Living on the other side

Living on the other side

Wondering what it takes to actually live the life you’ve dreamed of?  

What do you need to know before you take the leap into living your life differently?

The promised land, where your new story begins…

I have written here about the general arc of therapy we follow.  We have offered tips for maximizing each stage of therapy and we have written specifically about Phase Two – the grieving process.  Today, I want to write about the final phase of therapy – activating the true self you have discovered and walking in your new story.  

I have referred to the grieving phase as “the land between”, but embarking on this final phase of therapy is also a transitional season in a different way: A twilight zone between what you have deconstructed and completion of what you are constructing.  Anyone who has had a house built understands that it is a PROCESS!  One of fits and starts…which may find you living in temporary digs until the new house is ready.  Despite the best blueprints, some things just can’t be understood until you see the pieces in place and you may realize, that’s not what I thought it would be.  Back to the drawing board you go to choose a different faucet or refrigerator.  The whole thing takes time with all sorts of surprise obstacles, but perseverance leaves you with the home of your dreams.  

Moving from one house to another always illuminates your possessions in a fresh way, causing you to question why on earth you’ve kept certain things all these years.  Some beloved objects have to be released because they simply will not function or fit in the new home.  If you are living in temporary quarters, you are surrounded by the chaos of missing vital belongings that are in storage and not being able to permanently settle what you were able to keep with you.  Likewise, here are the discomforts that come with leaving behind the life you deconstructed:

  • Most of the relationships you had before therapy were chosen from the adaptive self you are shedding.  Hanging out with friends will often leave you wondering why on earth you tolerated the behaviors, talk and ways of thinking that you now see with clearer eyes.  You may find yourself regularly irritated by family members who operate out of the dysfunctional patterns you now recognize.  Bitterness and resentment become dragons requiring daily battle.   
  • These folks from your old life are used to the adaptive self you crafted and may not know what to do with who you are becoming.  They may not even like your true self, especially if you are no longer willing to offer what they used to get from you!  That rejection truly stings…
  • This season of therapy can be very lonely as you find yourself distancing from those who operate under your old rules, but you have not yet built healthy replacement relationships.  It can be incredibly tempting to return to aspects of the old adaptive self in the face of this loneliness.  Some fade out of the therapy process at this point but they cannot unknow what they have learned, making their compromise existence a cruel game.  
  • You may realize the job or career you are in is not a good fit for you.  Perhaps your job is actually a toxic environment.  Maybe the career field you spent thousands of dollars to prepare for will never align with what you now understand to be your strengths and what brings you fulfillment and joy.  Again, the decisions you made about work came from the adaptive self you are retiring, leaving you in a situation that is no longer workable.  
  • The old adaptive self is one you mastered.  You know how it works.  Saying no to the familiar is extremely difficult.   

Living in transition and setting up your new “home” comes with many challenges.  Temporarily crashing in someone else’s space is inconvenient, humbling and disorderly.  Even after you’ve moved to your new place, there’s usually a stage of, “I’ve made a terrible mistake – why did I move here?” before you start meeting neighbors and finding new favorite restaurants and local activities to love.  It’s the same when the rubber of therapy meets the road of life:

  • The new ways of thinking and behaving that will take you in the direction you want to go will feel awkward and clumsy.  Very quickly, you begin to wonder if you can really pull this new story off as you move toward new friendships, romance, faith, calling, etc.  
  • When our brains have been normed to the stimulation of dysfunctional life patterns, healthy people and activities will feel boring at best, downright unattractive at worst.  It takes time to rewire the brain to enjoy this new existence.  
  • You must retrain the people in your life, how to interact with you.  This takes work and will not likely be well received.  Conflicts will arise.  A few will make it through this process, many will fade away or depart in a fiery blaze.  Are we willing to let go of those who cannot steward well, who we are becoming?   
  • For all of these reasons, embracing the true self is terrifying.  Offering a committed “YES” to that which is true of you demands Courage with a capital C.  Remember, courage is not the absence of fear, it is feeling the fear and moving forward anyway.  That is the very definition of Phase Three therapy at Phenix!    

