One of the dirtiest words in therapy…

Our entire profession is based around helping and sometimes lovingly pushing clients towards it. There are models and stages focused specifically on attempting to understand it. Clients come to us hoping to grasp it or being told by someone else that they need it. It is especially relevant this time of year as people make resolutions for themselves to achieve it. That seemingly simple, yet incredibly powerful word is change. What does that look like and how do we define it?

Change for the purposes of this discussion can be defined as, “the act or instance of making or becoming different”. Seems fair enough, right? Here’s the issue that I have run into: when applied to a human being this term can actually impede progress. There is the implication that if one changes then maybe they were inadequate before. Their very state of being was “wrong” or “not good enough”. It reinforces all or nothing thinking, I’m either the same or different, which is something we actually spend a lot of time trying to teach clients not to do. I would like to pose the idea that in some ways using the term “change” with clients can actually get in the way of growth.

Case in point, the work I have done with juvenile delinquents. They were repeat offenders who were put into a residential facility and told by every authority figure under the sun that they needed to change. Guess what they absolutely didn’t want to do? They dug their heels in deep and told me time and time again that they didn’t want to change. They liked who they were and no one was going to tell them who to be. This was when I started to see the power of language unfold before me. Adolescents are black and white thinkers to begin with, and then when you tell them to “stop being you” they’re going to meet you with a wall of defenses, plus or minus some choice expletives.

The more I thought about their resistance, the more I realized that they were kind of right. Upon taking the time to get to know them, they were so much more than their poor choices. I didn’t meet a single kid who I felt needed to change the core of who they were. They did however need to reinvent their perception of themselves and their role in society.

So, one day I led a group and explored this topic with them. I gave them the example of a phone. Phones have been reinvented many times throughout history. From the old school rotary phone to the latest smart phone, they have come a long way. Each reinvention of the phone has improved upon it’s predecessor, but one thing has always remained constant: they’re all still phones. They didn’t change into something else, rather they became better versions of themselves.

It was at this point that I began to see lightbulbs going off with the kids. The fact that I was giving them permission to still be who they were and grow at the same time seemed to be such a relief for them. Honestly, isn’t this the crux of the adolescent experience anyway? It is a time marked by self-exploration and fine-tuning, not a journey to turn into a completely different person.

What is the alternative to change anyway? If you don’t do it then you fail? How is that helpful? A sense of failure can bring up such strong feelings of guilt and shame that any remaining motivation goes down the drain. So here we are back at square one. Repeat this sequence a time or two or ten, and you almost can’t blame someone for saying to hell with the whole thing.

So if you’re reading this, I encourage you to think about yourself, your goals, and your life as a perpetual work in progress. It’s the idea that you’re doing the best you can, and you also want to do better. Reinvention is a continuous process, and in my humble opinion that will never change 😉

Creating meaning through grief and loss: How to find yourself and become someone else

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This is a field where you truly never stop learning, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Over the weekend I was fortunate enough to attend a Masters Series workshop at my alma mater, Texas Wesleyan University. Dr. John Winslade is a prominent narrative therapist in the field, and he presented about ways in which we can assist clients who are experiencing grief. Spending a Saturday exploring loss may not sound thrilling to the average person, but as a therapist it is crucial that you become comfortable working with it because it will come up time and time again in practice.

As I was going through this training, I started to think about the ways in which loss has assisted me in becoming the professional that I am today. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be at the point that I’m at without experiencing some of the difficult feelings that accompanied losing close relationships in the past. I wouldn’t be me. I have become who I am because of the meaning I have been able to uncover and hold onto. I’ll speak more on this in a bit.

So, Dr. Winslade started off the presentation by discussing stoicism. It might seem a bit odd to associate a school of philosophy with counseling theory, but many of the principles align quite well with narrative practices. The stoic focus on creating a life and living wisely, well, and ethically. It is the philosophy of becoming rather than being. Under these assumptions people are actually freer than they think they are. In the narrative perspective this can be seen as empowering clients to re-author their dominant stories in ways that allow them to regain a sense of control over their own trajectory through life.

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In particular, we honed in on the stoic conceptualization of time. They hold the idea that there are actually two types of time, chronos and aion, that govern our experiences of the world. We need both and have the ability to switch back and forth between them.

