self care

Staying away from classification

Everyone with a toddler knows vacation is just another word for DIY full-time child care.  While family time is always an adventure, I am still not good at carving out time for myself during those periods.  So here I am, trying to recuperate after a few days of a car trip.

I have been doing a bit of casual reading on Enneagram during this time.   I can’t say I have enjoyed it as much as my psych class readings.  However, keeping an open mind, I recognize it as another way, albeit simplified, to understand the human psyche. Many personality systems try to interpret the same reality of human nature.  One writer wrote that each claim is just one slice of reality.  That is probably closer to the truth. I am wary that, if taken as the whole truth, this can be just another dangerous device for classifying people.   That is probably why I was a bit restless while reading it.   No matter how sophisticated the writers want to describe each type, the simple fact of dividing people into a limited number of types will inevitably be too crude to understand something as complicated as the human psyche.  This goes for planetary signs or any widely accepted personality systems such as the Myer Briggs.  So the reading can be rather uninspiring.  I will take it for what it is worth and leave the rest behind.

I am happy that I felt this way.  My new instinct has an alarm for anything that is remotely related to the black/white way of looking at things, even if it is many shades of gray.  I did spot a range of types that I closely resemble in the Enneagram.  It is hard to pinpoint my exact type if there is one.  I am not sure I care to.  Perhaps there is validity in determining the exact type so we can understand our highest form and avoid any pitfalls.  However, even if that is true, I am not sure I am ready.  I am wary that my own old neural path will take this as an opportunity to pigeonhole myself and others around me.  In fact, that old instinct was probably what made me feel uneasy while I was reading this.  While it made me want to escape the narrow possibilities of being the system presented, it was also seducing the organizer in my old self to discover the “ultimate truth” of our personalities.

Maybe one day I will be so secure in my completely open self to see various slices of my reality in so-called systems without being tied down by it.  For now, I will settle for the awareness of the possibility of various types of personality and stay with the uncertainty of it.  Let the discovery increase in clarity on its own, as my own energy become more at home in my natural field.   I also believe that while we might or might not have a dominant type or types, our being has the potential for fluidity in all types, in other words, all components of human personality.  The dominant factors might show up differently according to whom we are with, what aspect of our life we are dealing with, or the development cycle we are in.  It can also be differently expressed depending on what tasks we are trying to master even within the same day.

In truth, all theories, even those we learn in our officially approved psychology courses, narrow the way we look at people.  It gives us some shortcuts to solutions by reducing the range of the information we need to consider.  Given the limited time that we have each and everyone in our lives, a certain amount of shortcuts is inevitable for efficient judgment during interactions.  However, given how we filter our present and future experiences with perceptions of the past, we must be forever aware of the impact these theories can limit and misguide us at any given time and space. The awareness won’t make us perfect in judging every situation; however, it will help us stay more open in our interactions.  It will help us stay attuned to the totality of a moment or a person,  instead of resorting to narrowing something down to a category as a default response. I believe openness is our biggest ally in staying present and connected to those sitting across from us, friends, family or clients.

For me, it also feels more secure to keep all the interpretations of ourselves and others’ actions as open as possible.  This will not only reduce the impact of the automated reaction from our old coping mechanism but also expand the limit our existing knowledge framework has set.   The key is to always stay connected to our own bodies instead of mental concepts.  It is often mentioned in various personality systems, we lose our health, or energy balance,  when we lose touch with our real selves and identify with what was expected in our own head.  Staying connected with ourselves makes sure we are at the highest form of whatever possibility there is in us at that moment.  Our interaction with others is how our energy field intersect with them.  The more fluid we stay the better we can naturally attune to each other’s flow.  As a healer, this is paramount. If fixed on a particular point or frame of thinking,  we might not even realize where it hurts,  let alone find the relief for ourselves or others. When our energetic fields are open, we can better provide or receive guidance using all the forms of intelligence endowed to our human form.

In the end, all slices of knowledge about the human psyche intrigue me, whether be it counseling theories, enneagram, horoscope, MBTI or zodiac.  However, the most open ones will always provide the biggest potential in understanding and ultimately healing. So let us never become too comfortable with any categorizations and never be afraid of uncertainties.   Absorbing a wide array of knowledge will provide more slices of reality about the human psyche.  At the same time, maintaining the courage for the unknown and the patience to be still with our solution-seeking mind, we can bring powerful therapeutic energy to those we care.

Stay Curious and Grow with my clients

As many experienced therapists might be able to relate, the ups and downs of therapy are normal.  It could be the low or high of the client’s subjective mood or our evaluation of the therapeutic progress.They serve as vignettes of life’s natural ups and downs.   Reacting to them in a calm way is one of our primary tasks.  That is theoretically this way.  

