Ten Years

This November, it will be decade ago that I got my first paycheck as a Licensed Professional Counselor. Here are some things I've realized in that time through a combination of honest mistakes, wrong assumptions, many tears witnessed but way more laughter, and an unconventionally strong belief that there is a basically good sense to be made of suffering. I offer the findings below to clients and professional peers alike who might wonder what I mean by all that and how I've come to view this work.


Clients know themselves better than anyone else ever will. Even if they never make measurable therapeutic progress according to that best knowledge, they remain the ones who possess it. The key to tapping that wisdom is believing it's there, doing its dysfunctional darndest to manifest given the conditions that have shaped it. All my job has been and ever will be is to get closer to the client's knowledge -- to listen precisely and without judgment to her experience, identify the conditions she chronically needs and/or suffers, ask and notice how she expresses herself more or less honestly, and reflect all that workable if tragic logic back to her with my compassion and respect... I'm listening with as little bias as humanly possible for who clients really are through the overwhelming static of who they fear or regret they've become and staunchly supporting them in honoring and growing the former. It is at times a helpless thing but always a good thing not to presume to know, off the bat or ever, who clients truly are or what they ultimately should and should not do -- especially given any prior experiences of deference to others for answers fixes or saving that didn't go well... So. In the service of the integrity clarity and power of every client's self-discovery, my uncertainty will remain.


Speaking of uncertainty... There is wisdom in not knowing. Though we all do it all the time, living with the unknown is pretty hard to do confidently -- and exactly what I think people on a psychological or spiritual path fear doing, yet all the same aim to do. Not knowing is chaotic, outside every familiar line and box, unpredictable and beyond our control. For better and worse, not knowing is also the ultimate anti-habit. It's what we go to therapy for, to not know, to not be stuck in same-old-same-old and maybe finally be whomever and do whatever has eluded us while we've been busy reinforcing our comfort zones. Uncertainty is the bitch we must aspire to if we want to cut ties with intractable patterns of all kinds. But (good news coming...) uncertainty is also the thing we can trust to be every bit as creative as it is chaotic. And creativity is where possibility lives. Creativity is what's needed to formulate leaps and ventures that draw on extant but distant integrity and lost heart toward leaving wont and resignation behind. Uncertainty is where the if-onlys i-can'ts always-haves and never-wills go to die. Jumping in their graves? Now I can, so I will. It takes courage to go where we haven't gone; even though we go to therapy to do just that, it's daunting. So be it. Let's go anyway.


Where insights during sessions go, it's usually best for clients to keep them to themselves between sessions. At least for a little while. Most of us, when we realize something that seems as though it could liberate years of confusion, want to share it with friends and family. So it goes for clients, who will want loved ones to understand them as they learn more and differently about themselves through this kind of work. In the clear open space of good therapy, many fine insights will occur and some will prove as fragile as they are profound. They're not hardy enough at first to survive the mundane wilderness of everyday life, so they often don't, and so habitual thoughts, speech, and behaviors crowd back in. It's hard to change, to bushwhack new directions and stick with them when the old trails are so there already, so easy and inviting. I mean, think about it, if clients could've developed and maintained clarity and insight amid whatever their everyday life circumstances, let alone any triggering situations they face, they would've already. They haven't and can't -- yet -- which is why they're here engaging this last resort called therapy. For a little while, new learning deserves the protection of contemplation in solitude, a safe little cabin alone in the woods, not the challenges of group discussion and the real or perceived threats of debate. As clients become more confident with any fresh understanding and wrap their minds around changes to come as a result of it, others will pick up on that confidence and adjust much better to whatever's revealed.


An individual's indestructible goodness lives right in the defended center of a bigass blind spot, and as we know, blind spots show up in all manner of bad habits. To get to the good stuff, we must enter at the racing thoughts and terrible moods and horrific relationship fails and make our way into the void to find the meaning and sense of it all. Getting to the good via the bad = business as usual in my world. But clients are shocked when I say progress is not going to be about conquering, fixing, transcending or in any other way eradicating badness. Nope. We're in search of a core goodness here, which for better and worse is identifiable in both our up AND down moods, our skillful AND reckless speech, our loving AND punishing actions. A client presents because he can't relax enough with the bad to glean any useful information from it, has in fact long been trying to be rid of it, and so it has grown, like weeds ignored or made stubborn by attempts to destroy them... So I do what he yet can't. I stop antagonizing and turn toward and relax with and wonder about his now invasively preponderant bad self, and in that manner of beholding we get to know what amounts to confused learned human attempts to navigate connections and prevent losses and protect vulnerabilities, i.e., his panicked hyperthink, his anger and control, his sabotage and clinging, and we find the basically good root they reduce to, i.e., his resilient capacity to bear and grow through great stress, especially when it's all recognized as inspired by and headed toward some kind of love. Eventually, and quite naturally, we start talking about about him living more readily and relaxed from there.


I will never forget the moment nine years ago when I realized the gravity and potential harm of the work of psychotherapy. It's probably not what you think. The realization was not that clients would feel much worse before they got better or that I would say or do something stupid and upset an already suffering human. (Both happen and it works out.) It was that clients were feeling settled and clear during our sessions, laughing and full of hope, and then going back home, whatever that was, to conditions that wouldn't support the awareness and self-compassion and changes we were hosting in my office several planets away.

