"Who Taught You to Live on Crumbs?" Reclaiming Nurturance as a Core Value

That Esther Perel. She knows how to ask questions that get right to the heart of the matter. In a podcast of a couples therapy session, for example, she inquired of one of the partners, “Who taught you to live on crumbs?”

As more and more clients have brought into our therapy sessions horror stories of sexual and additional forms of abuse, and I’ve braced myself for the next hateful, violent act to appear in my newsfeed (such as the Pittsburgh mass shooting of Jewish congregants), I keep returning to Perel’s simple and searing question. Lately, I’ve been asking myself, at least when thinking about the emotional and relational realms of life, Who hasn’t been taught to live on crumbs in the U.S.?

I’m not planning to take you down some sugar-coated road of sentimental nonsense. I am going to suggest that nurturance—or more precisely, our frequent deprivation of it in this society—is a subject with significant political, sociocultural, and economic implications. In the poignant words of attachment scientist Louis Cozolino, "We are not the survival of the fittest; we are the survival of the nurtured."

What I witness day in and day out in my therapeutic work is the impact of relational trauma. I intensely desire to dispel the myth that trauma only includes time on a battlefield, near-fatal accidents, or violent abuse. I appreciate Ruth King’s description of trauma as

an experience of severe emotional shock that causes substantial and lasting damage to our psychological well-being. Trauma is experienced as being intensely overwhelmed by a perceived threat or actual harm. Trauma can be a single incident of devastating loss, violation, or injury, or a chronic atmosphere of fear and neglect.

One of the things we as a society continue to minimize or flat out ignore is the pervasiveness of neglect in our culture and the trauma it begets. Because we are mammals whose survival depends on reliable and available caretakers when we are young, many of us experienced some level of neglect and, so, of relational trauma. In other words, the emotional attunement of a caretaker to our young is critical to those children’s well-being and often is disregarded in a society that prioritizes competition and self-reliance over connection and belonging. What do I mean by attunement? My favorite definition comes from the University of New Mexico’s Center for Development and Disability: “Attunement is being aware of, and responsive to, another.” Sounds so simple doesn’t it?

Clients often express disbelief when I relate the symptoms associated with a significant relationship injury or loss (e.g., racing thoughts, rapid pulse, sweaty palms, numbing, and memory loss to name a few) to the PTSD symptoms commonly associated with veterans of war. To return to King’s point, if we experienced a relationship breach as a threat to our being, our body is going to react in kind, usually with some form of a fight, flight, or freeze response. We did not have to be hit to know trauma; it is enough to be unseen, unheard, and devalued by people that matter to us.

The relational trauma experienced by so many relates to Perel’s beautiful question, as most of the people I meet in and outside of my office have been taught to live on crumbs. Oftentimes, the helpers in this society have learned to give nurturance but not to receive it. Their stories frequently rest upon a trance of unworthiness and a sense that their value is only as significant as the external recognition they receive for their do-gooding. The heavily armored individuals I meet usually view nurturance as weak, “feminine,”* and of little to no worth. Underneath all that shielding, which often developed to protect them from harm, lies unacknowledged terror (of the vulnerability required to engage in holding others and being held) and grief (about not having received adequate nurturance or even knowing what nurturance feels like). In both of these cases, social conditioning—that is, lessons learned in relationships with others and the world—are the culprit. As such, and in the words of Bessel van der Kolk, “our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being.”

I therefore am arguing that in addition to the “doing” of voting and engaging in social activism, we also need the healing of nurturing relationships to generate positive social change. A most challenging aspect of this process is the painful reckoning required when we cannot go to the source of the harm for the healing.

For example, many of us yearn for unconditional acceptance—“I love you no matter what”—from a primary caregiver and do not receive it because our caregiver does not have the capacity to give such nurturance. If they could have attuned to us and met our emotional needs by now (when we’re in our 20s, 30s, 40s, and beyond), they would have. To face such a truth is excruciating.

Cheryl Strayed offered one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I’ve read about this reckoning in her Dear Sugar letter “The Empty Bowl.” As Strayed responded to the letter writer “Could Be Worse” about her abusive narcissistic father,

[Your dad] will be the empty bowl that you’ll have to fill again and again. What will you put inside? Our parents are the primal source. We make our own lives, but our origin stories are theirs. They go back with us to the beginning of time. There is absolutely no way around them. By cutting off ties with your father, you incited a revolution in your life…We want to believe healing is purer and more perfect, like a baby on its birthday. Like we’re holding it in our hands. Like we’ll be better people than we’d been before. Like we have to be.

It is on that feeling that I have survived. And it will be your salvation too, my dear. When you reach the place that you recognize entirely that you will thrive not in spite of your losses and sorrows, but because of them. That you would not have chosen the things that happened in your life, but you are grateful for them. That you have the two empty bowls eternally in your hands, but you also have the capacity to fill them.

Our capacity to heal one another in adulthood often involves the seeking out of people who are capable of being aware of and responsive to us. We also have the capacity to heal ourselves through the kind of spiritual reparenting that Strayed so eloquently captured in her letter. Returning to a sense of wholeness by giving ourselves what we did not get in our prior relationships may precede the ability to seek connections with people who are able to attune to us. Transforming the narrative that we only deserve crumbs into one that authentically declares, “I matter,” shifts the field of whom we attract and whom we pursue.

Sylvia Boorstein has wonderful, concrete advice for cultivating self-nurturance. In this current moment, when far too many people face immediate danger, I feel compelled to underscore that the following advice is for when we are not under direct threat. We do not need to slow down and reflect when our lives are at risk—we need to survive, which involves actively fighting or fleeing the sources of the threat.

On the other hand, if our limbic systems are reacting as if there is a saber tooth tiger breathing down our necks but there actually isn’t, and if we are aware of how over-sized our fear is (both of these are big “ifs” that may require additional legwork), Boorstein’s wisdom can come to our aid:

Sweetheart, you are in pain.

Relax.

Take a breath.

Let’s pay attention to what is happening, then we’ll figure out what to do.

In these four simple sentences she articulates how we can nurture ourselves and, in turn, others. We first acknowledge that we are suffering. There is no minimizing, neglecting, negating, or gas lighting our own experience. We name our pain. Period. This validation is a radical act in and of itself, especially for those from marginalized communities who have repeatedly received the message that our experiences do not matter.

Then we attune to the fear body and remind ourselves we are, in this moment, safe. Here, we can experience the relief and spaciousness that arises with letting down our guard—the connection associated with vulnerability. Only after validating our experience and making some space for it do we begin the inquiry process.

Crucially, we do not jump into fixing anything. We first observe—we pay attention—to what is happening right now. Having gathered information about our current situation within a welcoming, relaxed environment, we finally are ready to figure out what to do.

How radical to end her advice with what for so many of us is a habitual starting place—problem-solving. Boorstein encourages us to take the time to identify and explore what we are going through before doing anything about it. These are not selfish or unproductive practices. They are nurturing ones. If we are to become skillful at self-nurturance, it requires repeated, disciplined practice.

Can you imagine a world in which we took to heart that feverishly figuring out an action plan only makes sense when we are facing imminent danger? How much untapped creativity, empathy, and love might be expressed?

I will forever be grateful to my own therapist for looking me straight in the eye and declaring, “Connie, life is not a problem to be solved.” And it isn’t. Neither are relationships. Nor emotions. They are experiences to be lived and, of course, nurtured.

*Feminine is in quotes because evaluating as weak the qualities associated with femininity is straight out of the misogyny playbook.

Naming the Pervasiveness of Gendered and Additional Forms of Violence

My not-yet three year old recently came home from preschool and told me a boy called a girl stupid and stinky. I’m very conscious that this was a single statement at a particular moment in time. Unfortunately, it occurred amidst Brett Kavanaugh being confirmed and multiple clients revealing past and present emotional, physical, and sexual abuse by cisgender men. I also have been hearing my young female clients recount their male peers calling them, among other nasty things, a horse. Fat. Moustached. My toddler’s story reminded me how early the conditioning begins to discount and diminish anything associated with femininity in our culture, including entire human beings. As Jess Zimmerman so poignantly asserted,

The problem with misogyny in this country goes beyond the oppression of women—although that alone should be a reason to shatter the patriarchy where it stands. It’s also the oppression of anything seen as feminine: those who show ‘weakness,’ which is defined in our patriarchal system as anything outside the two acceptable masculine modes of brutish violence and cold indifference. Even cisgender men suffer when they are not able to convincingly perform this twisted vision of manliness. One of the automatic black marks on your masculinity performance grade is caring too much about anyone outside the male/straight/white/able ideal (i.e., the people allowed into our toxic masculine vision of strength). The practical upshot of this is that the entire left wing—yes, even the socialist irony bros—is, on a metaphorical level, a bevy of maidens. Our culture is dominated by men, yes, but more than that, it’s dominated by masculinity. No matter how much male privilege you have and regularly wield, going up against cardinal masculine virtues like violence, wealth, and the unchecked use of power taints you with a feminine stain, and in our society, femininity is disdained.

We have nothing short of the decolonization of our minds before us us if we want to tear down what scholar Francisco Valdes calls Euroheteropatriarchy. His words from 1996 are worth quoting, as he lays out the four foundational components of “the ideology of compulsory heteropatriarchy” in a country colonized by Europeans:

the bifurcation of personhood into ‘male’ and ‘female’ components under the active/passive paradigm; the polarization of these male/female sex/gender ideals into mutually exclusive, or even opposing, identity composites; the penalization of gender atypicality or transitivity; and the devaluation of persons who are feminized…through the hierarchical and coercive operation of these tenets, Euro-American sex/gender ideology inhibits sex/gender cultural diversity, harmony, and equality, and also subverts individual sex/gender autonomy and dignity.

In less academic terms, we have learned to accept extremely narrow, opposing gendered versions of others and ourselves and use those limited stories to dominate and coerce the majority of the population: women, gender non-conforming and expansive folks, and anyone else who dares suggest that being “active” is not only the domain of men who, it turns out, have the human capacity to be receptive, expressive, and gentle as well.

My work as a psychotherapist is inherently political, as I consistently challenge this ideology and its harmful impacts on my clients. I regularly highlight signs of appropriated beliefs and identities, understanding that none of us came out of the womb with such rigid, dichotomous, and destructive views of the world. They were actively taught to us by multiple institutions, including our most intimate one—the family, however it is configured and including the different kinds of relationships within it (e.g., romantic, parental, sibling). When clients experience the liberation that comes from unlearning this doctrine and embracing more fluid, open constructions of self, I take heart in knowing they will take these lessons out into the world and their interactions with others.

I am particularly buoyed when I see someone who has been coerced and dominated sit more upright, roll their shoulders back, and, instead of jumping straight into the “It’s my fault” narrative, begin to report the factors beyond themself that led to abuse. They also begin contacting the anger that is entirely appropriate when we have been exploited, silenced, and demeaned. If rage, which I have come to think about as anger plus trauma, emerges, we work on releasing the trauma stuck in their bodies so that the anger returns to a less overwhelming size. Although rage can be paralyzing because we fear it will ravage those around us if we give it the light of day, anger can be a galvanizing force, used to inspire a collective power that has justice, not more violence and domination, as its aim.

I recently had the honor of working with a pre-teen client whose male peers and family members repeatedly and ruthlessly bullied her. During one session, I asked her to push with all her might against my hands. The relief she felt after doing so was palpable, as was a renewed sense of hope and possibility. Before my eyes, she transformed from a reed, pushed to the ground by the toxic wind surrounding her, to a tree—aware of and influenced by these brutal social forces while simultaneously refusing to let them dictate her story. This is the power of making accessible to the “feminine” among us the collective, relational, and internal resources that lift us up rather than keep us down. As psychotherapist Esther Perel said, “There is no greater vengeance against sexual abuse than to reclaim one’s full sexuality and celebrate it.” I would extend this argument beyond sexuality, to the reclamation of our whole selves. Of course, we need safe-enough relationships and social spaces to engage in such redemption, and I do not take for granted that such emotional and physical safety is a privilege in our current reality.

The capacity to move beyond the destructive ideology of Euroheteropatriarchy requires a certain maturity in thought and emotion that many of us have not yet attained, often because our development was stopped in its tracks by the misogyny described above. Talking about what he calls “the crisis in masculinity,” psychotherapist Terry Real describes how most boys know better than to express their feelings by the time they are three to five years old. “Before they know how to read,” he argues, “they know how to read the code of masculinity.” What stood out to me most about Kavanaugh’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee was how childish his tone, demeanor, and words were. Shining through all the bluster of our president, Kavanaugh, and Lindsey Graham is the truth that several boys with heaps of unmet emotional needs are currently leading our institutions and country.

I had the honor of taking a graduate course from Anne McClintock, wonderfully titled “Paranoid Empires: Masculinities and War Zones.” While watching Kavanaugh, I remembered Professor McClintock describing the experience of studying the interactions between a dominatrix and her clients, many of whom were wealthy, powerful business men. Instead of engaging in forbidden sexual acts, they paid significant sums of money to wear a diaper and be fed baby food or scrub the bathroom floor with a toothbrush. Clearly it is time to reclaim the parts of humanity that patriarchy has deemed unmanly so that more grown men can join us in the struggle. To borrow from Esther Perel again, “You know the word ‘emasculating’ does not exist in the feminine? That’s a plague for men.” 

A false sense of safety frequently accompanies dominating, controlling behavior, and it takes some significant chutzpah for the more “masculine” among us to work with the threat of vulnerability long enough to be able to look under the covers and stay there—to make actual contact with the harm inflicted by a binary gender system that rests on a power-over dynamic. On this point, I want to be clear that the easy route is to stay in the binary and attribute all sorts of stereotypical characteristics to “men” and “women” upon first meeting them: “He is aggressive.” “She is emotionally needy.” “He is insensitive.” “She’s overly dramatic.” Working within the unique four walls of therapeutic settings, I’ve been lucky to have greater access to the complex human beings underneath our limited and limiting sociocultural conditioning. I’m particularly grateful that I’ve been able to work with several cisgender men who have consistently shown me that our conditioning is not our destiny. I also have learned from my clients that one’s social identities do not necessarily predict or prevent abusive behavior—all of us can and do appropriate the ubiquitous forms of oppression in our environment.