In the first few months of my therapist life, I experience the rhythms of sessions with some predictable pattern.   In the beginning, I might have some healthy anxiety about building that rapport. My slight nervousness might show up as speaking a bit more as due to the need to prove my qualifications as a therapist.   As I become more aware of my tendencies as the weeks went on, I slowed down.  I phrased my questions more carefully with more open-ended questions and allowed more silences.  The sessions get easier.

Then as the weeks passed, the familiar anxiety of inadequacy returned.  Am I doing enough? Is the client feeling better? Am I using the right techniques. I consulted, I asked and I deployed whatever I found fit in the moment.  I felt the movements in some sessions and missed it in others.  Then those surprises creeped up on me.  A client reported doing something she was not able to do for years, such as shedding a tear or expressing feelings to an intimate partner.   My heart felt lighter.  Whether it was my doing or not, something was moving in the client’s life.  Of course, there was that secret hope or stubborn faith that what I was doing mattered.  From the moment to moment mood stabilization, the week to week secure presence, the psychoeducation, the thought-stirring questions, and to the somatic experiences, I held onto the belief I made a difference or at least planted a seed. 

After that, a couple of more weeks would pass. The ups and downs of our own life would create emotional waves that have its high and low.  During the weeks I was well regulated myself, I would be able to set the proper emotional boundaries for even the most anxious or depressed client.   On my less balanced weeks, I would feel it more. I would carry their sadness more, I would feel it in my shoulders, I would be more sensitive to the hyperarousal or hypoarousal state of those in my personal lives.  My tolerance window has become wider but I am also carrying more load so the window gets filled more quickly.   Perhaps a close friend’s accusation wasn’t so far-fetched. My job has taken most of my emotional reserve. I did not have enough for her. Since I was always the one more emotional regulated between the two of us, she felt the difference when I could no longer tolerate her emotional needs from me.  She was used to my responding to them in the past. I was ready to let go of that role before I became aware of it.  Once as I listened to my friend expressing distrust over some long established relationship, I become conscious of the fact I no longer wanted to serve that reassuring role in my personal life as I did in my professional life.  I became more possessive with my peace.   I use the resources within my window of tolerance for my career.  It sounds selfish, but I needed that boundary to be able to do this job.  I deserve people who can manage their emotional ups and downs better in my life.  I will always be there when life’s unpredictability catch up with my friends.  However, I will not be the routine crutch they lean on for their emotional regulation.  That is a job.  Friendship or relationship should not be work. 

As weeks go by, I guarded my reserves more jealously, as once advised by a supervisor.  However, as the uncertainty of whether I am making a difference in clients’ life mounted week after week, I became more restless during the 10th week or so. I began to set goals, prepare techniques and look for solutions.  That was when I felt stuck.  Things were not moving as I expected.  Then my classmates, supervisors, therapist and peers helped me shift out of that mentality.  It is not for me to decide when the clients were ready to move. That was the byproduct of the ego’s desire to be the expert.  I might have some theoretic knowledge about healing, but I can never replace the client as the expert of their own life.  I was there and still am there as witness and assistant as part of their journey.  I am not entitled nor am I responsible for making them change. They themselves have to decide for themselves when that should be.   By showing up for therapy, regardless of various amounts of subconscious or conscious resistance, was the first step of their change.  To accept them for who they are in their current state was the first offering toward healing I can give them.  The symptoms, whether it is depression, anxiety, or family conflict, derive primarily from some lack of acceptance toward their own state.  It made sense that my first and foremost job was to accept them wherever they were.  If they sensed some anxiety in me for wanting to change them before they themselves were ready, I would only bring additional stress.  However, accepting their current condition with unconditional positive regard did not mean I do not have the confidence for improvement.  I simply did not feel the urge to push it at any particular moment.  That would serve me not the client’s overall sense of empowerment.   In addition to the acceptance, I had to stay curious and admire the clients’ process of working toward change in their own way.  This was the compassionate wisdom shared in peer supervision.  As a result of this ephiphany, I was able to be more present with the client.  They led me through our conversations as I held the macro picture of their situation and toolbox of resources ready in my head.    I was able to pick up more of the meanings or hidden significance of each of their sentences.   This meant the client felt I was more attuned to them. As more emotional safety was built, they are also more open to any reflections or somatic experiences I introduced.   

        Overall, I felt lighter during the session after that switch in mentally. The movement was more fluid.  As repeatedly emphasized for all professional helpers, whether it is physicians or psychoanalysts or social workers, self-care must be the foundational skill for our profession.  I had to first ensure my own safety before I can give my clients the oxygen mask, as they say in flight safety protocol. In the end, the biggest payout for this profession is how much it helps us as we are trying to help others.  Accepting the present allowed me to stay curious about what exactly is going on for my client. Admiring what they were going through expanded my tolerance window further for the ups and downs of my therapy sessions as well as my own life.  

My fellow therapists/coaches, please stay curious with me, for all the life paths you encounters including your own.