TrumpTrauma Part 2: Exploring the Psychology of the 2016 Election

In TrumpTrauma Part 1, I explored some of the foundations of the human experience in the USA today. The pre-existing conditions included a) our long history of violence, b) cultural/linguistic dissonance, c) technology, d) distrust, and e) preserving a positive self-image. Continuing with the exploration of the heightened state of fear in our country, Part 2 will expand on the psychology of fear, protection, and power.

In this post, I will briefly explain some Psychology 101 concepts, explore their application to our current circumstances, and offer some strategies to remedy some of our negative patterns.

Lessons from Psychology

There are many mechanisms at play regarding fear, survival, trauma, violence, and the protection of our ideals about ourselves and the world. Here are a few to consider:

PROJECTION

Think back to the section on Preserving a Positive Self-Image in TrumpTrauma Part 1, and the commentary, "We are not better than this."
Violence.
Judgement.
Hatred.
Discrimination.
Harassment...

Those are painful things to hold, to feel, and to enact.
So take a couple deep breaths. Feel your feet on the ground. Notice the room around you. And do what you need to in order to take care of yourself through this content.
Psychologically, humans are experts at finding ways to reduce and suppress pain. We drink. We smoke. We play games. We have sex. We pray. And we engage psychological defense mechanisms. A primary defense mechanism is projection. How does projection function? In short, if it is too painful (or conflicting) to recognize and own my own potential for something (i.e. violence), I will project it onto others. Due to my inherent desire to not experience violence in myself, I will rapidly recognize violence in others and not hesitate criticize it. 

We, as a species, are exceptionally good at overlooking our own flaws and irately accusing others for the same flaws. It is the classic game of "the pot calling the kettle black." Unfortunately, these accusations often elicit additional defenses and heightened reactivity.

Remedy: Take ownership and responsibility. Every time you find yourself wanting to condemn, judge, and blame an individual or group for violence, for stupidity, for anything you loathe, pause, and genuinely explore those qualities in yourself. "I'm racist." "I'm violent." "I'm judgmental."
Too much?
Try: "I can be racist at times." "I have the potential for violence." "I tend to be judgmental."
Feeling overwhelmed? Shut down? 
Thinking of someone else and how much they need this feedback?
Feeling angry, escalated, defensive, and/or ready with "But..."?
Just notice how those are all ways to deflect and displace the pain of owning your own shortcomings. This is not about shaming you. This is not about self-flagellation. This is a practice of great compassion--being willing to look directly at the pain, own it, and continue to love yourself and others.
Want extra support in what this could look like? Listen to or read Andrea Gibson's poem "Evolution."

BOBO DOLL EXPERIMENT

What about the psychology of aggression?
In 1961, Albert Bandura and some colleagues performed the famous Bobo Doll Experiment. Of the children participants, one group had an aggressive role model, one group had a non-aggressive role model, and one group did not have a role model. The children who witnessed aggressive adult behavior with the Bobo Doll were significantly more likely to demonstrate aggressive play than the other two groups. 

So what does this mean in the context of post-election behaviors? In short, as white children chant "Build the Wall" to Latino students, as rates of harassment skyrocket in schools, as fake deportation letters are handed to students, as rates of anti-Asian, anti-Black, anti-Disability, anti-Immigrant, anti-LGBT, anti-Muslim, and anti-Woman incidents spike, it appears that the mocking and derogatory language that Donald Trump used during the Presidential Campaign has turned into a nation-wide Bobo Doll Experiment. We are witnessing the power of Social Learning Theory--especially in schools. Teachers are reporting multiple incidents in which minority students are saying, "Bullying is okay now, because our President is a bully. Everyone is bullying me because I am _____ and there is nothing I can do about it." In cases in which teachers are attempting to interrupt bullying, students are vindictively responding, "Donald Trump said it, so I can, too!"

Remedy: Model how to take ownership and responsibility. 
Trump supporters, Conservatives, Republicans, and even Donald Trump himself can step in to apologize, to be accountable for distasteful words and actions, and to model how to repair relationships across differences. This takes more than looking into the camera and saying "Stop it!" on 60 minutes (although I do appreciate that). It requires the humility to voluntarily state, "I modeled this behavior. I (unintentionally) endorsed this behavior. I was wrong. I am sorry, and I want to do better and be better. My first step will be to _______."
Anti-Trump protestors, Liberals, Democrats, and even Hillary Clinton herself can step in to apologize, to be accountable for distasteful words and actions, and to model how to repair relationship across differences. Clinton started this process by apologizing for the name-calling (i.e. deplorables) that took place during the campaign period. 
(Note: while all people can demonstrate accountability and humility, the people who are in leadership positions and who have power have a more substantial impact in how they model behavior.)

STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT

Continuing with the psychology of violence, we must also keep in mind the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment from 1971. Even in this role-play scenario, people who were randomly selected as "prison guards" found themselves executing intimidation tactics, domineering attitudes, and violent actions towards "inmates." The experiment had to be cancelled due to the degree of psychological distress exhibited by the participants.

How does this relate to what we are seeing emerge across our nation? Ultimately, we are observing the dynamics of power. For example, people who look like Donald Trump (i.e. white men), especially if they agree with his words and actions, can experience a type of prison-guard syndrome--a propensity to feel insulted when their power is challenged (i.e. anti-Trump protests), and are likely to make an aggressive presence known (i.e. the KKK celebration parade in North Carolina; see hateful incidents linked above). We are reminded about how stepping into a system with an inherent power differential requires rules to maintain that system. If the rules are: some people get less food (and/or lower quality food), uncomfortable and/or unsafe living conditions, limited rights, limited medical care, etc., when those people request (or demand) something different--more rights and comfort, especially--what are the options for the people in power to do? If we review the experiment, initial requests were dismissed, and escalated responses elicited fear and control from those in power.

This experiment helps us remember that good people, average people, ordinary people are rapidly susceptible to enacting heightened violence in order to protect themselves (physically and psychologically) from the resistance that comes from oppression and from inhumane conditions. In the case of the Stanford Prison Experiment, "inmates" -- students who were accustomed to many freedoms and human rights -- struggled significantly with the experience of being in a cell without typical access to movement, to food, to socializing, to creativity, to meaningful use of time, etc. When their requests for those things were ignored or denied, they expressed their distress more intensely. The first response from the "prison guards" was to put the "inmates in their place"--to maintain the rules and the system at all costs.

Remedy: Get curious about the disparate conditions between "prison guard" and "inmate". When you feel like the protests or "uprisings" are personal, take a deep breath, and make an effort to listen open-heartedly. Perhaps it isn't personal. Get curious about how the psychological impacts of Toxic Stress interrupt communication skills, making requests for compassion sound more like insults. Get curious about how you would respond on the "other side." Ask yourself, is it possible to maintain order and justice without systemic rules that legitimize fear and oppression? If fear, discomfort, and feeling unsafe/unvalued are at the root of what people are resisting, get curious about your own role in creating a safer, more comfortable space.
Want to dig deeper into this dynamic? Check out the podcast by Reveal News: The man inside: Four months as a prison guard, and carefully follow the dynamics occurring at Standing Rock in the #NoDAPL protests (Indigenous Rising Media; Fargo Inforum; Bismarck Tribune).

EXCHANGE

As we learned from the Stanford Prison Experiment, there are times in which one group of people will express experiences of fear, discomfort, distrust, anger, and other uncomfortable emotions. We also can recognize that, if those are not your own experiences, it is a common reaction to respond to those claims with doubt, disbelief, and an impulse to justify or rationalize why they happened. 
Trayvon Martin was unarmed? He must have been a troubled kid.
Eric Garner was unarmed? He must have been a thug.
Brock Turner raped an unconscious woman? He must have been intoxicated...
Notice anything?
This might be a good opportunity to refer back to the earlier questions about your relationship with violence (TrumpTrauma Part 1). 

Privilege is thinking that something is not a problem because it is not a problem to you personally.
— Unknown

And a good opportunity to take another breath.

So what happens when someone's experience of pain (or marginalization) is not believed or understood? Or dismissed? Oftentimes, they try harder to be understood and heard. In that process, something fascinating happens--discomfort and pain increases for the other person. This phenomenon in the counseling world has many labels, and in the field of Contemplative Psychology field it is known as exchange. Exchange occurs when a therapist works with a client regularly, and starts to experience some of the same symptoms that the client experiences. For example, counselors working with clients with trauma and PTSD may start to demonstrate hypervigilance, difficulty sleeping, perseveration on the stories of the clients, and reactivity--all common symptoms of trauma survivors (even when the counselor has not had personal experience with trauma). In this case, this particular phenomenon is also known as vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue. Similarly, a therapist may experience depression symptoms (i.e. hopelessness) when working with clients with severe depression, or experience symptoms like paranoia while working with clients with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. This phenomena can happen on larger scales as well.
Example: When I, a hearing individual, was learning American Sign Language (ASL) and attended my first Deaf event, I remarked, "Wow. I am missing so much information! And I'm working so hard to keep up!" Deaf folks politely smiled and responded, "Now you know what my everyday experience is like around hearing people." Exchange.
Note: This is a common experience for hearing people who are learning ASL.
Example: When I, a white person, started to engage in conversations about race and received feedback about my mistakes, I felt judged and belittled--like my every move was being watched. When I shared that experience, I was offered compassion, grace, and a recognition that "People of color receive criticism for communicating, even in academic language, on a regular basis. As well as a nearly constant experience of being watched like a hawk." I noticed how my feelings would occur regardless of negative tone or presence of criticism, and have since witnessed others remark, "So I can't even open my mouth because I'm a white male!"  Exchange.
Note: This is a common experience for white people learning how to engage with racism.

Are you upset because you suddenly feel attacked? Like you're walking on eggshells? Like you're being marginalized? Like you're being told that you're hated for who you are? It is likely exchange.
Are you feeling fearful in the face of ISIS/ISIL and the Syrian refugee crisis? Imagine the immense fear that the refugees are facing. 