It was that a depressed client whose daily life revolved around his seat in a brown recliner in his mother's house would feel worse because of feeling better, his self-loathing reacting so quickly to the faintest arising of self-acceptance during our talks, for no adequately horrible reason I could find in his story, like a steely dark curtain cutting through a sunny blue sky killing the light of his face and the room as it came down around him, all this followed by his further descent into what I imagined from his description to be that thick dark grave of a chair when he returned back home... It was that a bipolar client's subtle insights and middle-way moods, which we had appropriately treatment-planned and objectives-accomplished, wouldn't even hit the radar of the husband and kids at home who were used to noticing her only when she became an emergency, flipping out screaming or unable to get out of bed due to various physical ailments that seemed to serve to keep her in check... It was that all the clients who dared to relax through trauma into honesty with me in order to see themselves more completely, who developed confidence and formulated a way to be and do more genuinely through our talks, couldn't hold their true shape when they got back to the people who were used to them warped however they always had been...

I seized up with tension and fear for days after a brilliant raging client unleashed verbally at me, notsomuch because she went off but because the thought occurred to me when she did that I could be harming clients with hope. We feel so productive together for a little while -- clients feel seen and understood and I feel wise and esteemable because I offer conditions for them to make incredibly real and responsible sense here -- and then they are confounded and discounted if not aggressed against hard out there by families and communities and social systems that want them to change but don't let them. No wonder clients are disappointed and angry as a result of this work...


But there's a good kind of suffering to foster and bear... Continuing per the prior paragraph, therapy is a daring venture that's perhaps best begun without hope. That is to say, the risks of therapy are real and clients must understand and consent to them -- in a way, give in to them. Again, the risks are notsomuch that clients will get worse, more lost, less confident -- not that we will discover through our work that they're even more fucked up than they thought they were before they walked into my office.... The risks are that clients will feel better, clearer, more confident, and will find their way to a lost truth that there was never anything intrinsically wrong with them to begin with, and as such, they may wonder how in the world they got as lost as they did... Then they may feel angry and grievous about all that time lost, and then they may feel quite alone.

What?!? YES. Hello again, suffering.

Imagine waking up one day and feeling thoroughly genuine and rested and clear and then going out the door and finding strangers and clutter and harsh weather and bad air where the people and places and climates you'd always known and accepted if not loved, and called familiar if not home, had been before. Nothing changed but you, such that the way everything felt before is no longer available, and the way things feel now is strange and differently desolate. Those change-based outcomes that you wanted and I supported -- decreased depression and anxiety, increased confidence and clarity, more honest communication, better health -- those outcomes are yours now. You've changed from the inside out and are rightly and consciously uncomfortable with what was inaccurately commonly known to be "true" about you (and others for that matter) before the real you stood up, and so you are in some ways unrecognizable by and maybe even unacceptable to the people who asked you to come see me in the first place....  

For a time, if and because clients change how they understand themselves and their worlds, they may feel as though they belong absolutely nowhere, and that is a suffering I ask clients to bear.

If I've exaggerated the picture to make the point, let me be clear: The work through therapy to be better acquainted with oneself and by extension one's world is very good and important and leads ultimately to better relationships, new and old, and to better health, mental and physical, and to better intentions and choices and impact. But ultimately is not immediately. Success in therapy takes time and follow-through and strong support and also a willingness not to hope for specific outcomes and, for that matter, not to fear them either. It takes a resignation of sorts to hurt differently, without shame, and to fall apart, but with integrity, and to rebuild with lighthearted determination.

I've heard and found that if you step onto a path of honest self-discovery, you're screwed, because it is inevitable that parts if not all of what you thought was true will be found not to be so, and that will take quite some adjusting to and involve some amount of discomfort. Though I can promise you some amount of ease and health and clarity, and that even a kind of beauty will arise in you and out of this work, it will come at the price of a different kind of suffering. You'll realize, bittersweetly, how ok and alone with that okness you've always been, and you'll stop trying so hard to change yourself and others or to change any minds, including your own, about yourself or anyone else. You'll stop arguing and begrudging and stalling so much, and you'll probably cry a lot. And then, finally and without fanfare, you'll find you're truly you and only yours. Free from self-doubt and resistance, you'll begin to deeply feel a lot better.


So. If therapy is about knowing myself best through leaning into my badness and being uncertain about everything I've known to be true so far and that leads to some level of detachment from others while I incubate insights and then I'm in existential crisis wondering whose life this is I'm living now that my familiar people no longer make sense to me nor I to them because I'm finally truly me, more awake and aware, sad and alone... Well, then. I'd like to go back to blissful ignorance and sleep, thanks. And how about a refund, too.

Hang on. There's joy. It's this:

With respect for the contemplative heart where all religions intersect, I best understand the Buddha's story. He chose to leave his comfort zone. He turned toward unpredictable suffering and felt badly and thought a lot. Along the way he indulged and denied lots of hope and fear. In the end he sat still under a tree through intense barrages of his own mental habits. And he bore them. He let them privately rise abide and go before they became speech and behavior and in his holding they changed from arrows into flowers. He stayed with himself and watched his personal fear and pain change into things harmless and workable if not beautiful and then he spoke and acted from there. He saw his own heart through whatever the obscurations of his day, and he did the same with others whom he taught to do the same with themselves. And so on.

Whatever insights the Buddha had in that sitting were not witnessed or validated by anyone but the earth upon which his body sat and his hand rested. No one else could or needed to understand his experience and many would be along to challenge it. He was essentially alone with it. When there was no "other" to persuade, or to be cruel or crucial to, or to be coveted or believed by, and it was just him and the natural inherently unpunishing uncongratulatory elements around him, he could just be and act according to what some traditions trust to be a fundamental sanity or goodness. When he did that, he let all others just be according to that as well, not naively or idiotically, but with sharp sight and unbiased regard and unconditional compassion and warmth.

May we aspire to cultivate enjoy and offer even a semblance of such hard-won beautiful things, not at all separate from our personal suffering, to everyone. And I mean everyone.

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11:00 am-6:30 pm


11:00 am-6:30 pm


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