’t go as smoothly as I planned. I also know that I cannot allot exactly enough time to drive to pick up my daughter from my last scheduled session. Sometimes sessions run over, or I need to make a client phone call at the end of the day.
19. Let the guilt go: The first day I went back to work, I definitely cried more than my daughter did. Looking back now, I’m actually not sure how much she noticed me walking out the door. At the time, my guilt was at an all-time high, and I had an unrealistic impression of how much my work would affect her. In reality, she has been able to spend much more time bonding with family members and caregivers and finding ways to develop. I had to let go of the grief around not getting to see every single thing she did, said, and discovered. Instead, I make an effort to be fully present when I am with her. There are going to be things that I don’t get to see, but I try to make up for it by mindfully experiencing the events I am there for.
20. Find a new balance: I have to be more purposeful about when I check work email and when I do work from home. I want to be fully present at work and fully present with my family. I am definitely not always perfect, but I don’t feel good about my role as a mother when I am trying to do work while simultaneously feeding my daughter lunch, nor do I feel like a great clinician when I am responding to an email while trying to sing Old MacDonald.
I hope that this article has been a useful resource for considering your parental leave, and I hope to hear from many of you with more helpful additions to this conversation. I have to make a conscious effort every day to try to practice the kind of self-care and balance that I encourage for my clients. It is my hope that by sharing my experience some of you may be inspired to begin planning for balance in your new journey.
Suzi Rutti, LISW-S
Rutti Counseling & Consultation, LLC
Expressive Arts is a beautiful process of coming home to oneself. We often spend a lifetime detached from our bodies and others-replacing connections with fallacies of social media and text message. It’s easy to scroll for hours, send a quick text, developing a habit of nonchalant routine. But is that really connection? Some say yes. They are able to check in with family all over the world or they need to check out after a long day, but that is not connection with self or with others. We’ve developed a nasty habit of leaving ourselves without coming back to self. It is anything that allows someone express who they are, their experience, giving a voice to the voiceless (i.e. believed to be unheard or experiences stuck in the emotional part of the brain that does not have access to language in the thinking portion of the brain).
Coming home to self and providing a voice to our emotions and experiences that get shoved aside with disconnection, allows the individual to settle into their own skin. They’re able to figure out what it’s like to build a home with self and the meaning of connecting to life around them. For me, Expressive Arts as provided a way for me to communicate what my home, my body, needed to spring clean to feel safe.
For me, the best part of Expressive Art Therapy is the aftermath, when the supplies are strewed about the space and smudges of paint, pastel, and glitter are left behind. There is always a different light that shines brightly in my clients’ eyes. A sense of fresh air that I’m able to sit with. The aftermath is a complete flip from when I start working with clients, because what is this going to accomplish? I can’t tell you how many times I get eye rolls or eyebrow raise when I begin pulling out crafting supplies in session.
The aftermath of Expressive Arts processing is different from the excitement in the middle of the process and the middle of their treatment continuum. Once the world of Expressive Arts is introduced, the craving to express, the desire to be heard, seen, healed, takes a front seat. It’s the lit match blossoming to life, of insight settling in for the ride. It’s the self-permission to express leaking out onto the page.
I promise you when someone is in process, it is mesmerizing. It is awe-inspiring to watch someone learn to trust themselves enough, and you enough, to express themselves. It is awe-inspiring to sit back after a session with paint smudges, charcoals, cut paper littered about, and seeing that person, that client running with ideas (regardless if it’s merely an upturn of one corner of their mouth, staring at their piece, or rushing to share what they noticed in excitement). It is wonderful when you’re able to experience this yourself. Sitting back from my pieces and taking in the message conveyed in writing or imagery. There’s nothing quite like it.
When I’m cleaning up after a client and groups, I can’t help but smile at the charcoal coating a chair or paper debris on the floor. They made a mess. They made a mess, even thought they were previously asking permission to move, worried about staying in the lines, asking to use paint. They made a mess. They let themselves make a mess, to put their hands in paint, fold and tear paper, to express everything they’ve kept inside. They let themselves try something new and permission to sit with self and explore. In a world where we’re told what to do and stay in the lines, to disconnect and move on, the best thing we can do for ourselves and those we work with is to step outside our comfort zones and greet the unfamiliarity of imperfections, emotions, and to provide a space for expression in all its formats.
“Jamie, when we first met, you brought up all of my popular girl issues and I didn’t know how to act around you.”