In the case of current-day U.S.A., people of various marginalized identities (and their allies) are taking to the streets, expressing their fear, their concern, their age-old exhaustion, their anger, and their grief, which includes intergenerational trauma. As protestors express that the vote for Trump/Pence is a personal threat to their safety and well-being-- and is a continuation of policies and legislation that marginalize them and their communities--many people are becoming upset. When experiencing an uncomfortable emotion that is not part of your everyday experience, it can be helpful to ask, "What happened before what happened, happened?" In other words, before you started to feel fearful (etc.), what happened? Your fear might not be yours alone.

Remedy: a) Learn about Trauma (stay tuned for TrumpTrauma Part 3).
b) When you feel pain in a new way, try to believe the pain that your counterpart is experiencing. Practice responding from compassion, rather than reacting from discomfort. 
c) Study historical contexts and relationships. Your current discomforts did not initiate with the current politics, protests, or circumstances. They stem from a long history of violence and pain between people. Due to the human tendency to project and displace pain, pain is ultimately distributed unequally--just as power and wealth are unequally distributed (because wealth and power have been employed as buffers from pain).
d) Practice deep listening. Underneath your discomfort, underneath the reactivity, can you hear the truth in what people are saying? Naturally, the people who have been carrying a disproportionate share of pain are trying to displace it and/or heal it. Protests are a brilliant attempt at doing that: Announcing, "I've been carrying immense pain and burden, this circumstance heightens it, and I am still here. I am still alive. I still matter."


You matter. You have value to add to the world. Even if you don't know what that is yet. Even if you're doubting it right now. You are still here. You matter. You matter. You matter.


Interpersonal trauma, historical trauma, and intergenerational trauma all influence our ability to respond to stress and injustice in a measured, relational way. Before we complain that our counterparts are "crybabies" or "wimps" for any reason, before we demand that people get "thicker skin" and more grit, it is crucial to understand the mechanisms of survival and trauma. Stay tuned for TrumpTrauma Part 3 for an in-depth exploration of trauma and fear on our brains, our development, our perception of the world, and our relationships.

TrumpTrauma Part 1: Pre-Existing Conditions of the 2016 Election

[image description: Photo of two chess pieces facing each other. On the left is a white knight, on the right is a black knight. A blurry city-scape is visible in the background. The chess board is visible beneath the pieces. Photo by baona/iStock / Getty Images]

[image description: Photo of two chess pieces facing each other. On the left is a white knight, on the right is a black knight. A blurry city-scape is visible in the background. The chess board is visible beneath the pieces. Photo by baona/iStock / Getty Images]

In the first hours, and two weeks, since the election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States, the media, social media, and social fabric of our country appeared to implode. Or explode. Or both simultaneously. In an astronomically heightened state of fear, the United States of America is experiencing what might be the most effective act of terrorism it has undergone--and it was enacted (and continues to be enacted) by its own people.
(Note: this is an acknowledgement of the degree and function of fear occurring in our society, and in no way is intended to undermine intentional/pre-meditated acts of terrorism.)

[image description: Screenshot of the definition of "terrorism", obtained from Google.  ter-ror-ism noun the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.]

[image description: Screenshot of the definition of "terrorism", obtained from Google. 
ter-ror-ism
noun
the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.]

The amount of fear, shock, and grief is palpable. The angry, defensive rhetoric on all sides is as insatiable as a wildfire--people cannot get enough of it. The violence is escalating. Cumulatively, people appear to be more afraid, and in more danger, than after 9/11. We are in a collective state of TrumpTrauma.

Terror, panic, and trauma go hand-in-hand.

Before jumping into the mechanics of TrumpTrauma and the psychology of fear and survival, I want to acknowledge that there were several pre-existing conditions that made the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election fertile ground for the finger-pointing, fear, and violence we are seeing today. I will briefly elaborate on five of those pre-existing conditions:

1) Our Long History of Violence
2) Cultural/Linguistic Dissonance
3) Technology
4) Distrust
5) Preserving Positive Self-Image

Our long History of Violence

Let's start with a moment of historical reflection, recognizing that we, the people of the United States of America, have an intimate relationship with violence. From its inception, the USA was a country that heavily relied on slavery, subjugation, forced removal of indigenous people, child labor, mass killings, and armed conflict. That history reverberates in our epigenetics. It is encoded in our international relations, police training policies, and the prison-industrial complex. Our courtship of violence never ended. And we do not typically take the time to stop and ask questions about it. 

Do you know what your personal relationship to violence is? Do you know what your ancestors' relationship to violence was? What kind of violence is justified (if any) in your culture, your religion/faith/spirituality/ethic, and your family? Do you recognize emotional violence, spiritual violence, psychological violence, sexual violence, and economic violence as valid forms of violence? Do you weigh physical violence on a different scale than the other forms of violence? Does your perception of violence change based on who is perpetrating the violence and who is receiving it? When are you more prone to look for a valid explanation for violence, and more prone to assume that the victim deserved it? When are you more likely to jump to forgive the perpetrator of the violence? When does forgiveness feel impossible?

Cultural and Linguistic Dissonance

The second pre-existing condition is the fact that humans regularly miscommunicate regarding values. I learned early in my counseling training that words carry cultural connotations and subjective denotations. Subsequently, when two people come into my office, they can be locked in a heated conflict about feeling disrespected. They both value "respect", but have not deconstructed the underlying meaning of the word, nor identified how different behaviors are intimately tied to their experience of respect. Both people want to receive respect, both perceive themselves as offering it, and both are deeply offended (and confused) by the conflict. And that's just when they already love each other!

Words that hold moral and ethical value are especially loaded. Honesty. Integrity. Trustworthy... In that vein, Trump supporters are known to have said, "Well, at least he is honest! Hillary is just another lying politician..." at the same time that Clinton supporters have stated, "Trump is such a liar! He flip-flops on everything! At least Hillary is consistent..." Instantaneously we are in a stand-still conflict over the value of honesty. The tension is high. People feel charged. Reactivity increases because when we are talking about values, we are talking about "right" behavior. (And who wants to be "wrong"?!) But we haven't unpacked what the word honesty means to each person, especially in the context of each candidate's actions and words. Perhaps we are all using the same word--honesty--and all have different definitions and schemas for its meaning. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves the same questions about our relationship to honesty and lying, as we asked about our relationship to violence.

Wondering how to overcome this roadblock? For now, hold on to the question, let it percolate, and take a few breaths.

This issue is a big deal. Because our values are so important to us, these conflicts pose a big psychological risk. Being identified as incongruent or as a hypocrite can feel devastating. Shame rises. And shame, like fear, is debilitating. Shame is a big part of why people did not like Hillary Clinton; they see her as smug and condescending, and that is humiliating. Shame is a big part of why people did not like Donald Trump; his words and plans for office express that certain people are "less than" others--to the point that suicide hotline calls have significantly spiked.

Technology

Another pre-existing condition for our current state is the way in which we have engaged with modern technology.
Step 1: Research is demonstrating that extended exposure to smart screens decreases the human capacity for empathy and reduces pro-social behavior (see article here; read Your Brain on Nature).
Step 2: Extended screen time causes cognitive fatigue, which is related to irritability, difficulty solving problems, and impulsivity (read Your Brain on Nature).
Step 3: Google and Facebook use every search, every "like", and every opened article to customize your search responses and NewsFeed to match your preferences and interests. This means that even if you have Facebook friends who have different perspectives than you do (and haven't deleted them in the heat of the Election), you are significantly less likely to see their posts show up on your NewsFeed and are less likely to be exposed to alternative views and experiences (note: news/media is also selective in what it presents). The internet has become an echo-chamber.
Step 4: On the internet, without the immediate repercussions of face-to-face interactions, we are able to receive the instant gratification of expressing our thoughts and opinions (however violent) with increased anonymity and decreased accountability
Result: We are a society of more irritable, more fatigued people with reduced empathy who lack impactful information from the "other" side. We feel less personally accountability than any other time in history and quickly judge, condemn, berate, and hate people who oppose us.

Distrust

As our technological echo-chamber ensures that we experience validation for our belief systems, we develop deeper distrust of the people who challenge our beliefs. For years I have known people who do not trust the media, do not trust police, and do not trust the system. That sentiment is exponentially amplified currently. People who have not expressed distrust of those things in the past, now willingly question them. When "violence at trump rallies" rolls in the news, it is countered with articles that democrats incited the violence. When "Trump mocks disabled reporter" swept the news, organizations pushed campaigns that the media lied about Trump mocking the reporter. After all, if you like a person, you don't want to believe that they say and do things contrary to your values. So you naturally start to question, "What is True?" "Is my perspective and judgement wrong, or am I being manipulated?" 

Unfortunately, as distrust increases, so does paranoia. Conspiracy theories grow. Fear amplifies. We question who is trustworthy. And we become prone to shutting ourselves into tighter circles of "like-minded" folks.

Preserving positive Self-Image

When facing doubt and distrust, humans prefer to distrust something/someone external, rather than our own judgement or intelligence. Nobody wants to be judged or deemed as the "bad" guy or the "idiot". As people from opposing sides hurl insults of stupidity, ignorance, and racism/reverse racism (which is not actually a real thing), defenses rise. We don't even need Trump's Southern Border Wall--we have already erected a dozen walls in our hearts and minds. Since the election, I have witnessed multiple conversations with people in which they state, "I thought we were better than this."
Reality check folks: We're not.
We're not better than this. Exhibit A: "Day 1 in Trump's America". Exhibit B: story behind "Black Mob Beats White Man" (incident stemmed from traffic altercation, secondarily escalated to politics). Exhibit C: "Over 701 Incidents of Hateful Harassment".

And we are better.