Although many of my male clients were taught to carry the torch of misogyny and scald others with it, some have been able to contact a larger awareness that allows them to set that torch down and stop the devastation. It turns out that the impulse to exploit patriarchal systems is not immutably encoded in their DNA. Euroheteropatriachy is a cultural script that we all have the power to rewrite. Somewhere along the way, these men also learned empathy and do not wish to keep harming others in the service of maintaining their domination. They understand the difference between intention and impact and show restraint when the impulse arises to defend their intention. Accordingly, they have the capacity to actively listen and come to understand the impact of their behaviors on others. Our most evolved human moments involve a felt understanding that we are interdependent. These men demonstrate with their bodies and emotions, not just their intellects, that when I violate you, I diminish myself. If a reckoning is due, they take responsibility for repairing the ruptures their harmful behavior has wrought.

Humility also plays a major role here. I have great appreciation for Paul Gorski who asserts a profeminist rather than a feminist stance so as not to diminish the self-determination of the very people fighting for liberation in the first place. In his words:

One of the ways I witness patriarchy, even among men who identify with the feminist movement, is in our willingness to battle sex and gender oppression so long as we control the process for doing so. So, as a pro-feminist, I act in support of feminism and work to eliminate the injustices women experience. But I also acknowledge that, despite these efforts, I benefit from patriarchy, at least in the economic sense. I acknowledge, as well, that it is one thing to fight oppression, but it is something else altogether to fight oppression while I am experiencing the oppression I’m attempting to fight. Failure on my part to make this distinction is, in essence, a symptom of patriarchy, an example of male privilege. So by identifying as profeminist, I remind myself that among the most fundamental human rights is the right for oppressed people to decide for themselves how to win their liberation. It is my role, then, to serve rather than lead toward these ends.

Unfortunately, I’ve also encountered the unacknowledged shadow side of some male clients and additionally identified clients—including women—who have appropriated the beliefs and tools of Euroheteropatriarchy. When someone is consistently the recipient of blame-shifting and gaslighting, enormous self-doubt and a sense of being crazy are usually the result. Lacy Johnson’s recent essay eloquently captures the ways that abuse wears one down over time until there’s no longer a recognizable self in the relationship:

I was supposed to be flattered that my Spanish professor liked me enough to invite me to his apartment while I was still his student, to his bed, that he invited me to live with him. He was the one who taught me that it actually didn’t matter how likable I was, there was always the threat of violence or punishment for saying or doing something he didn’t like. We could be at the market choosing fish and fresh tomatoes for dinner and his hand would be resting on the small of my back and the next moment it would be raised to strike me. I tried diminishing myself in such a way that I wouldn’t provoke him, wouldn’t anger him, tried to bend myself according to his pleasure so that he would like everything I did and said and thought. It didn’t matter, because no matter what I did, it was never enough. I kept at it anyway, until there was almost nothing left of me, of the person I had been. And that person I became, who was barely a person of her own, is the version of me he liked best.

These clients rarely have the insight to understand the harm they have inflicted. So if they show up in my office, they often have been pressured to do so by people who have the power to negatively influence their life in one way or another. Sometimes they come in as a couple with the conscious or unconscious goal of forcing their partner to better meet their needs. My task in the first situation is to assess readiness for change. To quote one of my mentors, “No one gave the Buddha enlightenment.” I also am not interested in using the therapeutic setting to engage in coercive, manipulative tactics that reinforce the very systems I would like to dismantle.

If I am working with partners in the same room, the work is different, as I stop couples therapy in its tracks if I learn that abuse is occurring in the relationship. I agree with Phyllis Frank and Gail Golden that instead of continuing couples therapy when one partner is intimidating, controlling, and/or dominating another,

Strong, confrontive, counseling with individual men [and additionally identified abusive partners], that defines the spectrum of abuse, and locates the responsibility for his abusiveness solely with him is a good beginning. It is also vital to provide the abuser with all of the information necessary to make personal transformation a reality. This information must include an understanding of patriarchy in the United States and its impact on individuals, couples and families. Such intervention is the best protection for a woman from the therapeutic abuse perpetrated by assuming that she has a part in provoking her partner’s behavior.

Although I have compassion for abusive individuals since they often are repeating intergenerational patterns taught to them from the moment of conception, have themselves been abused, and have been emotionally stunted by the Euroheteropatriarchy described above, I have a responsibility to safeguard the dignity of my clients and myself. I also want to send a strong message to my clients that we need not tolerate abusive behavior, even if the external messages bombarding us send the exact opposite message. To my fellow therapists out there, these words from Kathy Steele are especially for you:

We are taught that maintaining the relationship and not being aggressive ourselves are important. They are, but not at the expense of the therapist’s well being. The therapist should not have to be abused in order to help an abused patient. Allowing a patient to be aggressive and disrespectful toward you only reinforces that this behavior is acceptable in relationships. Often these patients are coming to us precisely because they are losing relationships due to their difficult behaviors, so we have an obligation not to collude with them to continue a destructive course of behavior.

As a therapist, I have been struck by how many women and nonbinary clients feel intense grief when I walk them through an exercise that involves finding a real or imagined place they associate with safety, calm, or peace. They report that this practice has exposed how rarely they feel safe or at ease in their daily lives. Again, I do not want to suggest that only women are deprived of this essential element of our dignity. I want us to consider how much life, wisdom, and creativity have been lost due to this pervasive sense of threat.

 Image Credit:  AP/Damian Dovarganes

Image Credit: AP/Damian Dovarganes

At this point in time, we have the joint task of challenging the brutality of Euroheteropatriarchy and refusing to martyr ourselves for the cause. There is no redeeming value in self-harm. Present-day events are holding up a repulsive mirror. Misogyny is not new; it is harder to ignore. May we build up our communities and ourselves to a point that we can look fearlessly into this mirror and create more humane and grown-up spaces in which to relate to one another and govern an authentic democracy (with a little “d”).

What I Learned from Giving a TEDx Talk

I could see the audition room from the nook I had found in an effort to pull myself together. Located in a university library, the room looked like a small study space. Given my long history with such rooms, my mind said the familiarity should bring some comfort. My nervous system vehemently disagreed. I tried several tricks of the trade to calm my internal anarchy: deeply and slowly breathing with a loooooong exhale, holding a river rock in my hand to ground and center my body, huffing lavender essential oil, asking my fear brain to chill out (with lovingkindness, of course). None of these things worked. My body decided this place was engulfed in flames. The only way to help me survive was by furiously signaling that I needed to get the hell out of there. My mind, of course, refused to listen. Too many hours spent crafting, editing, and memorizing five minutes of speech meant the most stubborn part of me dug in her heels. I was staying unless or until something catastrophic happened.

The five interviewers arrived, and I walked into the audition shaky and about to pass out. In that moment, the past performances and travails I successfully navigated in this lifetime disappeared from the map. So what that I had given a commencement address in the not-so-distant past in a large stadium. Never mind that even more recently I made it through the trauma of lying naked on an operating table for a dreaded c-section. Somehow, the task of auditioning without notes disabled the parts of my brain that knew how to do something besides freak out.

 

Sure enough, while delivering my five-minute talk, I flipped my lid, to borrow from Dan Siegel. The words disappeared, completely. Erased from the white board of my mind. If I had not had some PowerPoint slides to cue me, I could not have retrieved the speech to save my life. I walked out of that library convinced that my anxiety would forever squander my dream of giving a TED talk. I simply was not cut out for this kind of performance.

Herein lies my first lesson: do not believe what your inner critic tells you.

As a recovering perfectionist and academic, I know my critical manager intimately. When she senses danger, she takes over like a boss. Despite knowing about her tendency to dominate unsafe spaces, I heeded only her voice after leaving that audition room. I believed hook, line, and sinker that I had been an unmitigated disaster. I would hear nothing from the TEDxCU committee except that my idea was not worth spreading.

I therefore felt incredulous when I received an invitation to speak at the 2018 event. After accepting the invitation, I shared the intensity of my audition nervousness with one of the interviewers. She said it was not evident to her; rather, I clearly had invested a lot of time and energy on rehearsing my speech, and that showed. Once again, my mean-spirited protector had cast only shadows. I usually imagine this critic as a bright red lobster. By forcefully pointing out the flaws she deemed in need of correction, she thought she was helping. But this old, brow-beating strategy, taught and learned at a much earlier time in life, when I encountered criticism at nearly every turn, no longer serves. The work of unlearning the harsh tales this critic effortlessly weaves is worthwhile, even if it takes a lifetime.

After recovering from the shock of appearing on the TEDxCU speaker roster, I encountered my next lesson: persistence highly correlates with triumph.

This TEDx gig reminded me of an interview with author Kate DiCamillo. DiCamillo collected nearly 400 rejection letters on her way to becoming a Newbery medalist. About persistence, she wrote,

I've been in so many writing workshops, writing classes, and to the right of me and to the left of me, there's always somebody much more talented than I am. And what I figured out is they're not willing to go through the rejection, which is enormous, and then the compromise that comes with editing your work. I decided a long time ago that I didn't have to be talented. I just had to be persistent, and that that was something that I could control — the persistence.

When I learned I would be climbing onto the TEDxCU stage, my immediate thought was, I cannot give this talk without notes. I knew in my bones that having my written speech in hand constituted the one and only way for me to me to speak to a public audience, with cameras rolling, for longer than 10 minutes.

One of the most useful practices I have as a psychotherapist is knowing how to distinguish survival resources from creative resources. As it turns out, helping others to discern one from the other tends to be easier than doing it for ourselves. Survival tools helped us to get through something. The issue with them is that we keep using these resources past the time they benefit us. We know they have become a survival resource when they make our world smaller. Creative resources, on the other hand, open up our world. They motivate us to get out of bed in the morning and wholeheartedly jump into life. Sometimes creative resources morph into survival ones, and vice versa, as life circumstances change. In my past, notes had helped me to publicly defend a dissertation, give numerous academic and professional presentations, and teach college classes. I now sensed I needed them, and my utter dependence on notes transformed them into a survival resource.

So when I approached one of the people who was guiding us through this TEDx process about using notes on the day of the event, he told me in no uncertain terms, "If you go on stage with notes, you will be the only one who does so." Although I did not particularly appreciate this feedback, it helped me to identify that my attachment to notes had moved me into the land of survival resources. Absorbing the reality that TEDxCU speakers were expected to give a memorized talk set me on a path of figuring out what creative resources could allow me to give this talk without my beloved notes.

For example, I read Tim Urban's post on doing a TED talk and learned that memorizing the talk to the point of being able to recite it like "Happy Birthday" allowed speakers to focus on other things than the speech's content--like being present and engaged. As he wrote, "[T]he human brain is able to engrave things to that level if you just rehearse enough and sleep on it enough times." Now I had a concrete goal toward which I could work, which assuaged some of my anxiety. I also had a lot of work to do to realize that aspiration, which is where persistence comes in. Any time I could manage to practice the talk, I did--in the shower, during my commute to work, while cooking a meal. After my toddler went to sleep at night, I not only practiced the talk but also videotaped myself giving it as I got closer and closer to having it memorized cold. That damn talk involuntarily played in my head for days after the event it was so ingrained in my brain.

I also developed a plan B. Since my talk was all about suspending judgment, I figured that I would keep notes in my back pocket. If I went totally blank on stage, as I did in the audition, I could pull out my notes and talk about how this moment was not a failure but a growth opportunity. Embracing this alternative as a viable option caused the anxiety to drop precipitously.

Beta-blockers were another significant creative resource I sought out to persist with this goal of giving a TED talk. I am grateful to my psychopharmacology teacher from therapy school for de-stigmatizing what turned out to be an amazing aid for me. She casually mentioned that she took beta-blockers when giving a big presentation, and I tucked away this nugget of wisdom for future use. When I work with clients who are debating whether or not to take psychotropic medication, I frequently send them to mindfulness teacher Tara Brach's blog post on this topic. She brings compassion and wisdom to bear in acknowledging

...for some people, no matter how hard they try something else is needed to engender safety and bring anxiety to a manageable level...There are no absolute recipes for working with this issue of taking medications. In making choices on our path, it’s important to ask ourselves whether or not they will serve awakening and freedom. Our best answers are found by honestly looking into our intentions.

My deeper intention than completing this TED talk was to face and work through my fear of failure. The beta-blockers helped me to do that. Nevertheless, I persisted.

 

The final major lesson for me came after I gave the TEDxCU talk and began sharing it with the world: Do not take anything--and I mean anything--personally.

Intellectually, I knew this adage forward and backward. I frequently share with clients a favorite quote from a favorite chapter on not taking things personally:

Prior to giving the talk, I also explored with a therapist how to work with my fear of criticism from people in marginalized communities. I knew this talk was challenging the tendency in social justice circles to take a morally righteous stance. From testing out my ideas in various audiences, I surmised the probability was high that I might trigger a negative reaction from those I most wanted to support and least wanted to upset. When I checked in with myself, however, I felt clear about the importance of moving beyond right/wrong and good/bad dualities while challenging systemic harm. I would not diminish my truth out of fear.

Instead, I reflected long and hard on my words and invited feedback from various sources to ensure, to the degree I could, that my intentions lined up with the impact of my statements. But one cannot control another's response, which is, to again borrow from Ruiz, "a projection of their own reality." My next step was to work on accepting that others' reactions to my talk were beyond my control.

Additionally, I used a trauma therapy technique of imagining my protectors, nurturers, and wise guides were in the room with me as I gave my talk. The owls and hawks I frequently see with my child during evening walks in Colorado were flying amongst the audience, creating a safeguard between harsh critics and me. On the stage, the many courageous activists, teachers, and spiritual guides I have been lucky enough to encounter in this lifetime stood alongside me, reminding me that I was not alone. They also wisely reinforced that these ideas were not mine; they were shared ones borne of our interdependence.

Even with all this preparation, a mean-spirited online comment about my talk from a stranger on a queer parent Facebook page cut me to the quick. I could not get it out of my head. Yes, this was a virtual community of virtually unknown people, but I still had a sense that it was my community, and someone within it slammed me. What most helped me to come out of the turtle shell into which I was fast retreating was David Wong's article, "Why You're Being Kept In a Constant State of Impotent Rage." In it, he acknowledges the new frontier onto which we have entered:

...this system has a magical way of making even a hugely successful person feel helpless, because they're being attacked by nobodies who lash out because they also feel helpless. This helplessness comes from being raised to expect things from the world that it can't actually give you....if you are a public person in 2018, you will at some point be used as a punching bag by a bunch of strangers. That's the purpose you'll serve in their life, a thing they can hate without risk, and then forget about. It's part of the tradeoff of being a public person, and oh by the way, in the social media era, everyone is a public person.

