Guilt VS Shame

Brene Brown said it best, “guilt is I did something bad, shame is I am bad”.

I’ve had a recent influx of clients recently who are struggling with feelings of shame. It’s a huge emotion, it’s big and bad and can really do a lot of damage to our sense of self. Shame also tends to create it’s own gravity field, pulling in events and thoughts from across our life span to feed into this concept that we are horrible people. Right on the heels of this is the idea that we are unworthy of caring, maybe even unloveable.

All of the sudden, this one event starts feeling like the sum total of who we are. All the good stuff we’ve done; the kindness, the generosity, the selfless acts, all of it gets tossed out because it doesn’t fit with this new and supremely powerful idea that we are now a “bad person”.

What’s the road back from this? How do we find a crack in gloom?

If we’re lucky, we have a kind human or two who refuses to buy into this shame-driven concept of self. Someone who can hold our hand and look us in the eye and tell us that we ARE good, we ARE worthy, and they will carry that truth for us until we can pick it back up again. Those are your true friends, the keepers. The ones who save us from our dark delusions.

What if there is no one like that? Then hopefully you have a good therapist who can help you to poke holes in this theory that you’re fundamentally flawed. Sometimes the harsh light of introspection can lead to a softening of the shameful beast.

Working our way out of shame doesn’t mean that we discount or minimize our actions that may have caused hurt and harm. It’s about letting that shroud of shame fall away so we can accurately assess the damage, both to ourselves and others. We can hold in one hand the deed that caused harm, while we hold in the other the truth that we are not just this one thing, we are all of it, and generally most of what makes us up is good and kind and generous.

We stumble, we fall and sometimes we need to lie in the dirt for a little while. But at some point we need to have enough compassion for ourselves to stop heaping hurt upon hurt. We need to allow the love others have for us to seep in and soothe our cuts and bruises. We need to accept on faith that in this moment they see us more clearly than we are able to see ourselves.

The Maze


I was out at an event last weekend and the person in front of me was struggling. They were hunched up, tense, staring straight ahead. Their friend was checking on them off and on, and then two folks who I assume were their parents showed up and sat next to them. They were being supported to the extent that they could be in a large room full of other people.

At one point, they stretched their arms out and I saw a tattoo of a semicolon. Many of you probably know about this symbol. Grammatically, a semicolon is used when you could have ended a sentence, but you chose not to. When it's tattooed, it generally refers to suicide. A life not ended, or the wish that it hadn't been. Sometimes it's about themselves, sometimes it's about a loved one. Those tattoos are fairly common, but they always have an impact on me. This one was different though.

That semicolon on their arm was inside a maze. 

It's a powerful image, and as someone who sits with people multiple times a week who are, quite literally, grappling with whether they should end their lives or not, it struck me hard. From my current perspective, I thought about how hard it can be to reach people when they're in that place. To wander through that maze, searching for a way through. From their perspective, I see that maze as protection. It keeps them safe from those that would seek to harm them. The more elaborate and involved the maze, the safer they may feel. The heartbreaker is that the harder they are to reach, the longer it takes for them to receive help.

I can't say what that tattoo meant for this person. I watched as the people who cared about them tried to comfort them, and from my perspective, it looked like they were barely scratching the surface, bumping around on the outside of that maze, always hitting a dead end and needing to backtrack. It looked they all knew the dance steps, the helpers knowing they weren't getting all the way in, the one needing help knowing they were not allowing them access. But still, in the moment, it seemed like enough.

So, for all of you trying to reach someone who is struggling, don't stop trying. even when it feels like they don't want your help, even when you know you won't get as far in as you want to, make the effort. It's often the effort that makes the difference.

For those of you in need of help, know that we won't stop walking the twisted and narrow paths of your maze. We see the occasional flower blooming in the ivy on the wall, and we know that it hints at the beautiful garden at the center.

You are worth our efforts; you always have been. 

"...But it's Fine."

I can't count the number of times a client has sat across from me, bravely recounting details of a difficult experience, and ending with some version of "it's fine" or "but that was along time ago" or "you know, so many others have had worse experiences".

