Therapist As Healer
A huge thanks to Lanie Smith, MPS, ATR for this guest post. A must read for all clinicians, no matter where you are at in the journey.
Wage peace with your breath.
Breathe in firemen and rubble,
breathe out whole buildings and flocks of red wing blackbirds.
Breathe in terrorists
and breathe out sleeping children and freshly mown fields.
Breathe in confusion and breathe out maple trees.
Breathe in the fallen and breathe out lifelong friendships intact.
Wage peace with your listening: hearing sirens, pray loud.
Remember your tools: flower seeds, clothes pins, clean rivers.
Play music, memorize the words for thank you in three languages.
Learn to knit, and make a hat.
Think of chaos as dancing raspberries,
as the outbreath of beauty or the gesture of fish.
Swim for the other side.
Never has the world seemed so fresh and precious:
Have a cup of tea and rejoice.
Act as if armistice has already arrived.
-Judyth Hill, “Wage Peace”
The above poem is chock full of sage advice. It reminds us to practice our breath in the way Tibetan Buddhists do using what is called tonglen: to breathe in suffering and breath out comfort for others. This is an approach I can recall first discovering some 15+ years ago, desperately wanting to attain this level of presence and nonattachment to moments of joy, the same way I did not want to overidentify with pain and suffering. Granted, that was only the beginning. I was not able to truly experience any extended periods of presence until I started moving through some of my own history and the accumulation of past hurts.
The love I wanted to exude was blocked by the stale, stagnant wounds of shame I’d successfully hidden despite years of my own cathartic creative writing followed by maniacal painting and a buffet of therapies including art, dance, music, and counseling. Fortunately and unfortunately, as things usually go, the pain of staying the same became enough for me to eventually wade through the darkness, fear, and vulnerability with someone who had dealt with enough of their own baggage to help me begin navigating my own.
As therapists, we want so badly to heal the world, and yet such efforts can become so greatly impeded by our own defenses and blind spots.
Above, Judyth Hill asks us to ‘wage peace’ with our listening and use our tools of simple presence to take in the daily tasks of living along with the beauty that surrounds us, but how can we while carrying chronic doubt, overwhelming pressure to succeed, and the urgency to keep up with the world around us? We can’t! And we certainly cannot be the conduits we long to be for our clients if our energy is being used to manage the defensive emotions so instrumental in keeping our own life’s pain in the background. And we all have it before actively working through it.
Some may be incredibly skilled at masking and rejecting it in order to live the life they think they should, while others honestly admit their continued struggle to move beyond striving. In either case, true presence remains beyond current reality with minimal opportunities to embody our highest self.
Embracing both our light and our dark means wading through it and using our own inner warrior/ess to shine light into those deepest wounds, so that healing may occur. To face that allows us to move beyond fear as we have seen the darkest parts of our self. It permits us to begin going against the grain, if need be, no longer concerned with mainstream majority. It loosens the grip of those self-defeating stories and fear of not having one’s own needs met.
Such presence is grounded in trust. There is a trust that one’s Self has replaced previous attempts to be better, faster, stronger. Being is enough. Perspective shifts to the macro and clarity arises to see that just as each flower, tree, and insect plays its part, so do we. In this surrender we become free to soar and help our clients do the same.
What a gift to unload the stories of the past so that we can learn to think of “chaos as dancing raspberries…imagine grief…wage peace…and celebrate today” as Hill describes. This is tonglen at its best: showing up for our clients, taking in their pain, and giving them our love.
Emptying one’s self in order to truly feel our clients means moving through our own layers of false self in order to discover genuine authenticity. It is no longer about being the therapist you think you should be. Its about just being. Its simple. Such spaciousness allows for actual contact…no longer afraid of being seen, really seen; you can offer yourself. This offering is more powerful than any technique you could ever learn as research shows the most important factor in the therapeutic process is the relationship. So wouldn’t it make sense that we need to be ourself, to know who that is, and to be grounded in the complete acceptance of our various parts?
Without such integration the essence of creativity, spontaneity, and flow are lost. We get busy striving to be who we think we should be. We latch onto the glorified hustle and pride ourselves in productivity. We become human doings, not beings. So what’s the trick? How do we find our ground? We gather our courage and we move through the same process we ask of our clients. We don’t just satisfy the minimal treatment requirements for grad school or seek help when the s*#t hits the fan! We do what the great spiritual gurus and best psychotherapists do and we seek Self.
So much of popular psychology is about selfcare. Yes, it’s important, but as therapists it is notvsomething we have to actively pursue if we are being who we really are. I may tear up with my clients and laugh outrageously, but I am not taking their trauma home. When our own past pain has been processed and integrated becoming triggered by our client’s material is less likely.
We begin each session as an empty vessel and finish each the same way, as the energy of provocative emotional content leaves with the client. Present before, during, and after means the energy of others passes through us; provides us valuable information, and affords us great empathy for our clients so that they may not just feel seen and heard but truly felt. This is therapy. This is healing. Anything less, teaching coping skills and psychosocial education, is a band aid. Band aids serve a valuable role. They aid to protect during the healing process, but they do not create the transformation that we as an industry are completely capable of providing if we are willing to step up to the plate and do the work ourselves.
Bandaids are not therapy. If we are to truly help our clients move beyond coping we must commit to the journey of the wounded healer, which acknowledges the pain, the disgust, and the beauty below which invite our clients to do the same. To become who they truly are. They can not do this until we have.
Where are you gripping on? Where has your growth been stagnated? This is the place where light deserves to shine…you cannot move your client beyond this pain until you leap toward yours. As Hill alludes, “have a cup of tea and rejoice…celebrate today.” This can only be truly achieved through acceptance of both the light and dark within. This is where our work begins.
This is the path to Self.
As a Registered Art Therapist I have the pleasure of helping clients navigate this path towards their true authenticity using the power of the creative process. Clients are able to discover and share parts of themselves revealed through the materials, metaphor, and personal symbols. For some it may be altering a book to hold and heal the stories of their past while visualizing the chapters of their future. For others it could be digging into clay like an excavation into uncharted territory or making a mess with paint and ripping apart papers to later transform a less than desirable image into one of hope. Every session is different as every client is unique. The creative possibilities are endless as each individual brings her own special qualities and while some of my clients are artistic and some crafty, others have no experience whatsoever. What they have in common is the genuine desire to experience less stress, more joy, and the courage to be themselves. It is my honor to help them become who they really want to be. To learn more, visit http://www.integrativearttherapy.net/
Higdon, K. (2015). Therapist As Healer. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 19, 2017, from https://pro.psychcentral.com/kickstart/2015/05/therapist-as-healer/