Chronos is the favored approach in our culture, as it is comprised of the past, present, and future. They are very discrete, separate categories, and in relation to loss this view tends to emphasize staying in the “here and now”. We are urged to accept loss as quickly as possible because the dead are gone now and now is what is important. Take a few days off work, grieve the way the steps tell you to, and then keep moving forward. It sounds a bit harsh, but much of grief psychology is grounded in the idea that we need to stay present-centered. This is not totally wrong, but may only be part of the framework necessary to allow people to grieve effectively.

Aion, on the other hand, is more about a sense of how things endure through time. The past, present, and future are seen as fluid, meaning that they flow into each other. The past continues into the present, and the future too influences and creates the current moment. They are not seen as mutually exclusive categories, but rather as infinitely subdivisible based on perspective and awareness. So, in this type of time death does not have to mean the end of a relationship. We can hold people from the past in our present and future by incorporating them into who we are becoming. Death ends a life, but not a relationship. This is a counter to the current perspective, which encourages people to “let them go”. From this lens, they’re still there because we can remember them and they live on through us.

I don’t know about you, but I found this idea to be incredibly comforting. It frees us from some of the constraints imposed upon us by societal standards and allows for a richer experience of connection and life. Again, being very much about balance I think there is a use for both types of time, but it seems that a lot of the current views our culture has about death are heavily based in chronos. Keeping aion in mind during conversations gives the therapist an opportunity to help clients explore loss in a more holistic way. If you are a clinician and really interested in this topic, check out the narrative practice of re-membering and also read Michael White’s article entitled, “Saying Hullo Again” for more information about clinical application.

With this background in mind, one significant loss in my own life came to mind that I want to share to help illustrate the depth that can emerge from using this approach.

I have always been a dog lover. I worked in the veterinary field for 14 years before becoming a therapist. I have truly seen the good, the bad, and the unthinkable. While going through grad school, I worked as a vet tech and as I was getting closer and closer to moving on to another career I remember feeling quite sad that I would be leaving all of my knowledge and skill behind.

At the same time, my old Rottweiler, Suzie, was diagnosed with bone cancer in her front left leg. Because I worked at the clinic I was able to diagnose it early, keep her as comfortable as possible with medication and acupuncture, and monitor the progression of the tumor over time. When she was first diagnosed she was given about 6 months to live, but stubborn old Suz ended up sticking around for 1.5 years.

She was my first dog that was just mine. I got her when I was 19 and she was just 10 weeks old. She stuck by my side through failed relationships, moving across the country and back, and my journey to becoming a counselor. I’ve never had a dog who was so in tune with what I was experiencing on the inside, even if I wasn’t showing it on the outside. It was like she could see right through me. If I was sad, she would literally come lay on top of me. If I was happy, she would greet me with her big toothy smile and be full of life.

Suz

I loved the level of trust between us. I could let her off leash anywhere, turn my back, and never have to worry about what she was doing. If we were hiking, she would run up ahead but never too far. She would stop, turn around, and wait for me to catch up. She wouldn’t let me out of her sight. I really believe that she took care of me just as much as I took care of her.

Watching her slow down after her diagnosis was tough. Every day I would assess her comfort level and try to make the most of the time she had left. Then came the study abroad trip to London. I committed to this trip with the thought that I would likely have lost her long before we were set to depart. She had other plans though. I struggled with leaving her for two weeks and feared that she might take a turn for the worse while I was gone. Luckily, I had my parents to care for her and my veterinary colleagues were on board to help out if necessary. So, I gave her a million hugs and kisses and set out for the airport. I knew that this trip was going to be a once in a lifetime experience, but I never could have imagined just how much it was going to influence who I would become.

I could go on and on about this trip (which I may do in a future post), but for now I will just say that London was where I discovered my love for narrative therapy. We spent a week immersed in learning theory and practices from two of the finest clinicians across the pond, Mark Hayward and Amanda Redstone. Mark broke the concepts down into a way that profoundly shaped my view of the therapeutic process. His presentations appealed to the theory nerd in me, and I really appreciated his authenticity.

Amanda, well she struck a chord that I had been trying to protect, and at one point I left the room in tears. This sounds awful, but it was actually quite healing. Her presentation about using narrative therapy to address grief and loss was my first exposure to the unique way the narrative perspective uses re-membering to keep relationships alive even after someone has passed. We did an experiential exercise where we worked through these conversations about lost loved ones to uncover what they gave us and what we gave them during life, as well as ways in which they still impact our present/future. The most powerful questions to me were, “What do you think they would say about where you are in your life today?” and “How do they influence who you are in this moment?”.