[image description: Instagram image authored by Caitlin Rosberg (@thorfinnskullcleaver), reading: "If you wear a hijab, I'll sit with you on the train. If you're trains, I'll go to the bathroom with you. If you're a person of color, I'll stand with you if the cops stop you. If you're a person with disabilities, I'll hand you my megaphone. If you're an immigrant, I'll help you find resources. f you're a survivor, I'll believe you. If you're a refugee, I'll make sure you're welcome. If you're a veteran, I'll take up your fight. If you're LGBTQ, I won't let anybody tell you you're broken. If you're a woman, I'll make sure you get home ok. If you're tired, me too. If you need a hug, I've got an infinite supply. If you need me, I'll be with you. All I ask is that you be with me, too."]

[image description: Instagram image authored by Caitlin Rosberg (@thorfinnskullcleaver), reading:
"If you wear a hijab, I'll sit with you on the train.
If you're trains, I'll go to the bathroom with you.
If you're a person of color, I'll stand with you if the cops stop you.
If you're a person with disabilities, I'll hand you my megaphone.
If you're an immigrant, I'll help you find resources.
f you're a survivor, I'll believe you.
If you're a refugee, I'll make sure you're welcome.
If you're a veteran, I'll take up your fight.
If you're LGBTQ, I won't let anybody tell you you're broken.
If you're a woman, I'll make sure you get home ok.
If you're tired, me too.
If you need a hug, I've got an infinite supply.
If you need me, I'll be with you. All I ask is that you be with me, too."]

We both are not better than this, and we are. Humans are complex beings that hold multitudes of contradictions. So take a breath with me, and consider the possibility that you and I have both participated in racist thoughts/behaviors (if you cannot think of an example for yourself, please email me) and that does not automatically mean either one of us has malicious intentions nor are inherently awful people. Racism in this context is not a value judgement or moral evaluation--it is about a factual, historical system of race-based discrimination that is rooted in political and economic policies from the birth of this nation. It is an ongoing system that inherently produces active and passive participation by all people. Skeptical and/or unaware of how this history plays out in modern policies and practices? Check out The New Jim Crow. Reflect on the way in which slavery is legally sanctioned as punishment (while remembering that Blacks and Latinos are incarcerated at significantly higher rates that whites).

[image description: Screenshot of Donald Trump's tweet: "The theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!" and Steve Raymond's twitter response: "@realDonaldTrump The USA must always be a safe and special place. You've been very rude this past year to everyone. Apologize."]

[image description: Screenshot of Donald Trump's tweet: "The theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!" and Steve Raymond's twitter response: "@realDonaldTrump The USA must always be a safe and special place. You've been very rude this past year to everyone. Apologize."]

That can be a hard pill to swallow. Unfortunately, in the process of trying to preserve a self-image congruent with our most uplifted values, we hesitate to believe that we do and think things contrary to our values. We are aloof to our own hypocrisy (see image to the right; and this article). This is clearly about more than Donald and Hillary. This is about me. And you. And the people we love.

We do not want to believe that the injustice, incongruency, and hostility run so deep. So we engage various psychological mechanisms to protect that self-image... And our Facebook echo-chambers, and our distrust, and our miscommunications, and our relationship with violence all support that process that self-protection.

But what are we really protecting ourselves from? 

Want to know more about the role of protection, fear, and psychology in the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential Campaign and Election? Stay tuned for Part 2 of TrumpTrauma.


If you are still in a state of heightened reactivity and fearfulness, if you have been a victim of increased harassment and violence, if you're constantly scanning the environment for a threat, there are real reasons you feel that way. There are things that you can do to help regulate your nervous system, including counseling, and there are things you can do to love your nervous system, as is. While people may tell you to get "thicker skin," know that your resilience and healing does not depend on today alone. Everything you feel is okay.

How did we get through high school without being taught Dr. King spent two decades having panic attacks?
Avoided Windows
Jumped at thunder

I think we are all part flight the fight
part run for your life
Part ‘please please please like me’
Part Can’t breathe
Part scared to say you’re scared
Part say it anyway

You panic button collector
You clock of beautiful ticks
You run out the door if you need to
You flock to the front row of your own class
You feather everything until you know you can always, always shake like a leaf on my family tree and know you belong here

You belong here and everything you feel is okay
Everything you feel is okay
— Andrea Gibson, excerpt from "Panic Button Collector"

The Sneaky Violence of Nonmaleficence

A few months ago, I was chatting with a friend about her experience of medical school and her sentiments as she transitioned into residency. She told me about the well-known mantra in the medical field: "It's not if you kill your first patient, it's when."

I usually have to re-read that sentence to allow it to sink in. It's a somber statement about how the reality of practicing medicine is in contradiction with the oldest ethical tenants of the field: First do no harm.

[image description: an image of the symbol of the medical profession: two snakes wrapped up a staff with two wings extended at the top. The background is yellow and there is an image of green grass at the bottom. "FIRST DO NO HARM" is typed on the bottom. Image found on Google Images]

[image description: an image of the symbol of the medical profession: two snakes wrapped up a staff with two wings extended at the top. The background is yellow and there is an image of green grass at the bottom. "FIRST DO NO HARM" is typed on the bottom. Image found on Google Images]

Even while the phrase "first do no harm" is not verbatim in the Hippocratic Oath, the morality of this statement is deeply ingrained in the motivations and philosophies of people in helping professions and healing professions around the world. It is also deeply internalized by people of all religious and spiritual backgrounds. One version of it, Nonmaleficence, is outlined in the American Counseling Association ethics:

These professional values provide a conceptual basis for the ethical principles enumerated below. These principles are the foundation for ethical behavior and decision making. The fundamental principles of professional ethical behavior are

  • autonomy, or fostering the right to control the direction of one’s life;

  • nonmaleficence, or avoiding actions that cause harm;

  • beneficence, or working for the good of the individual and society by promoting mental health and well-being;

  • justice, or treating individuals equitably and fostering fairness and equality;

  • fidelity, or honoring commitments and keeping promises, including ful lling one’s responsibilities of trust in

    professional relationships; and

  • veracity, or dealing truthfully with individuals with whom counselors come into professional contact. 

The concept of "first do no harm", the internalized morale of nonmaleficence (aka non malevolence), and the nonchalance of "It's not if you kill your first patient, it's when" have been swimming in the back of my mind as I have watched the media, the nation, and the world erupt over recent events. Events from Brock Turner's rape trial, to election campaigns and candidates, to Nyle DiMarco and the Alexander Graham Bell Foundation's critique of him (they did have a follow-up response), to the Pulse Orlando massacre, to the dozens of other less publicized (related and unrelated) stories of injustice, murder, and discrimination

I have been watching as people question how these atrocities could happen, as people pour out support, as people condemn each other over the events, and as people criticize each other for their political beliefs and their responses to relevant events. As blame and judgement cycle and spiral back and forth, I've become curious about a pattern I have noticed.

No one seems to believe they are causing harm.

In fact, most people seem to think they are helping. Helping to dispel myths. Helping to eradicate ignorance. Helping to rid the Earth of people who are seen as Other and less-than. Helping our children. Helping protect our country. Helping themselves to wealth or pleasure. Helping...

Practice two things in your dealings with disease: either help or do not harm the patient.
— Thomas Inman

After all, how many of you wake up in the morning and think to yourself, "Today I will intentionally and unintentionally cause harm to others."?

[image description: a graphic of a sign post with four different signs. Each sign is an arrow, pointing in a different direction. At the top is a green arrow inscribed with "HIS FAULT". Next is a yellow arrow inscribed with "HER FAULT". Next is an orange arrow inscribed with "THEIR FAULT". The last arrow, at the bottom, is red and states "NOT ME". Image found on Google Images.]

[image description: a graphic of a sign post with four different signs. Each sign is an arrow, pointing in a different direction. At the top is a green arrow inscribed with "HIS FAULT". Next is a yellow arrow inscribed with "HER FAULT". Next is an orange arrow inscribed with "THEIR FAULT". The last arrow, at the bottom, is red and states "NOT ME". Image found on Google Images.]

Even when confronted with the pain we have caused, we seem to have internalized our moral nonmaleficence to the point that it does not compute. We think, "No. It couldn't possibly be my fault. If harm was caused, it must be someone else's fault or someone else's problem." We may even think, "That person needs thicker skin. They're taking this too personally. Quit playing the victim!" 

I know what you're thinking. OTHER people blame. OTHER people cause harm. OTHER people blame. Not me.

Maybe you practice honesty and accountability in your life. Maybe you donate to good causes. Maybe you engage in restorative justice practices. Maybe you volunteer your time. Maybe you're a therapist or a doctor or a teacher or a police officer, or a policy-maker with a heart for justice. Maybe you diligently practice your religion. What does all of this have to do with you?

I'm curious, too. Has our morality of nonmalevolence immunized us from accountability? Has it become a sneaky shield of protection, blocking out information that will highlight our fallibility and vulnerability? Do our moral standards imply that if we are good, we cannot cause harm? 

How prevalent is it that we each cause harm, anyway?

Anecdote #1

A recent episode (#716 Voice of Reason) on the Snap Judgement podcast shared the story of a new, bright-eyed lawyer (Christina Swarns) doing her best in 1994 to "help" a chronically homeless man who would dine and ditch in order to get arrested. He developed this routine in order to have a place to sleep--jail. Like many people who have drive to help the less fortunate, this case tugged at her heart. In her efforts to publicize his dilemma and raise support, he experienced humiliation by other incarcerated people for wanting to be in jail. The only place he had developed for safety, was no longer safe. Ultimately, he ended up not accepting any of the support that had been obtained for him, and was never heard from again.

anecdote #2

A recent episode (Update: Alleged cult leader plays shell game with US foreign aid) on the Reveal podcast shared the story of how billions of dollars from the US government, donated clothing sales, and employees' paychecks are being siphoned off by Planet Aid into untraceable foreign bank accounts, rather than being allocated to projects. This organization appears to be exploiting the generosity of others, claiming to offer humanitarian services, and the money is all but disappearing. And because it is documented that money is allocated for these programs (that never take place), it is difficult for these communities to get additional support elsewhere. Unfortunately, many well-intentioned NGOs and Non-Profits offer services that are never utilized. Schools are built and the buildings are abandoned. Donated money is allocated to donors' intentions rather than what is needed at a grassroots level (i.e. Haiti). When you donate money, how do you know where it is actually going? Do you track where your tax money goes?

anecdote #3

In the novel, Shantaram, and the sequel, The Mountain Shadow, by Gregory David Roberts, the main character, Shantaram (aka Lin) befriends a mouse while in prison. He feeds him. He extends generosity. He trains him to the point that they have a safe relationship. When he is moved to another cell, he informs the next person that the mouse in that cell is well-trained. The inmate subsequently tortures and kills the mouse. This haunts Shantaram, and he questions whether his generosity was the predicating factor that made the mouse more vulnerable to harm. If he had not taught the mouse he was trustworthy, the mouse would not have altered its self-protective behaviors. It would not have had the audacity to approach the next inmate. It would not have died cruelly.

