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.