Emotions are Contagious

My friend and mentor Colin Smith wrote a blog the other day that inspired me. You can find it here.

The line that caught me was “emotions are contagious”. It immediately brought to mind several things. The first thing that popped into my head was the birth of my first daughter.

My mother-in-law, Tina, was a midwife, and a well respected one in the town where my daughter was born. Tina had since moved west, but her reputation in the town was still strong. Our midwife was good at her job, but she was intimidated by attending at the birth of Tina’s first grandchild. So, of course, she was the one on call when Anna went into labor.

Shoulder dystocia is when the infant’s shoulder gets hung up on the mother’s pubis after the head is out. Generally this requires the midwife or doctor to move the mom, and/or manipulate the baby, so that the shoulder is able to get by.

I know all this now. At the time all this was happening however, I was just a freaked out almost-dad who was very much aware that the energy in the room had shifted dramatically.

Our midwife was in a panic.

She was speaking sternly to the nurses to get the Doc on call in the room STAT, she was talking about other things that I have either forgotten or didn’t understand at the time. Probably both. Her final solution was to have me and another person each grab a knee and wrench it backwards while she pushed hard on Anna’s belly to expel the baby. Not perhaps the best choice, but it got the job done. As soon as Maya arrived, the panic in the room pitched, and everyone was talking at once, the midwife was calling for doctors and equipment and whatever else she felt the situation warranted.

Here’s where my hero arrives…

Suzy was the OB on call, she was a mountain of a woman. She was tall, and she was wide and she had hands like dinner plates. While the midwives and the nurses were running around and yelling orders at each other, Suzy had scooped up my daughter, and sandwiched her between those two massive hands. She locked my eye and said

“Her heartbeat is fine

Her breathing is fine

Your baby is fine”. 

My system settled immediately. Suzy had not gotten caught up in the drama that was swirling the room. She didn’t need a stethoscope. She didn’t need a heart monitor. Her hands were giving her all the information she needed. She was a rock in a turbulent sea.

In retrospect, I don’t think it was the information alone that shifted the panic, it was this woman’s presence that refused to be caught up in the tide. It allowed the other medical professionals in the room to get their wits about them once again. Suzy brought with her into the room an aura of peace that infected the rest of us in an almost magical way.

It’s easy to get caught up in a moment, it’s also possible not to.

Working with clients with anxiety issues, I have come to appreciate the power of staying calm when someone else in the room is not. We have the ability to anchor our fellow humans, sometimes in profound ways. Maybe it’s a pack instinct from long ago.

If other beings that we trust around us are not agitated, then I’m probably safe. 

Sometimes we need to hook our nervous systems onto a buddy to regulate. Sometimes we need to be the anchor in the room. It’s a beautiful and powerful thing, and I find myself grateful for it when I notice it, regardless of which end I’m on.

A Little About Me and How I Work

I want to tell you about how and why I do what I do, but it’s one of those things that hides from words. I know that whatever I put down here won’t measure up. It’s my hope that you will be able to bring it to life in a way that just my words cannot. Maybe if we work together we can get close to it.

Most people find me gentle, and caring and open, probably about what you would, and perhaps should, expect from a therapist. I can also be sarcastic, and even irreverent at times. I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, but who is? I do bring all of me into the room when I work, and most people seem to like that. The feedback I get around that is that this is what makes my style of therapy work. This post might give you a little more of a sense of how I can show up for you.

I don’t have a “professional persona” that I put on when a client walks into the room. To be clear, I am professional. I have a very high level of personal and professional integrity that protects both me and my clients. I also tend towards colorful language, and I may kick my shoes off and curl up in my chair while we are working.

I don’t own a tie.

I cannot expect you to be real with me if I am pretending to be someone I am not. So, you get all of me. 

Keeping in mind that every session is different, and every client is coming from a slightly different place, most folks come in because there are things they want to look at that they don’t feel comfortable sharing with others in their life. Other times they just need some guidance or some different tools to work with what’s showing up. I work with lots of both, but this post focuses more on the former…

It’s an honor for me to hear people’s stories, to learn about where they’ve been, how they got to this place, what’s working for them, and what’s not. What wakes them up at night, and what keeps them up. (not always the same thing). The stories don’t tumble out in our first session, it takes time, they need to trust the space that we create together. It’s always on your time frame, and it usually doesn’t take long.