Sometimes we have the best intentions, but we’re focusing on the wrong thing. Are you willing to consider the possibility that, just maybe, you have focused on the wrong thing?
— J. Parrish Lewis, www.munkymind.com
[image description: cartoon image of a person standing in front of a mirror, angrily pointing at the mirror. The person is wearing green pants, a blue shirt, and glasses. They appear to be blaming and yelling at their own reflection. Image found on The Barefoot Spirit.]

[image description: cartoon image of a person standing in front of a mirror, angrily pointing at the mirror. The person is wearing green pants, a blue shirt, and glasses. They appear to be blaming and yelling at their own reflection. Image found on The Barefoot Spirit.]

Perhaps we all are causing harm every day. Even the most ethical, most honorable, most logical person lapses. This pattern of unintentional hypocrisy is deeply embedded in our colonial history. During the Crusades, Crusaders believed they were manifesting the Kingdom of God while killing non-believers. During westward expansion and Manifest Destiny, homesteaders believed they had a right to the land that was usurped from Native tribes. During slavery, Protestants believed that because they were Christian, stealing, killing, raping, and forcing labor upon slaves couldn't possibly be a bad thing. Our morals and internalized positive self-image (or desperation for a positive self-image) appears to have the capacity to blind us from the reality that we cause harm.

 

We all partake in the game of judgement, passing on the toxic burdens of shame and blame to the next person. 

In the practice of supporting optimal social, emotional, and psychological well-being, we must be able to differentiate between guilt and shame. Unfortunately, we are exceptionally good at deflecting guilt (and responsibility) by engaging in shaming practices. We've learned from Brené Brown's work, shame deteriorates our psyche, our relationships, and our communities. Judgement and blaming are useful tools for deflecting shame and vulnerability. They are less useful for creating positive change and creating healthy, safe communities. 

Ethically, what does this mean? As a counselor, bound to the ethics listed above, I believe this means letting go of these standards as a measure of myself and my work. I believe it means that I stop assuming that I am being helpful when I think I am, and stop assuming that my good intentions preclude me from causing harm. It means I spend less energy tracking for evidence of my help, and more energy tracking and acknowledging where I missed the mark. It means I am prepared to appropriately apologize, to admit when I am wrong or when I don't know, and to make amends. 

Why? Because it is possible to learn that a) having inherent value as a human, and b) inevitably causing harm, are not mutually exclusive. Because healthy relationships are less about never causing harm (as the Hippocratic Oath and Counseling Ethics may imply), and more about repairing a relationship after hardship.

What would happen if we let go of the introject that we must only be good and must never cause harm? What if we came to terms with our own pain, our own malevolence? What if every time we wanted to criticize, condemn, or judge someone, we looked inward and could acknowledge "In some way, I do that, too."? What would happen if we all took a deep breath--a slow inhale that filled our bellies and an slow exhale of release, and could also extend gentleness, love, and compassion for ourselves? What if we engaged in the artful mastery of appropriate apologies?

And what if you're already doing these things? Take a moment and check...are you judging the people who aren't?


One of my mentors, Carla Sherrell, frequently reminds me and others that oppression is "sneaky." Carla's work, words, wisdom, and her own mentors, teachers, and ancestors therefore created a foundation for the thoughts expressed in this blog.

My clinical supervisor, Duey Freeman, has been influential in my understanding of how repair is essential to the development of healthy relationships. His work at the Gestalt Equine Institute of the Rockies (GEIR) and the Gestalt Institute of the Rockies (GIR) has also created a foundation for the thoughts expressed in this blog. The GIR summer intensive (August 2016) will look at some of these topics in A Call To Action: Exploring the Depth of Racism, Privilege, Power, and Diversity.

Confessions of a Non-Binary Therapist

[image description: an image of six figures overlapping. They are all in the same format as typically seen on "Men" and "Women" restroom doors. From left to right, the figures start as blue, fade to purple, and fade into pink. Similarly, from left to right, the first figure has straight legs, and each progressing figure has a little bit more of a "dress" shape added on, until reaching the furthest right figure, which is pink and the typical figure used for a "Women" restroom. Image found on Google Images.]

[image description: an image of six figures overlapping. They are all in the same format as typically seen on "Men" and "Women" restroom doors. From left to right, the figures start as blue, fade to purple, and fade into pink. Similarly, from left to right, the first figure has straight legs, and each progressing figure has a little bit more of a "dress" shape added on, until reaching the furthest right figure, which is pink and the typical figure used for a "Women" restroom. Image found on Google Images.]

I am proud to work with transgender, gender non-conforming, non-binary, genderqueer, gender fluid, and gender expansive clients and colleagues. As I have deepened in this aspect of my work, I have learned a lot about the trauma and pain that this population faces regularly. From high rates of being kicked out of homes and ostracized from families, to high rates of being verbally, physically, and sexually assaulted, to high rates of employment discrimination, it's not uncommon for trans and gender-variant folks to internalize messages of being unwanted and not belonging. 

Due to the painful experiences in the lives of these people, many other people (including therapists) have strong reactions and assumptions about trans and gender non-conforming folks. That is observable on institutional levels, including North Carolina's HB2. On a more personal level, a couple of months ago, another clinician (who is cisgender) stated, "I just feel so bad for those non-binary people. They're all just so hurt and so guarded. They really don't trust anyone and are resistant to help! It's just so sad." I froze. I couldn't think of a single word to say. I just stared at the other therapist in disbelief.

Since then, I have been sitting on this blog post, letting it incubate. 

[image description: Script at the top states, "[flexible] gender identity." Script at the bottom states, "which category do you identify/define yourself?" The image is of 8 pairs of figures. They are combinations of pink and blue. Each image plays with the original "Men" and "Women" icon used for restrooms, but are not as simple. They mix and match parts of the "Men" icon with the "Women" icon demonstrating different experiences of male/female experiences in different ratios.]

[image description: Script at the top states, "[flexible] gender identity." Script at the bottom states, "which category do you identify/define yourself?" The image is of 8 pairs of figures. They are combinations of pink and blue. Each image plays with the original "Men" and "Women" icon used for restrooms, but are not as simple. They mix and match parts of the "Men" icon with the "Women" icon demonstrating different experiences of male/female experiences in different ratios.]

Why did I freeze?

I was furious.
Are my clients so wounded and pitiable?
Absolutely not.
Am I?
No.
And yet, I was in a corner. If I responded in anger, it would justify the other clinician's stereotype: just another defensive non-binary person. Unfortunately, my emotions had very little to do with trauma, distrust, or being guarded. It had more to do with being labeled with generalized statements (and the condescending tone). I also felt uncomfortable because my story does not fit that narrative. In fact, I had never even known of another person who had some similar experiences until I stumbled across iO Tillet Wright's story (this YouTube video has accurate captions) a couple of weeks ago.

In an effort to dispel some of the stereotypes and myths, this is part of my story.

My parents did not know my biological sex until I was born. As they prepared for their second child, they decided on that I would either be named Jessica or Jesse--something neutral. When it was announced that I was a girl, Jessica went on my birth certificate, and my family proceeded to call me Jessi. Perhaps my name alone was adequate foresight and foreshadowing for the unfolding of my childhood.

Through my mom's modeling, and my dad's support, I learned at a young age that gender and biological sex are not a restriction or limitation for who I am, what I do, or how deeply I love and am loved. I played boys' baseball and girls' softball. I was in gymnastics and wrestling. When I wanted my ponytail cut off, it was cut off. When adults would say, "Oh goodness! You have such a cute little boy!", my mom would smile and say "Thank you." When adults would say, "Oh goodness! You have such a cute little girl!", my mom would smile and say "Thank you." I never felt a vehement need to claim my territory as a girl, nor as a boy. And I didn't think about it much. I would run and play in the dirt and catch snakes. I wore dresses to church. As a teen, I wore make-up and straightened my long hair. I lifted weights and compared my biceps to those of my male friends. I hunted deer with my mom and game birds with my dad. I wore a pink dress to my junior prom. And I skipped my senior prom to stay home in sweat pants. 

I grew up non-binary (this was not a political or social statement or act by my parents) and have always existed in the world in non-binary ways. However, I never had a name for it and never thought I needed a name for my experience. My parents were not trying to do something radical--just following my lead. I met little resistance or judgement for my eclectic interests and activities.  This is where my privileged locations come in. Perhaps this post should really be titled: Confessions of a White, Middle-Class, Able-Bodied, Hearing, Neuro-Typical, Highly Educated, Non-Binary Therapist. In conjunction with many privileges, I had so much love and support from my family, that I also developed resilience and emotional privilege at a young age. With that degree of acceptance, I didn't need to articulate the nuances of how I was different. When I was teased for looking like a boy, I usually ignored it. When challenged on issues relating to gender and sexuality, I often dismissed it. I didn't have to think about it or explain it. I just was. (People with additional, intersecting areas of marginalization may not have had this ease.)

This is what happens when you accept someone for who they are. Self-esteem. Confidence. Growth. A desire to contribute to the well-being of the world. Love.

