Tag Archives: therapy

vulnerability-faith-hope

Finding my voice

When I approached the presenter at the cancer caregivers workshop to share my reaction to her words about hope, she responded, “I wish you would have said that at the mic.”

At the end of each presentation, we were invited to come to the mic and ask questions or share reflections.

But, I don’t do that; I don’t share in front of groups.

Ironically, I love public speaking and have done a fair amount of it for my nonprofit work. But there is a difference between telling other people’s stories and sharing my personal stories. Other people’s, ok. My own, not so much.

As a child, I was told that what happened in our house stayed in our house. We also did not talk inside our house about anything that happened. I felt invisible, as if no one cared what I was going through—or even noticed that I was there. I didn’t seem to matter.
vulnerability-faith-hopeBy my late twenties, I was an emotional mess and started going to therapy to help me process growing up in a chaotic house and to reconcile my past.

However, growing up in a home where I was told never to talk about what happened made sharing extremely stressful. Every time words formed about an experience or feeling, an alarm would sound inside my head. Do not say that!vulnerability-faith-hopeI was incapable of identifying what I was feeling, much less talking about it.

Early on in therapy, I shared one of my earliest memories.

I was four years old, playing in my back yard, when I found a dime. What luck! Even at that young age, I knew a dime could buy me something special. I remember how shiny it was and how fortunate I felt. And then my older brother saw what I had and claimed it was his. “No!” I shouted. “It’s mine!” He tried to take it from me, and I knew he would triumph, so I swallowed it.

My therapist commented, “And you have been swallowing every challenge since them.”

I once heard Fr. Richard Rohr talk about our shadow side, and he described it as a sack where we stuff all the negative things from our lives. The image that popped into my mind was of something like Santa’s bag—this huge sack, dragging behind me. I could feel the weight of it pulling me back.

My shadow bag was filled with twenty-eight years of negative experiences that I had swallowed and tamped down deeper and deeper.

As I began to unpack my shadow bag in therapy and at retreats, and look at my history, I started to realize that surviving those experiences had made me who I was; they had made me strong and resilient. Learning to talk about it—especially at the mic—is still a work in progress.vulnerability-faith-hope

 

 

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compassion-God-love

Growing in love

Love your neighbor as yourself. Mark 12:31

Whenever I encountered this Scripture passage, I used to think, “Poor neighbors,” what a low bar. Shouldn’t I love my neighbors at least a bit more than I love myself?

I didn’t love myself very much in my young life. I saw myself as lacking in most every way, never quite measuring up, more often messing up.

I might have re-written the passage to read, Love your neighbors as you want to be loved—or possibly Love yourself as you love your neighbors, because I can be much more accepting, compassionate and forgiving of others.

My capacity for self-love was definitely deficient.

Growing up, I knew that God loved me, and it was always a mystery why or how God could love someone I saw as so broken. It was probably my biggest Yes, but, as in “I know God loves me, but…” followed by my litany of deficiencies—all the reasons God must be wrong to love me.

Recently, one of my neighbors ripped out his front lawn. I don’t know why he did it—maybe it was dying or too weedy; maybe he just got tired of it or just did not like it and wanted something new and different.

I walked past his grassless front yard for a few weeks and then one day there was a beautiful new lawn—lush, green and weed-free. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I thought, if I could rip out what is undesirable in me and instantaneously replace it with something new and beautiful, completely erase whatever was old, worn or ugly?compassion-God-loveBut that is not how it has worked in my life. Years of therapy helped me to redefine myself more realistically. Years of prayer helped me to begin to see myself as God sees me.

I had to learn to set good boundaries and practice owning what is mine, figuring out what I believe and reinforcing that—and letting go of negative views. I wrote affirmations on little pieces of paper and taped them to my bathroom mirror, stuck them to my refrigerator with magnets and placed them in small picture frames. Reading these affirmations every day eventually began to push aside negative messages and replace them with God messages.compassion-God-loveI was restructuring the landscape of my inner self, but it was not as instantaneous as laying sod.

When I was in therapy in my thirties, I used to practice my boundary-setting out loud. When I recognized that I was regurgitating someone else’s negative belief (about myself or anything else), I would identify it. “So and so needs to say…” and then I would say, “But I want to say…” about whatever it was what I believed, or what belief I was growing into.compassion-God-loveGrowing in self-compassion has strengthened my boundaries and improved my self-esteem. To love myself as God loves me is my desire. Only then am I able to truly love others as I love myself—and as God loves them.compassion-God-love

 

Moving beyond trauma

In the mid-1980’s, I participated in a clinical trial conducted by the Women’s Hospital in Philadelphia; the goal was to see if the treatment used with Vietnam Veterans to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) would be effective for women who were survivors of sexual assault.