My mouth was agape when Ramona, a member of the Dancing Mindfulness community and now a senior affiliate trainer in our program, revealed this to me several years ago. While I didn’t wish to negate her experience, there was a part of me that wanted to rage back, “But you don’t understand! I’m anything but a popular girl. After all, the popular girls in school gave me a complex that’s taken years of therapy to repair!”
The images of that chubby girl with a bad perm being teased and set up on the Catholic school playground in elementary school came flooding back. The panic I experienced in junior high that I would never be “liked” in that way by a boy or a girl rose up in my chest. The despair in which I found myself as a competitor in high school speech because I never felt pretty enough, talented enough, or likable enough to win the top prizes came into the clearest view. Then I realized—even as an accomplished professional with a public image, I still let the kids I perceive as more popular affect me. And it turns out that many of us still do, long into adulthood.
There’s a great deal of talk about impostor syndrome in pop psychology literature and on social media—the fear that one day people are going to expose us as the frauds that we are and realize that we’re full of shit and have no business to be working in our fields. What I am putting out there for consideration is related and yet essentially different—the popular kid complex. This is the fear that no matter how hard we try, how great we look or how talented we are, we’ll never be invited to sit with the popular kids at their lunch table. While we can argue that in an ideal, spiritually enlightened world there ought to be no such thing as lunch tables and that external metrics of this nature shouldn’t matter, we do live in that world. And no matter how hard we work on ourselves or how deeply we invest in our spiritual practices, things like this can still matter even to the steadiest among us.
This idea may feel like just another variation on the keeping up with the Joneses concept, always wanting more out of a sense of competition. To explain how I see the popular kid complex as fundamentally different and even bigger problem, I’m going to call myself out on my own shit. Many years ago, I set out on the path of my teaching career as an extension of service and continuing to live in the eleventh step as described in a 12-step program—to pray for knowledge of my Higher Power’s will and the power to carry it out. At first I was simply over the moon that people wanted to book me for trainings and read some of my articles. The more I kept putting myself out there, I gratefully received more teaching invitations and my first book contract in 2011, primarily to write for other therapists.
Then at some point, I found myself getting intimated and maybe even a little jealous by the likes of Brené Brown, Gabrielle Bernstein, and Anne Lamott. They are popular! They are on the New York Times best seller list! They have a reach beyond just their niche market. Oprah invites them onto Super Soul Sunday, the ultimate cool kids lunch table for modern times. Here’s the kicker—I like their stuff, I adore their teachings. They put themselves out there the way that I would like to, and what still stops me short is this fear that I will never be as pretty, whimsical, charming, likable, talented, relatable, or popular as they are. I am even prone to thinking thoughts like, “Why does the world need teachers like me when they have teachers like them?”
Fortunately those thoughts come and go, as I know at my core that what I do in my work is a direct fruit of me asking my Higher Power and the universe to make me a vessel, in whatever form that may take. But as much as that spiritual perspective keeps me grounded, I am still human. My meat suit and all its programming can get the best of me. In the language of recovery, I can still get in my own way.
Sometime last year I looked at jealousy—is it that I’m just jealous of people who are better than me and can get things done where I can’t? The teachings of the Kripalu-Amrit lineage in which I study yoga helped me through that one. I accepted that jealousy is a fear that, at my core, I am not enough. Jealousy is about being cut off from the reality of my true Self and my true nature where none of us are separate. Spiritual me gets that. Human me still struggles.
I was recently doing some of my own EMDR therapy on this matter and the Brené Brown brings up my popular girl issues and I’ll never be likable enough to get a Netflix special was tripped-wired. The therapist working on me said “go with that” and I immediately blurted out, “Brené Brown is my Marla Carano.”
Marla Carano was the best speaker in the Ohio region where I competed my senior year of high school. Tall, articulate and charming, she looked about ten years older than the rest of us, wearing a stylish olive green suit for major competitions. She went to one of the powerhouse suburban high schools where her father was the legendary head coach. As a kid from a city school with a small team, I believed I could never be as cool as her. To be clear, she won on her talent. Also to be clear, Marla was always a gracious competitor and genuinely nice to me. I never felt anything like a “mean girl” vibe coming from her. Yet I could never shake the fact that I would perpetually be second or third next to the likes of her because I wasn’t as pretty, whimsical, charming, likable, talented, relatable, or popular as she.
And the reality is, in what has since become the classic Dr. Jamie Marich move that has defined my adult career, I wrote a pretty avant-garde original oratory for high school speech tournaments. My speech created conversations with other students and even other judges even if I didn’t necessarily win top prizes. The move I made that year to put my voice out there is the gutsiness that I celebrate and applaud in my own students. That move, I believe, made me the speaker I am today whose primarily livelihood is literally forged on my ability to go up there and speak truth without fear.
