By Janice Gill for Yoga Medicine®.
If you’ve ever sought support from a therapist, you’ve (hopefully) experienced the healing benefits and transformation that can occur within the context of a safe relationship. You’ve probably taken away tidbits of wisdom, paired with a whole lot of self-reflection, discovery, and growth, but did you ever stop to think about what your therapist might’ve learned from you in the process? You might be thinking: “What could a therapist possibly learn from me?” Well, as a therapist, I am going to let you in on a little secret: We learn just as much from you as you do from us! We may hold certain credentials and knowledge but there are just some things that cannot be taught in a textbook or a classroom.
I have now had the honour of being a therapist and bearing witness to peoples’ stories and healing for eight years. In these eight years, my views of people and our world have shifted in significant and unimaginable ways, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. These learnings have been so impactful and are so critical for our collective wellbeing that I felt inclined to share, so here are eight lessons I’ve learned in my eight years as a therapist:
1. People are far more resourceful, resilient, and adaptive than we often give them credit for.
We tend to think of people as passive victims in their lives, when they have experienced any sort of trauma, trials or tribulations—we think that life has happened to them, as they have just stood by and watched. The reality is though, that we as humans are an adaptive species. We are making moment-to-moment decisions based on the stimuli and information we are taking in from our environment. We are never passively sitting back, even if from an outsider’s perspective, it may appear to be so. Our nervous system is wired to keep us safe in the face of danger and sometimes, what looks like a lack of action is actually an adaptive response from our nervous system. Some of the strongest, bravest, most inspiring folks I have crossed paths with are those whom have not only survived but thrived in the face of trauma, in its various forms, including: racism, oppression, poverty, violence, and intergenerational trauma.
2. People will often say they want answers and solutions, when what they really want and need (I would say, 90% of the time) is held space and validation, so they can safely explore and share their feelings and experiences about said problem.
When I worked as a Parent-Child Therapist, parents would come to consult with me about the problems they were experiencing with their child. More often than not, the conversation would begin with a seemingly desperate plea, “Please tell me what to do.” It didn’t take long for me to notice the palpable pushback when I started offering some psychoeducation around the problem they were experiencing, along with some subsequent relational and behavioural strategies. Of course, these interventions are important and have their place, however, what I came to learn, was that the most fundamental intervention I could offer these parent-child dyads was the relationship I cultivated with the parent(s) and the safe space I held, which allowed them to express such vulnerable and otherwise unspoken feelings they had been carrying around, including: shame, guilt, helplessness, hopelessness, grief, frustration, anger, and isolation.
It is a seductive compulsion, to want to offer up solutions and strategies for people who are expressing their hurts to us but it is important to remember that another’s pain is not for us to take away and that often times, the most helpful thing we can do is offer our unconditional love and presence, so people do not have to carry that pain all on their own.
3. Parents (and caregivers) are people. Humans raising humans means plenty of room for mistakes, mess-ups, messiness, and repair.
Parent or nonparent, we are all human and humans are fallible. We all do the best we can with the tools, resources, and levels of consciousness we have access to at any given moment. Fortunately, children are resilient, and so long as they have one caregiver who does their best to be present, attuned, and responsive when the child is in need, and initiates repair in the face of relational disconnection, they will have the solid foundation they need to help them weather the inevitable storms of life. Expect to make mistakes and mess up—it’s par for the course. Try to offer yourself and other parents, trekking their own messy paths, the same level of compassion, acceptance, nonjudgment, and unconditional love you would your child.
4. Grief is not only experienced around the loss of loved ones.
Grief is an incredibly painful emotion that arises out of the experience of loss. It is a direct reflection of what we so deeply love and/or have longed for, hence why it can feel all-consuming at times. It can be particularly confusing when Grief shows up at times when one has not experienced the physical loss of an actual person. Grief is the emotion that shows up when we think about what we perhaps didn’t receive as a child that we so deeply needed or the relationship we so desperately yearned for but didn’t have with a parent or caregiver. Other potentially unexpected areas Grief may show up include: life transitions, changes in relationship dynamics or loss of a significant relationship, loss of a job, significant illness, and unfulfilled hopes or desires—either for ourselves or our loved ones.
5. Addiction is primarily an adaptive response to regulate one’s nervous system when they probably didn’t have the experience of a present, attuned, caregiver to co-regulate their inner experiences when it was needed.
Remember: Parents are people. They do the best they can with the blueprint they received from their own growing-up experiences. They may have their own health, mental health, grief, and/or addiction that impeded their ability to be the necessary container that children require to help them process through difficult and unsettling experiences and emotions, as their brain is still developing. If, for whatever reason, a child is consistently left on their own to manage, make sense of, and effectively move on from upsetting experiences, they do not acquire the necessary skills of self-regulation, which are born out of repeated experiences of co-regulation. As they grow up, they must find their own ways to help them tolerate and cope with the often, unbearable sensations and experiences their body and mind are confronted with. Substances are one way that we can indirectly and almost immediately influence our inner biochemistry and subsequent physiological and emotional experiences. They give us the ability to feel things we might not otherwise feel or to numb those feelings we would prefer not to feel, which, with the right conditions, can set up a reinforced pathway in the brain, which gets us reaching for those things over and over again.
6. It takes one person to halt the transmission of intergenerational trauma and that job is not for the faint of heart.
We are in the age of information. Unlike ever before, we have access to myriad resources around psychology, health, and healing—quite literally, at our fingertips. A little self-awareness, paired with a desire for change, can set us out on the path of seeking the information and resources to aid us on our journey of healing and stepping into our greatest potential. Whether or not we decide to procreate, intergenerational trauma stops at us when we become aware of our conditioned thoughts and behaviour patterns that were born out of our early-on experiences, which were often influenced by the experiences of our caregiver(s) and their ancestors. This journey is a privilege and it’s important to note the systemic inequalities that continue to exist that prevent some folks from accessing this privilege. For those who do embark upon this journey, it involves confronting and unraveling, often times painful experiences that have led to our present-day thoughts, feelings, beliefs, attitudes, and ways of being in the world. From there, with mindfulness and patience, we can begin to show up in the world the way we prefer to show up—responding to our environment in ways that align with our values, as opposed to continuously reacting out of triggered emotions and experiences.
7. While Western medical perspectives tend to pathologize and locate problems within individuals, problems and diagnoses are often a result of a complex interplay between our inner biology (nature), immediate environment (nurture), and the larger forces and systems we live in and/or are oppressed by.
People are not the problem. The problem is the problem. In Narrative Therapy, we call the practice of locating and naming problems outside of people, Externalization. A person is not anxious, they have Anxiety. And, there are probably very valid reasons for why that person has developed Anxiety. A person is not an addict (unless they happen to choose this language for themselves), they struggle with Addiction—again, probably for very valid reasons. Person-first language is fundamental for creating a more compassionate society that treats all of its members with dignity and respect, despite the problems they may be facing.
8. We are all connected and yet, on our own path. Bad things happen to good people and we don’t always know why. Some things are not meant to be understood. It is no one’s job or right to take away another’s pain or judge the ways in which they adapt and cope with that pain. Striking a balance of empathy and empowerment is essential in enabling people to own their path and walk their journey at their own pace.
It’s hard to see people struggle, especially when we think we may have the answers to those struggles. It’s important to recognize when we are projecting our own hurts, desires, assumptions, and values onto other people. May we be brave enough to sit with others in their pain and hold space, rather than trying to pull them out of it before they are ready. May we listen more than we talk. Connect more than we direct. And, may we honour the individual journeys that each of us are on, while knowing that no one should have to journey alone.