Here's the deal, you can always find someone with a "worse" story. That doesn't diminish your experience.

When we go through hard stuff, it's hard for us, period. If you fall off a 20 foot cliff, that's gonna leave a mark, if you even survive it. If the next day you read a story about someone who fell of a 30 foot cliff, does that mean you're not hurt anymore? Does it mean your bones are not broken, your wounds are suddenly healed? Of course not, so why would psychological trauma be any different?

So why do we hold to this idea?

I believe this comes back to the root of our Puritanical culture that tells us not to complain. The idea that no one really wants to hear about your struggles, and when bad things happen you should just suck it up and carry on quietly. If you're unable to do that then you're either weak or needy, and probably both.

One of the results of this thinking is that it keeps us from gaining ownership of our experience. How events affected us, and how that shows up now is crucial information for us to pay attention to. If we dismiss this information, it makes it very difficult to "deal with it". Which in my mind means we have fully incorporated the experience, that it no longer causes us unexpected intense emotions, and it does not prevent us from doing the things we want or need to do.

How can we get there if we keep denying to ourselves that the event was a big deal for us? Our stuff is our stuff, if it keeps popping up, causing us discomfort (sadness, anger, anxiety, fear) then it's a big deal (to us!) and needs attention. Acknowledging that, and validating your experience, without comparison to events that happened to other people, can go a long way towards starting to heal from it.

Emotions are Contagious

My friend and mentor Colin Smith wrote a blog the other day that inspired me. You can find it here.

The line that caught me was “emotions are contagious”. It immediately brought to mind several things. The first thing that popped into my head was the birth of my first daughter.

My mother-in-law, Tina, was a midwife, and a well respected one in the town where my daughter was born. Tina had since moved west, but her reputation in the town was still strong. Our midwife was good at her job, but she was intimidated by attending at the birth of Tina’s first grandchild. So, of course, she was the one on call when Anna went into labor.

Shoulder dystocia is when the infant’s shoulder gets hung up on the mother’s pubis after the head is out. Generally this requires the midwife or doctor to move the mom, and/or manipulate the baby, so that the shoulder is able to get by.

I know all this now. At the time all this was happening however, I was just a freaked out almost-dad who was very much aware that the energy in the room had shifted dramatically.

Our midwife was in a panic.

She was speaking sternly to the nurses to get the Doc on call in the room STAT, she was talking about other things that I have either forgotten or didn’t understand at the time. Probably both. Her final solution was to have me and another person each grab a knee and wrench it backwards while she pushed hard on Anna’s belly to expel the baby. Not perhaps the best choice, but it got the job done. As soon as Maya arrived, the panic in the room pitched, and everyone was talking at once, the midwife was calling for doctors and equipment and whatever else she felt the situation warranted.

Here’s where my hero arrives…

Suzy was the OB on call, she was a mountain of a woman. She was tall, and she was wide and she had hands like dinner plates. While the midwives and the nurses were running around and yelling orders at each other, Suzy had scooped up my daughter, and sandwiched her between those two massive hands. She locked my eye and said

“Her heartbeat is fine

Her breathing is fine

Your baby is fine”. 

My system settled immediately. Suzy had not gotten caught up in the drama that was swirling the room. She didn’t need a stethoscope. She didn’t need a heart monitor. Her hands were giving her all the information she needed. She was a rock in a turbulent sea.

In retrospect, I don’t think it was the information alone that shifted the panic, it was this woman’s presence that refused to be caught up in the tide. It allowed the other medical professionals in the room to get their wits about them once again. Suzy brought with her into the room an aura of peace that infected the rest of us in an almost magical way.

It’s easy to get caught up in a moment, it’s also possible not to.

Working with clients with anxiety issues, I have come to appreciate the power of staying calm when someone else in the room is not. We have the ability to anchor our fellow humans, sometimes in profound ways. Maybe it’s a pack instinct from long ago.

If other beings that we trust around us are not agitated, then I’m probably safe. 

Sometimes we need to hook our nervous systems onto a buddy to regulate. Sometimes we need to be the anchor in the room. It’s a beautiful and powerful thing, and I find myself grateful for it when I notice it, regardless of which end I’m on.