So why isn’t that enough? At seventeen, one could say I was still in high school and having a place in the spotlight matters. But I’m nearly forty. Why can I feel, especially within myself, that life is still a damn speech and debate competition? Maybe it is. After all, I’m still vying with others to win teaching contracts, spots as a keynote, deals with publishers. The cynical and yes, human, side of me knows that there will always be an element of competitiveness to life. As I continued to “go with it” in my own EMDR session that day the larger, spiritual truth filled my heart—teaching and being public in my field must never be a competition.
Our purpose as healers is to alleviate human suffering, bringing one of Buddha’s noble truths into beautiful fruition in this world. This task takes all kinds of people—those who have mass appeal and those who have niche appeal—and all types of talent. Working the front lines of community care in places like correctional facilities, treatment centers, and poorly funded public mental health facilities requires talent and commitment. People who will never give a training or write a book have a different yet wholly essential talents that I do not. This is where the heart of our work is happening and when I get into crazy places with my own ego, I must remember this truth.
In preparing to write this piece, I reached out to Marla Carano Honen, as we’ve been in touch on Facebook through the years. I wanted to make sure she was okay with me putting an article out there in which she is my nemesis of sorts. Marla is anything but a villain; she has helped me to see a higher truth. And in speaking with her about the premise of the popular kid complex—guess what? It affects her too! I firmly believe we are all that “popular kid” to someone who brings up their issues, and all of us have popular kids who bring up stuff that as adults we must learn to heal and to manage.
I also had the chance to spend some time on a retreat (Ram Das: Spring on Maui) with one of my legendary popular kids, Anne Lamott. And guess what? Anne has struggled with the perils of comparison and can still face her own share of dark thoughts. What I learned from her so robustly on retreat is that she continues to put one foot in front of another by working a 12-step program and reaching out to safe people with whom she can be honest. And in a story I ended up sharing with her, Anne helped me to sink into much of the solution.
After sitting through another beautifully folksy talk by Anne in her awkward loveliness, I walked to the back of the pavilion to get some tea. I thought to myself, “Jamie, even though you are getting more public with your work you will never be as likable as that.” And literally in the next breath a lovely young yogi comes up to me and says, “I like watching you dance at the kirtan. It’s so inspiring!”
Okay, I’m human enough to admit that part of my thinking went to, “Wow, a perfect looking young yogini likes the way I dance, I matter... I am valid! Roll credits.” Fortunately the spiritual truths of what I’ve been learning and studying kicked in and gave me the real lesson: When I dance, I am my most authentic self. I dance absent any kind of technical prowess. Dancing and responding mindfully to the music is the purest experience of being a vessel for Divine energy to flow. That doesn’t make me popular, and yet it does something much more magical. It attracts the people who need to feel it too so that hopefully they will be inspired to open up and be their unique expression of Divine flow.
And hmmm... doesn't this sound like something Brené Brown would teach in her groundbreaking work around vulnerability? Turns outI just had to work on my edge around her to fully open myself up to the teaching. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you Brené and all of my other popular kids for allowing me to "go there" and receive your wisdom.
For as long as I can remember, I have adored flowers. Looking at wildflowers in the fields or noticing several varieties alongside houses in my neighborhood are some of the first pictures that come up in my head when I float my memory back. I remember having to ask my mother’s permission before picking them in my own yard or my grandfather’s yard nearby because I once got in trouble for plucking some of the neighbor’s tulips. I’ve only recently started to appreciate the awesomeness that my mother is named Rosie (which she prefers to Rose)—and that literally makes me a flower child!
I can’t remember when I first received flowers—it was likely when I made my first communion around age seven. I fondly recall getting flowers from my friends and family when I was in my first big stage show at twelve. The confirmation name I chose for myself when I received the sacrament in the Roman Catholic Church is Marie-Therese. I selected the name to honor St. Therese of Lisieux, also called the Little Flower. The first tattoo I got was of a flower (a peace lily on my hip). Even though both of my marriages ended in bitter divorce, I still have several fond memories from both relationships that involve receiving flowers. On a recent pilgrimage to India, one of my drivers—a lovely man named Ratan—climbed a tree to pick me the state flower of Uttrakhand in the foothills of the Himalayas. This gesture had me beaming from ear-to-ear and made me realize just how much I love receiving flowers.
