"If you can't get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you'd best teach it to dance."
Therapy: the process
George Bernard Shaw
One way to view therapy might be to see it as hiring a "dance" coach. And, as Shaw suggests, if there are skeletons or baggage in your way, I will be your ally in reframing them or their role in your future, relegating them to the past or teaching them to dance in the present. Through a questioning and conversational process, I can help you find the tune you wish to dance to and what role you want to assign to any skeletons, be they legacies of old wounds, negative, oxygen-depriving learnings about life and self, or whatever may have limited your sense of possibility and warrants unlearning.
You will be in charge of which skeletons, closets, baggages, anxieties, fears, or angers your therapy will take you into. I become witness to your process and the one who asks you the questions or makes the observations that you may well never ask yourself or see reflected.
Therefore, it may be of help in choosing who you honor with this role as your collaborator to know more about the life lessons I bring with me as my own subjective experience into the therapy room with you. That's what the following extended mapping of my own perspectives is designed to let you get a taste of and see if feels like a good fit with the lessons you've learned - or the ones that resonate as pointing in directions you seek to head.
I see my own role in sessions as, perhaps most crucially, bringing a detective-like curiosity (not unlike a Lt. Colombo) to the uniqueness of your path, helping to flesh out a full consideration of your choices and their ramifications, or bridging pieces of a life puzzle that you may never have thought to consider or to bridge. The answers lie in you - in ourselves - but we gift ourselves when we realize that we can benefit from questions that help us ask ourselves what we really want, really fear, really love, really need. The attuned question can lead us to perceive and voice a fear, a want, a need we may not have even consciously known was hiding inside.
Therapy: the theories
As a therapist, I find myself instinctively weaving together in the course of even one conversation, you and I, what I see as a very harmonious, integrated blending of perspectives on change and personal growth drawn from several key theories and practices of therapy:
• narrative (attending to the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, often outdated by our personal growth yet still our default self-story that feeds being hard on ourselves);
• Gestalt (giving priority to awareness, in all senses, and inhaling the paradox whereby self-acceptance is the essential first step to change);
• solution-focused (turning our gaze to what it is we really want for ourselves and how we will recognize it and honor it);
• cognitive-behavioral (identifying the toxic messages by which our cognitions waylay us, toxify our emotions, and sabotage our actions and relationships);
• psychodynamic (acknowledging the need to be heard that has inevitably felt unmet with tracings back to our beginnings, often cemented in traumas that are deeply embedded and fester until they are fully heard);
• trauma therapy (exploring the big and little, acknowledged and unacknowledged, life traumas that have left unresolved seeds of reactivity and senses of helplessness, loss, and/or depression which often bring involuntary fears of the future that are grounded in the past); and
• shamanistic psychology (developing and applying awareness of my favorite of the seven principles of shamanistic psychology, "Where attention goes, energy flows").
Underlying all these approaches is an existentialist-humanist set of beliefs about life and possibility which pervade my practice, notably the conviction that even in the worst of life circumstances, ultimately what we have is the power of choice. Even in the oppressive dynamics of Holocaust or slavery, as Viktor Frankl attests in Man's Search for Meaning, there remains to us one last realm of choice and self-determination, namely the choice of what attitude we shall have in the face of suffering. In therapy, resurrecting and putting into practice the realization "I have choices" is often a pivotal piece of the puzzle.
Stories and self-esteem
Two decades ago, I researched and wrote a dissertation on the roles of storytelling in everyday family life in shaping the ways children learn to see themselves and to author their own tellings of what matters most to them in their everyday experiences, and what the point or message of their stories will be. Often I had witnessed parents override children's authorship of their life experience, speaking on their children's behalf (and often third-personizing their child as if absent), making their children into defendants on the dinner-table "witness stand" allowed only to answer the parental prosecution's questions, or encouraging them toward implicit competition to shape their stories to keep up with a sibling's. I saw in that daily process, an underexamined subtle and not-so-subtle shaping of eventual self-esteem and self-actualization. One overriding element of therapy, for me, is listening between the lines of your stories for what the implicit messages are and whether your self-story is stuck in a past authorship - of your own or someone else deciding what was the essence of you. One of adult life's chief unlearnings for many involves the reclaiming of one's own voice as framer of what matters in your lived experience and how it gets plotted and presented.
Learning and loving
In my own six decades of evolving a philosophy of life, I believe that life is above all else about learning – and, of all the learnings, most profoundly about learning to love and be loved. Most clients I see arrive in therapy somewhere on a continuum of being hard on themselves and, at the core, setting themselves a high bar for loving themselves, whether they (less often) mask that in bluster or (more often) feel the raw sores of it.
As the key line goes in Nat King Cole's 1948 hit version of "Nature Boy" (more recently the theme song by David Bowie in Moulin Rouge!), "The greatest thing you'll ever learn is (just) to love and be loved in return." The greatest - and the hardest. It was easy at birth, or could have been, but early years of frustrated love and love in return reap too often a bitter harvest. The hardness of this life lesson in how to love and feel love, and the superordinate priority that it plays in life, is often at the heart of what brings one to therapy, nagged by a sense that one has become one's own biggest hurdle on what we tell ourselves should be "such a simple" thing - to find love, to accept love, to give love in ways that nurture us and bring or augment a sense of grace and serenity and balance.