I get to sit and hear about what’s really going on. We don’t do small talk, we don’t chat about the weather. I say “I get to”, not because it’s easy, but because it’s an honor. Because it humbles me every time. The courage my clients show when they risk enough to speak their truth is a gift. The gift is mostly to themselves, because of the freedom they find hidden in it, but it’s also a gift to me, because these are their jewels, their treasure, that they are sharing with me.

Good therapy isn’t just about listening to secrets, although I do believe there is a great value in just that simple, yet impossibly brave act of giving voice to the unspeakable. Good therapy is about being able to speak directly to whomever is showing up to tell that story. When we tell those hard secrets, we speak from that moment in time. There’s an opportunity in those moments to directly address that person at the moment of the event. Maybe it was last week, maybe it was 40 years ago, it’s all equally valuable.

Sometimes they just need to hear that I believe them, that it wasn’t their fault. Sometimes they need to see that I can hear about something they did that was hurtful or harmful to another person, or to themselves, and that I’m still here with them. I’m not disgusted, I’m not angry, I’m not scared. I’m just here and holding that and I still see all of them, the good, the bad, and everything in between.

It’s not the sharing that we fear, it’s the reaction.

It’s the fear of rejection, fear that we will see them the way they too often see themselves, fear that the worst of what they think of themselves is true.

Sometimes, in the space between the roaring in their ears when they share something scary, and the silence of the space between us that can hold it, something shifts for them. Just a little wedge of light that whispers to them that

Maybe you are not just this thing that happened.

It does not need to define you.

It is a part of a whole.

It’s OK to let it be there, you are not alone with it. 

This is a slice of what might unfold in my office, other days it’s a recap of the week and an exploration of what worked (AKA, that was a good move) and what didn’t (AKA that was a bad move). I tend to move back and forth from diving deep and holding space for the hard stuff, to “how was your week?”. Then we get to see if we can connect the dots.

I’ve written other posts about therapy and group work, please check them out if you’re interested and get in touch if you would like to schedule a session.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Self on the Shelf

Sometimes we can’t take it in when the people in our lives tell us good things about ourselves. There can be lots of reasons for this. Maybe we’ve never heard that we’re good at this or that particular thing. Maybe we’re moving too fast to stop and let it settle in. Maybe we don’t think very highly of the person praising us, so their opinions don’t carry much weight. Perhaps we don’t feel they have the full picture, we think if they knew the whole story, they wouldn’t be so complimentary. (See this post for more on that and why I think group work is so amazing)

Much of the time, we can’t take it in because it bumps up against a core belief that we’re not OK in some way.

We’re not smart, we’re not beautiful, we’re not strong, we’re not worthy, we’re not lovable…we’re just not…enough.

So no matter how many times we hear that we really are OK, often we just can’t let it in.

I invite you try something. The next time someone gives you positive feedback, and you find yourself ready to toss it away, put it on a shelf. You don’t have to take it in right then and there, you don’t have to accept it as truth. Maybe you never will. That’s OK.

But you don’t have to completely disregard it either.

Put in on the shelf, and allow the possibility to exist that it might be true. Maybe you’re not all things to all people all the time. (nobody is). But maybe for that person, in that moment, you were just what was needed.

Put it on the shelf, then, when you feel ready, take it down and play with it. What would it be like if this thing were true? If this thing were true, what would that mean for other parts of your life? What would it take for you to accept this?

You may find that the second or third time you take a good look at this, you will be able to take it in. Or maybe, it goes back on the shelf. Your choice.

One more thing, think about a second shelf. One where you put the negative things people say, or even the things we say to ourselves. Sometimes the negative things are far too easy to accept as true. What if we put some of that on a different shelf?

Instead of immediately accepting that we are not good enough, not kind enough, not generous enough, not…enough.

Put it on the shelf. 

Accept the possibility that this thing that hurts, this thing that defeats you, may not actually be true. Again, you don’t have to believe it, not all the way. Allow the shelf to just hold the possibility, that maybe, perhaps, this doesn’t fit you as well as you have always thought.