In addition to placing the Facebook comment into a larger sociocultural framework and, so, depersonalizing it, this article brought me back to a central intention of doing this TEDxCU talk in the first place: to interrupt the helplessness that so many of us feel and that often spurs more violence and abuse. Ironically, the talk's central theme played out in a social media thread about the talk itself. At least the talk had some relevance, I suppose!

For those of you out there who absolutely believe you cannot realize an important dream, I hope you will dig beneath the self-doubt, turn away from the internal and external naysayers, and look around to see if untapped resources within and around you can bring that vision to life. Since I love an inspiring quote, here is one from Maya Angelou, "My life has been long, and believing that life loves the liver of it, I have dared to try many things, sometimes trembling, but daring still."

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0_6b-AJdWU&t=603s[/embed]

 

 

 

 

The Radical Act of Connecting with Our Own Experience

My view is that a woman who goes through life without taking any notice of society's perception of her becomes the most feared individual on the planet.

--Mohadesa Najumi

The resurgence of the #metoo campaign still has me all fired up. You have to imagine where you want to go to get there, and oh, the places we can go! I see so many cracks in the fortress of misogyny and want to make those fissures gaping holes--rifts large enough to cause the whole rotten foundation to collapse. In its place, I imagine a gigantic greenhouse emerging. It will overflow with the generative talent and wisdom of multiple generations heretofore silenced. Diminished. Voided.

I have felt emboldened in my work with clients in this historical moment and want to speak directly to those of us assigned "girl" before or at birth, those who have lived as girls or women for any period of time, and those who have a non-conforming gender expression. All of us are subtly and overtly bombarded with the incessant messaging about our less-than value in the world. As a psychotherapist, I have become especially curious about the potential of that moment between when we first feel, sense, or think something and our reaction to that feeling, sensation, or thought. As someone so poignantly wrote, "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

What I have learned in my almost 43 years of being read and treated as a "girl" in this society is the lightning-fast speed with which my conditioning sets in to silence, judge, minimize, or otherwise turn away from my immediate experience, especially when it is difficult. Part of this conditioning is more general to be sure--who doesn't have the impulse to balk at pain at least some of the time? But many of us have learned a gendered form of self-rejection that contributes to an active shrinking of the space we take up in the world. This learned self-minimization shows up in the frequent use of speech like "I'm sorry" and "I don't know. " Clear statements morph into self-doubting questions as they leave our lips.

Lynette Yiadom Boakye's "Light of the Lit Wick" Source: The New Yorker

 

To be sure, learning how to turn toward our internal experience and validate it will not transform all the rotten layers of the patriarchal onion. I am convinced, however, that our external world would shift radically if we refused to negate our internal one. After all, we do not consciously choose our initial thoughts, emotions, and sensations. What we do with these moments is indeed within our wheelhouse. Make no mistake, we are accountable for our responses to our internal workings. Yet when, for example, anger arises, I can allow it to be there and investigate it without taking that anger out on others or myself. The key here is having enough space, within ourselves and the environments in which we live, to adequately explore the anger with curiosity. Otherwise, we never arrive at an understanding of the unmet need driving the anger. As it turns out, anger often emerges when we feel devalued. Meeting this need becomes exponentially more likely when we spend time becoming aware of the devaluation instead of squashing the indicator (anger, in this case) with judgment.

Importantly, if we want to share this acknowledgment of our internal worlds outwardly, we do well to assess our external environments, including the people within them. If we determine that the external sphere cannot hold our experience, we can at least prepare ourselves for the gas lighting. Here I speak of the fragility referenced in so many social justice offerings these days: While fragility. Male fragility. Straight fragility. These are just a few kinds of the limited tolerance for difference and pain that prevent marginalized folks from being seen, heard, and valued in our interactions with dominant cultures and ideologies. The reality is that we cannot make other people be more accepting, open-minded, or justice-oriented. So we do well to become aware of the potential backlash we may face if we choose to allow others into our internal fields. We then can consciously decide if we want to put ourselves out there. Safeguarding our dignity until we encounter a safe-enough audience can serve as a highly effective form of self-care, especially when our resources are depleted.

Hannah Gadsby's Nanette holds many rich lessons on the radical possibilities of self-acknowledgment. She clearly names how diminishing herself serves to caretake the audience members who recoil from the pain she experienced while growing up "a little bit lesbian" and "gender not-normal" in Tasmania. Ultimately, she refuses to continue silencing herself to make others comfortable. As she so eloquently says,

Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from someone who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak, and I simply will not do that anymore.

Credit: Artnet News

 

Gadsby's story matters. It deserves to be heard as it is, without a sugar coating designed for those of us too defended and afraid to hear her truth. What is more, she relinquishes ownership of the abuse inflicted on her by others and the misogynstic air surrounding her. Those are not her burdens to carry. She finally can exhale and return those albatrosses to the individuals, institutions, and cultures that birthed and developed them. Maybe that release will help to catalyze those of us who hold institutional and sociocultural power to be accountable to Gadsby--to support transforming the trauma, oppression, and domination experienced by those at the margins into human flourishing.

Returning to the nuts and bolts of how we acknowledge our internal experience after participating in the depreciation of ourselves for years on end, I turn to a parenting book. As it were, I largely am calling for a form of spiritual reparenting. The authors of No Drama Discipline argue that we need to connect with our children's experience before we redirect their behavior. I am extending that argument to our relationship with ourselves. Before we try to control and manage the rage, despair, or anxiety, can we learn to let those difficult emotions be there? Not do a damn thing except breathe with and notice them? "Hello, overwhelm. You're here again. Okay. I consent."

Importantly, trauma can make our immediate experience too overwhelming to bear without additional internal and external supports in place. So there are times when we need to heed the "No!" we hear when we turn inward and find we are at the edge of our own cliff. Nevertheless, we frequently underestimate our tolerance for difficult internal experiences. We are unaccustomed to letting them have light and air. Thus we need to practice: "You again, sadness. Yes, this too." Once we have allowed an experience to have some space around it, we can engage more actively with it and inquire, "What are you hear to teach me? What do you need or want?"

Credit: DailyMail.com

 

Some of my most poignant moments as a therapist occurred when a client realized they could offer to themselves the acceptance they sought from someone or something in the external world that, time and again, did not provide it. All at once, they shift from a reed, blown every which way by the shifting winds, to a tree--affected by the weather around it, to be sure, but also containing deep roots to hold it steady as the storm passes. A force to be reckoned with. To again borrow from Gadsby, "There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.”

I say self-acknowledgment is at least worthy of experimentation and look forward to witnessing the findings of your own exploration.

 

Bring on the Reckoning

I am tired of calculation. If we're having a reckoning, let's have a full reckoning.

--Lindy West 

Like so many, I have been deeply touched and horrified by the personal stories of gender-based violence and abuse shared in the public sphere, across social institutions, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein debacle. My hope is that these narratives contribute to structural and cultural transformation. Hope, however, remains a dangerous tool in light of its close relationship to fear and fear's intimate connection to impotence (pun very much intended). As Derrick Jensen wrote,

When you give up on hope, something even better happens than it not killing you, which is that in some sense it does kill you. You die. And there's a wonderful thing about being dead, which is that they--those in power--cannot really touch you anymore. Not through promises, not through threats, not through violence itself...You come to realize that when hope died, the you who died with the hope was not you, but was the you who depended on those who exploit you, the you who believed that those who exploit you will somehow stop on their own, the you who believed in the mythologies propagated by those who exploit you in order to facilitate that exploitation. The socially constructed you died. The civilized you died. The manufactured, fabricated, stamped, molded you died. The victim died...And when you quit relying on hope, and instead begin to protect the people, things, and places you love, you become very dangerous indeed to those in power. In case you're wondering, that's a very good thing.

 

Credit to Jon Dorn

 

I therefore want to advocate for drawing on these individuals' powerful stories to envision, rather than hope for, different relationships in our homes, workplaces, and additional institutions with which we regularly engage. After all, we have to imagine where we want to go to get there, to paraphrase trauma therapist Bessel van der Kolk.

Since I have spent the bulk of my professional life in higher education as a graduate student, staff member, junior faculty member, and mental health therapist, I am going to focus my imagination on this particular institution. K.A. Amienne's recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education directly addresses a root contributor to gendered abuse in higher education. As such, she provides powerful fodder for the visioning process:

Anytime you have a highly competitive system in which a single person has the power to make or break someone else’s career — whether it’s the crowded, greasy pole of Hollywood or a flooded Ph.D. pipeline — you will have abuse. Not only rape and overt sexual aggression, but also the many complicated and twisted forms of abuse that can sink a woman’s chances of succeeding in an already biased business.

To return to the above argument, to hope people will not exploit each other in such a competitive, hierarchical, biased system is delusional at best. Too often, I have witnessed interventions aimed at shifting the oppressive dynamics in universities completely ignore structural power imbalances in the name of honoring everyone's contribution to the project. Do I believe we as human beings are all equal? In the spiritual realm, absolutely. In the realm of institutions rooted in European, capitalist, patriarchal, and heteronormative ideologies--which fits higher education to a T and names only a few of its many additional oppressive ideological roots--I call bullshit.

I have eternal gratitude for the therapist who helped me to realize that my consistent minimization of the public humiliation I experienced at the hands of cisgender, male, tenured professors as a junior faculty member was not helping anyone, especially not me. But here's the rub. Our default in this hyper-individualistic culture is to point fingers at perpetrators, not systems. When we do that, we risk missing all the ways that people, policies, procedures, and daily practices collude in maintaining dehumanizing institutions. In my case, for example, the senior female professors and dean from whom I sought help to address these male academics' abusive behavior did not do a damn thing except encourage me to suck it up, inferring that they got as far as they did by suffering in silence and then remaining silent even when they had a lot less at stake professionally than I did. The current disaster at the University of Rochester also puts into stark relief the university leaders and processes that enabled not only inaction but also active retaliation against the community members who spoke out against Professor Florian Jaeger's downright disgusting behavior. It's so much easier to make ousting "bad apples" the focus of our attention than shifting a culture that allows the individuals exhibiting such rotten behavior to rise to the highest rungs of its hierarchy in the first place.

So blaming individual men in power is not going to get us very far in the visioning process. We of course need to focus some attention on individuals since they do the work of maintaining the status quo of these virulent systems. However, I would like to focus less on demonizing individuals and more on fleshing out conceptions of accountability and dignity that can serve as guideposts for meaningful action. The palpable urgency that so many of us are feeling at this moment risks spurring horror- and rage-driven reactions if we do not find our center before acting. Horror and rage are an important part of the equation, to be sure, AND they are trauma responses that often reproduce the very harm we're trying to mitigate when they are in the driver's seat. Since I am interested in diminishing the harm that these complex systems cause everyone, I want to make sure all parts of our brains are on deck as we seek to find our path forward, not just the parts designed to fight and flee from threat.

From my center, then, a full reckoning begins with holding people accountable for their harmful behaviors. The simplicity of the statement belies the significant individual and systemic transformation required to realize such accountability. For one, we are masters of excuse-making when it comes to the abusive behavior permeating our country and world. I recently had a powerful experience at a trauma training in which I realized just how deep in my own psyche the conditioning is both to normalize the personal harm inflicted by external forces and to minimize the lack of safety, both emotional and physical, that permeates my daily life. The mining of our individual stories--and I mean everyone's stories, not just those directly victimized by these systems--is part of the inside-out reckoning necessary to stop excusing the shitty behavior that is intimately connected not only to systemic misogyny but also to additional forms of institutionalized oppression and domination. I do not see an alternative here for the ongoing, necessary decolonizing of all our minds.

I have found Donna Hicks's dignity model to be a particularly powerful tool for delineating the behavior that violates our dignity, which she defines as our inherent value and worth. In some ways, her description of the essential elements making up dignity are even more profound than the violations if we integrate them into our daily lives and institutions. Imagine, for example, what life would be like on university campuses if their various actors, units, and policies actually insisted on her definition of safety as a birthright, not an entitlement: "Put people at ease at two levels: physically, so they feel safe from bodily harm, and psychologically, so they feel safe from being humiliated. Help them to feel free to speak without fear of retribution."

Such a mind-blowing imaginative activity because it is so fucking far from what any member of a marginalized community experiences on most if not all university campuses! And this essential element requires boatloads of courageous action, especially by university leaders, if it is to be anything but words on paper. After all, legitimate fear of legal, financial, reputational, and additional forms of reprisal by those in power is what silences so many of us in the first place.

Since I am writing a blog post on a topic worthy of a book series, I will close by reiterating that the work of imagining liberatory systems cannot be reduced to excising rotten actors, who it turns out have their own dignity buried underneath all those layers of intergenerational, toxic conditioning. The really great news is that so many of the people excluded from positions of power in these noxious systems have fabulous ideas about how to bring about change that grows justice, peace, and everyone's dignity. Their wisdom is rooted in empathy, compassion, and the intimate study of their own experience, not narcissism or the will to power.

It also feels important to note that a full reckoning is going to involve a whole lot of grieving for the vast talent, beauty, and creativity that never saw the light of day within these harmful systems. As Rebecca Solnit so poignantly wrote,

We live in a world where uncountable numbers of women have had their creative and professional capacity undermined by trauma and threat, by devaluation and exclusion. A world in which women were equally free and encouraged to contribute, in which we lived without this pervasive fear, might be unimaginably different. In the same way, a United States in which people of color did not have their votes increasingly suppressed, in which they did not also face violence and exclusion and denigration, might not just have different outcomes in its recent elections but different candidates and issues. The whole fabric of society would be something else. It should be. Because that is what justice would look like, and peace, or at least the foundation on which they could be built.

So let's quit relying on hope and work through the individual and collective trauma standing in the way of imagining what for far too long has been unimaginable.

 

Giving a *$%^!@ about How We Treat Each Other and Ourselves

"Don't mourn, organize!" I've seen this slogan often and tend to agree with it, with the caveat that we may need to process (not get stuck in) our grief before and while we jump into action. What I've been chewing on since November 9 is how we organize. In particular, I have hemmed and hawed over whether or not to put into written word what I believe matters a lot: how we treat other in our daily lives and also on public platforms. I've been fearing criticism of this stance by some of my most respected friends and colleagues given my social positioning and identities, which tilt me far to the side of privilege on this very imbalanced field of power and wealth called the United States. More specifically, I have been reading publication after publication about the ways in which white people take over, dilute and diminish justice struggles, and more generally often harm more than they help movements explicitly aimed at challenging white supremacy, such as Black Lives Matter. So I have been weighing whether or not to keep my views to myself.