Many people assume that once they have done the work of deconstruction and grieving, they need only find healthy people who have also done their work and relationships will be easy-peasy.  Unfortunately, that is not the case at all.  Healthy relationships between mature individuals take work but I can promise that it is fulfilling work.  Forcing dysfunctional relationships to run is devastating work.  I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather do the fulfilling work of assessing acquaintances for core relational competencies, learning and teaching about the nuances of each others’ personalities, building trust, and allowing others to meet our appropriate needs as we meet theirs.  (Many clients find relying on others one of the most difficult steps to master.)   

Then there is an aspect of this phase that I don’t think we talk about enough: It is one thing to intellectually assent to what was lost or never provided.  It is another thing altogether to experience life as it should be – the dynamics you didn’t have before.  Such experiential understanding ushers in a new level of grieving.  This is a surreal, dual experience: moving forward in building the new story while simultaneously holding space for the sadness that comes with truly understanding what you were missing.  

The foundational principle to establishing the new “home”, the true self, the new story, is the fact that commitment and action precedes emotion.  You will not feel like doing the things that need to be done.  Yet, we do not advocate a “fake it till you make it” approach.  It’s not about bumbling around, creating a new adaptive self in hopes of getting what you want.  It is about tuning in to what is true about you and aligning your actions with that truth versus the lies your old self believed.  It’s mindfully walking in truth until your brain, body and soul have enough experience to actually believe it.  It is one of the scariest processes you will ever undertake in life.  Courage will be required in Costco-sized amounts but the payoff is worth it, just like that dream house we get to live in when the moving truck pulls away, the boxes are unpacked and the interior design has been fully executed.  All those months of planning, crisis response, expense, letting go, cleaning, organizing, learning, choosing and moving are absolutely worth all the trouble!     

Maximizing Therapy

Person engaging in teletherapy

Have you wondered why excellent therapy can seem expensive?

Do you want to get the most out of the therapy process?

By the time a new therapist graduates from their masters program, they have spent more than 600 hours in graduate level classrooms taking courses dedicated to the art of helping people with life problems.  They have sweated almost 2000 hours on homework and completed 1000 hours of supervised internship.  All at a price tag of over $35,000 (minimum).  Upon graduation, they must work under supervision for at least two years, complete an additional 1500 hours of client service and pass a national competency exam.  When you show up in a therapist’s office, or log on to their teletherapy platform, you are meeting with a highly trained clinician who is there to help you reach your mental, emotional, and relational health goals.

Therapy is an investment in your future.  Since insurance companies will not cover therapy for life issues (there must be a mental health diagnosis), many pay for this vital care out-of-pocket.  Even with support for the cost, there is a significant investment of time establishing rapport with a therapist and digging in to the work.  With that in mind, here are tips for getting the most bang for your ‘buck’!

At Phenix, we generally follow a steady arc in therapy: establishing safety, deconstruction of the old story (how did we get here?), grieving and then constructing the new story.  We’ll look at tips for each stage but before we go there, here’s a foundational principle:

Recognize that therapy is just one hour out of 168 or one hour out of 336 if sessions are biweekly!  Clearly, a lifetime of thinking and behaving a certain way will not be fixed in such short bursts.  That means we must be ready to dedicate time outside of sessions to working on ourselves.