Self on the Shelf

Sometimes we can't take it in when the people in our lives tell us good things about ourselves. There can be lots of reasons for this. Maybe we've never heard that we're good at this or that particular thing. Maybe we're moving too fast to stop and let it settle in. Maybe we don't think very highly of the person praising us, so their opinions don't carry much weight. Perhaps we don't feel they have the full picture, we think if they knew the whole story, they wouldn't be so complimentary. (See this post for more on that and why I think group work is so amazing) Much of the time, we can't take it in because it bumps up against a core belief that we're not OK in some way.

We're not smart, we're not beautiful, we're not strong, we're not worthy, we're not lovable...we're just not...enough.

So no matter how many times we hear that we really are OK, often we just can't let it in.

I invite you try something. The next time someone gives you positive feedback, and you find yourself ready to toss it away, put it on a shelf. You don't have to take it in right then and there, you don't have to accept it as truth. Maybe you never will. That's OK.

But you don't have to completely disregard it either.

Put in on the shelf, and allow the possibility to exist that it might be true. Maybe you're not all things to all people all the time. (nobody is). But maybe for that person, in that moment, you were just what was needed.

Put it on the shelf, then, when you feel ready, take it down and play with it. What would it be like if this thing were true? If this thing were true, what would that mean for other parts of your life? What would it take for you to accept this?

You may find that the second or third time you take a good look at this, you will be able to take it in. Or maybe, it goes back on the shelf. Your choice.

One more thing, think about a second shelf. One where you put the negative things people say, or even the things we say to ourselves. Sometimes the negative things are far too easy to accept as true. What if we put some of that on a different shelf?

Instead of immediately accepting that we are not good enough, not kind enough, not generous enough, not...enough.

Put it on the shelf. 

Accept the possibility that this thing that hurts, this thing that defeats you, may not actually be true. Again, you don't have to believe it, not all the way. Allow the shelf to just hold the possibility, that maybe, perhaps, this doesn't fit you as well as you have always thought.

Think of these shelves as simply an invitation to another possibility. Just a thought that perhaps you are strong enough, beautiful enough, kind enough, maybe, just maybe...

you are actually enough. 



Group Love

3470650293_60b27d6539_m A new session of Dream Group started a couple of weeks ago. On the first day, I asked 6 people who had never met to look around at each other. I asked them to notice what was coming up for them. What kinds of judgements were they making? What were they afraid the others were thinking about them? Then I told them that they would all fall in love with each other. Furthermore, that I guaranteed that this would happen. There were some amused and uncertain looks.

By the end of the second session, they knew I was right. 

As they opened, and told their secrets, shared their sacred stories, put their fears on the table and let their masks fall away, the container was set and we were already falling.

Most of us work very hard to build an outer shell that is designed to repel judgement. "Hi, how are you?" "I'm fine, and you?" "I'm great, thanks for asking!".


In group we ask "how are you?", and we get real. "I'm scared that my love doesn't love me, and I don't know who I am without them. I was overwhelmed last night, and I cut myself, like I've done so many times before. It's been a rough week."

We let ourselves sink down to the bottom of the lake, where it's dark and and sometimes scary. We sit down there and listen to what needs to be shared. It's safe, because we're all there together. It's scary, because we're all there together.

There are two important parts of group work, the first is being able to share the unspeakable. The second is being able to hear feedback on that.

"I feel like I'm unlovable"

Out in the "real world" this comment would be met with "oh, don't say that! You're awesome! I love you!".

But deep inside, there's this voice; "if they really knew you, they could not love you. They love the image that you project, but you know that's not real".

So the idea that we are unlovable persists, because we have created an environment for ourselves that doesn't feel genuine.

Jung said, "the psyche does not suffer deception well". We know when we are being lied to, and it's uncomfortable, and it happens all day long.