Think of these shelves as simply an invitation to another possibility. Just a thought that perhaps you are strong enough, beautiful enough, kind enough, maybe, just maybe…

you are actually enough. 

Shelf

 

Group Love

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A new session of Dream Group started a couple of weeks ago. On the first day, I asked 6 people who had never met to look around at each other. I asked them to notice what was coming up for them. What kinds of judgements were they making? What were they afraid the others were thinking about them? Then I told them that they would all fall in love with each other. Furthermore, that I guaranteed that this would happen. There were some amused and uncertain looks.

By the end of the second session, they knew I was right. 

As they opened, and told their secrets, shared their sacred stories, put their fears on the table and let their masks fall away, the container was set and we were already falling.

Most of us work very hard to build an outer shell that is designed to repel judgement. “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine, and you?” “I’m great, thanks for asking!”.

Bullshit.

In group we ask “how are you?”, and we get real. “I’m scared that my love doesn’t love me, and I don’t know who I am without them. I was overwhelmed last night, and I cut myself, like I’ve done so many times before. It’s been a rough week.”

We let ourselves sink down to the bottom of the lake, where it’s dark and and sometimes scary. We sit down there and listen to what needs to be shared. It’s safe, because we’re all there together. It’s scary, because we’re all there together.

There are two important parts of group work, the first is being able to share the unspeakable. The second is being able to hear feedback on that.

“I feel like I’m unlovable”

Out in the “real world” this comment would be met with “oh, don’t say that! You’re awesome! I love you!”.

But deep inside, there’s this voice; “if they really knew you, they could not love you. They love the image that you project, but you know that’s not real”.

So the idea that we are unlovable persists, because we have created an environment for ourselves that doesn’t feel genuine.

Jung said, “the psyche does not suffer deception well”. We know when we are being lied to, and it’s uncomfortable, and it happens all day long.

So part of group work is calling bullshit when we see it. When someone shares some hard stuff, and they end with “but it’s fine, I’m ok”. We ask, “what is it that makes you want to box that back up right now?. How does it feel in your body to have shared that and know that we saw through your mask?. What are you afraid we’re thinking about you now? Now that we know your secret?”. Let’s just leave that wound open, let’s not cover it back up just yet. We don’t need to fix it, that’s your work to do, but we can just sit here with that. And it’s ok for you to let that happen. This is safe, even though it doesn’t feel like it. 

Group is not for everyone. You need to be ready. You need to be willing to shed your skin and stand exposed, and let the group blow kisses that can sometimes sting. 

Once we feel like the group really knows us, knows all the parts that we run around all day trying to hide, then, and only then, can we start to believe it when they say;

You are lovable

You are enough

I see you

I see all of you

Until you can hear your own strong voIce telling you you’re ok, I want you to use mine, and believe it.

 

 

Bittersweet 16

 

When my first daughter was less than a month old, I wrote her a letter.

I remember feeling so connected to her, it was unlike anything I had ever experienced, and I knew it wouldn’t last. I knew it would change and shift as she grew. When she was a week or so old, I remember lying down on the couch with her as we listened to Joni Mitchell’s Blue album, still one of my favorite albums of all time. It’s one of those memories that has stayed clear and crisp throughout the years. It was a moment in time when everything seemed to be in the proper place.

It’s a bitter / sweet thing, to love a human so much, and know that to do right by them you will need to step back, to let them fall, let them hurt. Sometimes they need you close, sometimes they need your absence, it’s a delicate dance.

On the outside of that envelope, I wrote that it should be opened by her on her 16th birthday. When I wrote that, I was probably thinking of myself at 16. Ready to be done with my parents, ready to have more freedom, ready for “real life” to start. I assumed that as Maya and I both aged, it would be harder to connect, that I might not be able to communicate all of the feelings I was having in this moment, with this new baby.

I wanted to make sure she had those words at a time when she might most need to hear them. 

I wanted her to know how loved, how deeply cherished, she was, and that she still is.