Establishing Safety –

  • Now is the time to be ruthless in clearing off your ‘plate’: Respectfully withdraw from commitments you don’t absolutely have to participate in.  Notify your friends and family that you will not be as available as before.  Setting boundaries poorly may be why you’ve come to therapy so this is a tough one.  Make short term changes (like putting off involvement in something for a few weeks instead of saying “no” all together) which will buy you time to build the muscles you’ll need for more sustainable transformation.
  • Focus on the basics: sleep, nutrition and movement.  Again, the point of therapy may be to get better at self care so take baby steps for now.  Try to get to bed at a consistent time, decide what you need to add to your diet (not take away) to feel good and find movement you actually enjoy – even if it is just for 10 minutes.
  • Be honest with your therapist.  Now is the time to share your concerns so that you can establish a strong working alliance.  They are your guides on what will be a difficult journey at times.  It is important you establish trust in their expertise and skill.
  • Try out the coping skills you and your therapist discuss so that you can determine what works for you and what doesn’t.  You don’t want to wait until you are in the thick of the process to figure this out.  Everybody is different and the possibilities are endless, so there is no substitute for testing things out.

Deconstruction of the old story –

  • Spend time between sessions reflecting on what you have discussed.  Your therapy hour is just the beginning of making sense of your story and connecting the dots as to why you think and/or behave the way you do.
  • Review the material your therapist gives you (books, podcasts, videos, etc.).  This is part of the process for understanding how you got to where you are.

Grieving –

  • Lean in to the discomfort.  This stage takes courage.  This is the stage when clients most often resist the therapist.  Despite the strong alliance they have built and the trust that has been established, all of a sudden, “maybe my therapist isn’t so great after all.  Why are they torturing me with this work?”  Trust the process, it will be worth it!
  • Avoid working on your process after dinnertime each day.  The end of your day should be spent winding down, not opening up Pandora’s box of emotion.
  • Experiment until you find a rhythm of self work time that works for you.  Perhaps a one-and-done session each week when everyone knows not to disturb you or maybe 20 minutes each morning.  It doesn’t matter the format – what matters most is consistency.

Constructing the new story –

  • This stage is about literally rewiring the brain.  That means your efforts will feel awkward and counter-intuitive and that is OK.
  • Your sessions will involve either learning new skills that you will need to cultivate on your own or generating plans for handling situations differently than you have before.  It’s all about action at this point so remind yourself constantly that different results demand different strategies.
  • Practice, practice, practice.  Practice makes progress.  Commit to take one baby step forward each day.  Nothing changes by coming to therapy and talking about it.  It changes when you leave the session and do things differently.  Therapy helps you break this down into manageable baby steps and strategize the most effective changes.

An excellent auto mechanic can easily garner upwards of $100 per hour to fix our cars.  We would consider it foolish to pay for their expertise, then do nothing to maintain the vehicle or prevent further issues.  Our health is far more valuable than our cars so we hope that this post inspires you to invest in yourself and maximize that investment for the best return!



The mechanics of change

I am sitting in a hostel in Brussels, Belgium at this moment – taking some down time to rest before heading out for the evening.  I’ve been away from home now for four weeks and I can definitely testify that leaving one’s comfort zone for extended periods of time facilitates much internal transformation.  Next week, I’ll write more specifically about that.

Today, I’m reflecting on a conversation I recently had with my travel companion about the process of change.  When we decide to renovate some major area of our lives, what does that look like from the inside?  Going to a counselor is usually reserved for more significant repairs, so this question would certainly pertain to current or future clients.  I answered from my own personal experience though.  One of the core values of Phenix Counseling is that I cannot take anyone where I have not personally gone (in terms of the process of facing our own shadow selves).

So for me, it begins with awareness.  Recognizing not only the problem, but also (usually with the help of another), how I am contributing to the problem.  What is it about me exactly that is facilitating the pattern and how did I come to be that way?  I need this insight in order to have productive conversations with myself and that is pretty much the meat and potatoes of the change process for me.  Let me break it down:

  • When I figure out the past experiences that led to my current way of approaching things and what meanings I made of those past experiences, I can choose a new perspective that will give me the motivation and logic to take a different path in the here and now.
  • Looking at the question of – how did I come to be this way…why am I behaving dysfunctionally – helps me understand myself enough to figure out what need I’m trying to meet.  I have to brainstorm ways to meet that need in a healthier way if I am to have any hope of success. I turn these ideas into practical plans: what will do instead, when and how will I make that happen?
  • Then….the rubber meets the road.  Real life sets in and change comes down to tiny moments of decision we face in the everyday.  Here’s where that constant conversation with self comes in.  It’s a messy process and it took me a little while to try and explain it.  At first, I catch myself “after the fact”.  I resort to my old ways but at least I realize it soon after.  Then…I start to catch myself during the process.  I remember when I decided to relate to my husband differently, there were times when words from my old perspective would be coming out of my mouth but in my head I would be thinking, “you need to stop talking”.  Yet somehow…the word vomit continued and I was faced with cleaning up the mess afterward.  Then comes the ability to choose my new strategies before I mess it up.  This begins to happen more often than not until I solidify my new way of being.

Of course, it never happens in this linear fashion – I circle around and through these stages in no particular order until I establish some sort of stability.  Oh how I wish it was like the one-way journey of the caterpillar to the butterfly!  All of this has to happen within the context (cocoon) of others who can help me analyze and assess my thoughts and behaviors throughout the process and with folks who have the patience and ego strength to be on the receiving end of my changes.  I am blessed to have that kind of environment and often, I find the greatest work in therapy is helping my clients build such a support system before they can tackle the things they need to change within themselves.

I hope this little window into my world helps those who struggle to become who they are meant to be.  Our journeys are unique – others would describe their process differently but I believe the commonalities are the mess and the time it takes to cross the desert of transformation – it’s always longer than we planned.  Wherever you are in that trip, be encouraged and don’t skimp on the task of ensuring you have solid travel partners!

Necessary Endings

I stole the title of this post from a great book.  It perfectly captures a phenomenon I’ve been living out personally and that I see in the lives of my clients quite often: This business of hanging on to relationships far beyond their expiration date.

Why do we do this?  The short answer is fear, but let’s break it down more specifically:

Fear of rejection: how many times do we fail to set boundaries, fail to verbalize what is ok or not ok for us because we are afraid that when we do that, the other will reject us? They will not want to be in relationship with us.  Which leads us to the next fear…

Fear of being alone: many of us believe that anyone is better than no one.  We cannot fathom how we could ever be happy by ourselves and so we tolerate all kinds of shenanigans because we cannot be alone.

Fear of violating our responsibility or duty: For a million and one reasons, we feel obligated to the other to “help” them and/or not abandon them.  Anything from blood ties to our own sense of ethics to nice things they did in the past.  Whatever the reason, we use it to justify staying in the relationship because we “have” to.

Fear of hurting another: We are terrified of ever hurting our loved one’s feelings and so we hold back our truth.

So what’s the remedy?

Self worth: when we understand our worth, we cannot help but protect ourselves from dysfunction, even if that results in rejection.  It’s like the difference between a diamond versus a cubic zirconia ring.  The lengths you go to for protection and care of the diamond far exceed that of the CZ ring, simply because of the difference in worth between the two.

Self love: When we take the time to get to know who we truly are and develop compassion and grace toward ourselves, we enjoy our own company…we feel secure in our own skin.  From that place, we realize that while relationships are vital, tolerating any individual who violates our worth is unacceptable and being alone for a season is perfectly fine.

Responsible to, not for: We have a responsibility within our community to monitor our own thoughts, feelings and behaviors to be authentic and kind.  We are never responsible for though – anyone else’s thoughts, feelings or behaviors.  The only partial exception is in our role as parents where we are responsible for them to a certain extent but even in that, our kids have free will to make their own choices and must experience the consequences of those choices if they are to learn how to operate as adults.  There is a big difference between that “to” and “for”, so there is never a situation where it is healthy for us to stick around tolerating dysfunction in order to keep someone from thinking, feeling or behaving a certain way.