Unlike many people of trans and gender-variant identities, I never felt incongruent with my truth. I was never asked to "behave like a girl" or to be someone I wasn't. I never developed gender dysphoria nor body dysmorphia. Looking back, I at least partially attribute this to my parents. Growing up, the umbrella for "girl" or "woman" cast a significantly larger radius for me than it does for most little kids. I didn't feel restricted by it until I realized that there are standardized norms and expectations of women in the United States which I do not fit. I realized that my use of pronouns do not denote or connote the same things when most other people use those pronouns. I realized that I have not been using the same language as mainstream society. And somehow, that also did not really phase me. 

I internalized many messages from the nonchalance my mom exhibited regardless of how I was gendered by another person.
1. People don't and can't always see you accurately for who you are in your wholeness.
2. Gender both matters a lot, and is an invented social construct.
3. Accept compliments.
4. You don't have to explain yourself, and you don't have to choose.

Numbers 1 and 4 have been integral to my health as a non-binary person. Even when someone puts me in a box (gender or otherwise), I can breathe, and let it go, because I do not have the expectation to be seen accurately all the time. Even when I don't have words, I can also practice breathing, shrug, and remember,

 "The embodied practice of holding two or more truths at once is a necessary prerequisite for comprehending one’s own identity, or the sense of the complexity of one’s own spirit... A practice of non-attachment to the stability or predictability of identity or its associated expectations creates a foundation for considering relationships and systems in a way that creates space for more possibility and creativity... [This] allows one to receive the gifts of multiplistic reality that exists beyond violently perpetuated binaries and socialized norms." (Liv Sisca)

This brings me back to the strong reactions and assumptions people make about trans and gender non-conforming folks. In case you are still wondering, gender identity is not a function of trauma. It is possible to live as a trans or gender diverse person without social and emotional consequences (i.e. being banned from public restrooms or verbal harassment). Gender variant identities are not the equivalent of self-hatred. These experiences are not political statements. They are not "ideas" to protect your children from like PG-13 and R rated movies. They are simply an effort to live as honestly as possible, despite socialized norms.

Now, when I use gendered terminology, I know that the associated meanings may not be shared with  others. It is not automatically shared language. When I use the term woman, I do not mean submissive. I do not mean I subscribe to patriarchy and misogyny. When I use the term man I do not mean I hate femininity. I do not mean I am in denial of my sex assigned at birth nor my socialization. When I use the terms human or person, I do not mean I am disowning masculinity and femininity. I am acknowledging the complexity in which they live and evolve within me.

My story is not the story of all non-binary people. In my personal experience and in my work with this population, I do not see a pitiable, resistant, untrusting, unstable, traumatized group. I see profound efforts being made towards individual and collective healing. I see deep compassion, vulnerability, transparency, and accountability. I see hope.


Due to the additional obstacles that trans, queer, and non-binary people face, I am involved in projects aimed at providing services to this population. This includes (but is not limited to):
Wild Connection--a backpacking trip for women, womyn, trans-women, and non-binary folks
Queer Nature
and counseling services in my offices, outdoors, and/or with horses.

Transcript for Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE) video

This video provides a bio-evolutionary background about how trauma and stress are experienced and processed by our bodies. Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE), other trauma therapies (i.e. EMDR therapy, Brainspotting, Somatic Experiencing), and other therapeutic interventions (i.e. Dance/Movement Therapy, Nature-Based therapy, Equine therapy), can help you recover from symptoms of stress or trauma. 

Here is a transcript of the video:

0:00
Meet caveman Bob. When he encountered a dinosaur in the old days, his heart would beat faster, his blood pressure would rise, his muscles would tense, his eyes would dilate, and cortisol and adrenaline would be released into his body. All to prepare his body to run away or fight for his life.  Whether he ran away from the dinosaur and got away, or whether he attacked and conquered the dinosaur, the stress chemicals in his body would be discharged and he could go about his day as normal.

0:35
Meet Berta the buck. When she encounters a lion, her body goes into fight or flight mode, with all the same physical and chemical changes in her body that cavemen Bob experienced. But sometimes, neither fight nor flight is an option for Berta. Sometimes running away and drawing attention to herself would be more dangerous; or trying to attack would be even more dangerous. She doesn’t have very sharp teeth. In these cases, her body’s nervous system goes into freeze mode to keep her safe. Because she doesn’t use the chemical to run or fight, they stay in her body. But being a wild animal, she has a natural ability to release these chemicals. When the predator leaves, her body starts tremoring, shaking, and trembling. This releases all of the pent up chemicals and muscle tension and she can go about her day as normal.

1:26
But meet Sheldon. He is confronted by modern day stresses such as unmanageable deadlines, difficult coworkers, and worries about his marriage and kids. He has psychological concerns about loss of love, status, prestige, and belonging. These are Sheldon’s dinosaurs. His body responds in the same way as if there were physical threats. His heart beats faster, blood pressure rises, muscles tense, eyes dilate, and stress hormones are released into his body. Sheldon’s dinosaurs are difficult to run away from and difficult to fight. If he has an argument with his boss, and runs away, he’ll be shown the door. And if he attacks his boss, he’ll be shown a prison cell. So, like Berta, Sheldon’s body goes into freeze mode. He becomes immobilized. His heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature decreases, and his clarity of thought decreases as part of a numbing process to avoid pain and overwhelming emotions. The same thing happened to Sheldon when he was mugged a month ago. Because fight or flight would have been too dangerous, his optimal survival response was the freeze response. The body did a good thing by going into freeze, but because Sheldon did not fight or run away, stress chemicals will not be released from his body as happened for caveman Bob. Sheldon’s body started to shake a little when he was angry with his boss and it shook a lot just after the mugging. But he told himself to “get it together” and to “calm down” and he stopped the shaking. Because he has been socially conditioned to stop his body shaking, the stress chemicals will not be released as happened for Berta; so they stay locked in his nervous system. This means that Sheldon will experience physical symptoms like tension in his muscles, headaches, and an upset stomach. He will also experience psychological symptoms like anxiety, poor concentration, difficulty sleeping, depression, anger, or fear. Living in this kind of biological survival state makes him vulnerable to many diseases and psychological disorders. But if Sheldon could use the body’s natural tendency to tremor and shake after a stressful or traumatic event, he would discharge these chemicals. Sheldon’s physical symptoms would improve, his primitive brain would realize the he survived and is safe, and his cognitive brain would allow him to feel more empowered and better able to handle things in the future. Ta-da! And this is where TRE comes in.

3:48
TRE, developed by a very clever man, Dr. David Berceli, is a series of seven exercises that work on a very special muscle called the psoas muscle. These exercises evoke the body’s natural tremor response and allow the stress chemicals to be discharged. Sheldon learned that these exercises could be learned by oneself or in groups. And in four to six sessions he would be equipped to exercise them all by himself. He felt so much better after his TRE sessions that he started to tell everyone about TRE, because he wanted them to know that TRE could help them, as well. His 16-year-old daughter who was stressed from exams, his 7-year-old nephew who was being bullied at school, his colleague who had struggled with a soccer injury for many years, and his aunt who had had an operation two months earlier.
The body responds to physical and psychological stress and trauma with its innate survival response, so Sheldon knew that TRE could help all of these people in his life! In fact, he was so excited about how TRE had helped him that he just could not stop spreading the news. 

Happy Thanksgiving: Counseling and the Holidays

Whether you are alone, working, traveling, with strangers, with chosen family, or with biological family, the holidays can prompt a wide range of emotions and struggles.

This time of year can also be one of the most difficult to find the motivation to start counseling. Days are shorter, schedules are busier, and we can always put down counseling as one of our New Year's resolutions, right?!

[image description: A mountain-side winter scene shows a clouded sky, deep snow on the ground, and snow on the branches of multiple pine trees. ©Jessica Dallman]

[image description: A mountain-side winter scene shows a clouded sky, deep snow on the ground, and snow on the branches of multiple pine trees. ©Jessica Dallman]

In honor of the spirit of Thanksgiving, I am providing a holiday special:

[image description: A red stamp states "LIMITED TIME OFFER". Photo by roxanabalint/iStock / Getty Images]

[image description: A red stamp states "LIMITED TIME OFFER". Photo by roxanabalint/iStock / Getty Images]

Contact Jess for an intake session and fill out the preliminary paperwork by December 7th, and receive your first three sessions FREE!

Sessions can take place in either the Denver office or the Boulder office. Services available in English, American Sign Language, and Spanish.

All children [and adults] should be taught to unconditionally accept, approve, admire, appreciate, forgive, trust, and ultimately, love their own person.
— Asa Don Brown

Intersectional Allyship as a Path to Wholeness

You have to be open to meeting face to face, and even dancing with, the truth that pertains to your life right now. You have to find a way to collect your fractured pieces, examine them, and then accept them as part of who you are. Spiritual practice is about transformation, but it’s also, and more importantly, about working with what is.
— Angel Kyodo Williams

As the leaves transform and fall, revealing the true colors that chlorophyll has been hiding for months, the autumn season begs us to reflect on our changing colors. A week ago, many people were celebrating Halloween, a holiday rich with the opportunity to explore your parts and shadows. Following these themes, it seems like appropriate timing for a post on intersectionality and allyship. Let’s start with some definitions: 
Intersectionality is the study, acknowledgement, and honoring of intersections among two or more forms of oppression, domination, or discrimination. Allyship, based on the concept of friendship, is the life work or practice of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized, oppressed, or dominated groups and individuals.

[image description: There is a rough sketch of many words forming a circle. Sections of the circle are in different colors--pink, purple, blue, teal, green, yellow, red. Examples of the words include "religion", "silence", "classes, "inclusion", "representation", "slavery", "asylum", "pollution", etc. In the middle of the circle, in big black letters, is the statement "ALL oppression is connected!" Image found at Scottish Women's Aid.]