Credit to Pinterest

Then I revisited Manson's "The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck." This article gave me the courage to speak my "t" truth because one of the few fucks I won't give up is that how we relate to one another matters, whether we're engaged in a regular daily interaction or resisting the violation of human rights and environmental degradation on a larger scale. Indeed, this fuck is why I keep The No Asshole Rule front and center on my bookshelf. May my intention to promote wise speech and action come through loud and clear in this post and strengthen our collective actions rather than undermine them. Lord knows, we need as large a critical mass as we can muster to resist the shit show unfurling on the U.S. political stage as I write this post.

*************

In 2011, I walked away from a tenure-track assistant professorship in education to become a psychotherapist. Many people thought I was nuts. How could you leave such a coveted position in academia? You spent all those years progressing along this career path and now you're quitting? I thought you were an agent for social change! How are you going to generate social transformation while working individually with people in a confidential space?

Leaving academia turned out to be the best thing I could do for my sanity and health. At the risk of irritating my much beloved activist friends and colleagues, I have come to see that much of the social justice work I undertook from a university perch resembled the aggression, divisiveness, and verbal warfare I'm currently witnessing on the heels of the 2016 presidential election. I still carry the commitments I had then, but I use different tools to enact them. More specifically, I frequently turn to models of dignity and nonviolent communication to do the work I used to do, as I believe they enable me to approach social change work with my integrity intact and ensure that peace, about which I also give a fuck, has a prominent place on the social justice map.

Rewinding the story a little bit, I identify Tara Brach and her sangha, of which I was a member during my three years as an assistant professor, as significant shapers of my decision to exit academia and shift my approach to justice work. Her teachings repeatedly drilled home to me that separation generates suffering, whether that separation manifests from a sense of superiority or inferiority to others. Additionally, she rocked my world when she named aversive judgment--that is, when we judge someone or something as bad or wrong--as synonymous with aggression. Both of these lessons revealed how much of the social justice language and behaviors in which I engaged generated harm, separation, and suffering.

More specifically, self-righteousness abounded in our treatises on justice and dotted the pathway with "shoulds." Someone who is anti-racist, pro-feminist, and promoting a redistribution of wealth, for instance, should do x, y, and z or they are not true activists and allies. Ironically, many of us replicated the hierarchical ranking of "good" and "bad" actors that the Euroheteropatriarchy against which we raged set up for us in the first place. In other words, our rants overflowed with aversive judgment as we looked down on those who did not subscribe to our particular ideology or approach.

A favorite past-time during that era was to take the white supremacy literature I pored over and use it like the sharpest razor blade against my own skin. Although extremely anxious and depressed while marching through the world bearing so much judgment for myself and others (and drinking way too much to cope with that anxiety and depression), I believed my privilege meant I did not--I could not--know suffering. And as I learned more and more about the pain suffered by marginalized communities of which I was not a member, I absolutely would not permit emotions that got in the way of the work I was supposed to be doing, particularly guilt and shame. They, like my whiteness, were the enemy.

Now please allow me to clarify my stance a bit. Concepts like "white fragility," "false empathy," and the "white savior industrial complex" have been and continue to be very helpful for those of us trying to become skillful contributors to positive social change, especially white people. How we use those concepts (and practices like nonviolent communication) is what I am emphasizing here, as everything is dangerous, to borrow from the late Michel Foucault. What I came to realize is that going to war with ourselves generates significant casualties--suicide in worst-case scenarios--and saps energy at a time when we need it most stay in long-term struggles for social justice.

To say a bit more about this self-aggression, we know that berating and belittling others does not foster good will or solidarity yet we frequently bully ourselves until, curled into a tight ball to fend off the barrage of harsh judgments, we inadvertently become extremely self-centered. Thinking that I caused systemic harm prevents me from becoming curious about the factors outside of myself that have contributed to any given moment or circumstance--an understanding that is essential to seeing clearly what is and, from that place of clarity, developing a potent action plan. Self-blame also is masterful at demotivating us so that we stay collapsed in a ball on the ground rather than get up and engage with the world.

With regard to guilt and shame, specifically, I now view them as simply emotions that we, initially at least, do not choose to feel. They actually can provide us with useful information, if we listen to them with curiosity rather than judgment, and process them to their end since all emotions have a beginning, middle, and end if we allow them to move through us. (It turns out emotions do not have a long shelf life when we let them run their course rather than feed them with our thoughts.) They certainly become problematic when we try to bury them--and so make them stronger--or grab onto them for dear life and so become mired in deep, paralyzing muck. They also can be very annoying when they take up all the space in a room. But they, and the people experiencing them, are not the enemy. White supremacy, economic inequality, heteronormativity, misogyny, transphobia, and additional forms of systemic oppression and domination, on the other hand, are worthy of attack.

*************

Although the dignity and nonviolent communication practices on which I currently draw are works in progress rather than panaceas, they generally allow me to sustain self-respect while speaking up and out. Here are a few reasons why:

The reality that we are interconnected means that when I violate your dignity, I diminish my own. If we pause long enough to notice what happens within us when we blame and shame others and/or step into the role of victim, I am confident we will not like what we find. It feels shitty to act out of our base instincts rooted in a rigid us/them mentality, especially when we have done our homework and so know that larger systems are at work when injustice occurs. And being the victim (versus resisting acts of perpetration) spirals us into a realm of powerlessness that feels real but often is not true. In other words, we give up whatever power we do have in the land of victimhood. Although easier to target individuals than to see the systemic conditioning that has influenced our beliefs and behavior (e.g. if we're swimming in white supremacist waters, we're going to get wet), we have a much better shot at re-humanizing those very systems when we can refrain from attacking its actors. Super importantly, choosing not to vilify someone is not synonymous with letting accountability slide. With our big prefrontal cortex, we have the capacity to hold people accountable for their actions without stripping them of their humanity in the process. Restraint is also not the same thing as rolling over and taking a beating. It does mean that as we defend ourselves and what we hold dear through the actions available to us, we refrain from engaging in the aggression that is aversive judgment.

Enter nonviolent communication (NVC). What NVC can do well is challenge the domination structures embedded in the language we use. And just to reiterate, this tool, like any tool, can be used to reinforce oppression and domination. The Center for Nonviolent Communication's founder, Marshall Rosenberg, articulated the radical potential of NVC when he explained how static, judgmental language combined with a retributive form of justice spur and grow planetary violence. More specifically, he highlighted how an emphasis on being rather than behavior (e.g., "You are a racist idiot" rather than "That was a racist action") generates unresolvable conflict and division. In the realm of retributive justice, which Oxford Dictionary defines as "A system of criminal justice based on the punishment of offenders rather than on rehabilitation," Rosenberg also revealed how reliance on authorities that use a dichotomous scale (e.g., good/bad, right/wrong, normal/abnormal) to determine who deserves punishment disconnects people from their own power and limits our understanding of what is actually happening in any given moment.

At the heart of NVC is a focus on unmet needs since they are what drive our sense of dis-ease in any given moment. In other words, if we can drill down to what needs are unrealized, whether they are basic physical needs like food, shelter, and clean water or more subtle human emotional needs like a sense of belonging and connection, we can put our energy toward fulfilling those needs rather than judging and punishing those deemed abnormal, mentally ill, or wrong. This framework has significant implications for how we address those marginalized by our current systems, since we direct our attention toward helping those more vulnerable folks to fulfill their unmet needs--needs that these folks identify themselves!--rather than to developing policies and processes that determine a person's worthiness (or unworthiness as is often the case) in the first place. Back to the dignity model, inherent value and worth is a birthright that is not up for grabs.

Now achieving clarity about what our needs are (and I'm not talking about desires dressed up as needs here) as well as expressing our observations about what is happening without resorting to aversive judgment (e.g., He is a narcissistic, stupid monster!) is no small feat. For most of us, it requires a paradigm shift, not only in the language we use but also in how we approach behaviors, emotions, and requests of ourselves and others that better meet our needs. I maintain it's a worthwhile challenge to undertake. I want to provide an example from my own life of how attention to dignity, in combination with nonviolent communication, have helped me to see how harmful words and actions often mask unmet needs and emerge from past dignity violations to the person wreaking the harm. And again, the capacity to understand unmet needs does not mean we tolerate harmful words and actions. It does mean our response has a better shot at diminishing rather than growing division and violence:

I interacted with a man who spewed virulent homophobic slurs soon after I met him. As a queer-identified person, I struggled not to react to his hate speech with my own speech about how bad and wrong he was. Deciding not to make a two-dimensional caricature out of him, I listened a little longer to his story and asked a few more questions. In the process, I learned that he had been sexually assaulted by a gay man as a young adult and had never processed the trauma. What I know about trauma--and I do believe everyone would benefit from a trauma 101 training in light of how much individual and collective trauma there is in our world--is that it diminishes our capacity to stay present, centered, and grounded, all of which are necessary to keep fear from hijacking our thinking. I sensed that terror, rather than hate, were at the root of his gross and negative generalizations about LGBTQ+ people. So I connected with his fear and validated the horror of the violation he experienced before I spoke of how the individual that harmed him was in no way representative of an entire, and very diverse group of people and asked him to acknowledge that cisgender, straight men perpetrate the bulk of sexually predatory acts. And our relationship continued, giving me more of an opportunity to challenge his distorted, fear-based beliefs about gay people.

I hear the critics in my ear as I close out this post. The individual of which I just spoke is not in a seat of power like our current president-elect and his cabinet members, most of whom have orchestrated and supported great harm to marginalized communities of multiple kinds as well as our environment. My point is not that we need to have dialogues with those intent on harming us. Ears to hear are necessary for dialogue to be of mutual benefit, and I am gearing up for a hell of a struggle.

Rather, I want to ask this: at the end of the day, when we face ourselves, who do we want to encounter? I can only speak from my own experience, which has taught me that resilience in the face of struggle expands when curiosity replaces aversive judgment. Perhaps more importantly, I now intimately know what Donna Hicks so eloquently noted: "When we honor other people's dignity, we strengthen our own."

Remembering Resilience

Several months ago I posted an article on my Facebook wall critiquing the current use of "resilience." As the author argued,

Resilience is fleet, adaptive, pragmatic — and it has become an obsession among middle-­class parents who want to prepare their children to withstand a world that won’t always go their way...But where ‘‘resilience’’ can suggest new avenues for civic infrastructure — admitting that disaster can’t always be diverted and shifting the focus to survival strategies — it is indistinguishable from classic American bootstrap logic when it is applied to individuals, placing all the burden of success and failure on a person’s character.

I appreciate the attention in this article to the ways in which our hyper-individualistic culture can co-opt an otherwise useful concept, thereby making it an empty and even harmful tool. However, fours months into parenthood and as a therapist who frequently works with people who have suffered significant trauma in their lives, I would like to take a stab at reclaiming resilience.

To start with the personal, I recently received the hospital records from the cesarean birth of my child. As I leafed through the document and read how much my daughter struggled during her first few minutes in this world, fear overtook me. I immediately lost sight of the smiling, calm baby before me and convinced myself that she was doomed to some sort of long-term suffering from her traumatic birth. Instead of focusing on the healing work we had done with a craniosacral therapist in the weeks following her birth and, perhaps more importantly, the fact that her inconsolable crying spells had abated, I momentarily convinced myself that my child had been irreparably harmed.  Thankfully, my partner and I know a skillful healer who has long specialized in trauma, and we reached out to him. He stopped my lizard brain in its tracks by asking some important questions--namely, what evidence do you have, in the here and now, that she is struggling with birth trauma?

Gandhi hat quote accompanied by the best onesie for a therapist parent all on a happy baby!

I did not have evidence; I had fear stories. Coming back into the present and my body, I realized I could attune to my child and respond to signs of trouble, should they appear, in the present or down the road. But I did not need to create a problem for my child out of my own traumatic memory and experience. Instead, I could and did remember a very poignant line from Carl Jung-- “The greatest tragedy of the family is the unlived lives of the parents.” I've been attending to my own healing from the birth ever since.

Fast forward a few months to my return to work, and clients neglect of their own resilience smacked me in the face. One client in particular reminded me just how limited and limiting our worlds become when we focus only on the negative experiences we have had and ignore the parts of ourselves that allowed us to persevere through them. Before me sat an incredibly insightful, funny, kind human being who wanted me to focus on all the diagnoses they had been given through their many years of meeting with various psychotherapists and psychiatrists. Yes, they had suffered repeated and terrible trauma. And yes that trauma had significantly and adversely impacted their life. But they were so caught up in the tagline of being multiple disorders that they could not see their strengths or the many survival resources they had drawn upon to make it into my office, let alone middle age. Only once we had cut through the story of deficiency and defectiveness could they re-member (literally come back into their body as a whole self) their vitality. They could then reconnect with their desire not only to survive but also to flourish and have that aspiration guide their actions.

I do not want to minimize the harms that we as human beings wreak on each other, the Earth, and ourselves. But I also do not want to forget that, to borrow from Taoist Chuang Tzu, 10,000 joys accompany the 10,000 sorrows of life. The miracle and beauty of human beings is that we have the capacity to hold all of life, including its less savory parts. What is more, with appropriate and adequate support--not "American bootstrap logic"--we can use the tough stuff as fodder for wisdom, compassion, and love for the life that is here.

Research also shows that how we frame difficult experiences can matter a lot. As Maria Konnikova recently wrote,

Human beings are capable of worry and rumination: we can take a minor thing, blow it up in our heads, run through it over and over, and drive ourselves crazy until we feel like that minor thing is the biggest thing that ever happened. In a sense, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Frame adversity as a challenge, and you become more flexible and able to deal with it, move on, learn from it, and grow. Focus on it, frame it as a threat, and a potentially traumatic event becomes an enduring problem; you become more inflexible, and more likely to be negatively affected.

May we all learn to grow from the difficult experiences of our lives so that they ultimately enrich rather than diminish us.

 

Another Lesson in Radical Acceptance: A Loooooong Birth Story!