Hurt versus harm: When we go to the dentist with a problem, it is pretty much a guarantee that whatever is done to fix us will hurt.  While they make a diligent effort to prevent unnecessary pain, they don’t avoid their work just because some pain will ensue. What they do have to worry about is harming the patient.  If they are negligent or flat out unskilled, they can make mistakes that cause permanent damage to someone’s mouth and that is harmful.  Likewise, when we have to walk away from relationships, there will be hurt and that’s not a bad thing.  What we don’t want is to conduct the leaving in a way that is hateful, disrespectful or deceitful.

These remedies may make all kinds of sense but they are much easier said than done!  Our view of self is rooted in our experiences – particularly those of our early years and it is no small task to change the meanings we have made of those experiences.  Dealing with the inevitable guilt we feel when we begin to set healthy boundaries can be enough to turn us back to our old ways.  If you struggle with taking these steps toward health, seek out a counselor who can help you dive under the struggle to address the foundational meanings driving your resistance!



Experience is the greatest teacher they say…  Whatever dysfunctions we have going on in our lives (and yes, we all have some) – we come by them honestly.  None of us wakes up one morning and decides to be defensive, destructive, avoidant, etc. for no reason.  We approach life based on the experiences we’ve had and the meanings we’ve made of them.  When those meanings are no longer functional, that’s where therapy comes in.  Together, we explore past experiences and how we interpreted them to identify the sticking points that cause negative results today.  Then, we work together to re-examine those experiences and expand the meanings to understandings that lead to more positive ways of doing life.  The healthy relationship formed in therapy provides a model for the rest of life and offers a safe base from which to go out and change our worlds for the better.

The work done in the therapy room is not effective without implementation into daily life.  Healing requires doing.  We must test out our new meanings, creating new experiences that will cement those meanings in our hearts and not just our brains.  This is the terrifying part.  It can be so comforting and enlightening to have ah-ha moments in therapy.  “Whaaat?!  That’s why I’ve always done that?  Oh my gosh, this totally makes sense now!”  Those insights are wonderful and make for much internal relief and de-stressing.  But then….we have to act “as if”.  If this new understanding is true, what do I do differently?  This is where the terror comes in because it is a great act of vulnerability to go out into an unchanged world with our changed selves and trust that we will be successful.

Sometimes, this becomes a stumbling block for clients.  It could be because we need to do more work on our own internal anxiety before we can take action.  Often though, it is due to confusion about how to actually handle things differently.  Isn’t it normal to need some practice with a new skill before we use it ‘for real’?  This very basic truth about learning is why I believe therapy has to be active.  Perhaps the most common technique is to role play anticipated situations/conversations.  That is an incredibly valuable exercise as we get to form new words and even hold our bodies in different positions than we have before.

I am finding though, that there are plenty of additional ideas for experiential learning.  Last week, I joined a team of colleagues at WinShape to participate in team building exercises with a facilitator who happened to be a therapist.  As we funneled tennis balls through short plastic tubes, held mousetraps in our joined hands, and moved a bowling ball without touching it, I saw so many connections between these activities and the principles that clients are often struggling to implement in their lives:  Creative problem solving, collaboration, trust, believing they can do hard things, believing it is possible to do things differently than before, etc.  Our activities culminated with a climb to the top of what they refer to as the “Pamper pole”.  I’ll let you imagine why it has garnered that name.  Let me just say that I have not experienced that level of terror in a very long time!  Conquering it was the best thing that could have happened though, at a time in my life when I’ve been questioning my ability to rise to the amazing mission unfolding before me.  It gave me absolutely tangible proof that I can dominate and that has already provided energy to move forward with the hard things.  There is nothing like actual success to fuel further success.  The same techniques I used to get through the exercises at WinShape are the same techniques I will use to power through the obstacles I face in the rest of my life.  That is how this works.

I am so excited to bring these kinds of activities back to my clients.  Not just individual sessions, but family sessions, groups and especially corporate workshops.  I have a passion for leadership development and building corporate culture, so this approach fits perfectly!  I do promise however, not to utilize 30 foot telephone poles 🙂

Fresh Starts

Some of us get excited about the new year.  We see it as a new chapter in our books: a blank page, a clean slate.  Others are so sick of the “new year, new you” grandiosity that emerges this time of year.  We cast cynical eyes at the bright-eyed hopefuls…mentally calculating how long it will take them to fall back to the bottom of the same pits they’ve lived in for years.  Social media is full of commentary on ‘new year resolutions’ – some encouraging, some disparaging and some offering a ‘third way’ perspective.  Where do you fall on the continuum?