So part of group work is calling bullshit when we see it. When someone shares some hard stuff, and they end with "but it's fine, I'm ok". We ask, "what is it that makes you want to box that back up right now?. How does it feel in your body to have shared that and know that we saw through your mask?. What are you afraid we're thinking about you now? Now that we know your secret?". Let's just leave that wound open, let's not cover it back up just yet. We don't need to fix it, that's your work to do, but we can just sit here with that. And it's ok for you to let that happen. This is safe, even though it doesn't feel like it. 

Group is not for everyone. You need to be ready. You need to be willing to shed your skin and stand exposed, and let the group blow kisses that can sometimes sting. 

Once we feel like the group really knows us, knows all the parts that we run around all day trying to hide, then, and only then, can we start to believe it when they say;

You are lovable

You are enough

I see you

I see all of you

Until you can hear your own strong voIce telling you you're ok, I want you to use mine, and believe it.



Getting Curious

It is often said that curiosity killed the cat, but what fate awaits those with a lack of curiosity? As a therapist, my own curiosity is a powerful tool. When discussing cases with my supervisor, she often will tell me, "get curious". When I'm sitting with a client, it's essential that I pay attention not only to what they are saying, but how they are saying it, and what else is going on. If they tear up, if their facial expression changes, if their body language shifts, I will often ask "what just happened there?". It's an opportunity for us both to get curious. What did we touch on? What's going on with your body? Something shifted.

Outside the office, My curiosity tends to have more of an inward focus. If, as Plato said, the unexamined life is not worth living, I'm safe, at least for a while. It's become a large part of who I am, curious about myself, questioning my reactions to other people and environments.

I tend to surround myself with others who value this kind of curiosity. For me, it's one of the ways we care for one another.

How are you? What's important? What's hard? Who are you in this place, in this moment?

My wife's parents are good at this. They ask good questions, and listen to the answers. Perhaps it's due to their Quaker background. They know how to sit in a moment. I've always been grateful to them for that.

A dear friend from high school came for a visit last night. I hadn't seen him in 26 years. Within minutes we settled, we listened. We got curious about each other.

Where have you been? What have you experienced? How does that inform who you are now?

Curiosity is a gift, it's what keeps us moving forward, as species, as a community, as two old friends on the couch.



Showing up

100184122_8890a2a627_m (1) How do we show up?

I've written before about being enough, you can find it here.

(Go check it out, I'll wait)

On a related note, I had been doubting some of the ways I've been showing up. At work, at home, for my friends, even for myself. I've been feeling more tense than I like, I've caught myself being short, sarcastic, even dismissive. This is not how I like to show up. I like to be present, grounded, open-hearted. I want the people in my life to know that I'm here for them, and that I see them for who they are. On a good day, I accomplish this. I can meet at least some of their needs, and I get some of mine met as well. Lately though, I just haven't felt all there.

Yesterday I got some feedback from a client that let me know that however I thought I had been showing up (or not), it was enough for her in those moments. She felt supported, and safe and able to do her work because I was there with her.

I needed that.

The day before, I came upon a young woman who was in the throes of a panic attack. I invited her into my office and I was able to help her get back under control. We did some orienting, we tried some breathing exercises, but I think what actually did it was that I was really there with her. We were connected, and she felt that.

In short, I showed up.

Two messages in two days that I am, in fact showing up. It doesn't mean that I can stop worrying about how I'm arriving for the people in my life. However, it's good to know that maybe I'm not as checked out as I have thought.

Inevitably, how we enter that space that gets held between two people is going to shift. It changes based on how we feel, how they feel, and what's happening in the moment. The greatest gift this work has given me is an awareness of that. Having the curiosity, the courage and the desire to address the questions of "how are we doing with each other? What do we need to attend to?" is a gift to both of us in that moment.

I'm grateful to ask it, and to hear the answer, and to go from there, every time.

It's always worth it.


For a Sweet Friend

I lost a friend this month. After years of struggling with the loss of her daughter in a car accident, she took her own life. Pam and I met in massage school, which is a very special and unique place. Everyone shows up with their insecurities about their own bodies. Add to that all the myriad feelings we have about other people's bodies. Then you get naked and practice working on each other, which is nerve-wracking to say the least. The bonds that get formed are tight, tender and nurturing. Our school was small, there were 10 of us at the beginning, I think 8 of us were left at the end. Pam and I connected immediately and we paired up with each other the majority of the time.

