Some of the hardest work that happens in therapy is allowing ourselves to name and feel what our younger selves needed but lacked. The denial is robust and has all kinds of tactics to keep us from feeling the emptiness, pain, and betrayal we have known.
One of the things I needed was the educated and expert care of a good therapist, and I needed those older and wiser than me to tell me so.
I was in my early twenties and encountering insidious harm. I remember how I crammed my journal into the freezer; the truth of what I was experiencing written down in black ink on white paper was too much to handle. And as is often the case, the people around me proved expert accomplices in keeping me from the truth. Naming how bad things really are makes our communities uncomfortable, and who likes that? I needed someone who was outside the story I was living, whose well-being was separate from the plot twists it might take, who I could trust to tell me the truth and be there just for me.
I didn’t end up in therapy until it became a requirement of the graduate school program I entered at The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. My world did not encourage therapy unless someone had really fallen apart. As my own (unhealthy) way of handling life was that I was never allowed to fall apart, this left me high and dry. I wasn’t allowed to need what I needed.
When I was finally expected by the program to go to therapy, it gave me the best excuse to get what I needed at last. I will never forget how that first session felt. The kind, inquisitive crease between the therapist's brown eyes undid me. She was there for me. It was so much of what I longed for that I cried for the majority of those first fifty minutes. It took many sessions to melt all those words that had been stuffed into the freezer.
This is the time of year when life is beginning to insist upon growth in the buds on trees and the green pushing up through the hard ground. We are craving light and life. It’s too hard to deny our desire for change at this time of year. It’s in the earth, it’s in our bodies, and in our spirits.
So I simply have to write and say, do you want change this spring? Do you want your stories to be heard well? Do you want to allow yourself, finally, to need what in truth you do need? Perhaps you are totally accustomed to handling pain and anxiety on your own. That doesn’t mean you don’t actually deserve the company of a good therapist on your journey. I wish someone had asked me directly, “Don’t you think you deserve and need counseling?” So I would be remiss to not ask you the same. It’s one of the strangest things you can do, to actually let yourself matter enough, to allow yourself that attention of someone who will look at you with kindness and curiosity. It can be the beginning of the flourishing life you desire. It's also true that it's easy for me to write that, and it's incredibly challenging to make that decision. It's even more difficult to follow through, to choose a therapist, make an appointment, and keep it. It'd be easier if everyone was required to get some therapy, as I was. All I can do is add my voice to the voices that say Yes to your need for support, Yes to the truth that you deserve quality attention, and Yes to therapy.
I am bone weary of the objectification of our bodies. The judgement that pervades our waking hours and even sneaks into our dreams. The dissatisfaction, the shame, the never enough and always too much messages like cancer in our bones. The suspicion with which we regard our own bodies, the objectification in the eyes of others, and culture's insistence that we lose bodily value as we age or as we expand.
Of course we know a bit about how this affects our confidence and our self-worth. I feel compelled to look at other consequences. I wonder, what do we lose, living embodied and full of condemnation for our bodies? In the stifling atmosphere that judgement creates, I mourn that there is so little space and air in which we can kindly and curiously listen to what our bodies know and need. How many times in a day do our bodies know what we need to be safe, to be well, to be smart--and yet we miss those messages because our connections to our bodies' wisdom is blocked by shame? Do you know what I mean? Those times when you shushed the shudder in the back of your neck when you met a potential boss because logically the job seemed like the right fit? The arrival of a long battle with a cold after weeks of stomping on your body's requests for space from that toxic situation in your family. The headache that becomes crushing every time you spend time with that old friend, and yet you keep making plans with them without allowing yourself to think about why.
Our bodies are wise. Our bodies are powerful. Our bodies have known every single moment of our storied lives, and hold all the knowledge gained through a million experiences of people, places and relationships. This is stunning, really. We walk around in literal bodies of knowledge, always available to us, constantly right with us.
For an upcoming weekend of the Certificate program at The Allender Center, I am reading some chapters from Embodiment by James B. Nelson. I came across a quote from Alexander Lowen that I can't stop thinking about:
"Letting go of ego control means giving into the body in its involuntary aspect. It means letting the body take over. But this is what patients cannot do. They feel the body will betray them. They do not trust it and have no faith in it. They are afraid that if the body takes over, it will expose their weakness, demolish their pretentiousness, reveal their sadness, and vent their fury. Yes, it will do that. It will destroy the facades that people erect to hide their true selves from themselves and from the world. But it will also open a new depth of being and add a richness to life compared to which the wealth of the world is a mere trifle."
I realize how distrustful we can be of our bodies' messages. I understand that we fear what our bodies will insist upon if we listen to them. Some of us have bodies that are deeply angry at how hard we push them. Or bodies that are screaming at us for staying in places (jobs, friendships, unhealthy patterns of relating) despite all the urgent messages they send us to Get Out.
It's a simple thing I am saying: I want to listen more, to my body. I want you to listen to yours. I want us to fight against the judgement that is smothering the life out of our bodies. I want us to fight that judgement with curiousity, with kindness, and with a willingness to say, How rich could my life be if I let my body have more of a say in how I live it?
Towards the end of the year I came across an article whose title caught me: "Self-Discipline is Just Empathy With Your Future Self." This season the world online is glutted with titles that tap into the shame that lies just beneath the surface the whole holidays through. I don't even care to name them; we know as a culture that this is the season for self-flagellation and the constriction of all our belts. Insecurities get nudged or even full-scale triggered by a casual scroll through a news feed. But this idea, the concept that today's choices can actually be an act of kindness toward my future self, this is the kind of idea I want to keep ringing, keep calling to me.
I don't have a lot further to write than just that simple idea. What would it mean for us if, day to day, we tapped into empathy for our future self? Not judgement for that self, who might be even more bogged down by stress and relational complexities in April than she is today? I am trying to picture myself when the sun has returned to us in full strength, and think about what she might need this winter to give her the nourishment, the growth in the deep soul, the unwinding of knots in muscles or thoughts that she needs, so that she can water her gardens both literal and proverbial when the days are longer. And I hope that she, in turn, will have empathy for the one who lies ahead of her in the season of harvest and the one who will again take up holiday traditions tinged with the ghosts of all the years.
I can't know what me or you in twelve weeks will need, specifically. But these things I can imagine: she will need strong connection with those she loves, so why not make plans to delve into deep conversations and have fun with those people now? She will require not only strength but the strength of her body to be in tune with the strength of her heart, so practicing mindfulness along with moving the blood and muscles through exercise will create good. She will need to be nourished, so let's feed her well with lots of color and texture and quality. And she will need to be held, she will always need to be held, so let's buy her a new journal or find her a good therapist who will listen deeply and well or let's plan her a day in the forest or at the spa. Let's imagine her with kindness; let's look into her eyes and feel what she needs, and actually give it to her.