Regardless of your stance, there is a reason that humanity so consistently gravitates toward new year rituals.  I believe we are naturally wired to operate seasonally.  A brief look at nature shows us this rhythm: each year there is soil preparation, planting, hope, watering, weeding, harvesting, barrenness and then new beginnings.  In the winter, the farmer assesses the previous year’s experience, using that information to plan out the next year’s crops.  Seeds are ordered and excitement begins to build toward the possibilities next summer.  Is it any coincidence that those same activities seem natural to us in the middle of winter (New Year’s Day)?  Seems to me that adopting a crotchety attitude toward all of this is rather fruitless (no pun intended 🙂 ).  Thus, we have a choice: do we jump on the bandwagon of renewal or do we sit it out with the assumption that nothing ever changes anyway?

I’m a counselor so I’m sure it’s no mystery where I fall.  My entire field is about transformation so any excuse to move toward that is something to be excited about in my world.  I believe the key is realism.  I think this is where the bandwagon falls apart – we spend December in a whirlwind of comparison.  The holidays ramp up the social media highlight reel, making it that much easier to look at our own lives through a distorted lens which inspires a long laundry list of all that is wrong.  We spend December mentally beating ourselves up and by the 31st, we have created a herculean plan for life overhaul which we enthusiastically proclaim and begin on the 1st.  Only to fall flat before the first month of the year is done 🙁 .  Yeah….let’s not do that again.

Again, realism is key.  It is now the third day of the year.  I’ll assume we’ve basically come down from the high of the first day and we may already be casting skeptical eyes at our resolutions.  Before you abandon ship, could we explore some adjustments?  I’d like to offer a few suggestions:

  • Resolutions are goals.  They are nice for painting the destination but they don’t necessarily give us any idea how to get there.  We need to define action steps.
  • If you made more than one resolution, may I suggest that you choose just one?  What is most important to you?  Focus is vital!
  • Reflect on 2016.  What happened in this area of your life?  What were the specific things that held you back in this area?  Make a list of those factors.
  • For each item on the list – what specific action will you need to take to conquer that obstacle?  What routines will you need to develop in order to reprogram the way you typically operate?  What rewards do you need to set up to reinforce these new behaviors?  Break things down into a list of small, specific steps.
  • Break our your calendar/planner (paper or electronic) and start mapping out those specific steps throughout the entire year.  Spread out the steps so that you are doing no more than one new thing each week.  Don’t take everything on at once!  Stagger out the steps over time so that you make changes gradually – giving yourself enough time to establish each new step before moving to the next one.
  • Ideally, it is best if you schedule the steps at a particular time/day but at the very least, record a reminder on a particular day of the week (or repeated every day of that week if needed).  Consider setting alarms on your phone to remind you of things you need to do.
  • While you’re at it – schedule a monthly check in now to assess how you’re doing: what’s working and what needs to change.
  • What resources can you turn to for maintaining hope throughout the year?  (Magazines, Facebook pages, blogs, devotionals, etc.)  Sign up for those now so it is automatic.
  • Who can you enlist as an accountability partner/encourager?  Talk to them now and agree on specific contact: weekly phone call/text/Facebook message?  Consider including that person in your monthly check ins to help you assess and stay on track.

Transformation is extremely difficult but it is definitely possible.  As we’ve discussed before in this space, it is nearly impossible to do alone though so if you find yourself struggling to stay the course, if you can’t find effective support – please consider counseling.  Good therapy is one of the best ways to pursue renewal so don’t flounder alone!