Learning and communicating
One of my favorite definitions or concepts of therapy is that it entails the art of learning to have difficult conversations. Learning to truly listen. Learning to be aware of and question our own assumptions about others, their intentions. Learning to speak truth to power (which can include revealing anxiety or hurt to one who has the power to wound us by being dismissive). Learning to gauge safety and then to take the risk to trust a confidante with that which we think will alienate them. Often it is avoidance of difficult conversations that is both cause and effect of our sense of lostness in relationship and in making progress toward our personal goals - and it is a great source of stress for which our health pays a steep price.
The process itself of delving into these uncharted waters can empower us to be less shamed by that which makes us anxious, more able to weigh and enter into difficult conversations, like the ones we undertake together exploring often delicate terrain, and the ones we each seek to come to terms with and broach courageously in our lives beyond therapy. Sometimes these difficult conversations are the result of implicit contracts we make with ourselves and others not to stir old ghosts, ghosts that were never faced down or their sting removed but just shelved - and nowhere more so than where there has been trauma that has undermined our sense of trust in the world as a safe place or in ourselves as guardians of our own best interests.
Finding one's own self and skin
In English, we speak of finding our "comfort zone." I like two phrases the French commonly use that capture elements of what often brings someone to consider therapy. "J'ai perdu le Nord" means "I've lost my North" (as in compass North): "Is this the direction I really want my life to be heading? Am I being conscious and conscientious about where I'm leading my life? or letting life lead me with me as indifferent or even reluctant passenger? Am I in charge of my life, making choices that serve my goals and desires for myself, or is my life, my feelings, my history in charge of me?" "Je ne suis pas bien dans ma peau" means "I'm not well in my skin": "Who am I – really? Do I fit in this body and in this world? Can't I be more comfortable with and honor my own instincts better? trust myself? feel worthy enough and okay enough to not have to fake it or shrink from dis-ease among others or with myself?"
Balancing power and control
I also believe a fundamental truth in life is that knowledge is power. Self-awareness about one's own unique snowflake-like persona and path through life, the miracle of its uniqueness, is prerequisite to self-acceptance, and self-acceptance prerequisite to change, to growth, to self-realization and the blessings of love, grace, serenity, and balance.
Often therapy concerns the daily frustrations of a world where, as the Serenity Prayer seeks to remind us, there is so much we cannot control and we often (unwittingly) invest our attentions and energies in that which we cannot control, while sometimes losing sight of avenues out of frustration that can result from re-setting our compass toward those things - in ourselves - which we can control.
Learning and daring to trust
I also believe, à la developmental psychologist Erik Erickson, that the primordial foundation of development in life, pivotally resulting in a default setting in the first year or two of life, is learning to trust rather than mistrust, to (as teacher-writer Peter Elbow called it) play the "believing game" rather than the "doubting game." In our increasingly cynical world, belief and trust are often cast as naive positions that leave us vulnerable to betrayal or sabotage. Implicit in that perspective is that vulnerability itself is a flaw. I heartily subscribe to the counter-theory elaborated by Brené Brown (see Books & CDs page) that there is power (and grace and beauty and truth and love) in vulnerability and its acceptance. Often a process through therapy entails finding one's compass in terms of trust and vulnerability, learning to trust oneself, one's instincts, to pay attention to the 'red flags' that bombard us in relationships that we may have learned to deny or sweep under a scatter rug.
One of the underlying services of therapy, in my experience, is helping you, the client, come to give greater value and weight to your own instincts, the ones that too often too buried under layers of shame or rationalization or self-doubt so that we know longer know what we know. As Nathaniel Branden espouses, I too believe that deep down we know our own truths; therapy is a process of, in part, discovering and trusting what we know of ourselves and the priorities we each have for our lives.
The pervasiveness of trauma in human experience
In this regard, I believe that it has hardly been our military alone who have been so long in denial about the realities of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Such denial and dismissiveness is a reflection of a society-wide blindness to the long-term effects of trauma - big T (like a major accident) or little t (like the cumulative ping-ping-ping of bullying) – to induce coping mechanisms borne out of survivalist impulses that keep us alive but which over time can turn life into avoidance and a daily reburying of pain.
Nature and nurture
Therapy often arrives as a last-ditch outcry of "Uncle!" from under the suffocation of a lifetime buildup of traumas big and little. In the nature-nurture debate, I come down on the side of nurture, which for me is also the reason my profession is grounded in hope - because that which results from environmental impact like trauma is also that which can be healed by environmental scaffoldings that over time rebuild safety and trust, most significantly in oneself to be a good steward of one's own life.