[image description: There is a rough sketch of many words forming a circle. Sections of the circle are in different colors--pink, purple, blue, teal, green, yellow, red. Examples of the words include "religion", "silence", "classes, "inclusion", "representation", "slavery", "asylum", "pollution", etc. In the middle of the circle, in big black letters, is the statement "ALL oppression is connected!" Image found at Scottish Women's Aid.]

So what does this have to do with counseling and mental health?

A very common complaint in my office is a sense of fragmentation. This may be presented as compartmentalized components of one's life, feeling divided, feeling broken, or feeling scattered. It may be a sense that you cannot be fully seen for all of your simultaneous identities. Fragmentation--that grinding sensation that not all of you belongs at one time in one place--is a rule of oppression.

Oppression states that you are either female or male, either Deaf or hearing, either beautiful or ugly, either smart or stupid, either sane or insane. It does not recognize non-binary experiences. Oppression states that if you are female, you cannot be strong (and if you present as strong, you may be criticized, harassed, or assaulted for it). It also states that if you are male, you cannot be sensitive or patient (and if you present as sensitive or patient, you may be criticized, harassed, or assaulted for it). If you are reading this post, I imagine that you may believe that you are more than those categories and the limitations that society may put on them. And you may also be familiar with how hard it has been for you to take ownership for your "sensitive part" or your "angry side" or your "aloof part" or your strength.

[image description: A black and white photo of someone's reflection in a broken mirror. The person's face is fractured and segmented along the lines of the broken glass. The whole face cannot be seen in any single chunk of class--only parts. Source unknown. Photo found here.]

[image description: A black and white photo of someone's reflection in a broken mirror. The person's face is fractured and segmented along the lines of the broken glass. The whole face cannot be seen in any single chunk of class--only parts. Source unknown. Photo found here.]

The rules of privilege and oppression divide us. Oppression robs us from the opportunity to "collect your fractured pieces, examine them, and then accept them as part of who you are" as quoted above (Angel Kyodo Williams). How do our family history, the institutions in charge, our friends/family/colleagues, and our own personal beliefs encourage this fragmentation? How do we actively befriend these fragments in ourselves and others? 

In this context, intersectional allyship is critical for the development and continuation of our society, for our personal relationships, and for our own self-acceptance and self-love. It is the recognition that privilege, when (intentionally or unintentionally) exerted as power over another, is intrinsically experienced as self-oppressive, as well. Whatever we oppress in another, we oppress in ourselves. It is the recognition that my health and well-being is connected to your health and well-being.

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
— Lilla Watson, Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s.

When it comes to personal work, we face multiple parts of ourselves. In our relationship to self, we address the things we like, don’t like, and feel ambivalent about. Within our own being, we have identities that are lauded and identities that are oppressed. We have many norms, stories, and experiences that tell us what is okay, acceptable, appropriate, and worthwhile. Sometimes these things are societally imposed (i.e. racism and other -isms), and sometimes they are unique to an individual's experience (i.e. being a cisgender, heterosexual male and being repeatedly told by your mother that she wished you were a girl). Typically, we try to promote the desirable parts of ourselves and hide the parts of ourselves that are not accepted. According to Carl Jung, our hidden parts are our shadows, and we are often afraid of our shadows even though we cannot separate ourselves from them.

[video description: Babies scared of their shadow. This compilation of clips shows young children frightened by the discovery of their shadows.]

Oppression can be brilliantly subtle. One of the most fascinating aspects of oppression is that it only takes place in relationships (relationships to self, other people, society, nature, spirituality, etc.). It often dictates how we can feel, behave, and think in different situations. Oppression, as a relational phenomenon, creates a web of connections between self and others.

We are hurt in relationship and we are healed in relationship.
— unknown source, Counseling Proverb

Oppression intricately weaves our wounds together, requiring relational work (i.e. intersectional allyship) in order to heal. The personal work becomes less personal. When you practice allyship towards yourself, you bolster your capacity to be an ally to others; when you practice allyship towards others, you bolster your capacity to be an ally to yourself.

[image description: A twist on the old "We Can Do It" poster of Rosie the Riveter during World War II, this cartoon has seven people in brown pants, blue shirts, and red headbands with white spots. The seven people are of different heights, skin color, cultural/religious/ethnic background, and physical ability. They have tufts of different colored hair coming out from their red bandanas. Image found at Pros and Kon. The signature at the bottom appears to say Tyler Feder.]

[image description: A twist on the old "We Can Do It" poster of Rosie the Riveter during World War II, this cartoon has seven people in brown pants, blue shirts, and red headbands with white spots. The seven people are of different heights, skin color, cultural/religious/ethnic background, and physical ability. They have tufts of different colored hair coming out from their red bandanas. Image found at Pros and Kon. The signature at the bottom appears to say Tyler Feder.]

Our intersectional identities need balance and love. How do we support ourselves through struggle and take ownership for the undesirable parts of ourselves? How do we reduce the sense of fragmentation we feel regarding all of our diverse identities, parts, passions, interests, and experiences? Perhaps, through actively practicing intersectional allyship. The Buddhist practice of maitri is a great example of this. Supporting (or receiving) diversity training may be another way.

For many people, self-compassion can be more difficult than cultivating compassion and forgiveness for others. For some, it may be easier to start by practicing allyship with our loved ones, and then branch out to people we feel neutral about, and then people we struggle with, and then ourselves. For some, the process may be opposite.

Ultimately, when it comes to relational work (partners, families, groups), allyship is crucial. Allyship goes beyond equal pay for equal work, beyond reducing police brutality, and beyond activism. Allyship shows up in nuance and subtlety, in the most ordinary moments of our lives. At the grocery store. At the bus stop. While watching the football game. At a meeting for work. Allyship activates even when other influences suggest it might be (momentarily) safer not to engage.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
— Martin Niemöller

We need allyship, for ourselves and for our loved ones, in the nuance especially because many of us are much more active about recognizing and condemning the irritating and undesirable parts of others. The ordinary parts of life are the frontlines. In the moment that I complain about my father's tendency to pile dishes in the sink, rather than in the dishwasher, I not only forget his consistency with cleaning the bathroom, I distance myself from the reality of my own messy tendencies. 

We are much more quick to judge the Woman who has the abortion (or doesn’t), the Muslim who adheres to prayer times (or doesn’t), the Black person who is angry (or isn’t), the Deaf person who does not speak (or does), the child with Autism who tantrums (or doesn't), or the Criminal who has re-offends (or doesn't).

[image description: A black and white sketch shows a giant foot stepping on another person's back. That person, although slouched over by the weight of the foot, is stepping on a smaller person's back. That person, although similarly slouched over by the weight of the second person's foot (and collectively, the first person's foot), is stepping on the back of another smaller person, who is also bent over. It appears that the process may be continuing indefinitely. Source unknown.]

[image description: A black and white sketch shows a giant foot stepping on another person's back. That person, although slouched over by the weight of the foot, is stepping on a smaller person's back. That person, although similarly slouched over by the weight of the second person's foot (and collectively, the first person's foot), is stepping on the back of another smaller person, who is also bent over. It appears that the process may be continuing indefinitely. Source unknown.]

When someone experiences life in a vastly different way, we don’t understand. How do we go beyond what we understand in order to support the ones we love? How do we actively love their differences and the parts of themselves that even they do not like? How do we collectively heal the wounds of all the areas in which we are told that we are "wrong", "bad", and "unloveable"? Perhaps through the practice of intersectional allyship. 


I write this blog from multiple locations of privilege, and some marginalized identities.  Every day, each moment, I do my best to take ownership for all of those identities, how they inform my worldview, and how they support or inhibit my capacity to stay in relationship with people I meet. This process initially started as part of my training as a teacher in Teach for America and continued as I trained to be a therapist. Now, it is evolving into reclaiming my humanity.

One of my mentors frequently asks me, "What is the cost of your whiteness?" After repeated reflection on this question, which will continue into the future, I have integrated many lessons. I have started to recognize the parts of myself that I have rejected due to what it means to be a "white person." The question hints at one of the lies the privilege tries to instill--that their are only gains and rewards in privilege. That privilege provides immunity. The reality is, that when unchecked, my whiteness separates me from people. It can limit my social circle, limit my range for empathy and compassion, and rear up in harsh judgement. My whiteness separates me from myself. It claims that I cannot be angry, I cannot know my own cultural heritage, I cannot have a big presence. It is an ongoing practice to challenge those claims. I will pursue wholeness.

What is the cost of your privilege?

Only someone who is ready for everything, who excludes nothing, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another as something alive and will sound the depths of his own being.
— R.M. Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Suicide and Suicidality: A Therapist's Perspective

One out of every three therapists will lose at least one client to suicide during their career. One third. Thirty-three percent. That likelihood will increase if a therapist works with marginalized and at-risk populations. There have been over 20 suicides on the Pine Ridge Reservation during 2015. One out of six high school students seriously considered suicide in the past year and the rate of suicide among LGBTQ* youth is 4-8 times higher than cisgender/heterosexual peers. Rates of suicidality vary by race (and socioeconomic status), and increase for victims of violence/abuse, people with traumatic brain injuries, people with chronic sleep disturbance, and people with chronic pain. There are numerous other risk factors, but this blog is not about statistics.

[image description: Text: Need help? United States: 1 (800) 273-8255 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Hours: 24 hours, 7 days a week. Languages: English, Spanish. Website: www.suicidepreventionlifeling.org] Don't use a voice phone or don't want to use an interpreter? Here is information about the recently-launched text crisis line. It includes information about other types of crisis services (i.e. domestic violence, self-harm, etc.).

[image description: Text: Need help? United States: 1 (800) 273-8255 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Hours: 24 hours, 7 days a week. Languages: English, Spanish. Website: www.suicidepreventionlifeling.org]

Don't use a voice phone or don't want to use an interpreter? Here is information about the recently-launched text crisis line. It includes information about other types of crisis services (i.e. domestic violence, self-harm, etc.).