I came into that school with some heavy anxiety. I was molested when I was 12 by a man who used the term "massage" to legitimize the destruction of boy's lives. Being told where and how to touch someone has always been a massive trigger for me. My path to massage school was a long and winding road, but at the end of that road, I found myself in a small room with 9 strangers and a lot of apprehension.

Pam was my safe place.

We spent 20 hour weekends together for a year. We talked a lot and I came to understand just a fraction of the pain she carried. I didn't know Pam before she lost her daughter, so I can't say what she was like then. When I knew her she was a sweet, kind and generous woman who was also, unfortunately, broken in a profound way.

As I said, massage school is unique. I remember the smell of Pam's hair, a couple of moles she had, and the way her hands felt as they eased into the muscles of my always too-tight traps. I remember how dirty her feet always were from going barefoot. I know she cherished her husband, both of her daughters, her wide community of friends, and a couple of small elderly dogs.

Her hands shook.

Small tremors that may have been telling a story of what was going on under her own skin. When she used very light pressure, it was obvious, and endearing in a way. When she moved deeper into the muscle, the tremors were undetectable as she set about her work. She was good at it.

Pam was a searcher, a seeker of healing for herself and others. She helped countless people as a teacher, friend, and bodyworker. I'm deeply saddened by the choice she made, and hopeful that she found what she was looking for.

She left the world a little better than she found it, and it's a little less well off now that she's gone.

Safe travels, my sweet friend.



The Importance of Feedback

A friend recently commented on her circle of friends, remarking how grateful she was for them, and how much they had helped her grow. She mentioned that they sometimes have dinners where they give each other real and relevant feedback. This is, perhaps, the greatest gift one human can give another. I wrote about my internship at the Counseling Center in an earlier post, you can find it here

Many times this past year I have been both witness and participant to the power of giving truly good feedback. It's often a great tool in group therapy work when a member has shared something big that they are now uncertain about. It is very scary to open yourself up to a group, no matter how close you all are. Often there is still that voice in our heads that says "if they really knew me, they wouldn't support me".

When someone stands up to that voice and shares anyway, it's imperative that they get feedback around how that landed with the other members. Often the response we get is in direct opposition to what we feared it would be. In fact, most of the time the feedback is so far to the other side of what we expect that it can be hard to even take in.

We're taught not to think too highly of ourselves, to not be conceited, to hide the parts of us that make us feel different from the rest. When we let that go and really hear how we are coming across to others, it can be life-changing.

To do this in a therapeutic environment is important, and one could say that it's even the whole point.

To know the importance of this and to utilize this tool in a relevant and conscious manner with the people we love is not only brave, it's a true gift to our friends, our community and ourselves.


Loving us into Being

For about the past 9 months I've been an intern at the counseling center of our local state college, Fort Lewis. It's part of my graduate program in social work. It has been, in short, life changing. It's interesting to me that the length of my experience this year has been about the same as it takes to grow a human. I have grown. I have changed, I have been held and supported and loved in ways that have literally taken my breath away. The director of the training program retired this year. It was heart-wrenching for so many that have had the good fortune to learn from him. In short, to learn from Colin Smith is to be loved by him. Colin is a Jungian scholar. He looks like John Lennon, with long, wild hair and thick round glasses. He often speaks in metaphors, and he has no tolerance for small talk. We fell in love with each other immediately.

At our orientation retreat, we sat in a circle at one of the senior counselor's homes. 7 staff members, 7 first year practicum students, 2 second year interns. When the sage was burned and the circle was created, I felt at home. What followed though, felt new. Colin read from The Little Prince, he read from the Velveteen Rabbit. He talked about what it means to become real, to be human, to be heard, to be seen. I tend to pay attention to my body in times like these. I have a pretty good bullshit detector, but it works in reverse. It works by making me cry when something is real. As Colin spoke and my tears flowed, I knew it would be good year. I also knew that I would be heartbroken when it ended.

