There are times in a session when the answer to just one question turns on the light and the darkness flees from comprehended truth. Nothing changes but everything is different.
A beautiful young woman came in for therapy with concerns about tackling the challenges of her college assignments and trying to decide what direction to take after graduation. She was a former model from Europe, in her mid twenties, creative, and academically excellent. During the initial assessment, I heard her life story. She spoke about her childhood, high school years, and modeling career. In the process, some common themes became apparent ~ like her love for children, her passion for art and her struggles in relationships. Through several sessions, we talked about ways to handle her tendency to procrastinate with assignments and about how to concentrate in class. She also disclosed that she had professional opportunities on both sides of the Atlantic. However she felt that either choice would cost her personally and affect other people’s perspective of her.
While she reflected on her choices, I suggested a simple exercise, to which she agreed. First, I asked her to imagine this was the only time in our lives that we would meet; we would never see each other again. I would have to form a memory of her from what she said and did in this brief moment.
She was intrigued by the idea and said she was ready to proceed.
I then asked, “What would be the one thing about yourself that you would want me to know about who you are?”
Her answer was instantaneous. “That I am not stupid!”
In the following silence I looked at her golden blonde hair and beautiful face and comprehended again the impact that stereotypes can have on a person’s life. This woman’s choices ~ the compelling drive ~ was the concern that how she looked dictated what others thought about her and so in every circumstance or relationship she tried to dispel the myth that she was stupid. It is not that she believed she was stupid; on the contrary, she knew herself to be an intelligent and accomplished human being. Her constant battle was against prejudice, ridicule, and dismissal based solely on her physical appearance.
As we continued to unpack this idea she was able to see that many of her past choices and actions with her family, intimate friends and career were a reaction against public opinion. She was screaming back at the world that she was not who ‘They’ said she was and her actions would prove them wrong. Paradoxically, this need to be seen as an individual and the corresponding need to deny the stereotype had been hindering her from making the choices she genuinely wanted to make. She needed a divorce from ‘public opinion’ and to develop the courage to make choices about her future based upon what she was passionate about.
Nothing of her circumstance actually changed in that moment but her realization that she did not have to live according to these stereotypes took away the fears that haunted her every choice. That was over ten years ago. From that moment, she started following her own path, making decisions based on her own needs, desires, and inherent abilities.
Society still ogles the outside ‘package’ and makes a snap judgment about a lovely woman, but that woman no longer cares. Her choices are based on what she knows to be true about herself, and about what she decides she needs to be a whole and healthy Self. For a time, that included modeling and the financial gains that accompanied being an ‘animated robot modeling expensive clothes,’ because that opportunity created others. Today she is ‘Mom’ to two beautiful little souls and uses that intelligence she always knew she had to make the world a better place.
What would be your answer to this question? What are your actions and choices saying? Questions like these can help us to learn about ourselves and about the reasons we do things. Sometimes we do the same things over and over even though they cause us pain. Then we need to ask ourselves; ‘Why do I keep doing this again and again?’ Sometimes, a better question is; ‘What am I trying to say by that choice?’
Therapy really works. By reflective listening, empathy, and unconditional positive regard a therapist can help you see what is going on inside.
Thanks to Al Gore, we have a phrase embedded in the collective consciousness which embodies the act of acknowledging a reality that is painful, unfortunate, or unpleasant. Mr. Gore was, of course, referring to climate change, and how the impact that continuing to deny the science would have consequences far greater than anyone can imagine. The movie of the same name was back in 2006 ~ how right he was. Climate change has been global, devastating, and relentless. As people continue to argue about the science, the world burns.
So it is with the consequences of childhood trauma. Developmental Trauma is an inconvenient truth.
It is Child and Youth Mental Health Day.
This is important ~ there’s not enough recognition of the mental health issues our children face, there’s not enough resources when we DO acknowledge the need for mental health services, and we don’t do enough to prevent the single most significant factor in child and youth mental health.
Episodic, persistent, chronic, or unremitting trauma in childhood (usually in the family of origin, but for many children, in the care of various versions of child welfare, social services, government ministries, or private agencies) has profoundly negative and lifelong consequences. As the work of Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris and Dr. Vincent Felitti have demonstrated, adverse events in childhood are not something children ‘get over.’ Experiencing the degree of chronic stress that trauma induces for an extended period of time fries the nervous system, inhibits brain development, and causes the formation of coping mechanisms or safety-making behaviours which carry on into adulthood.
Child and youth mental health is negatively impacted by these experiences, manifesting as anxiety, depression, suicidality, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, behavioural problems, academic failure, and ever earlier addictions to name only a few ways.
The key to making it different? One caring adult.
Nearly all of the effects of childhood trauma are mitigated by one safe, secure attachment to an adult through those formative years. A ‘Cookie Person.’ That one adult who listens, takes the time to notice ~ really notice ~ where a child or adolescent is at mentally, emotionally, socially, and physically. Literally (and metaphorically) having milk and cookies with a child or youth who needs to talk. To be heard. To be safe ~ to know where ‘safe’ can be found.
As this infographic from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation shows, 64% of American adults have 1 or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and there is a 95% likelihood that additional types of trauma accompany even 1 ACE. This is soooooo disturbing.
How many of our child & youth mental health issues could be prevented if the experience of trauma were routinely assessed of children seeing paediatricians, nurse-practitioners, emergency room personnel, school counsellors, or accessing mental health services? As Dr. Burke-Harris and her staff proved over the course of twenty years, routinely assessing children, educating parents, creating community resources, and when necessary, intervening for the sake of safety in a timely fashion can have a HUGE impact on mental wellness and health outcomes across the lifespan.