Suicide is a topic that can be approached from many different lenses and angles—spiritual, existential, systemic, interpersonal, intrapersonal… But before I enter that web, I want to stop, and breathe. This topic gets personal very quickly, and this post contains self-disclosure.

I can already feel the heaviness of the topic weighing my shoulders, bubbling behind my eyes, and churning my stomach. I can feel the temptation to intellectualize the topic. In the past, if I stopped long enough to set the intellectual process aside, my somatic and emotional process felt like it would consume me. And then I started breathing. I encourage you to stop and take a breath with me. Feel the weight (or tension or speediness or softness) settle in your body. Take as much time as you need before reading on.

It is hard to fully stay present with the content of this topic without going into my head or distracting myself. Maybe you have a similar experience. Or maybe it feels overwhelming. Because when it comes down to it, the topic of suicide is about pain and suffering.

What if we are only as beautiful as the severity of our pain?
— Client

Before becoming a therapist, I lost my only sibling, my brother, to suicide. For me, the most difficult part of the process has been acknowledging and feeling the severity of his pain before he decided that he could not handle another day. He had severe chronic pain, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and appeared to be developing Multiple Sclerosis. As his pain (emotional and physical) increased, so did his sense of isolation.

I realize now I didn’t really want to die. I just wanted to stop the hurt and pain.
— Latoya Jackson

Later, my family learned that my brother "never mentioned suicide" to his therapist. And based on that wording, apparently, his therapist never asked. Many therapists (and friends, and siblings, and parents, and children, and coworkers...) don't ask. We don't ask for many reasons, and one of the biggest ones is that we are afraid. We are afraid to confront that degree of pain, and we are afraid that we might not be able to help it. We feel helpless, hopeless, afraid, stuck...and that is uncomfortable (and potentially a vicarious, existential trauma response--even the topic of death/suicide can feel like a psychological threat to our own life). So we don't make space for it. Unfortunately, someone experiencing suicidal ideation is also feeling the discomfort of helplessness, hopelessness, fear, and being frozen in one thought process of despair.

[image description: On a black background there is a white sketch of a human head. Inside the head, the brain is thinking "SUICIDE." There is a speech bubble coming out, saying "I'm fine." Unknown source--Thanks Google Images].

[image description: On a black background there is a white sketch of a human head. Inside the head, the brain is thinking "SUICIDE." There is a speech bubble coming out, saying "I'm fine." Unknown source--Thanks Google Images].

Now, as a therapist, I believe my primary role is to be able to stay present my clients' pain, and to make space for its fullness. It is simultaneously the most painful and encouraging part of being a therapist and of being a human. It is a deeply intimate, raw, and vulnerable thing to witness someone else's pain. 

In order to make space for that pain, I may ask hard questions. My job is to look you in the eye and welcome your pain, because the typical impulse is to hide it, avoid it, or dismiss it. Society even encourages that you deny your pain (see Andrea Gibson poem below). And then you have to bear it alone. One of the biggest preventative measures for combatting suicide is combatting isolation. You don't have to do it alone. Therapists, hotlines, online support groups, and people in your community are available.

[image description: There is a dark hallway with some light in the background. There is a dark silhouette of a person sitting in a chair, hunched over, with their head down. Their hands are clasped and they are wearing a hat. Thanks recovery.org.]

[image description: There is a dark hallway with some light in the background. There is a dark silhouette of a person sitting in a chair, hunched over, with their head down. Their hands are clasped and they are wearing a hat. Thanks recovery.org.]

Another experience during suicidal ideation, or supporting someone through suicidality, is confusion. Sometimes we don't understand our own pain. We become our own pain-police and criticize whether we have valid reasons for our emotions. As a therapist, I don't need an explanation. I've been told on numerous occasions, "But I'm sad for no reason." Let's go back to the first half of that sentence, "I'm sad." Let's start there. Perhaps the reasons will unfold. For example, in Joanna Macy's work, you might discover that living is fraught with innumerable reasons for grief, sadness, and pain. According to the author, John O'donahue, the essence of living is riddled with obstacles that feel confusing and painful.

This process of self-discovery is not easy; it may involve suffering, doubt, dismay. But we must not shrink from the fullness of our being in attempting to reduce the pain.
— John O'Donohue, Anam Cara

When it comes down to it, whether you have experienced suicidal thoughts, suicidal impulses, suicidal attempts...or whether you haven't, we all prefer to avoid the painful parts of ourselves. They are scary. They are the monsters hiding under the bed. This is what Carl Jung referred to as shadow work. What happens when we enter into the painful parts of ourselves or of others? What happens when we feel the validity of that sadness and pain? At the very least, it informs us. It informs us of what isn't working for us, of injustice, of how we desire to live vibrant lives, of how we yearn to be seen and loved for who we are. Perhaps the universal experience of pain will connect us to each other as humans. At the most, it transforms us. 

What you say of your life—that its most painful event was also its greatest—that is, so to speak, the secret theme of these pages, indeed the inner belief that gave rise to them. It is the conviction that what is greatest in our existence, what makes it precious beyond words, has the modesty to use sorrow in order to penetrate our soul.”
— R.M. Rilke, Letter to Madame M-R, January 4, 1923

In the Shambhala tradition of Buddhism, there is a concept of being a warrior, a bodhisattva. In this tradition, a warrior does not fear self or other. It is a practice--one that is at the core of my work as a therapist. If I am not afraid of my own pain, nor of your pain, I can stay present and in relationship. In relationship, we heal.  

P.S. It's okay to be afraid. We are talking about life and death, after all! If you want to practice overcoming that fear, and practice being able to chat with someone about their pain and suicidality, I recommend getting at least one training (i.e. ASIST). Exploring your fears with someone close to you and/or a therapist may also be helpful.

[Image description: Link to a video of Andrea Gibson performing "The Nutritionist" at Western Connecticut State University. Transcript attached here.]

Empathy, Tolerance, and Diversity in Therapy

Empathy is a huge word in therapy. It is touted as the cornerstone of emotional intelligence—a key ingredient in developing and maintaining satisfying relationships. Therapists need empathy for clients. Clients often intentionally or secondarily develop empathy for other people in their lives.  

[image description: Two babies, with different skin colors, are sitting near each other. The baby on the left is crying. The baby on the right is reaching out to the distressed baby, placing a hand on the upset baby's shoulder. Thanks Scary Mommy.]

[image description: Two babies, with different skin colors, are sitting near each other. The baby on the left is crying. The baby on the right is reaching out to the distressed baby, placing a hand on the upset baby's shoulder. Thanks Scary Mommy.]

Empathy may very well be the driving force behind why some people choose a career in the mental health field. It is a great quality that predicts many positive outcomes. It is inversely related with perceived levels of loneliness, and highly correlated with prosocial behavior. Empathy helps us connect deeply with others. And when it comes to long-term change in therapy, empathy isn’t enough. 

Andrew Solomon’s book, Far from the Tree, contains great evidence that empathy and understanding does not cross all areas of difference. Even while our own experiences of oppression, isolation, bullying, and marginalization can develop our capacity for empathy and enhance our ability to see parallels in pain, our pains are not the same. Empathy is not our end goal. It is not our last stop. 

Almost everyone I interviewed was to some degree put off by the chapters in this book other than his or her own. Deaf people didn’t want to be compared to people with schizophrenia; some parents of schizophrenics were creeped out by dwarfs; criminals couldn’t abide the idea that they had anything in common with transgender people. The prodigies and their families objected to being in a book with the severely disabled, and some children of rape felt that their emotional struggle was trivialized when they were compared to gay activists. People with autism often pointed out that Down syndrome entailed a categorically lower intelligence than theirs. The compulsion to build such hierarchies persists even among these people, all of whom have been harmed by them.
— Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree

Empathy depends on our existing capacity to understand another person. It depends on having enough personal experiences which we can compare to another person's experiences. Regardless of how skillful we are with empathy, we can never fully understand another person's experience. For example, a pregnancy can be a cause for great celebration, great despair, or anything in between. A loss of a job may be experienced as liberating. Our emotions are often complex and layered. We experience things uniquely. A woman may experience various degrees of sexism and sexual harassment, just as a Person of Color may experience various degrees of racism and systematic oppression. These experiences vary and sting in different ways. Empathy is great for having compassion and tolerance for differences--especially in the people we already love. And even in the people we love, we can misunderstand and miss their pain entirely.

Positive social emotions like compassion and empathy are generally good for us, and we want to encourage them. But do we know how to most reliably raise children to care about the suffering of other people? I’m not sure we do.
— Sam Harris

But what about acquaintances and strangers? Empathy is much harder to activate for a random passerby. Imagine the person who cut you off on your commute today, or the person you saw kicking their dog or yelling at their child. Imagine the person in the wheelchair with a can in their hand on the street corner, or the traveling musician busking for money downtown. Imagine someone with schizophrenia or autism or pedophilia. Imagine someone so different from you that you feel that twinge of aversion and repulsion. Does your empathy still reach that person?

Relying on empathy means black people faced with horrific levels of police brutality must make white people “feel our pain.” It forces us to stream the bodies of our dead sons and daughters on a loop. It requires there to be dead sons and daughters in the first place. It always demands more spectacles of pain.
— Hari Ziyad

If therapy's aim is to provide healing, then we must consider where empathy falls short. We must look at the lines we do not cross regarding power, privilege, and oppression. We must explore the spectrum of rejection, tolerance, and celebration. Then we can begin to address the intergenerational trauma that is carried from oppressive experiences like racism and the Holocaust--both of which have demonstrated long-term negative health and mental health impacts. Undoubtedly, audism (yes, that is spelled correctly), transphobia, and mental health stigma can have similar impacts.

[image description: Cartoon image with caption, "EMPATHY would this help?" In the image, a person is sitting on a street corner in tattered clothes with a hat in front in order to collect money. The person is holding a mirror in front of his/her/zir face in order for the person walking by to see his/her/zir own reflection. Thanks Axis of Logic.]

