Recognition and Grief

Recognition and Grief

I don’t have all of the right words to say, and honestly, I’m not sure what those are at this point.

Because there are not any words that can take away the pain, atrocities, and grief that occurred this past weekend.

I had another blog post planned for this week but to move on and ignore what has occurred would be one of the highest forms of disrespect. We do not consistently comment on current events in this blog, but this is more than a current event. I also write this blog as a white female who, although I am an ally, cannot fathom the true pain and atrocities racism brings.

We talked a few posts back about our threat response system. How it is sensitive and responds to any possible threat, whether real or imagined, in order to keep us safe. Even for those who do not live in Buffalo, the crushing reality of the racism in the American way of life is a very real threat.

For those in bodies who are not white, who live in America, there is a daily threat against them simply because of color of their skin.

Their grief needs to be recognized.

Reality needs to be addressed.  

Part of what we do in therapy is learn how to pay attention to our own voice and to the voices of others.

For those of you who want to support the community of color, I encourage you to hear the voices of those around you. Actually hear them.

They don’t need your opinion or the “here’s what I would have done”. Hear them so you can understand that your reality is not the full picture.

Once you have heard them, and I mean truly heard them – their perspective, how this has impacted their daily lives, the pain, the frustration, the anger, the grief – then and only then can you respond from a place of love.

For those of you feeling the grief, I encourage you to be kind to your bodies. No, spending some extra quiet time this week will not suddenly fix everything. However, if we are not regulated and rested, it will be nearly impossible to bring about the type of change that needs to happen. So spend some time, listen to your body’s voice. What does it need?

You are seen.

You are loved.

You are not 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!

Heart, Mind, Body and Soul

In late 2013, my body staged a full mutiny against me.  After a lifetime of significant emotional stress, capped off by the loss of my daughter, my body had enough and decided it was no longer going to be “business as usual”.  Cognitively, I understood the connection between emotional and physical health.  Over the years, I had done my fair share of self-care in terms of addressing nutrition, exercise, connecting with others and even seeking counseling.  However, it had never been at the level commensurate with what I was actually dealing with.  I tend to focus on the good and what I have to get done so much of my methodology involved “keeping it moving”.  Maybe you can relate?  Especially when you’re a parent, it’s easy to convince yourself that there is no time to live life at the depth that holistic health requires.

By January of 2014, I had to make some drastic decisions and I declared the new year – one of recovery.  I made those doctor’s appointments, scheduled procedures, exited a whole lot of commitments, re-entered therapy and pursued a more consistently healthy lifestyle.  Who I am today is so very different and I am grateful!  Don’t get me wrong…it is scary to upend your life, to attend to those things under the surface.  It is a painful process to face the things which need to be grieved, and new insight causes us to re-evaluate all that has come before….not always with the kindest vision.  Oh, but how it has all been worth it!  In the process, I’ve explored this mind/body connection even more and solidified my understanding of just how much the body cannot be fooled.  It will assert itself no matter what.

It is this experience which drives my work – both in the classroom and in the therapist chair.  My area of expertise is the emotional, social and mental worlds.  I am not a doctor or a pastor but I can ask the questions that help us look at all the connections.  I can dive in to the deep waters of trauma, relational damage and the mind tricks we all play while monitoring their effect on our physical and spiritual health.  It’s a complicated journey and one I’ve become convinced we cannot do alone.  I have found my guides and I love giving back the same.  If this topic interests you…contact us to express your interest in a workshop – we plan our events based on what the public requests.

I would love to hear what others have learned along the way in this regard.  How have these mind/heart/body/soul connections manifested for you?