One of the greatest joys I have in my work is the privilege of helping clients piece the parts of themselves back together after a lifetime of brokenness.  Sometimes we find ourselves limping through relationships, work situations or family responsibilities.  It is typically problems in these areas that bring people into counseling.  For far too many, it doesn’t take long to discover the roots of these troubles as multiple incidences of abuse, betrayal, and/or neglect in the crucial early years of life.  American culture is rooted in a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality.  Everywhere we turn, the general message is to put our heads down and push through whatever obstacles come our way, in order to achieve and succeed.  Add to that the fact that folks who come from hard places often spend at least early adulthood in survival mode.  They don’t have the luxury of examining their pain and learning from it – every day is about making sure there is food on the table, a roof over their heads and beating back the fear or depression that threatens to consume.  We tend to minimize our experiences – “it wasn’t that bad” – and we shy away from the word, “trauma”.  The reality is though that any life experience that presented a threat to life or health, which elicited significant fear or helplessness is a trauma.  If we are honest with ourselves, many of us have such an experience in our history…sometimes multiple.  The resources to obtain assistance for emotional needs are usually scarce in such a scenario.  Even for those with means, the general approach is to ignore the past and look ahead to the next job, relationship or location that will make all the difference.  Unfortunately, the body and mind remembers.  Early trauma sets into motion dysfunctional beliefs that carry through into adulthood.  It distorts view of self and as research is now discovering – it literally changes the way the brain develops.  The effects of significant childhood difficulties are multilayered and extend into every area of adult life – relationships, career, self concept, cognitive functioning, physical health, etc.  In order to live life to the fullest, these effects must be faced, grieved and overcome.  The problem is, this is a painful process that is almost impossible to complete alone.  Hence why so many folks live their entire lives never experiencing significant healing.

This doesn’t have to be our story.  Competent, compassionate counseling is one of the most effective ways to address this.  What does that look like?  It requires a counselor who understands the multilayered impact of trauma – how it affects every aspect of development: socially, emotionally, physically, cognitively and spiritually.  Wading into these waters with clients is difficult.  A counselor who has not learned to sit with their own pain, who has not thoroughly grieved their own traumas, will not be able to sustain themselves in this work.  They inevitably resort to techniques and interventions that promise a quick fix and allow them to stay distanced from your pain.  True healing requires an empathic, authentic connection which provides the comfort and safety needed to face the ugly.  This relationship is foundational.  From there, the process begins with creating safety: cataloging resources available to the client outside of counseling, identifying the warning signs of emotional overload, as well as teaching visualization and relaxation techniques that will be used throughout the work.  Unfortunately, this is a step that gets missed in some counseling encounters which go straight into unpacking traumatic experiences with no tools for the client to cope outside of sessions.  This is clearly a very dangerous approach which can inoculate clients against counseling forevermore.

Once the client has mastered the skills necessary to cope with what they are about to face, then we can begin to explore their story.  This can happen in a variety of ways: verbally, or through writing, art or other expressive methods.  Using a variety of modalities allows the client to access multiple aspects of their experience.  The therapist facilitates the safety needed to tell the story and helps the client connect the dots between their experience and resulting beliefs, behaviors, decisions, health symptoms, and attachment styles.  Losses are identified and grieving is encouraged and guided.  This alone brings a tremendous amount of emotional relief.  It also identifies core beliefs that have driven dysfunctional patterns.  With the insight gained, choices are made regarding what needs to change and thus begins improvement in relationships and thinking.  Throughout the process, physical health is monitored and addressed.  Trauma experiences, as well as trauma work has physiological consequences and so the therapist must be proactive in assessing this area and partnering with professionals who are competent in treating patients with traumatic histories.

It is likely obvious by now that this is a delicate, unpredictable process that cannot be rushed.  By the time we choose to seek this kind of counseling, we have typically been dealing with the effects of trauma for many, many years.  Addressing it completely then, will take some time.  Everyone’s coping skills level and emotional reservoir coming into the process is different and determines how long healing will take so there is no formula to be applied here.  If you find yourself struggling to manage your emotions, ‘zoning out’ a lot, dealing with chronic health issues, beating yourself up, or battling multiple relationship issues, there is likely a trauma connection.  Give us a call!