Warning of sorts: This tale includes a lot of details, many of which may strike the reader as boring and unnecessary. I intentionally left them for a few reasons. If my story resonates with that of others and so helps to increase a sense of connection and empathy while decreasing isolation, the extra detail is worth it. At least in my experience, throughout the pregnancy and birth journey too often people neither invite birthing parents* to share their experiences nor demonstrate a willingness to simply listen and witness those stories with compassionate understanding--to hold space for whatever a parent wants to express. Instead of being asked what is happening, too often we are told what we should be doing and how we should be doing it. Assumptions, generalizations, and rapidly drawn conclusions also abound, none of which helps us to feel supported and validated through what is, for many, a challenging process. Moreover, once the baby is born, many people are quick to say, "That was rough, but now you have this beautiful baby! Be grateful! What's wrong with you for not feeling only joy!?" If nothing else, I hope this post can reinforce what I know to be true: suppressing part of our experience so that others can feel comfortable or so we can avoid the difficult chapters of the story does not helps us to heal and learn from suffering. And suffering can be an amazing teacher when we allow it to serve that role. Human beings have the capacity to feel a panoply of emotions all at once and, as poet Danna Faulds instructs, "The only safety lies in letting it all in–the wild and the weak; fear, fantasies, failures and success." I'm not sure where to start this story but acknowledging how much effort it took to bring our child into the world, well before her birth, seems too important to leave out. By no stretch of the imagination was she accidental. We needed some extra help to conceive this kiddo. L'il miss emerged from our sixth and final intrauterine insemination (IUI) at a fertility clinic, and two of those IUIs ended in miscarriages. When I found out I was pregnant for a third time, I waited with bated breath for the other shoe to drop. But the weeks kept passing, and the milestones kept piling up--hearing the baby's heartbeat for the first time, completing the first trimester, seeing those tiny legs kick at the 20-week ultrasound. I soon could not deny that this new life just might make it into the world. I'm not sure I took a full breath, however, until we arrived at the third trimester, and I knew our child would likely survive a premature birth.

A plaster version of my torso at week 36, inspired by Birthing from Within.

Around that time, we moved across the country, and I transferred care from an OB/GYN to that of a registered midwife. I dreamed of birthing the baby in the low-stress environment of my own home, surrounded by my loving partner and supportive midwives who view childbirth as a rite of passage, not a medical event, and the birthing parent as a wise collaborator, not a patient who needs to be compliant to be "good." We began to prepare our house for the big day, and I planned for a natural birth the best I could by doing things like participating in a Birthing from Within class and yoga birth workshop. The birthing class, particularly, helped me to identify and confront my fears about the birth process as well as move toward acceptance that our best laid plans rarely turn out as expected. One particularly poignant memory I have from the class is the facilitator splashing black paint on the art projects we were in the process of creating. Our response to this action highlighted how attached we were to a particular outcome and presented an opportunity to be more flexible in our thinking and actions--to accept and surrender to situations beyond our control. She also introduced us to the useful metaphor of the labyrinth. As the Birthing from Within founder explains it,

The labyrinth is an ancient symbol representing our journey through life, ordeals, and transitions. Its single, convoluted pathway begins at the opening, leads directly to the center, and then returns along the same path to the outside again. Walking or finger-tracing a labyrinth invokes a sensation of turning inward, then outward...you could be blindfolded and still reach the center by feeling your way through the path. You don't need to study the path before you enter it. You don't need a birth plan or a cell phone to call for help! There is no time-line and no mistakes. Any and every birth fits within the labyrinth--whether long or short, medical or natural, cesarean or vaginal--or anywhere in between!...In the Labyrinth of Birth, the journey (with its twists and turns) reflects the emotional, spiritual, and social experience of giving birth.

Time seemed to simultaneously slow down and accelerate as my due date, November 11, came and went. Knowing that most first-time parents go over their "estimated due date," I tried to relax and enjoy the time off, as I had just begun maternity leave. I also began following the various counsel I sought out and received about triggering labor, such as going for a strenuous hike.

Gregory Canyon hike at week 41 day 3.

As 41 weeks approached, I went in for an ultrasound to make sure everything was still functioning well. Turns out my placenta and umbilical cord were still rocking and rolling, and the baby was not in distress. So we marched past the 41st week mark. I went to an acupuncturist for an induction session and my midwife for a membrane sweep (fun, fun!). I had received lots of signals from my body that things were moving in the childbirthing direction, but this visit to the midwife dashed my hopes. The unsuccessful membrane sweep revealed that I looked more like I was 39 weeks pregnant, not 41 weeks and a day.

Not my finest hour at 41 weeks and 2 days

I began to face the reality that a hospital induction may be necessary, as the medical community and my midwife did not support me going beyond 42 weeks given the potential harm to the baby in that scenario. Of course I did not want to put the baby at risk either and was not exactly feeling stellar--physically or emotionally--by that point (and I won't go into detail about hemorrhoids, but they were definitely and acutely on board as 42 weeks approached). Still, a hospital induction meant throwing out my birth plan and possibly facing the thing I feared most--a pitocin induction that significantly increased the likelihood of needing an epidural and, ultimately, a cesarean section. Starting to feel some desperation, I went to a chiropractor on week 41 day 2 and got adjusted, hoping a more relaxed and aligned pelvis would do the trick.

Hazel requested a cameo appearance in this post

Within 36 hours of those three interventions, I began to have more consistent, intense contractions throughout the night that arrived every 5 to 8 minutes. I called my parents the morning of 41 weeks and 3 days and asked them to pick up our 11-month-old dog whose presence at the birth would have been a bit too much for everyone, including her.

That evening, I went to my midwife's partner (my midwife had left town for Thanksgiving--another twist in the labyrinth) for a craniosacral session, hoping it would relax my body enough to bring on active labor. But the contractions had already begun to slow down. I was able to get a good night's sleep and relished the rest but once again felt the disappointment of getting my hopes up about an eminent birth. I discovered the term prodromal labor on the Internet and hoped all this preparatory work would mean a faster delivery once I transitioned into active labor. I was in the thick of the labyrinth, feeling the jolt that comes from moving inward toward the center (i.e. childbirth) and then suddenly finding myself at the outward edge again.

At 41 weeks and 5 days, after another night of rough contractions and very little sleep, I went to town on induction strategies, which helped to lift my spirits as only frenetic activity can sometimes do. I returned to the chiropractor and acupuncturist. I also got a non-stress test and was happy to find out the baby was still chilling in my womb. My new midwife gave me another membrane sweep, this time successfully, and reported I was about 2 cm dilated and 50% effaced, which was a bit hard to hear given how exhausted I felt but at least showed some progress. That night, the contractions grew even more intense, to the point that I was on all fours through each one, praying that this not go on another day. But they remained inconsistent, refusing to show the patterned frequency that marks active labor.

At 41 weeks and 6 days, I went back to the acupuncturist for the third and final induction session. I also procured Chinese induction herbs and a homeopathic remedy. I crossed my fingers that these efforts would finally bring about active labor and, more importantly, my daughter. The midwife came over to our house that night to give me a pep talk when the thought of facing another night of frequent, painful contractions seemed overwhelming, particularly since my body had started shaking like a leaf that afternoon. Another craniosacral session calmed me down enough to face the night but active labor did not come.

However, the morning of 42 weeks and 0 days, I felt a surge of energy, recognizing this day was my final chance to have the baby at home. I used a breast pump to try to stimulate active labor and kept drinking my Chinese brew, plugging my nose to get the strong-smelling liquid down the hatch. My partner and I also went to a sports field where I carried my very pregnant belly up and down the bleachers, hoping the stairs would jostle that baby closer to the womb's exit. I had been resisting castor oil as the final non-medical induction strategy because I have a very sensitive system but decided at 11 a.m. that the possibility of avoiding a medical birth still outweighed the potential costs of taking this powerful laxative. I only consumed a tablespoon of that disgusting substance and, 30 minutes later, threw up everything in my system. Utterly deflated, I called the midwife, and she planned to come over for one final prenatal exam before we headed to the hospital. No sooner had I gotten off the phone, I had to run to the bathroom and, lo and behold, active labor commenced! I felt a wave of excitement, believing this was finally the transition I needed to stay at home and finish what I had set out to do. But after an hour, the contractions slowed down and became shorter, once again revealing a false start.

We headed to a hospital that uses nurse midwives that evening. They welcomed me with open arms, and I will forever be indebted to the wonderful staff at Denver Health Medical Center. After checking in, I learned that I could take morphine, which would not harm the baby but would block out the contractions enough for me to get a good night's rest after five days of on and off again labor. Then, the next morning, which happened to be Thanksgiving, I could take cytotek, a much friendlier induction medicine than pitocin. I felt confident I could face active labor after some solid hours of shut eye. As my partner and I joked, I had trained for a marathon, not the Ironman, but I definitely felt like I was in the middle of the latter.

I fell into a deep, dreamy sleep for approximately two hours before the intense contractions started up again. Unfortunately, I had three of them within ten minutes, which took cytotek off the table, as the nurse midwife could not control what happened in my body once I ingested it and did not want to put the baby in danger. Although I had moments that looked like active labor, the contractions were still too variable, and my cervix was opening at a snail's pace. Pitocin was fast becoming the only option to induce active labor, and despair began to sink its teeth into my worn out skin.

Early the morning of week 42 day 1, the nurse midwife messed with my cervix, opening it up a little more and creating a bit of a scare as I dripped blood while walking to the bathroom. The nurse/midwife team put me in the tub to try to help me relax, as my body was shaking nonstop and my energy to move through more contractions was rapidly declining. A new set of nurses and nurse midwives started their shifts, and I reluctantly left the tub to see what my body would do next. I had dilated to 4 cm and was 80% effaced, which was progress to be sure but the road ahead still seemed awfully long. All hands were on deck to help me through each contraction, which continued to be inconsistently spaced apart. I went back into the tub and had some moments of zenned out bliss before we proceeded to the last non-pharmaceutical possibility--inducing active labor via the breast pump. As I watched my body create a bunch of colostrum (something that was actually going right!), my intuition screamed to me that this intervention was not going to do the trick and that I was fast reaching my system's limit to cope with more contractions.

Through tears, I asked if I could get an epidural before pitocin, and the nurse midwife said I could. They warned me that I would have to sit still through contractions for 20 minutes while they set up the epidural, but I found the procedure to be a piece of cake compared to the last 6 days. The relief from the nerve block was immediate, and I finally started to breathe deeply and stop shaking. They waited a little while to see if I would go into active labor. Surprise, surprise, I did not. The long dreaded moment had arrived, and they very slowly and gradually introduced pitocin into my body. All was going well until the pitocin hit 8 ml (22 is the maximum amount they use to induce labor). My water broke, and the poor little baby was hit with both the synthetic oxytocin of the pitocin and the natural oxytocin created by my body. Her heart rate plummeted for several minutes, so they stopped the pitocin and calmly repositioned me until her heart rate became normal again. The nurse midwife proposed starting pitocin again at 4 ml, and I agreed, not realizing how significant the baby's distress had been.

Immediately after they began the 4 ml drip, the baby's heart rate dipped again as my uterus began contracting like crazy. They injected me with something to calm my uterus, stopped the pitocin, and positioned my nearly immobilized lower body in a kneeling position to shove a censor through my cervix and onto the baby's head. Her heart rate sounded like a door knock through this device, and I took solace in the steady, patterned sound. The contractions were starting to break through the epidural, so the anesthesiologist reappeared to administer a bolus of what by then had become known to me as "the good stuff." The nurse midwife wanted to try one last option before turning me over to the surgery team: start the pitocin at 1 ml and see if we could get my cervix to dilate fully. I had been at 6 cm for a few hours at that point but also had been in active labor.

In the meantime, she wanted me to meet with the chief OB and ask her any questions I had about a cesarean birth in the event I needed to go that route. The surgeon was a lovely human being and with every passing minute I surrendered to the outcome I had once dreaded. I clarified to my midwife/nurse team that I was not resisting letting go of my birth plan. Hell, I'd thrown that out the window long ago. I mostly feared the baby would experience trauma on account of the surgery and miss out on what I have come to believe is an important event in a person's life whenever it's possible--pushing their way into the world. My lovely midwife told me we could repair the traumatic effects of a c-section soon after her birth, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Then the resident who would be assisting the c-section entered the room. She wanted me to know who was behind the mask once I was in the OR. The anesthesiologist also returned once more to explain to me how he would numb my body for the procedure while I remained conscious. I did my best to utter my sincere gratitude to all of the people who were doing their best to make this experience bearable for me. I also made some requests, including to hold the baby right after the procedure if I could, as the pitocin drip began once again.

We made it to 2 ml of pitocin before the baby's heart rate decelerated yet again. The nurse-midwife said we could try to go up to 3 ml, and I said enough. A new shift of nurse midwives and nurses came on board (round 3!), and everyone began prepping for the surgery. I had been dilated at 6 cm for 6 hours when my parents came in from the waiting room for the grand send-off. My midwife was not allowed to accompany me into surgery, but my partner was. They transferred me to a gurney and told me my partner would join me after they had anesthetized me.

They transferred me once again from a gurney to the operating table, this time removing the sheet from my naked body under some very bright lights. All that covered me were the various tubes and needles protruding from my skin. As the numbing medicine rolled down my back like a waterfall, the staff around me spoke of everyday things like their work schedules. I have never felt so exposed and vulnerable and hope I never have to again. The nurse midwife noticed tears running down my cheeks and grabbed my hand. Soon after my partner arrived and whispered to me how sorry he was as he stroked and kissed my forehead. That moment of grace still brings tears to my eyes.

The unflattering AND blissful reality of my post-surgery state

Being awake while someone opens you up is a strange sensation, to say the least. The surgical staff spoke to me about what they were doing and within just a few minutes, they had pulled the baby from my body. They told my partner he could look over the sheet if he wouldn't pass out but absolutely would not let me see what was going on. They were surprised how in shock the baby was, given how long I had been in labor, and immediately needed to give her oxygen. They took her to the far end of the room, and my partner was allowed to go over and be with her. Though only a few minutes passed in real time, an agonizing eternity took over my landscape. When I heard her cry, I finally took a deep breath and the tears began to flow again, this time streaming a mixture of joy and relief. The surgeon told me she wanted to take the baby to the NICU to give her more oxygen and monitor her for a short time, but I was able to look at this miracle, welcome her to the world, and touch and kiss her cheek before she and my partner left the room again.