Anger and injustice
In one of my all-time favorite gems of a book, Excess Baggage (see Books & CDs), Judith Sills lays out five key relationship killers that an individual can bring to a dynamic, and she honors those baggages by seeing both their flip sides - the admirable traits that underlie them as coping strategies - and the route to self-compassion and forgiveness that allows a restored balance between the intertwined sensibilities that can derail us. Probably the one of the five that I see most often surface as relevant in therapy is the baggage of excess (and often seemingly nurtured) anger -- and its flip side, a keen sensitivity to injustice. Therapy justly entails an awareness of how one has, over time, transformed the senses of unfairness in the world, going back to sibling rivalries and favored child syndrome and all the way up to current political injustices and inequalities that aggrieve us metaphorically as well as literally.
I have learned from working in domestic violence and anger management programs that it is pivotally important to search below our anger for that which festers below the rage that surfaces more readily that its emotional "parents" do. Fear, hurt, and pain, notably the pain of sadness, all can erupt in anger, and until these root emotions under the anger are raised to awareness and explored, we can be victims of our own unquenchable anger - because what really needs healing is one of these underlying emotional causes - and chief among them is the one that is surely humanity's original emotion: fear.
The power and role of fear
I also believe that the primordial human emotion is surely fear - from the earliest cave person perceiving and trying to make sense of and act on the fight-flight-or-freeze mechanisms of their bodies. Over the millenia, civilization has come to see fear as an enemy rather than a friend or a call to learning, about what violates us versus what nurtures us. I believe fear, because it happens instantaneously, precedes love, which takes time and attention, but it is not the enemy of love. It is not fear, contrary to how FDR is typically interpreted, that we have to fear in itself. It's what we do with that fear, whether we let it control us or panic us, and the process of therapy is also often the process of teasing apart one's healthy and/or inevitable fears - of rejection, of disappointment, of failure - from the catastrophizings that one's mind can conjure up, turning us into pretzels of paralysis.
In the ever-present dialectic between love and fear, in any relationship, I believe, for example, that "falling in love" triggers the adrenalin so powerfully because that act is unconsciously a moment of "surrender" - of oneself to an object of desire; we turn over our power (over how we feel about ourselves), and the "falling" is the fear of potential hurt as a result of that surrender, which sometimes binds us to the very red flags our gut perceives but which our cognition can tell us to ignore because the adrenalin feels so transformative. "Losing oneself in love" is often an underlying issue in therapy. It often leads to reflection on a raft of "shoulds" one can be unwittingly also yielding one's power of self-determination to - the "shoulds" of what love 'should' feel like, of how love should be manifest by the object of our love.
In a civilization and society that has been significantly impacted by belief systems that espouse original sin, in one terminology or another, I believe in a therapy that does not buy into that worldview. I believe humans are born "good" and, in keeping with my leaning toward nurture over nature, we determine as parents and as adults parenting ourselves the extent to which we will give power to shame and ill will that invariably seeks to redress grievances suffered.
Yin and yang, black and white
A very common struggle that surfaces in therapy is the one whereby everyday events tend to be interpreted, often unwittingly, through a very black-and-white lens as to whether someone or something is right or wrong, good or bad. Even in the worst of human experiences, like the Holocaust or slavery, which is cast by most people as evil incarnate, the perspective of Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl illuminates what I find to be the most helpful viewpoint: namely, even in those dark places, there is free human will over one indomitable entity, our attitude - the inner psychic stance we will take in the face of oppressive darkness that can be an inner light, a dot of yin amid the yang which is hope amid despair, and is the vital first building block of reshaping lives and stories via therapy.
Therapy often entails expanding awareness of how readily we make things black and white - learning to perceive the yin in the yang and vice versa; learning awareness of how often we make assumptions - so as to make sense of things, to line perceptions up into consistent patterns that we too readily lock into and form expectations that filter other's words and actions and do not allow for the very complexity by which no two people even mean exactly the same thing by the same word and intonation, each shaped by a unique life experience that we do ourselves a favor to take as it comes and not to fit into boxes.
Fitting it all together: Pursuing balance in the therapist-client relationship
Vital to meaningful therapy is your trust in the relationship you build from day one with your therapist. While I as your therapist will be exploring your views of life and the world in session, part of a growth of mutual trust, in my view, means not hiding from clients the very perspectives that shape the way I respond to you and your story. Hopefully this sketch of my principles and approaches to therapy will serve to balance out what can otherwise be a unidirectional therapist-client relationship. In addition, know that each of the quoted observations on life in the Quotations page is there because it has meaning for me and captures a key aspect of my life view, as do the books named on the Books page - each of them has been particularly illuminating or resonating to me. My takes on a few key films in the Film Review section give you a further glimpse into how I perceive issues that tend to be relevant to therapy.
I will always want you as client to feel in charge of what your therapy is about, what serves you best. It would be naive not to recognize that there is an inherent power differential in all therapy sessions (as in medical situations, teaching, families, everywhere) and, as happens also in friendships, if one person is revealing themselves and the other person isn't, the revealer can feel that difference as off-balancing. Because knowledge is power and I seek to help you feel informed and empowered about your life choices, I see it as helping to balance the relationship in the therapy session by sharing these fundamental views in advance to give you a chance to know where I'm coming from and whether my views resonate with your experience or hopes and sound trustworthy to you. This I see as a way of empowering you already with informed choice.