This weekend that envelope will get opened, and we both get to see what I wrote. She doesn’t know it’s coming. I don’t remember exactly what’s in there. I do know that the relationship I have with her is not what I feared it would be when I wrote that letter. We’re closer than a lot of parents and teens that age. Still, there is an awkwardness when I tell her how much I love her, how proud I am of her. I see it in her face, an appreciation and gratitude for that, along with an embarrassment and a desire for this talk to be over.

It’s OK for it to be both.

It’s been the greatest joy of my life, to parent two amazing humans. I still find an occasion to parent here and there, but for the most part, they are who they are, and my part in shaping that is rapidly fading. I’m proud of both of my girls, more so than any other single thing I have ever had a hand in.

Most parents probably think their kids will grow up to change the world. Those of you who know Maya know that she’s a person who could actually pull it off.

I don’t know how her life will unfold over the next 16 years, I can’t imagine the challenges and gifts those years will bring. I know that I will see a lot less of her in the coming years, and there will be others that will be lucky enough to gain her presence in their lives. I know she will continue to challenge the status quo. She will continue to bring joy and comfort to those around her, and she will keep raising the bar for what an educated, thoughtful and driven woman can accomplish.

me and Maya1

 

 

Getting Curious

It is often said that curiosity killed the cat, but what fate awaits those with a lack of curiosity? As a therapist, my own curiosity is a powerful tool. When discussing cases with my supervisor, she often will tell me, “get curious”. When I’m sitting with a client, it’s essential that I pay attention not only to what they are saying, but how they are saying it, and what else is going on. If they tear up, if their facial expression changes, if their body language shifts, I will often ask “what just happened there?”. It’s an opportunity for us both to get curious.

What did we touch on? What’s going on with your body? Something shifted.

Outside the office, My curiosity tends to have more of an inward focus. If, as Plato said, the unexamined life is not worth living, I’m safe, at least for a while. It’s become a large part of who I am, curious about myself, questioning my reactions to other people and environments.

I tend to surround myself with others who value this kind of curiosity. For me, it’s one of the ways we care for one another.

How are you? What’s important? What’s hard? Who are you in this place, in this moment?

My wife’s parents are good at this. They ask good questions, and listen to the answers. Perhaps it’s due to their Quaker background. They know how to sit in a moment. I’ve always been grateful to them for that.

A dear friend from high school came for a visit last night. I hadn’t seen him in 26 years. Within minutes we settled, we listened. We got curious about each other.

Where have you been? What have you experienced? How does that inform who you are now?

Curiosity is a gift, it’s what keeps us moving forward, as species, as a community, as two old friends on the couch.

 

 

Showing up

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How do we show up?

I’ve written before about being enough, you can find it here.

(Go check it out, I’ll wait)

On a related note, I had been doubting some of the ways I’ve been showing up. At work, at home, for my friends, even for myself. I’ve been feeling more tense than I like, I’ve caught myself being short, sarcastic, even dismissive. This is not how I like to show up. I like to be present, grounded, open-hearted. I want the people in my life to know that I’m here for them, and that I see them for who they are. On a good day, I accomplish this. I can meet at least some of their needs, and I get some of mine met as well. Lately though, I just haven’t felt all there.

Yesterday I got some feedback from a client that let me know that however I thought I had been showing up (or not), it was enough for her in those moments. She felt supported, and safe and able to do her work because I was there with her.

I needed that.

The day before, I came upon a young woman who was in the throes of a panic attack. I invited her into my office and I was able to help her get back under control. We did some orienting, we tried some breathing exercises, but I think what actually did it was that I was really there with her. We were connected, and she felt that.

In short, I showed up.

Two messages in two days that I am, in fact showing up. It doesn’t mean that I can stop worrying about how I’m arriving for the people in my life. However, it’s good to know that maybe I’m not as checked out as I have thought.

Inevitably, how we enter that space that gets held between two people is going to shift. It changes based on how we feel, how they feel, and what’s happening in the moment. The greatest gift this work has given me is an awareness of that. Having the curiosity, the courage and the desire to address the questions of “how are we doing with each other? What do we need to attend to?” is a gift to both of us in that moment.

I’m grateful to ask it, and to hear the answer, and to go from there, every time.

It’s always worth it.