So, in the evenings after each one of these training days, there were a lot of thoughts and emotions swirling around in my head. I was fortunate enough to have some really awesome colleagues to debrief with while we went sightseeing and experienced the city. One night I was talking about how much I missed Suz and how I felt sad to eventually leave my job working with animals, when my friend said, “Why would you have to totally leave working with animals? You should look into animal assisted therapy.” That got my attention. I always assumed animal assisted therapy was akin to bringing dogs to nursing homes/hospitals or having a comfort dog. Not that I was opposed to those things, but it had never occurred to me that I could actually use a dog in a therapy session with a client. I was ecstatic.

London

The Suz made it through my absence just fine and greeted me with her wagging nub when I returned home. As I researched more and more on animal assisted therapy, I began to think about what an amazing therapy dog she could have been. She certainly helped me through my fair share of struggles. She gave me confidence, taught me patience, and showed me unconditional love. When the day came a few months later to say goodbye, I held her in my arms, kissed her head, and vowed that I would keep her memory alive through my work. And so, the idea to incorporate animal assisted therapy into my future practice was born.

It took me two years to feel ready to get another rottie. I wanted to be at a place in my career where I could devote the time to preparing and training my dog to be a reliable work companion. In May of this year, I brought Gretta home. She is almost 8 months old now and full of energy. Even as a small puppy I could tell that she had the right disposition to help people. She loves people and is always curious rather than fearful of new situations. She reminds me of Suz more and more every day, and I like to think that Suz had a paw in bringing her into my life. If it weren’t for her I would have never gone down this path and I will be eternally grateful.

More news to come on Gretta. She can’t take her certification test until she’s at least 1 year old, so for now we’re working on her training outside of the office. In the future, the hope is that she will become a fixture in my practice and an ambassador for her breed. I think Suzie would be proud. Until then you can follow her on Instagram if you’d like: gretta_makesyoufeel_betta.

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It is through loss that I have learned about living life. My best hope is to help clients find their own meaning through some of life’s most difficult moments. With the use of these ideas, as well as a trusty canine companion I am optimistic about what is to come. Memories endure over time, and time doesn’t have to end unless we allow it to.

 

 

 

All I was searching for was me

Music has such an interesting way of transporting you back to certain feelings and memories that may have otherwise been long since forgotten. I heard this song while I was getting ready this morning, and my mind went back to a place that feels far away today. Here’s the story…

While in graduate school, I had the amazing opportunity to study abroad in Australia for two weeks. I was going through a bit of a rough transition in my own personal life and struggling to deal with the ambiguity that lay ahead.

One evening I took a stroll through some gorgeous and incredibly hilly Sydney neighborhoods with a few colleagues, who have since turned out to be great friends. We stopped in a local pub and began chatting with the bartender. Interestingly enough he was from Ireland and felt just as out of place down under as we Americans did.

The place was pretty quiet and he was working alone, so he started to play DJ and tell us about his favorite bands. I was born and raised to be a music lover, so naturally I began talking shop with him. I can’t make a lick of it myself, but I have an ear for a wide range of styles.

So he starts telling us his story about how he moved there with his wife and kiddo. He’s describing the cultural differences and the quirks of the neighborhood. The things he likes and the things he misses about home. I guess it’s the inner therapist in me, but I really enjoy getting to know about someone’s background. It helps to put them into context in the present and highlights the complexities of being human.

He’s describing some of the hardships he’s been through, and we’re commiserating over times we’ve felt down on our luck. Then his face lights up and he runs over to the stereo. He says that I must listen to this song. It literally changed his life and got him out of some dark places. “It is impossible to listen to this song and still be unhappy”, he says. Cue the song…

“Keep your head up” by Ben Howard

It was just what I needed to hear in that moment. For the rest of the trip I walked around with my earbuds in listening to it over and over again. I ventured out by myself on lunch breaks from training, admired the giant fig trees in the park, and started feeling more alive. The fog that I had been walking around in started to lift. Looking back now it’s incredible to me that a chance meeting with someone from halfway across the world who I will never see again changed me in such a profound way.

So here’s my take away. As great as Ben Howard is, I don’t think his song has magical powers or anything. I do however think that storytelling can be healing both for the author and the audience. We are social creatures with a natural propensity to want to relate to one another. We want to feel understood. Stories give meaning to our lived experience and motivate us to keep moving forward. This was yet another unexpected lesson in narrative therapy that reinforced just how well this theory fits with my worldview.

I feel like the least I can do is pay it forward and share this song with the hope that someone else will be in the right place at the right time and need to hear it. And to my Irish bartender friend, I hope that life treats you well. Cheers!

Sydney