Our children are the future of the humanity. Educate yourself on childhood trauma. Get involved in your community – here in Kelowna, Canadian Mental Health Association, The Foundry, Boys & Girls Club, YMCA, Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, coaching amateur sports leagues, volunteering at the local school, getting to know your neighbours, and educating yourself are just a few of the ways you can make a difference.
This post started me thinking. I often write about the hypocrisy of certain zealots of feminism and the double standard by which they seem to operate (bear with me, this post isn’t going there). Rather, I’m thinking about a different double standard.
Millions of people object to the status quo believing it limits options and prevents equality for women. Other millions object to a cartoonish, one-dimensional perspective of complex, multi-faceted gender-equality issues that will actually require a stunning degree of cooperation and collaboration to solve.
But let’s talk about Society. The cultural water we swim in – in this instance I’m speaking about North American culture here but the principle applies in every culture. There is much about Society that encourages, facilitates, models, teaches, and enforces the stereotypes so many of us object to. That capital ‘s’ is not an accident. There are very few individuals I know who will admit to espousing cultural norms which perpetuate an unjust or oppressive status quo, and yet, here we are, Society somehow making its presence felt in the most significant ways.
Take the column that started this post. Men, apparently, are bumbling (or ignorant) but well-intentioned, and women are mean. Society will evidently excuse men for inexcusable things because they’re ‘well-intentioned’ or ‘basically a good guy,’ but whatever a woman’s intentions might be are irrelevant, because as soon as she says anything vaguely authoritative, or declarative, she’s a bitch. Again, Society must be perpetuating this issue, because it’s happening everywhere – from the school playground where adults are supervising children, to the boardroom.
So. No stats about women and leadership, or the total unfairness of castigating a woman for being authoritative (“Stop using your ‘mom’ voice”), or the irrefutable data that proves that a man and a woman can say exactly the same thing and he’s perceived as “trustworthy and collaborative,” and she is perceived as “shrewish and difficult.” No. Let’s not go there.
How about we talk about ‘Society.’ You know, you and me? The ones who stand idly by and give this crap a free pass? THAT ‘Society.’
“He is basically a good guy,” confirms one of our most pervasive biases. A colleague who made a sexist remark in a meeting? Well, we think, he didn’t mean it. He’s basically a good guy. The young man who insulted his date in front of his friends? He didn’t think she would take it so personally. He’s really a good guy.
Being derogatory toward women is not the behaviour of a “good guy.” It is a slip of the tongue revealing values mostly kept hidden. There may be a willingness to practice humility after the fact and apologize, but this does not change the reality that somewhere, deep in that man’s internal framework, women are ‘less than.’ The source of life’s problems. A convenient whipping girl. Not worthy of respect as an individual. Take your pick. But the rot is there …evidently. Maya Angelou famously stated, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” The root etymology of the word ‘violence’ means “with words.” Make no mistake, Fellow Humans. Calling your partner a ‘stupid bitch’ is violence.
I have 54 years’ experience with men. I’ve had a father for that long, brothers for 51 years, and a husband for 35 years. They have done nothing over those years except demonstrate over, and over, and over, sometimes in the most trying circumstances, that women are worthy of the same respect they themselves enjoy. Even women trying really hard to disqualify themselves as worthy of respect were still treated with dignity (not that they appreciated it at the time) by the beloved men in my life. It is normal for goodmen to have an unshakeable conviction that every human being, regardless of gender is worthy of respect.
Here’s my take (and it is mine). ‘Society’ is you and you and you …x 7.5 billion …and me. When we, that is, ‘Society’ speak up and say, “Good men, real good men don’t refer to women in that way, E.V.E.R,” we become part of the solution and agents for change. The point is, when people don’t speak up, they become part of ‘Society’ which maintains, facilitates, perpetuates, and encourages this behaviour as the acceptable norm. Since ‘Society’ is you …and you …and you …and you …and me, when will you stand up… speak up… IN THE MOMENT when these unacceptable and demeaning behaviours happen?
I suspect that cultural norms would change a lot more quickly if ‘Society’ spoke up often, consistently, vociferously, and implacably.
Be a part of the change you want to see. ~Mahatma Ghandi
If your therapist is giving you advice, you need a new therapist. Giving advice is not counselling. It’s not therapeutic, and it doesn’t help you, the client. After almost 30 years in counselling, though, this is probably the single most common request from my clients. “Tell me what you would do.” Or, “Just tell me what the right answer is here.”
I usually ask some variation of, “What do you need to hear?” Or, “Why is it important what I would do?” Or, “What do you think is the thing to do?” Only in very rare instances do my clients not know (or don’t at least have a really good idea) what is best for them. What they really want, is to hear the solution from me. There’s lots of reasons for this, but the bottom line is that if I do offer solutions or advice, it’s not therapy.
If a client thinks s/he is actually paying me for advice, or to offer solutions, then anger is often the response. And clients do get angry. Sometimes, “enraged” is a better adjective. One of my clients became so irate that I wouldn’t tell him which option I thought was his best choice, that he stood up, shouted at me that I was “useless,” and then stepped over me on his way out the door. (At 6’7” this was not difficult for him.) I was so stunned I didn’t even think to duck.
As a new therapist, I was pretty shaky, but after debriefing with my clinical supervisor, I knew two things – I am not responsible to solve my client’s problems, and, never sit between a client and the door. I’ve not always remembered not to take responsibility for my client’s problem, but I have always remembered not to get between my clients and the door.