Recently we had our year-end retreat. "The take out". We live in a small western town with a big rafting community. That being the case, it's inevitable that river metaphors abound. The orientation was the "put in", everyone into the boat, here we go. We've been moving down the river, most of us ending up in the water more often than not. But the line gets thrown and we hold on, and sooner or later we get pulled to safety.

So here we were again, this time at the Take Out. We sat in a circle as each of us were honored and given feedback on how we had come across, how we had shifted, how we had grown since that orientation day. We were held, we were challenged and we were loved.

We talk a lot about "the container", the space we create that allows our clients to open, to explore their hard stuff, their dark parts, their pain. At that orientation Colin talked about the container, and how it needed to be strong enough to hold everything we pour into it. But that's not enough. In order for change to happen, that container needs to be heated up. The heat gets turned on and it gets hotter and hotter until the contents begin to change. It's alchemy, and it's uncomfortable. One of Colin's favorite sayings is "the shit turns to gold". It's our hard stuff, the stuff we're ashamed of, that we never speak of, the parts that are too painful, scary and sickening to look at that is our richest material. That container needs to hold all of that without breaking apart, and there's only one way to make it strong, and that's through love.

Carl Rogers, pioneer of person-centered psychotherapy talked a lot about "unconditional positive regard". The idea that we should see our clients without judgement, to think the best of them. I do believe Rogers was right on in his approach with that, but he was afraid to call it what it is.


We love our clients. When they open up and let us in, when they share their broken parts, we fall in love with them. How could we not? That's when we know we have the container we need.

There's another part to all this. When we fall in love with our clients, when we hold that unconditional space for them do their work, we heal ourselves too. It reminds us to be gentle with ourselves. Another saying in the counseling center is "we're all in the soup together". There's no "I'm OK, you're not", there's not a separation. We all hurt, we all have to deal with our stuff. The more of our own work we do, the more we can help others. Period.

I have never felt so scrutinized as I have these past 9 months. At the beginning it was uncomfortable. My body language, my dress, my humor (especially my humor) was all open to interpretation. I'm no stranger to being judged, but that wasn't what they were doing. It was more of an exploration, an invitation to see what was going on under all that. It was all for my benefit, and I felt that.

The goal of the training program is to make sure we do our work. Their work is to hold us accountable to ourselves.

The staff of the Counseling Center do this by modeling the highest level of personal accountability and integrity that I have ever witnessed.

They do this by making themselves available to us in countless ways, both professionally and personally.

They do this by loving us into Being.


Push Pull

Thirteen is hard. I remember it, and not fondly. My daughter will turn 14 in August, she graduates from 8th grade tonight. Over the past two years I've watched her move rapidly from a child to a young adult. It's a fierce transition, sometimes painful, sometimes sublime. Lydia and I had a profound first meeting, you can read about it here.

I often worry that she's cursed with being the kid that's "OK". She does well in school, she makes friends easily, she's pretty. It's easy to assume that she's just skipping along in her young life, without too many obstacles or challenges.

Sometimes I forget how intense these years are. She's negotiating the most complicated relationships that she has ever known. She's had to work harder on her schoolwork than ever before. Her body is taking off in a million different directions, with and without her permission, both inside and out.

In short, it's a crazy time.

I don't tell her enough how many times a day I think about her and smile.

I don't tell her how often I look at her and my breath just leaves my body because I am so proud of her, because she's so beautiful, because she's so smart, because she's so funny.

Sometimes she tells me she hates me. She doesn't yell it, she's not angry, she's just telling me about this powerful emotion welling up in her. I tell her she has permission to hate me as much as I love her.

She thinks I'm being sarcastic, but I'm truly not.

It's impossible to feel the special kind of loathing a teen can muster for their parents if we don't love them that much as well, but I know in that moment, she's not really feeling that side of it. It's complicated, like any intimate relationship.

These are tender years. She's trying to figure how to get away, I'm trying to figure out how to let go. We've just started this dance with each other, and I know it's going to get harder before it gets easier.

Sometimes I get so scared for her that I can't move, other times I'm so excited for her that I can't stand still.

I'm thinking it's going to be like this for a little while.

I'm OK with that.