When talking isn’t enough

“Expressive therapies”.  Maybe you’ve heard the term – it has certainly appeared in Phenix content before.  However, you may not have clarity on what that means.  So what is it exactly?  It is the use of creative arts as a form of therapy.  This can include art, music, dance, drama, etc.  Unlike the formal practice of art however, expressive therapy focuses on the process of creativity versus a final product.    This form of therapy has gained popularity due to the fact that clients often have very well developed defense systems in place to protect them from cognitively/verbally facing their pain.  Even clients who enter therapy with full intention to deal with what needs to be tackled can find themselves struggling to  access their history and its attendant feelings.  Enter expressive therapies which utilize non-verbal forms of communication.  Drawing, painting, writing, dancing – these activities access a completely different part of the brain than talking does.  Thus, the results are often quite different.  Since most of us are not accustomed to communicating in this manner, we have not developed the complex systems of defenses we have mastered verbally.  As we awkwardly fumble through expressive assignments, we’re just trying to figure out how to follow the instructions, leaving us often unaware of the emotions and stories unfolding through our expression.  This provides a valuable window into our subconscious, undefended world.

What we produce in expressive therapy can be very enlightening: a poem or song composed, a picture painted – these pieces capture our often unknown world and together, the therapist and client step back and analyze what has been created.  It is a wonderful way to pursue the knowing of self that has been referred to on this blog before.  However, as we have discussed, this can be wonderfully fun and terrifying at the same time.  We are generally not used to the clarity of self that expressive therapy brings so facing the realities uncovered can bring difficulty.  We discover hidden strengths, but also carefully avoided shadows.  Though it is the product that is being analyzed, the process of discovery that this analysis entails is the true focus of the therapist.

Overall, process is the key to expressive therapy.  What the client feels and thinks during the activity matters.  What is happening physically is observed by the therapist.  All of this provides key insight into the emotions, history and meanings underneath client experiences.  These insights are what allow understanding to emerge regarding destructive patterns and provide the empowerment needed to change them.  It’s all about process which is a stark contrast to the product-focused society we live in.  Participating in this form of therapy often brings an entirely new dimension into the client’s life.  When its power is observed in therapy, there is a natural move to incorporate a process focus into the rest of one’s life as well.  What we have here is a win-win result!

An important aspect of expressive therapy has to do with information that we are just beginning to learn in the field of neuropsychology.  New information about the workings of the brain comes out every single day and while this is an exciting age, I often caution my students to maintain a humility with this exploding field…based on the fact that there is still so much we do NOT know.  That said, what we are finding so far is that trauma experiences affect the physiological tissue and workings of the brain.  This impact has been shown to correlate with physical illnesses as well as behavioral and cognitive patterns.  The race is on to develop a system of categorizing these brain changes and creating brain-based interventions that will address this physiological root of client struggles.  In the meantime, expressive therapies have shown early signs of healing effects upon the limbic system – parts of the brain responsible for emotions, survival instincts, and memory.  Traditional talk therapy does not seem to have the same power in this area of the brain!

Overall, expressive therapy provides a valuable tool in the therapist’s kit for accessing aspects of trauma impact that other modalities fall short with.  The same logic applies to brain-based modalities like EMDR, ACT or EFT.  My personal approach however is holistic which means I do not ascribe to a one-modality approach.  It is my firm belief that deep and long lasting healing requires a complex process that attends to the many facets of human functioning: verbal/non verbal expression and exploration of meaning, brain based interventions, as well as physical health – sleep, nutrition and movement.  I also firmly believe that all of this must take place within the confines of a healthy and connected therapeutic relationship because it is this connection that opens up the brain and heart to true transformation.  Stay tuned next week for a look at a related form of therapy that Phenix will be expanding into soon!