After suturing me up--it's also an odd thing to hear someone say, "Now we're putting the uterus back in your body"--the surgical team released me to a recovery room, where I was reunited with my partner and the newly coined Reese Mae. By then, her respiratory system was fully on line, and she has been thriving ever since. Reese was born at 10:26 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day 2015, weighing 7 lbs 10 oz and measuring 21 inches. Words cannot capture the experience of finally getting to meet her, but poetry comes closest as I do the work of moving from the center of the labyrinth back out again. So I leave you with Mary Oliver's "Messenger":

5-day old Reese Mae

My work is loving the world. Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird— equal seekers of sweetness. Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums. Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn? Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished. The phoebe, the delphinium. The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture. Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart and these body-clothes, a mouth with which to give shouts of joy to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam, telling them all, over and over, how it is that we live forever.

* I intentionally use "birthing parents" rather than "mothers" to honor that individuals with diverse gender identities and expressions birth children and may not identify as a woman or mother. See this blog post for a more in-depth inquiry into this topic.

 

The Necessity of Connection and Acceptance

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

--Maya Angelou

Skylar Lee. Source: Identities.Mic

As of late, suicide is on my mind. I nearly lost someone to a suicide attempt this fall, am approaching the anniversary of a client's suicide, and reeling from the suicide of yet another trans teenager, Skylar Lee, in Madison, Wisconsin. Given that I am about to bring a child into this world, these tragedies, all of which are in some way tied to LGBTQ+ identities, have spurred me to reflect on the human need for connection and acceptance. Skylar's mom's courageous and heartbreaking news interview highlights this point. As she said, “The night before [he died], he hugged me and kissed me,” Joanne said. “I could feel it. He forgave me that I didn't accept him, and that was his final goodbye to me. I owe him to continue his fight.”

Ironically enough, I have found some of the most poignant lessons about connection and acceptance in the book No Drama Discipline by Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson. Because the book's title conceals more than it reveals about the author's definition of discipline, I want to start by sharing that definition, as it's about connection rather than punishment, which feels particularly relevant on the heels of the school resource officer's violent actions at Spring Valley High. As the authors wrote,

whenever we discipline our kids, our overall goal is not to punish or to give a consequence but to teach. The root of 'discipline' is the word disciple, which means 'student,' 'pupil,' and 'learner.' A disciple, the one receiving discipline is not a prisoner or recipient of punishment, but one who is learning through instruction. Punishment might shut down a behavior in the short term, but teaching offers skills that last a lifetime...we want caregivers to think of discipline as one of the most loving and nurturing things we can do for our kids.

I love this focus on teaching, which actually requires adults to use something besides our fear and conditioning to relate to a child. Siegel and Bryson reiterate again and again that we must connect with our children before we try to redirect their behavior. How that connection looks and sounds is going to differ, based on factors like circumstance and personality, but the result is the same: the child feels understood, valued, and accepted for who they are, not who they should or could be according to somebody else's norms and expectations. The authors do a brilliant job responding to the counter-argument that to connect with children is to spoil them, specifically noting,

Spoiling is not about how much love and time and attention you give your kids. You can't spoil your children by giving them too much of yourself...Nurturing your relationship with your child and giving her the consistent experiences that form the basis of her accurate belief that she's entitled to your love and affection is exactly what we should be doing. In other words, we want to let our kids know that they can count on getting their needs met.

Not all suicides are linked to a lack of connection and acceptance, but many of them are. So much of my work with clients centers on important relationships--oftentimes with parents and partners--in which they do not think they can express who they are and still be loved. Given that acceptance is a core human emotional need, the inability to be our authentic selves and still feel a sense of belonging and connection is devastating. I cannot overstate this point.

But I want to end this post on a positive note. I just had the opportunity to attend a Boulder Valley Safe Schools Coalition meeting and learned of parents, educators, and administrators working together to make this district's schools safe and equitable learning environments for all students. To see the district's language about honoring student identities and affirming gender fluidity and diversity was heartening. Even more so was the presence of parents who shared testimonials about their love of and support for their gender variant children at a district board meeting. These parents strike me as some of the biggest changers of hearts and minds about connecting with our children's concerns, feelings, and experience and accepting them as they are. May we learn from the tragic losses we have already endured so that human flourishing, not just survival, becomes a realistic aspiration for our society.

 

Learning to Honor Self-Doubt and Move through It

Self-doubt can be such a nasty monster. Although I aspire to look at our most ineffective habits as survival resources that, at some point in our lives (often when we're young), helped us to keep going, self-doubt is one of those bugaboos that seems to bring nothing we want and everything we don't, including paralysis, self-loathing, and a whole lot of angst. Credit to Connie McLeod

I observe client after client live out a sliver of their lives on account of self-doubt. When I reflect on the role self-doubt has played in my own life, I see many moments of living in a painful story that prevented me both from engaging in the present moment and realizing possible dreams. But here is the thing: self-doubt in and of itself is not bad. Initially, at least, self-doubt serves as an indicator of sorts. Perhaps we are about to dive headlong into a new endeavor that warrants more caution and humility. Self-doubt might be the force that causes us to pause and move forward more wisely and skillfully. It also can spur us to consider perspectives other than our own and so engage in action with a wider, more informed lens. As Michelle McQuaid instructs, "nature has wired your brain with these uncomfortable feelings for the practical purpose of guiding your behavior."

Self-doubt becomes an issue when we identify with it--when we view it as a fixed aspect of our identity and say things like, "I can't handle this unfamiliar challenge so I might as well not even try." At that point, our attention goes largely toward feeding the self-doubt with negative beliefs, and we lose sight of other options, such as taking one small step toward a difficult challenge or unrealized dream.

A model I have found helpful for defanging self-doubt comes from a Birthing from Within class I have been taking in preparation for the birth of my child. The course's philosophy is rooted in four pillars: self-doubt, determination, faith, and love. Self-doubt is an integral part of the birthing process as it helps us to unearth the fears we have been carrying around about childbirth, often unconsciously. Having unearthed our deepest fears, we can work with them and use the other three pillars to see us through labor, delivery, and beyond. Thus we honor self-doubt as part of the birth experience and life more generally.

One of the art projects we did in the course brought these abstract ideas to life for me. Our facilitator asked us to identify one of our greatest fears and create a picture of it. Mine involved self-doubt taking over during labor. I envisioned collapsing into myself and not being able to access internal or external resources from this tight, closed space. With self-doubt at its peak, I would be forced to quit my home birth plan and submit to medical interventions not of my own choosing. The false core beliefs I learned long ago would come flooding in, particularly "You're a failure."

But picturing the fear was just the first part of the project. The facilitator then asked us to envision working with this fear and transforming it. I immediately thought of the body-based trauma training I completed and re-membered (pun intended) that I could shift my body even if my mind was screaming messages of self-doubt at me. More specifically, I could reengage my core and align my body in such a way that I was upright, with my shoulders back, and thus better able to breathe, push, and see and hear the support of the midwife and my partner. My body could serve as a guide and through its wisdom calm my thoughts and emotions. I returned to the space of saying to myself, and actually believing, "You can do this."

Later in that class session, we learned a pain coping strategy that struck me as another useful way to pull out of self-doubt's quicksand. Called ovarian breathing, this strategy comes from the Chinese ancient practice of Microcosmic Orbit. Essentially, you imagine pulling your inward breath up from the base of your spine to the top of your head and then imagine your exhaled breath moving from the top of your head down the front of your body. While exhaling, you send life-giving energy to yourself (and your baby if you're pregnant). The third step of ovarian breathing is the one that most helps us to move through self-doubt and access the other pillars: imagine a special bowl or container right above the pubic bone that captures the life-giving energy from your out-breath. Then use this collected energy to begin the next inhalation process and continue this cycle of breath. The take-away message for me in this practice is that we already have everything we need within us to keep going. I encourage you to try this practice, which is especially helpful when we feel exhausted and discouraged and does not require ovaries!

My baby's birth story is not yet written, but I can tell you that shifting my approach to self-doubt and experimenting with practices that remind me it is only a slice of my experience have allowed me to respect self-doubt and rest in determination, faith, and love. As Pema Chodron wrote, difficult emotions

are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we're holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we'd rather collapse and back away. They're like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we're stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it's with us wherever we are.

 

Why no, I'm not infertile. Just queer.

This pregnancy business has given me a lot of time to reflect on just how heteronormative and ciscentric baby-making and baby-having processes are as well as how many unhelpful assumptions we human beings tend to make about all sorts of things. A concrete example illuminates what I mean: Imagine a couple composed of a cisgender woman and a trans man. They decide they want to become parents via the cisgender woman's eggs and a donor's sperm. They go to a fertility clinic because that is where procedures like intrauterine insemination and in-vitro fertilization happen. Because they are read by the staff as a straight, cisgender couple, they get two intake forms: one for the female and one for the male. Both forms were created with the following assumptions in mind: the woman has two x chromosomes, a vulva, a uterus, fallopian tube(s), and ovary/ies; the man has a x and y chromosome, a penis, and testicle(s); at least one member of the couple has fertility issues. Now it may be true that the man is sterile if he had his reproductive organ(s) surgically removed. But that infertility is not due to a "malfunctioning" penis, sperm, or testicles. In fact, if we are looking for trans men's reproductive stories, a more likely scenario is revealed in Alexis Light's study of 41 trans men--the majority of whom had undergone hormone treatment (i.e taken testosterone)--who became pregnant or gave birth. But I digress from the illustration.

Creative Commons Photo found Here

 

Now if the fertility clinic is sensitive and knowledgeable about LGBTQ+ people, which remains a big if in 2015, the couple can let the clinic staff know that the male intake form is largely of no use and carry on with the process of trying to conceive a child in a welcoming environment. Ideally, the fertility clinic will revise its intake process, perhaps by simply beginning it with an open-ended question about what brings the patients to the clinic, without assuming there is a "problem" with one or both members of the couple or asking a bunch of questions about their presumed genetic make-up and body parts that are irrelevant to the situation at hand.

Avoiding a deficit-oriented approach can seem tricky since many queer folks are indeed missing an ingredient needed for conception. But what a difference medical providers can make for patients, especially when they are already feeling vulnerable from the parenthood journey, if they emphasize what the patients will be adding to the mix--in the above case sperm--rather than that the patients needs to make up for what is lacking (and I would assert that this argument applies to folks struggling with infertility, too). Adding a sperm donor to the picture certainly makes things more complicated for the couple in this case study. Legal and financial considerations abound and, perhaps more importantly, ethical questions about whether children have a right to know who their biological parents are as well as psychological considerations about how knowing or not knowing who contributed to half their genetic make-up may impact children down the road. Moreover, the individual not contributing genetic material to the conception process may need to make peace with this reality if they have not already. Nevertheless, promoting a sense of wholeness for these wannabe-parents, and definitely treating both patients as the "real" parents of the hoped-for child, sure could make an already daunting process significantly more inviting.

Now I will broaden the case study to LGBTQ+ people more generally, as the assumptions really go haywire once conception has happened. Unfortunately I know far too many individuals who, because they did not look the part of dear old mom and dad, faced significant micro and more macro aggressions throughout pregnancy and after their babies were born. For example, in Light's study, which I mentioned earlier, the pregnant male participants "recalled numerous insensitive comments and exchanges, both in public and in doctor's offices...This included receiving uncomfortable stares, suspicion, hostility, being misgendered, being turned away from prenatal care, and even being reported to Child Protective Services."

We can do better than participate in such mistreatment, of that I am confident. But we have to be willing to look at our assumptions about reproduction, pregnancy, and parenting--particularly who gets to engage in these activities--to do so. One perspective I find instructive is Pavel Somov's suggestion that we use "emotionally pragmatic assumptions" rather than "entitled presumptions." As he wrote,

Both an assumption and a presumption are ways of dealing with the unknown. To assume is to suppose that something is, was, or will be the case without evidence or proof. To presume is to take for granted that something is, was, or will be the case. Thus, an assumption is a tentative hypothesis and a presumption is an inflexible expectation...When faced with some crucial unknown, allow yourself to formulate an emotionally pragmatic assumption [or belief that helps you survive uncertainty with the minimum of distress] without letting it become an inflexible expectation. Recognize that just because you have a preference for a certain version of the future, that doesn't mean reality will comply. Reality owes us nothing.

To try to eradicate assumptions is unrealistic, as human beings rely on them to get through each day. Pavel points out that we assume such mundane things as that our alarm will work and we will wake up the next morning. I'm most interested in what we do when we realize our assumptions are in conflict with reality. Do we cling more tightly to our beliefs and insist that the knowledge challenging them is a lie? If we go this route, are we willing to investigate what is driving such fierce determination to hold onto what should be rather than what is? In my experience, fear is the instigator of such steadfastness much of the time. Acknowledging and working with that fear, which is ultimately the anticipation of loss, helps to defuse it so that there is more space for new knowledge to be integrated into, rather than rejected from, our current understanding of the world and the people in it.

A challenge to myself and anyone reading this, then, is to remind ourselves continuously how much we do not know about the people we encounter in our daily lives. People's appearances, in particular, provide great fodder for inquiry on what we actually know about the individuals before us and an opportunity to open to the multitude of possibilities made possible by the complexity of human beings. Once we recognize what we do not know, we have more options for proceeding in ways that increase understanding more than promulgate misconceptions. Although not everyone wants to share their story, most people appreciate being asked who they are rather than being told who they must be or who they are not. To borrow from Andrew Solomon, “Remember...that it is nearly impossible to hate anyone whose story you know...If you can give language to experiences previously starved for it, you can make the world a better place.”

Old Stories Die Hard

I recently binge-watched Catastrophe, a hilarious sitcom about a 40-year-old woman living in London who becomes pregnant after a brief fling and decides to keep the baby. The show's depiction of the protagonist's interactions with the medical system particularly grabbed me. As I enter week 28 of pregnancy at the age of 39, I've had to draw on every resource I can think of not to resort to the worn-out but still living stories about my inadequacies and defects. Western medicine tends to serve as liquid fuel for these already smoldering narratives. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bfccan1k2_4

At 39, I qualify for the lucky title of "elderly primigravida" in the World Health Organization's International Classification of Diseases. My "disease" is being over the age of 35 during my first pregnancy, which places me in the "high-risk" category. This experience has helped me to understand just how damaging pathologizing language can be and how many creative resources we need in our lives to prevent, or at least mitigate, that harm. In my case, Western medicine is the primary purveyor of toxic messages, but schools, religious institutions, and many other contexts play their part when it comes to infecting people with the idea that they are defective and/or a danger to our society.

