My initial experience of firm life was short lived. It was less than a year, and that’s being quite generous. A combination of experiences had led me to believe that I was in the wrong profession and that I was working towards some conception of happiness that did not exist. I had a drive to help resolve conflict, but it was not working.
Part of me knew I had my own emotional work to do. That part hadn't developed the courage to confront the part of me that believed that I was the picture of emotional health and that I was only meant to help others. So I made the decision to switch gears, and went back to school to train as a psychotherapist. But I could not escape the work I needed to do, no matter how strong my powers of denial were. I was reminded of it in psychotherapy training. One tenet of the practice of psychotherapy is that psychotherapists must do their own work - many hours of one-on-one psychotherapy as the client, not the therapist.
I went to school with the intention of becoming a psychotherapist. In retrospect, I realize that I went because I could not just jump into healing work without first understanding what it was and what was involved. In therapeutic language, this is what is known as a defence. In this case, it was the process of trying to “understand” feelings in an attempt to avoid feeling them. This process was based firmly in my need to be in control of every situation.
I should clarify that I have no judgment around the fact that I employed that defence. It was an important part of the process as I got more comfortable with what came next. I needed to understand it first. I still need to understand when something new is presented, which makes perfect sense. It is logical and it is responsible. Logic and responsibility, in my experience, are perfectly compatible with emotional healing work.
How did I know that I needed to do some of my own work? These were my ‘Top 5 Eyeroll Moments’:
5. Being asked to turn to the person seated next to me and tell them how I felt.
I feel like I want to leave here immediately. My confused neighbour replied, “I don’t actually think that that’s a feeling”.
4. Meditation. We had to take part in guided meditations as part of our training because we needed to be able to guide our clients through it. Meditation was an interesting experience for me. It worked instantly on many levels so, for some reason, I had stop doing it immediately.
3. Being taught not to ask a client why they felt how they were feeling, because it got them out of their feeling and into their mind. My response to this was one of intense judgment. I do not want to get out of my head. I have made a home for myself here for 30+ years. I am not leaving, and I do not think anyone else should either.
2. Witnessing the emotional experiences of others. I had more than a few ‘cringeworthy’ moments watching my peers experience intense emotions while they bravely participated in experiential training.
1. The Inner Child. Words I had come to dread. I was asked the following question in a therapy session: “Can you try to hold this doll and comfort it as though you are comforting a grieving part of yourself”?
In a combination of complete and utter disgust, judgment and shock, I replied:
No I cannot….and can YOU to take one giant step back?
Here’s the thing. Many of us have heard the phrase 'what we resist persists'. If you are pushing something that is pushing you, you are giving it the opportunity to develop strength. It’s resistance training for your pain. What happens after months, years or even a lifetime of resistance? In my experience, the pain decides when it’s going to emerge, usually at the wrong person, unexpectedly and at really inopportune moments.
The result for this control freak was that I was no longer in control. My emotions were. So I (controllingly) had to do something about it.
Where do I start? Well, I know the importance of understanding something from all angles. I had to start with questions, ones that I had, and ones that I could anticipate other people having.
What does resistance look like? Judgement, criticism, eye roll, projection, denial (check, check, check, check, & check).
Why was I resisting? Why do I resist anything? Quite simply, it’s because I don’t like it. In feeling words, it’s because it makes me feel uncomfortable. In actual feeling words, it’s because it makes me feel out of control, overwhelmed, afraid and/or ashamed.
Let’s revisit the Top 5 Eyeroll Moments from a more honest perspective.
5. I barely allow myself to have emotions when I am alone, and now I have to do it with the person who is randomly sitting next to me in this classroom? What are they going to think? Maybe I can make up a feeling and have it sound authentic. Maybe I can get them to go first.
4. Meditative silence is scary. What if I feel nothing? What if I feel something I would rather not feel? Worse yet, what if I feel something that I do want to feel, but I can’t get it back?
3. Maybe I have to face who I am, even if it means coming to terms with the fact that I am not who I have been so desperately trying to be. Maybe I am not who I think I am. Maybe I am who I feel I am - and what am I supposed to do with that??
2. The painful experiences of others reminded me of my own, and for whatever reason, witnessing them made it feel like my cover was going to be blown.
1. Yes I carried grief from my childhood. It had morphed and changed over the years and it no longer looked like grief. It looked like anger (sarcasm, judgment, criticism). But the grief was there and it made me feel weak and less than. I preferred the look and feel of anger. Anger makes me appear strong, and there's nothing shameful about appearing strong.
So what did I do with these feelings? I did work. Work looks different for everyone. For me, it involved introspection, validation, and developing a practice of unconditional acceptance of myself. Is emotional wellness easy to obtain? No, and it is a constantly evolving process. But, in my experience, that has been the case with anything worth having.
Why does any of this matter? Many reasons. One of which, I believe, is that it informs our professional culture. There is a direct, unmistakable relationship between how I treat myself, and how I treat others, colleagues and clients included. We are not only in service to our clients; we are also in service to an ideal of justice, truth, and integrity, if we choose to be. This is an honourable profession and I am proud to be a member of it. But as a member of it, I am committed to contributing to the creation of a professional culture that makes room for the ideals that I believe in to the extent that I am able. I might not have the loudest voice, but I do have a voice and I will be grateful for any opportunity I have to use it. This would not have been possible before. How could I have expressed myself when I was nowhere to be found?
Admittedly, I took the long way – clearly not the most direct, efficient or practical way of getting from point A to point B. But I am closer to point B now than I have ever been, and I have some ideas about why it happened that way for me.
I think I had to have the experience of being in an environment that lacked a sense of community to understand how important that was for me, so that I would be motivated enough to do what I had to do to foster that community every chance I got.
I had to be lost in order to figure out that the sense of being lost was felt in relation to the false sense of home that I had developed over the course of my life - which was the drive to overachieve, please and rescue others in exchange for a sense of worth. I had to get lost so that I could see that that was not home.
I did not have to find what I was good at. I knew what I was good at. The work came in trying to recognize the value in that, and to see it as honourable and worthwhile. This meant removing the preconceived notions I had of what was valuable, and of what success looked like.
So, no, I am not a psychotherapist. As it turns out, I trained in psychotherapy for other reasons. What I can offer to lawyers is guidance on a more direct and more practical route than the one I took. Maybe that leads to some awareness, and maybe that awareness is what will help you to determine your next step in achieving and maintaining wellness. That part will not be up to me. I do not have any of the answers, at least not as they pertain to you. But I do have some questions, and I think that might be a pretty good place to start.