So what better way to honor the sacredness that I am than to practice buying myself flowers? We can put so much weight, especially as women, on what it means to receive flowers as a gesture of love or appreciation. But who is to say that for flowers to have such appreciative value, they have to be gifted by someone else?
Although I’ve picked flowers for myself over the years, I do not consciously recall buying myself a bouquet of flowers until about two years ago. I purchased a beautiful dozen of pink roses to celebrate my separation from marriage number two and all of the pain it represented. After that marriage ended, I entered into a period of deep inquiry to investigate and ultimately heal the remaining layers of relational trauma that kept me in this loop of unserving relationships. And in my sadhana (spiritual practice), my guides led me back to a favorite poem from which I’ve drawn great strength over the years, After A While by Veronica A. Shofstall. After my first divorce, I wrote a song called “Grace of a Woman” (which became the title track to the last album I recorded in 2012) based on a line from this poem. The repeating line in her poem is “after a while you learn”… During that period in my life, this line most resonated for me:
And you begin to accept your defeat with your head up and your eyes ahead
With the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child
Clearly that was the lesson my foolish heart needed at the time. Yet with one of the classical definitions of foolish being “slow to learn,” there was still more healing to be done…
Within a few weeks after my second husband and I parted ways, I remember standing at the entrance to the grocery store near my home where the florist is located and Veronica’s poem came back to me like a lightning bolt. Specifically the wisdom:
After a while you learn that even sunshine burns if you get too much
So you plant your own garden, and decorate your own soul
Instead of waiting for someone to bring your flowers
Thus, as a ceremony representing the new phase of healing that life was bringing me through, I bought myself that bouquet of the most beautiful pink roses. I brought them home, put them in a vase, and all felt right with the world.
“I can do this,” I resolved, “I can be okay by myself, as I am.”
During the period of initial healing I bought myself flowers regularly to keep reminding myself of this lesson. Truthfully, I fell out of the practice after about six months. I started to feel much better. And then, about a year after the separation, I started seeing someone. Although not to the same extent as in earlier seasons of my life, I noticed some of the same patterns about needing to be wanted pop back up and disturb the peace in my life. Even though I’m slow to learn when it comes to my personal healing, I do learn and I’ve been able to nip much of this potential destruction in the bud.
Getting my latest book Process Not Perfection prepared and ready for publication happened alongside me doing some deep therapeutic digging about the remnants of relational trauma. Healing those wounds has proven to be the greatest process of my life. The day that the book officially released, I allowed myself to sit on my couch, breathe, and take it all in. And then the wisdom inherent in Veronica’s poem came back once again—go out and buy yourself flowers. Celebrate you! Celebrate not just all that you’ve accomplished, celebrate the wonder that you are! Indeed, decorate your own soul…
We can decorate our soul in a variety of ways along our healing path in ways that are not entangled with attachments to others. Even if you are in a committed relationship, please consider nourishing yourself in this way. Perhaps planting a garden is more your style than buying flowers. Do it. Do whatever is going to help you celebrate your own wonder while cultivating beauty in your life. I am worth it, you are worth it. And perhaps if we deepen into this practice of gifting ourselves with the beauty we deserve, we will indeed spread that healing like wildflowers through this suffering world desperately in need of that colorful energy.
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.
In many parts of Ohio, competitive speech and debate is a sport. I caught the bug my sophomore year where I tagged along with my best friend to a tournament. There was something about the pageantry of even a run-of-the-mill weekly speech tournament that was magical—and I wanted to be a part of it! I was transitioning out of figure skating, deciding to focus more on academics, and competitive speech seemed to be the perfect fit for me. I got to dress up, perform, and be my geeky self…how could I not fall in love? I went to a city school with a very small speech team and it made me proud when I was able to represent and often best kids from the Catholic schools and the big suburban juggernaut teams. It felt like I was a skater from a small country going up against the Russian powerhouses! In my competitive days I was never the best of the best, although I got a chance to try out many new ideas that would be the root of what I now identify as my professional voice. Junior year I made it to state and senior year I made it to nationals. Although constantly stuck in the second or third place slot my senior year and bitterly let down at some big tournaments, I remember my time on the speech team as my most precious in high school. Some of my dearest friends, many from those powerhouse schools, were made during my time in competitive speech.
So it’s no wonder, like any obsessed sports fan, that I spent the better part of fifteen years after leaving high school involved in high school speech in some manner as a coach. And coaching young people on several different types of teams proved even more transformational than my own high school speech experience. Yes, I was a “speechie” in high school, as we are often called, yet being a coach crystalized the power of that identity in my being. For this reason, I dedicated my newest book Process Not Perfection: Expressive Arts Solutions for Trauma Recovery to my students, the “speechies” that I coached between 1997 (the year I graduated from high school) until 2011. As I reference in the dedication, they truly taught me the power of expressive arts as healing.