This pregnancy has also strengthened my resolve as a therapist to help people externalize these pejorative voices and replace them with ones that speak of wholeness and insist that our dignity is not up for grabs. That work, as I've learned through the journey toward parenthood, requires a great deal of humility. Despite years of learning, growing, and therapy, a few minutes with an obstetrician brought me straight back to the insecurities of my 16-year-old self.

At that tender time, my family doctor said to me as I stepped off a scale during a routine check up, "Your weight is in the normal range for your height. Don't think you're overweight." Harmless enough if one lives in a vacuum. But I lived in a world where my worth was closely associated with the shape of my body. That scale had a simple metric: thinner = more valuable. Unfortunately, I had little access to resources--internal, human, and otherwise--that directly challenged this narrative during my adolescence. So I began my pursuit of making sure no one ever said to me again, "Don't think you're overweight."

I realized just how vibrant that thin-striving part remains in the second trimester of my "geriatric" pregnancy. The doctor made me go weigh myself a second time, this time under her supervision, to make sure the scale wasn't lying. From her perspective, I had gained too much weight in the previous two months. Despite my "advanced maternal age," I momentarily lost sight of the fact that this was one point of view. Yes, it was the voice of an expert. But a human expert, not an infallible one. I could not see that possibility because a younger part of myself had taken front and center stage, and she was hell-bent on not being called fat.

I went home and, for the first time in my pregnancy, consciously ignored what my body told me, which was to feed it. Even when I awoke in the middle of the night with clear hunger pains, I convinced myself that a little water would do the trick and refused to put more calories in my body. When the alarm went off the next morning, I felt terrible. I've had nausea throughout my pregnancy, but that day the nausea was more intense and accompanied by shakiness and dizziness. I promptly cooked and ate two eggs and headed to my office for my first appointment. Thankfully I arrived a few minutes early, as I immediately ran to the bathroom to violently eject this food from my body. I somehow made it through that work day but was exhausted for several days thereafter. A popped blood vessel in my eye from the intense vomiting marked my shame in resorting to starvation tactics while being tasked with growing a human being within this body.

The therapist with whom I worked would call the interaction with the obstetrician in the weighing room an "uh-oh moment." I came into contact with an authority figure who said and did something that triggered alarm bells. Of course I wish I had paused in that moment and recognized I did not need to go down the well-trodden path of self-loathing, judgment and control. I had other options. Then again, puking my guts out offered a teaching I could not easily ignore.

Since that unfortunate encounter, I moved to Colorado and began seeing a midwife. Such a partnership is not for everyone, and I am not here to evaluate one form of pre-natal care over another. What I can say is that I've been paying a lot of attention to my own signals (thoughts, emotions, and sensations) when I meet with her, and they are ones of ease and contentment rather than anxiety, self-doubt, and self-criticism. We have more of a collaborative relationship that is flexible in nature and very attuned to what is going on in my particular experience and body. Although I regularly face fear-based messages from strangers and loved ones about choosing to birth this baby outside of a medical environment, I'm more committed than ever to listening to my own voice--not the 16-year-old part who desperately wants approval and to achieve some unattainable form of external beauty, but the wise one that knows better than anyone else what is going on within.

For me to hear her, I have to listen inwardly, often and carefully, and inhabit the places that allow me to do so. After all, echoing dens of "uh oh" hamper such listening. So I'm actively seeking out contexts and people that support the presence of a big "s" Self, which Richard Schwartz would characterize as calm, curious, clear, compassionate, confident, creative, courageous, and connected. Living in Colorado, I am lucky to have gorgeous natural spaces at my fingertips and seek them out as often as I can. I also have taken solace in the midwife's perspective on my body's own wisdom: to breastfeed this baby for more than a short time, I am going to need some extra pounds and so my body is doing what it needs to do to prepare itself. I am especially grateful to have a partner who regularly says things like, "You need to feed yourself and that baby," and, "You look beautiful." I am asking the inner critics to step back so I can actually hear that voice and let it in.

Diamond Lake near Eldora, CO

Additionally, I have sought out resources like a lovely prenatal yoga class and Kimber Simkins' Full, a memoir that honestly and authentically captures her struggle with disordered eating and self-hate as well as her movement toward self-compassion and love. I particularly liked the rules she decided to make up for herself, which have bolstered my intention to spend more time following my own internal compass:

  • First rule: My body is just fine the way it is.
  • Second rule: I am allowed to love my body if I choose.
  • Third rule: Stop listening to anyone who tells me otherwise. Even if the voice is in my own head.
At the end of the day, I'm doing my best to make peace with my old stories by reminding myself that they originally came into being to help me. I know from observation and experience that resisting them or wishing they would simply go away does not work. In Tara Brach's terms, we need to "tend and befriend" our experience, with openness and curiosity. That is the path to wholeness. Moving through its curves and rough spots continues to be challenging, to say the least. But my Self knows this is the road to radically accepting not only myself but also the baby I'm about to bring into the world.

Waking Up Can't Wait

Black survival has so often depended on white comfort.

--Chenjerai Kumanyika

I keep sitting down to write the post I intended to pen about the trials, tribulations, and riches of being a 39-year-old pregnant queer person. But since the Charleston murders, I'm having a hard time thinking about something other than the urgent need for white people in this country, myself included, not only to acknowledge the ongoing legacy of white supremacy but also to do our damnedest to eradicate the systems of exploitation, oppression, genocide, and othering that are its descendants.

The Nine People Killed in Charleston. Credit to WSB-TV

 

In the wake of the Charleston church shooting, I highlighted people of color's voices about the entrenched history of violence and racism of which this massacre is but one example. When it comes to racism, I'm often in spaces where it's appropriate and helpful for me to shut up, listen, and do the work of becoming ever more awake to the ways in which my racial identity in a country founded on white dominance grants me innumerable privileges while degrading someone else's humanity. But there are other contexts when struggles for peace and justice demand white people's individual and collective voices and contributions. This is one of those times. And I have no illusions that with this blog post I am doing anything other than my best to join the chorus of voices saying--screaming--"Enough!"

As I'm preparing to become the parent of a racially and financially privileged child, I keep thinking of parents who do not have the luxury of assuming this society will welcome their babies into it with open arms. I imagine the training these parents may offer to their children in their best attempts to keep them safe from harm, such as to be ever vigilant of the dangers lurking in so many public and private spaces within this country. To survive, those children may learn to live in a state of nearly constant fear. This reality constitutes trauma, for the parent and the child. And that is unacceptable.

When I was an academic, conversations about trauma were often dismissed because they introduced bodies and emotions into ideological arguments about injustice. As a therapist, I am a lot more confident asserting that systems of oppression and domination create devastating amounts of individual and collective trauma, the effects of which are experienced for generations. I would hope to get widespread agreement that all human beings deserve safety. Yet we have created a society that is not safe for so many of its citizens and never has been. Can we face that truth and work to change it rather than resort to defenses that keep us asleep and moving toward ever more violence, inequality, and fear? As Tara Brach said in her poignant talk on beloved community, "When we don't pay attention, others are still unreal others. We have to get close in...We have to let our hearts be broken. Otherwise we're going to stay in a very insulated identity because you can live for decades and not get exposed. And then not care enough to be part of the healing...We have to pay attention. We have to pay attention."

For several years I succumbed to the false belief that I needed to shame and blame myself for the atrocities committed in the service of maintaining white supremacy. I like to think I have more wisdom these days and instead of following that route, which is both self-destructive and not helpful to collective struggles for justice, actively look for the pervasive and subtle ways that both the institutions in this society and my own being have internalized dehumanizing and discriminatory messages about black people and people of color more generally. I inherited this racist legacy and understanding it to the best of my ability gives me a fighting chance to co-create a world in which safety and dignity are human rights, not privileges. To deny the legacy of white supremacy is to fight reality. Fighting reality may bring momentary comfort, but it is the kind of comfort Kumanyika mentioned in the quote above. And the costs of such comfort are incredibly high. They include being complicit in the ongoing violation and traumatization of millions of lives. Since I believe we are all interconnected, such complicity also and ultimately amounts to the desecration of our own humanity.

May we therefore awaken, individually and collectively, to the suffering generated by our systems of belief and action and work to alleviate that suffering in all its manifestations. In the words of James Baldwin, "We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is."

Being Responsible to, Not for, Others

Guilt. It comes up often and mercilessly for many of the clients who walk through my door. I've begun to see it as a probable symptom of over-responsibility, as many people mention it in the context of trying to set boundaries with loved ones and feeling like they have no right to do so. After naming the guilt, clients say things like,

I shouldn't complain about being there for my mom during this difficult time in her life.

My friend is in crisis. It's selfish for me to focus on my own needs when they are on the edge of a cliff.

I have to answer the phone when my brother calls. It's true he asks me for money 95% of the time that we talk, but I'm his sibling. I can't ignore him.

Credit to StressTherapist.net

As I've noted before, any time I hear a "should" (aka "have to," "need to," "supposed to"), I pause and get curious about this sense of obligation. Many times, we learned from our families, religion, the media, or some other external source that there is a right and wrong way to go about living life. In other words, "shoulds" are inherently evaluative. Judgments of this sort are not themselves bad or wrong, but they tend to limit our our sense of possibility rather than grow it. In all of the statements above, I hear some implicit, rigid rules about how a person in a particular role--child, friend, parent--is supposed to behave. But who said it has to be so?

An important step for those of us who tend toward over-responsibility is to inquire into where and how we learned to view the world as a place that needs us to take over. More often than not, we have unconsciously taken on a role that helped us to survive a relationship or difficult situation at one point in time. But, as time marches on, this initially useful strategy serves to undermine our connection to others and ourselves. As Susan Burden unabashedly states in a great article called "Tracking Over-Responsibility in a Family System,"

If the over-responsible person has a hard time taking care of his own needs, it's even more difficult for him to establish an emotionally close relationship with another person...If my focus is inside his head, aware of his pain, anticipating his real or imagined needs, and I assume responsibility for them, then I am giving up self. If I deny what's inside me, I have very little to share with him. Moreover, how can I respect the person whose boundaries I'm invading? My taking care of him implies that he is incapable of taking care of himself, and that's no basis for respect...Over-responsibility is a form of dysfunctional caretaking. It's an attempt to keep one away from painful feelings, but the price paid is high. The chronically over-responsible person will find herself in relationships that are based on duty and obligation, and riddled with doubts and mistrust rather than on caring and respect.

What those of us who jump into an over-responsible role too often neglect is how we're actually undermining someone else's ability to draw on their own resources and strengths to deal with the ups and downs of life. We end up trying to be responsible for rather than to people.

I became painfully aware of my own tendency toward over-responsibility on the heels of a client's suicide. Feeling acute helplessness and powerlessness, I initially jumped into a rescuer role. Especially when I saw someone struggling, I tried to do everything in my power to "fix" their problems. With the assistance of skillful colleagues, I began to see how all this over-doing for others was made in an effort to avoid my grief and the effects of this traumatic event on my own personal and professional life. I also gained a clearer understanding of how I was not actually helping anyone when I put on this savior hat.

The connection between over-responsibility and disrespect strikes me as especially pertinent when facing the institutionalized racism that is blatantly appearing in the form of widespread police violence. If we are going to work in solidarity for justice and peace, those of us who are outsiders to the communities of color facing racialized oppression and domination day in and day out would benefit from inquiring into how we are approaching our responsibility to these communities. I have seen a lot of media about white people not stepping up and speaking out against systemic racism and violence (i.e. being under-responsible) and this is certainly an issue. But the opposite problem also persists, and has been discussed in multiple ways, including Teju Cole's powerful article about the "white-savior industrial complex." As he asserts, humility and respect for people's agency is critical to acting on a "good heart":

there is much more to doing good work than 'making a difference.' There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them...If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement.

In short, the guilt tied to over-responsibility not only negatively affects our day-to-day interactions with others but also has troubling, broader social and political implications. Audre Lorde gets the final word on this point:

all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.

On Being Transformed

I felt my heart racing as the facilitator patiently waited for someone to volunteer to be the client for an afternoon demonstration. It was the fifth day of a sensorimotor psychotherapy training, and 35 of us had gathered for the occasion. At that point, we had been learning about the capacity of human beings to integrate traumatic experiences into our lives in ways that result in a greater sense of wholeness and well-being. In Pat Ogden and her colleagues' words,

As we become aware of internal experience and relate it to external sensory input, we engage in a process of making sense of the environment and how it pertains to us. If our interpretations and understandings are relatively accurate, adaptive action results. This accuracy requires the ability to recognize our internal experience: our thoughts, emotions, internal images, body sensation, and movement.

Another photo of Hazel, because I can.

We therapists had been helping each other gain clarity on our internal experience, and I had come to realize how much self-doubt I continued to have about my ability to set boundaries with a tender heart. In my family, where perfectionism abounded (and, with it, plenty of rigid rules), I had learned an either/or way of approaching sticking up for myself: self-righteously and stubbornly declare my point of view or suck it up and move on. There was little room for considering how we might honor our own dignity in the face of a boundary violation with an appropriate level of vulnerability. In other words, distrust of the world, each other, and ourselves ran high. Thus we needed to put up our shields, if not pull out our weapons, to face life's challenges. My prior career move into a patriarchal, ego-filled academic realm, where shows of emotion were frowned upon (and the irony is not lost on me that "enlightened" intellectuals are some of the most prone to temper tantrums), reinforced my sense that survival in this world required a hardened exterior.

I have been actively working on realizing a both/and approach to life for several years now that has allowed me to embrace the reality that you can say "No" in a loving way--that is, via skillful means that sustain and grow connection rather than erode or decapitate it. Yet saying aloud "I am tender" during the course of this training proved to be a very challenging task, demonstrating just how deep the belief went that I was not capable of being open and soft. My throat tightened and long fought-back tears arose as I uttered these words to my colleague the previous day, with both hands on my heart doing their best to keep me upright.

Yet despite all this wobbling, I raised my hand as the facilitator kept scanning the room for volunteers. "I can't guarantee I won't cry," I said, the tears already welling up in my eyes as I stood up to meet her. What had I done!?

With the goal of integration before us, the facilitator asked me what the focus of my work with peers had been during the weekend. As my fellow therapists encircled us to observe the session, I shook like a leaf and said, "I'm working on being tender and boundaried." She encouraged me to use my mindfulness practice (a "creative resource" in sensorimotor speak) so that I could calm my nerves and not flee the scene. I closed my eyes, took some deep breaths, with my palms open on my crossed knees, and focused on letting the quakiness flow down and out of my body. It seemed like an eternity had passed when I finally felt grounded and centered enough to open my eyes and face the facilitator and crowd around me. She was very patient and reminded me we had time.

