Sunday, November 1, 2015

Lean on Me...

When I was in eighth grade, I was struggling a lot with figuring out how to interact at school. I was shy, and we had only been in that city for about a year.  In that city, in particular, everyone knew everyone else, and social status and history were very important. Being new and not having any social status to speak of, I didn't know how to engage.  As a result, I was pretty quiet. I had this one enrichment class with Mr. Suits.  He was creative and funny, and I really enjoyed his class. My class had ended up with a seating chart, and I was stuck in a back corner. This left me feeling isolated and intensified my quiet. One day, as we were waiting for the bell, I heard Mr. Suits saying, "Stephanie, just shut up! We can't get a word in edgewise with all your racket! Gosh!" In case it isn't clear, he was kidding with me. I started smiling and laughing, and I began to feel connected and engaged. He had noticed me, and I mattered. That was a clear turning point for me and one I remember with great fondness.

Lately, I find myself struggling with the business side of counseling.  When I decided to become a therapist, I, like many others, focused more on the relationship in the room and less on the business of finding people to come into that room. I am used to being a behind-the-scenes person, and marketing requires me to bring myself and my work to the fore. In many ways, this reminds me of work I need to do -- both for myself and for my business.

While in the shower today, I found myself pondering what I value in the work I do. I have worked with people with many and varied struggles: depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, PTSD, relationship problems, low self-esteem, and many others.  What is it, in particular, that I bring to the room, and what do I believe helps to facilitate needed changes?  As a counselor, I can list all kinds of techniques and ideologies that influence my work, but most of that would sound like gobbledygook to anyone outside the profession.  The more I thought about it, I realized my core focus is connection.

Most of the struggles I see in my clients reflect some element of disconnection. Grief, for example, involves loss of connection with someone or something we value.  Depression involves disconnect from engagement with the world and with friends/family/relatives. Psychosis involves disconnect from reality.  PTSD involves disconnect from others and even from self.   With all of that disconnect, developing connection can help bring healing.

What does that connection look like? In a very real way, that connection starts with the relationship in the room. Sitting with someone who will listen and try to understand without judging or creating harm can start to build a sense of safety and trust that allows for attempting other challenges. Learning to share needs and feelings in an appropriate way helps needs get met and feelings get respected. Trying new things with a safe person helps develop confidence and skills.

Connection also involves building awareness of your struggle and how it shows itself. Mental illness and other life struggles do not define the people they affect, but they certainly make functioning difficult.  If I can connect with my stressors/problems enough to understand their signs, symptoms, and patterns, I can find new ways to manage them more effectively. Maybe I can make healthier choices in what I eat or how I practice my self-care. Maybe I can find safe people to talk to when I am having problems. Maybe I can learn some skills to help prevent things from getting worse or to help things get better. When I know what I am dealing with, I can make educated choices.

Connection with safe others is also important. Cultivating a support system and identifying safe people helps create a safety net when we are struggling. Safe relationships can give a sense of fulfillment and a sense that we make a difference in the world.  Love, in its truest sense, is very healing.

Finally, connection with self creates a stable base from which to grow.  If I can know who I am, strengths and weaknesses alike, I can decide what I want to change and what I want to keep. I am not subject to the whims of other people in defining myself. I can know what I want and need, how I feel, what I like and don't, and where I want to go next.  This connection with self can be very difficult when trauma, depression, psychosis, and other life stressors tell us that we are not good enough, that no one will love us anyway, or that others want to harm us. It can take great courage to look at ourselves, and therapy can help with this.

I enjoy creating connection with my clients. My goal is to meet them where they are and help them develop the connections they need to make the changes they want to make. I believe connection is healing. I also believe it is a necessary life skill. Learning to develop connection is not always easy, but I definitely believe it is worth the effort.  Feeling disconnected? I'd love to help.

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