I coached on four teams during that time—I assisted at two schools while I was an undergraduate. I had the privilege of being the head coach of Chaney High School, my alma mater, when I was in graduate school and during the first two years of clinical career. To coach a Chaney kid to a state title, and coach another to three state final rounds in three different categories during his tenure, brought my “small team” kid experience full circle. I thought I was done…what could top that? Then in 2008, when I moved to one of those suburbs I once growled at when I was a city school kid in Youngstown, OH, the head coach of that team (an old friend of mine), pulled me in for one more go as his assistant. I got to coach on two state championship teams, a new experience for me having always either been on a small team or having coached one.
During all of these stints I met such awesome young people—I can think of no other adjective for their spirits or for the experiences I had coaching them. Coaching is not quite the best word. Rather, I had the privilege of guiding them through process, the construct I now celebrate in my work as a trauma-focused expressive arts therapist. To be in process as you prepare for competitive speech, especially if you want to see good results, is to be constantly willing to engage in trial and error. As a coach I often guided my kids through one sentence of their speech or performance piece in thirty different ways, just to test it out and notice what best popped. This same idea applies whether a student is in more of a performance-based category like drama, humor, or poetry reading, or one of the classic speaking categories like original oratory.
Working with my students is where I really developed the competency of listening with my body, a skill that has served me well as a trauma-focused therapist and expressive artist. You listen and you notice with something that often can’t be put into words for a sense of “That’s it!” These moments can happen at 7:00pm at night in a high school classroom, long after other students have cleared out. And then your student may take it to a tournament, try it out, and it falls flat, which can be an invitation back into process. Or, they may take the fruits of their work to a tournament and, following the flow of their intuition, may create even more magic than you or they even thought possible during those hours of practice.
I wish that I could tell stories about all of my students in this piece, but there is simply not enough room! A book wouldn’t even suffice. In reality, they all taught me something. Even the kids who resisted the depth of practice it would take to be competitively successful taught me about process, whether that was getting to explore resistance or to realize that for some kids it’s never about winning. The process is in the having fun, enjoying friendships and trying something new in their high school speech experience. In expressive arts therapy we talk a great deal about the work not being outcome-focused. Because competitive speech is, well, competitive, the end result was imperative to many of the students I coached. It was to me at the end of my high school speech career which is why I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as I could have. Yet I inevitably found that the students who were willing to dive in and embrace the process—the trial and error, explore the range depth—ended up being most successful in terms of trophies and titles won. I think there is a lesson here for those of us who pursue the arts professionally in one way or another—the power is in the process. Focus on the process, and you may be utterly amazed at the outcomes you are able to achieve.
And then we can pick apart what it even means to be successful. In reflecting back on my own high school speech career, I never came close to achieving the success that many of my students did. Yet I now have a professional career and public image that is based largely on my ability to speak publicly. I remember the first time I offered a continuing education training for other professionals in 2007, one of my colleagues asked, “Where did you learn to hold a crowd like that?” I chuckled and replied, “You have no idea,” thinking fondly on all of those hours I spent preparing with my own coaches and friends in high school, talking to walls (a common warm up practice on tournament day), and then working with my own students. The trophies have been thrown away or recycled and yet the fruits of the process remain.
Now looking back, the students who had the most impact on me are those who were never major contenders for awards. Yet I saw them blossom in terms of confidence and ability to stand tall and speak their voice. I remember one student who came to me during my second stint as an assistant, asking me if he could still be on the speech team even though he had a speech impediment. I adored his spirit right away and welcomed him aboard. He is now a lawyer. The person I coached to the state title at Chaney is a teacher and speech coach herself in Baltimore, and I beam with the pride of a mother when I see the pictures she posts at tournaments with her own students.
So many of my former students are making a real difference in this world, regardless of their chosen profession. Through the wonder of social media and texting, I am still in touch with many of the young people I had the joy of coaching through the years. Instead of talking about gesture placement and intonation, we now talk about life. It warms my heart that they can still seek out my experience, strength and hope… and it’s a two-way street. When I hear some of the young people, I coach make such intelligent life connections that I wish I would have made at 22 or 23, I smile and thank them for sharing a lesson with me.
And this is what I mean by all life being a chance to engage in process.
Institute for creative mindfulness
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