[image description: Cartoon image with caption, "EMPATHY would this help?" In the image, a person is sitting on a street corner in tattered clothes with a hat in front in order to collect money. The person is holding a mirror in front of his/her/zir face in order for the person walking by to see his/her/zir own reflection. Thanks Axis of Logic.]

As a therapist I make a point to read articles and blogs by people from various backgrounds and perspectives. It is a practice that helps me develop my understanding and empathy for people with experiences outside my own reality. Theoretically, this will enhance my capacity to sit with any client who comes into my office. Ideally, understanding and listening to various perspectives and experiences will enable me to conduct sessions non-judgementally, regardless of any conglomeration of symptoms, complaints, behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs that a client presents. A couple of weeks ago, I read this article on why empathy won't save us in the fight against oppression. 

Here, Hari Ziyad (also quoted above) points out
But the belief that empathy can solve the world’s ills relies on the idea that we are all similar enough that someone else’s pain can be understood through the understanding of our own.

What happens when we do not understand our own pain? What happens when we really are different, and substantially so? What happens when those differences cannot be understood? Or, at least, what happens before those differences can be understood?

[image description: The Pain Measurement Scale, which is often used in doctor's offices. A scale of 0 (no pain) to 10 (worst pain imaginable) with correlating faces, smiling to miserably crying.]

[image description: The Pain Measurement Scale, which is often used in doctor's offices. A scale of 0 (no pain) to 10 (worst pain imaginable) with correlating faces, smiling to miserably crying.]

Hopefully, in this case, you can see a counselor who has exceptional practice in his/her/zir own pain and the capacity to be with someone else's pain without denying it, minimizing it, or judging it. Hopefully, you can find someone who will believe your pain, even if they do not comprehend it.

[image description: There are five lines of text that are all crossed out. They read "It's not that bad", "Just be happy", "Don't be sad", "You'll get over it", and "You're overreacting". The final line of text is clear: "I believe you."]

[image description: There are five lines of text that are all crossed out. They read "It's not that bad", "Just be happy", "Don't be sad", "You'll get over it", and "You're overreacting". The final line of text is clear: "I believe you."]

Whether you are a therapist, a therapist-in-training, a client in therapy, or a human interested in self-growth, empathy is a critical part of your ongoing emotional intelligence. It is also critical to continue to examine and challenge your assumptions, biases, fears, and internalized stigmas regarding who has value and what makes them valuable. As Michelle Alexander addresses is The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which of your values and judgments justify legal, social, and economic boundaries between “us” and “them”? Remember that person you called to mind earlier, the one who elicited your aversion? This is when our empathy takes a back seat, no longer activating our mirror neurons

[image description: A graphic art image of two human shapes looking at each other. Inside their heads, there are blasts of color, representing neural activity. Some of those blasts of color (neural activity) are bridging the physical gap between the two people, representing mirror neurons. Thanks Psychology Today.]

[image description: A graphic art image of two human shapes looking at each other. Inside their heads, there are blasts of color, representing neural activity. Some of those blasts of color (neural activity) are bridging the physical gap between the two people, representing mirror neurons. Thanks Psychology Today.]

Luckily, mirror neurons are activated through consistent interaction and eye contact. Therapy, therefore, can be a be a new frontier for moving beyond empathy. When you are in a therapy office, sitting across from another human, you have a unique opportunity to engage with someone who is entirely similar and entirely different from you. Whether you are therapist or client, take this opportunity to breathe and to engage with the humanity in the person across from you. Regardless of the difference, confusion, frustration, joy, relief, and support that arises in the therapeutic relationship, return to the humanity in yourself and the person across from you again, and again. It is an art and a practice. Breathe, notice, and return.

*Note for clients: If your therapist does not have the capacity to stay present with your pain, especially if you identify with one or more marginalized identities, call them out and/or find a new therapist.
*Note for therapists: If your client identifies with one or more marginalized identities and expresses a lot of anger and pain, it is not personal. If it is too much for you, get supervision and/or refer them to another therapist.

Transitions: On Breaking Open

One of the most common catalysts for starting therapy is the need for additional support during a major transition. A big change is happening, and you realize you cannot do it alone. It may even become a "dark night of the soul." And poof, you find yourself sitting in a therapist’s office. Perhaps that big change is a divorce, a move, an accident, a career change, a pregnancy, a return to school, or some other intentional or unintentional shift. Perhaps it is coming out as gay or queer or trans*. Maybe it is navigating a cancer diagnosis, or the reality of having a child who is Deaf* or hard-of-hearing. Some transitions feel bigger and more daunting than others. Sometimes multiple transitions are piled on top of each other, causing overwhelm. Some changes cause you to leave nearly everything you knew behind, like in Cheryl Strayed's Wild or in Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.

[image description: Two fish bowls are side-by-side. The bowl on the right is empty. The bowl on the left has several goldfish. One goldfish is leaping out of the left bowl towards the right bowl. Thanks Google images.]

[image description: Two fish bowls are side-by-side. The bowl on the right is empty. The bowl on the left has several goldfish. One goldfish is leaping out of the left bowl towards the right bowl. Thanks Google images.]

In this state, we oftentimes just want to cope. Or for that "bad" thing to go away so that we can go back to how things were before. We would like the magic elixir that helps soothe the intense sensations in our chest as we are broken open. It can feel as though we are dying (because some old part of us, or old way of being, is ending). But what happens if we stay with it? What happens if we lean in? What happens if we honor the pain and the emotions that come with transition?

This process of self-discovery is not easy; it may involve suffering, doubt, dismay. But we must not shrink from the fullness of our being in attempting to reduce the pain.
— John O'Donohue, Anam Cara

Regardless of our degree of choice in the transitions happening, change has a way of inducing fear—even terror. Regardless of our ability to anticipate change, transitions have a way of confronting us with the unknown. We find ourselves asking questions like, “Who am I without my husband?” or “What worth do I have without my job?” or "How can I endure this experience?"

[image description: A multi-directional sign with arrows pointing different ways. Each arrow has a different word: Who, What, Where, When, Why, How, Questions, Answers. Thanks Google images.]

[image description: A multi-directional sign with arrows pointing different ways. Each arrow has a different word: Who, What, Where, When, Why, How, Questions, Answers. Thanks Google images.]

Big transitions are obvious, and sometimes sneak up on us. For example, we might feel the itch to change jobs for years before acting on that desire. Something holds us back for a while. We doubt. We question. We let the idea incubate. 

In reality, we are constantly changing, constantly experiencing transition. Our bodies change with time and with the seasons and with the cycles of the moon. Each day is different than the previous one and includes its own set of unpredictable factors and opportunities. We oftentimes overlook the pervasiveness of change, because we find ease in the familiar; we find safety in predictability.

We are always in transition. If you can just relax with that, you’ll have no problem.
— Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

When we find ourselves experiencing discomfort and fear in the face of a big transition, we oftentimes feel as though we are being broken open. We feel raw. We feel vulnerable. The things in which we sought familiarity and safety is no longer present and we feel a sense of pervasive risk. The good news is that this is a great opportunity. It is precisely through adversity, challenge, and change that we develop our strengths and our gifts.

Consider this selection from Hafiz, the 14th century Persian poet:

“The clear night sky tried to prepare me for
what it knew would someday happen;

it began to show me ever deeper aspects of
its splendor, and then one evening just directly
asked, Will you be able to withstand your own
magnificence?

I thought I was just hearing things, until
a spring orchard I was passing my days with
at the height of its glory burst into song,
about our—every human’s—destiny to burn
with radiance.

Still I felt my ears were playing tricks on me
until the morning came when God tore apart
my chest… needing more room to bloom
inside.”

-via Daniel Ladinsky

First your chest must be torn apart, then there will be enough room to bloom. Simultaneously beautiful and not at all comforting. 

Another way to approach transitions is through stories. Many of our favorite stories, movies, and myths follow this pathway. A period of transition is often recognized at a point which feels traumatic and devastating. The "call to adventure" (number 2 below) may be prompted after the death of a loved one. Or the "test" (number 6 below) may be after a period of smooth-sailing on your journey. Then character builds, obstacles are navigated, demons are slain, there is triumph, and the hero returns with new courage and new skills due to the experience. The hero’s journey. The heroine’s journey. The heroic journey. When reading, watching, or listening to these stories, we have awe, respect, and admiration. We repeatedly fall in love with these characters. Consider Frodo in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Or Homer and the Odyssey. Or Elsa in Frozen.

[image description: A circular representation of the Heroic Journey. It includes four sections, each with details. 1. Call to Action. 2. Supreme Ordeal/Initiation. 3. Unification/Transformation. 4. Road Back/Hero's Return. Thanks Creative Commons.]

[image description: A circular representation of the Heroic Journey. It includes four sections, each with details. 1. Call to Action. 2. Supreme Ordeal/Initiation. 3. Unification/Transformation. 4. Road Back/Hero's Return. Thanks Creative Commons.]

However, when we, as Americans accustomed to instant gratification, receive a calling or a circumstance that catapults us into foreign territory, we oftentimes handle it less gracefully than our favorite heros/heroines. This brings us back to our desire for a magic elixir and the documented explosion in anti-depressant use. We aren't very comfortable with discomfort. We feel unsettled, confused, scared, stuck, hopeless, and helpless. We need support to move through the experience and develop our strengths and our gifts. Just like our favorite characters, we need mentors and allies--which may or may not include a therapist who is trained in the journey of transitions.

So, as you navigate life’s predictable and unpredictable changes, are you ready to bloom? When faced with the unknown and the crossroads between your old life and your new life, Will you be able to withstand your own magnificence?

We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.
— Maya Angelou
[image description: a compiled series of photographs combined. Along one stick, there is a progression from caterpillar, to cocoon, to butterfly emerging, to a full Monarch butterfly. Thanks Google images.]

[image description: a compiled series of photographs combined. Along one stick, there is a progression from caterpillar, to cocoon, to butterfly emerging, to a full Monarch butterfly. Thanks Google images.]