I was recently reminded of this clinical trial when I was cleaning out my file cabinet and found four dog-eared index cards.

Each three-by-five card had a heading, written in someone else’s cursive.

  1. Preparing for a stressor
  2. Confronting and handling a stressor
  3. Coping with feelings of being overwhelmed
  4. Reinforcing self-statements

Beneath each heading, in my own writing, are prompts and personal messages.

I don’t remember much about the program—how many weeks or months it lasted, if sessions were once or twice a week—but I do remember driving to North Philadelphia and meeting one-to-one with a therapist.

Reading these messages that I had written to my younger self, I realized that I have internalized many of the practices I was taught in this program.

The treatment focused on modifying behaviors, and one exercise I have practiced over the years is interrupting negative thoughts. The idea is to notice when my thoughts are spiraling downward and I am starting to feel overwhelmed; then I shout STOP.stop sign

It does not matter if I shout out loud or in just in my mind, the shouting interrupts the negative thought process and gives me a chance to change direction and regain control. For me, this has been an effective thought-changing process that has helped steer me away from negativity.

On the first card, under the heading Preparing for a stressor, I wrote three questions:

  1. What is it I have to do?
  2. What am I afraid of?
  3. What is the likelihood of anything bad happening?

Beneath those questions, I instructed myself to “get beyond my feelings to do the work that has to be done.” And then I affirmed myself: “I’ve made a lot of progress; I’ve come this far; I can keep going.”

Some of the notes to myself on the other cards include:

“Other people can do this; so can I.”

“Focus on plan of action.”

“There are people involved whom I can trust.”

“It will be over soon.”

“The anxiety (fear) will slow me down but I will not be incapacitated by it.”

The fourth card is a list of affirmations, including:

“Nothing succeeds like success.”

“Good job—pat yourself on the back.”

I don’t know the outcome of that clinical trial, but for me, the treatment was helpful, and over the years, I can see how I have built on what I learned. For example, after accomplishing a task that is particularly stressful, I now say, “Bask in the glow of success” which, to me, is a step beyond patting myself on the back.

I know that my faith was primarily what got me through that trauma, and the clinical trial at Women’s Hospital was a gift. I am grateful.

 

 

 

 

Making friends with my shadow

One of my earliest memories is an incident that happened when I was four years old. I had found a dime in the yard and was running to show my mother when my older brother intercepted me. “That’s mine,” he said. I did not believe him, but I knew he would take it from me, so I swallowed it.

Twenty-five years later, soon after I started seeing a therapist, I shared this memory. “And you’ve been doing that ever since,” my therapist said. “What?” I asked obliviously. “Swallowing every threat and hurt,” he replied. That gave me something to think about.

Over the coming weeks and months, my therapist and I talked about all the hurts and rejections that had been too painful for me to deal with and how I had “swallowed” them—stuffing them down deep inside. I came to realize that I had a whole other person living within, a shadow side, made up of all the dark things I had not dealt with.

My therapist helped me to see how I was acting out of these buried feelings, and he encouraged me to look at these past hurts. He actually suggested I “befriend” those things buried deep within. Befriend them? I thought not. I could barely stand to look at them let alone think of them as friends.

But in time, I came to see more clearly how I was acting and reacting out of my past hurts and knew something needed to change.

My therapist help me understand that the things buried in my shadow side could not hurt me again—they were all in the past—and I was no longer a vulnerable child who could not defend herself. I was an adult who could make choices about how I reacted to events in my life. I had options.

I prayed for the grace to face the things buried in my shadow side and asked for Jesus’ gentle   touch to heal the memories and close these open wounds. Healing scriptures became personal invitations from God. Yes, I wanted to see. Yes, I wanted to walk. Yes, I wanted to be healed of my hemorrhaging.

Eventually, I became more comfortable staying with past pains when they surfaced, rather than stuffing them back down as soon as I started to feel any discomfort. I got to the point where I could look more objectively at my past, and rather than denying them, I began to incorporate my hurts into my story.  I could see how my past had shaped me and helped me be more accepting and compassionate. The wounds were transformed into gifts.

Lots of practice has helped me move more quickly from having my buttons pushed to figuring out what pain is being touched. Just the other day, a friend reminded me of an event from a few years ago. She did not know that the event had been painful for me, and I did not know I was still holding onto that pain. But at her reminder, I felt myself becoming defensive. Awareness is the first step. I pray for the grace to be healed of this hurt, knowing that befriending it will transform into a gift.