As we spoke about the deep yearning for validation and understanding that underlay the distrust of myself, she asked if specific words went with this desire, mentioning the possibility of "I am enough." While I am a huge Brene Brown fan and deeply resonate with her model of moving from scarcity to sufficiency, I decided in that moment to be really honest with myself and the surrounding audience.

"I'm a little ashamed to admit this, but I'm actually craving to hear from other people that they struggle to be seen, too," I said. In my own work with a therapist at an earlier point in time, I had internalized yet another "should" about living more from the inside out than the outside in. Once again, I'd moved into a dichotomy of perceiving that I needed to learn to offer myself validation OR continue to seek it from an unpredictable external world. This demonstration gave me an amazing opportunity to take in--and I mean actually absorb--that our interconnectedness means whatever we're experiencing is not unique to us.

The facilitator asked people to raise their hands if they resonated with the words "I struggle to be seen, too." Hands shot up around the room, and I swear my heart grew. The facilitator picked one individual for me to look in the eye as he repeated my words to me. It was an amazing moment of connection--both of us with our hands on our hearts. Any sense of separation I had brought into this circle with me vanished. My chest opened, my shoulders relaxed, and I felt my butt firmly on the floor. Tender and boundaried. I thanked this man, and the facilitator asked me if I felt like I had completed the desired action.

I glanced at the clock, aware that I was asking all these people to witness my individual experience and feeling sheepish about taking up everyone's precious time. Not much being lost on her, the facilitator gently admonished that she was keeping time. I didn't need to worry about it. "I mean, if there truly is time for one more round, I'd love it," I admitted. She reassured me and the group that not rushing this process is a major part of its power. She again asked for volunteers and picked a woman on the other side of the room. She said, "I struggle to be seen, too," while looking into my eyes with both hands on her heart. This time the experience was more familiar but no less powerful.

It's hard to put into words what my experience was during that demonstration. Spiritual does seem like the most apt descriptor. But I can tell you that something shifted in me that day. The belief that I'm alone in this world lost significant power, and a sense of being connected to this earth and the the people in it began to grow in the space that belief had overtaken.

The facilitator's ability to hold space for me also reinforced my sense that people can touch into and follow their own wisdom with adequate, nonjudgmental support. Heather Plett beautifully articulates what this facilitator did for me:

To truly support people in their own growth, transformation, grief, etc., we can’t do it by taking their power away (ie. trying to fix their problems), shaming them (ie. implying that they should know more than they do), or overwhelming them (ie. giving them more information than they’re ready for). We have to be prepared to step to the side so that they can make their own choices, offer them unconditional love and support, give gentle guidance when it’s needed, and make them feel safe even when they make mistakes.

At the end of our training that day, the facilitator played "Kinder" by Copper Wimmin. The song's emphasis on our power to make different choices, let go, trust ourselves, and feel gratitude for what we have makes it an apt closing for this blog post, too.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P9PX31loh_c

Getting Unstuck: Downgrading Expectations and Setting Boundaries

Hazel at 9 weeks old This little lady has taken up more of my time these days, which is the main reason I have not been writing as much or as often. I thought I'd share the cuteness because hey, who doesn't like a puppy? I also wanted to introduce Hazel because the goal is for her to become part of my therapy practice when she's a little older. In the meantime, I have been thinking about the following:

I recently felt surprised at the intensity of my anger. I've spent several years practicing mindfulness and self-compassion and thought my capacity for rage had largely subsided. But a relational issue sprung up to remind me how the interaction between expectations and boundaries (or, rather, a lack thereof) can spur intense anger. Happily, Pavel Somov's book Present Perfect came into my life just in time to help me attend to the burning embers rather than react from them. This quote in particular initiated a very helpful pause:

By insisting on reality being a certain way, we get stuck. To get unstuck, downgrade your expectations to preferences. Whereas an expectation is an unwarranted entitlement, a demand that reality comply with your vision of how it should be, a preference is just a wish...Practice expecting nothing and flowing with what is.

This simple act of shifting an expectation to a preference significantly calmed my desire to lash out at the person whose behavior triggered so much angst. I could still wish for them to be more respectful and considerate of my time and efforts but not view this desire as a just desert. As I changed my stance, the self-righteous anger dissolved. What came in its stead was some very useful information.

For one thing, I realized I had not been attending to my boundaries. I took a historical look at this relationship and acknowledged to myself--really acknowledged--how frequently I did not say anything to this person about the behavior that was bothering me so as to avoid conflict. I feared that conflict would result in this person cutting me off, and the relationship mattered enough to me that I did not want to risk its loss. But as Donna Hicks asserts, when we avoid conflict we oftentimes violate our own dignity. As she says, "Stand up for yourself...A violation is a signal that something in a relationship needs to change."

Upon recognizing how many times I tried to overlook the parts of our relationship that needed to change for me to feel okay about it, the strength of my anger was no mystery. The metaphor of the pot boiling over rings true: we can only ignore our experience of indignity for so long before we explode or experience other symptoms of de-selfing such as depression and anxiety. Setting boundaries really amounts to saying yes to ourselves.

Somov's book has helped me to engage in a cooling off period so that when the opportunity arises to set boundaries, I can do so calmly and with kindness. I particularly liked his exercise "Open the First of the Past":

When wanting to let go of painful thoughts of the past, try this. Think of the worst part of what happened in the incident that's bothering you. As you do, clench your first as tightly as you can. Notice the tension. Think of this as the tension of holding on to the past. Recognize that you have a choice right now: you can stay tense or you can let go. Decide if you want to hold on to the thought or if you're ready to let go of it. When you decide to let go, gradually open your fist to drop the issue. Notice the release of the tension. If it still has a hold on you, repeat this process until it doesn't. If what happened bothers you in more than one way, think of the next worst part. Repeat the sequence.

So downgrading our expectations to preferences is not the end of the story. We still get to respect ourselves, which is precisely what boundaries allow us to do. With courage, practice, and support, we can set boundaries with lovingkindness, recognizing that difficult truths can be expressed without thorns. In Hidayat Inayat-Khan's lovely words, "What use is there in a blunt truth thrown like a stone, which breaks the heart? There is no virtue in truth which has no beauty."

Building Identity to Change the World

"Forging meaning is about changing yourself. Building identity is about changing the world." Such is the mantra of Andrew Solomon in yet another brilliant TED talk. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RiM5a-vaNkg

He is helping me to think about what work needs to be done in the realm of identity, particularly on the heels of Leelah Alcorn's suicide. In the note she wrote before her death, Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender teen, implored,

The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fucked up” and fix it. Fix society. Please.

Although Solomon's talk highlighted the lessons he has learned as a gay man, his ideas strike me as contributing to Alcorn's goal of ensuring that transgender people's dignity is honored--of fixing society. More specifically, he spoke of how identity saved him from his sadness by allowing him to enter into a community from which he drew and gave strength and to tell his story, with pride rather than shame.

Alcorn realized the power of a trans* identity at the age of 14 but, sadly, not the community of support from which to draw strength. As she said in her suicide note,

When I was 14, I learned what transgender meant and cried of happiness. After 10 years of confusion I finally understood who I was. I immediately told my mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong. If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids. Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.

I do not include this quote to grow more animosity toward Alcorn's mother who has been receiving hateful messages and threats. Rather, I want to emphasize the importance of drawing on identity to better understand and accept ourselves and the diversity of human beings more broadly. For Alcorn, learning about a transgender gender identity transformed confusion into clarity. For that clarity to become life-generating, however, she needed more acceptance and encouragement to be her authentic self. And that is where we as a society are falling way short.

Leelah's death has brought more attention to the high suicide rate among trans* individuals, and the isolation and bullying that many trans* youth face. For her death to "mean something," however, we need to build something, not just focus on what is lacking. I agree with Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart that

One of the unique characteristics of the LGBTQ community is that we are generally born to cisgender, heterosexual parents. This is our greatest strength as well as our gravest vulnerability. However righteous our anger at parents who fail to nurture and support their queer children, we must not lose sight of the fact that reaching out to these parents is an urgent need and a powerful potential weapon against hatred and bigotry. When parents learn to accept their LGBTQ children, they often become some of the fiercest advocates for tolerance and social change. We need to ensure a climate that makes these transformations more, not less, likely.

One way to promote the building of an identity politics that serves to enlarge our understanding of what it means to be human is to bring attention not only to those who contribute to the pain and isolation of trans* youth but also the organizations and people who fiercely support them, particularly parents. While many media outlets may sensationalize violence and hardship, stories of family acceptance and love exist and merit being shared. For example, in the book Transitions of the Heart mothers of transgender and gender variant children tell their stories without reducing themselves or their children to caricatures. Anna Rudolph's narrative particularly moved me. As she wrote,

To my child: walking into the building with you that day of sixth grade when you wore your little white sweater dress to school for the first time was one of the most terrifying moments of my life. You faltered at the door, and I took your hand firmly and walked with you to your classroom. May you always know I have that strength for you when you need it. I am proud to be your mother, and I love the person you are becoming--a brave and tenderhearted beautiful human being.

Alcorn was not able to "fold the worst events in [her life] into a narrative of triumph, evincing a better self in response to things that hurt," a pathway Solomon recommends for changing oneself and the world. But the rest of us can engage in the work of cultivating spaces that "break the limits of what constitutes a valid life."

 

Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow

Wisdom in the Vet's Bathroom  

A lot of crazy stuff is happening out there right now. While I contemplated this post, a critical voice erupted in my head that sounded something like, "Are you really going to write about your dead cat when the world has so much unaddressed injustice and violence?" Thankfully I snapped to my senses. That is precisely what I am going to do because, at the end of the day, what matters most in this life is making and sustaining connections to this living and dying world. Chopper (aka Choppy and Chopperpants) taught me how to do that and so much more. So this post is a tribute to him--one of my greatest teachers--with photos to boot.

Acceptance

Chopper came to me with no whiskers in the summer of 2004. He and his litter mates had been abandoned by a stream soon after birth and most of his siblings drowned. His living sister chewed off his whiskers during this time so he only had short stubbles on his face when I adopted him from a local rescue organization. Unsurprisingly, this early trauma made Chopper pretty needy. I rarely could sit down without him wanting to be on my lap. Initially I would get frustrated by his insatiable desire for affection and frequent talking, which I interpreted as, "I'm here! Love me!! I'm here!!! Love me!!!!" I found it difficult to accomplish things, like typing papers for graduate school, with him standing on the keyboard.

 

On My Lap and All Zipped Up

 

Over time, however, I came to see him and myself more clearly. When I stopped doing and gave him my full attention, he did not need so much. With a little maneuvering, he could get the touch he craved, and I could still complete the tasks at hand. Perhaps more importantly, he helped me to pause more and observe myself. Frequently, I was caught up in worried thoughts. His furry self (my partner said he was the softest cat in the world) brought me back to the present moment. He reminded me to rest and receive the comfort of his noisy, unremitting purr. When I stopped trying to be somewhere else with someone else, grace came in the form of Chopper, as well as acceptance of and gratitude for what I have in this life, right now.

The Ability to Receive Love

With my former, incessant craving to be and do better, I focused much of my attention on the external world. I should be working harder, loving better, giving more, all to get some desperately sought-after approval and recognition from others. Chopper was not having any of this self-defeating performance. I could be in the foulest mood, and he still gave me the look in the above photo. I often half-joked with my partner that he could never gaze at me the way Chopper did. Try as I might to push him away, like I did with everyone else who got close to me, he just kept coming back with those big green eyes and pawed at my face until I rubbed his chin. He wouldn't even bite my hand unless it was disguised by a blanket. That fierce and gentle love again instigated a pause. Maybe I could lower the fortress I had built to protect myself from rejection and heartache and at least let Chopperpants in. He wouldn't hurt me. And he didn't. With his patient determination (and, admittedly, significant therapy), I learned I was worthy of love and that vulnerability opens the door to intimacy, understanding, and so many other good things.

 

A Typical Pose

 

The Capacity to Stay

Almost three years ago, I found a lump near Chopper's jaw. A biopsy revealed he had Hodgkin's-like lymphoma. The third time a tumor appeared, my vet said he should go to an oncologist. The oncologist tried one kind of chemotherapy. When that stopped working after a couple of months, he tried another, more aggressive (and expensive!) form that required 16 treatments. Chopper hated the car rides across town to the clinic, but he was his perky, kind self once there. Apparently he was the only cat who didn't hiss at and try to bite the veterinary staff during the blood draws.

He lost his whiskers for the second time in his life. When I grabbed my car keys, he would hide. But he endured the treatment to its completion, and we all hoped he would have at least a year of remission. No such luck. Three months later, I was back in the oncologist's office after finding another tumor. The doc said he didn't want to give up yet. We tried a third kind of chemotherapy that I could give him at home. I arranged for him to get the necessary blood work done at a nearby veterinary office, as he began to howl and throw up when we arrived at the oncologist's office. Propelling such anxiety for short spells of remission stopped making sense.

 

Chopper Not Loving Being in the Car for a Cross-Country Move (June 2011)

 

When another tumor reappeared this past May, I called off the chemo and weaned him off the steroids he had been taking. He stopped being afraid of my car keys and resumed being his playful, cheerful, talkative self. He would serenely sit on my lap while the lovely Carrie Donahue put acupuncture needles in his back, and he did not balk at me shoving supplements down his throat twice a day.

Then he began having trouble breathing. We started the steroids again. Another tumor appeared and quickly enveloped his throat and chest. The tumor eventually became infected and made his breathing extremely labored. On January 7, 2015, Carrie came over to our house and euthanized my beloved cat who was, at that point, gasping for air. He died peacefully in my arms, and I am forever grateful to Carrie and thankful I had the resources to let him go in this way, before he could no longer breathe.

 

Brothers, Since Foster Care

 

Why am I recounting the details of this sad tale? Because I had no idea I could witness such suffering without fleeing the scene (which is my favorite definition of compassion) until I experienced Chopper's prolonged struggle with cancer. I frequently wanted to bury my head in the sand and avoid the painful parts of his illness, but I didn't. I sat with him. I loved the shit out of him. I let him go. I never want to go through this process again with a pet or human being, but now I know that I can. And that makes all the difference. May you rest in peace, sweet Chopper.

to live in this world

you must be able to do three things to love what is mortal; to hold it

against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go

--Mary Oliver

Mr. Green Eyes and Pink Nose