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Am I the right counselor for you?

  • Work with me from anywhere in the world over Skype or Zoom video
  • See me in person in Corvallis, Oregon.

Not every counselor, not even every good counselor, is the right counselor for you. It depends partly on the therapist’s skills and even more on compatibility, fit, resonance.

Does this sound like you?

Most of my successful clients have things in common. If you’re like them, I may well be the right counselor for you:

  • You are highly sensitive.
  • You feel a lot of shame.
  • You have talked your way through therapy before, without deep change happening.
  • You suspected you were too smart for your other therapists.
  • Your other therapists were too nice or too cold.
  • You have a lot of compassion for others, but are much harder on yourself.
  • You were abandoned or betrayed.
  • You have sometimes doubted your own worth or your own reality.
  • You dream of doing really cool things, but you have difficulty either taking on new projects or finishing them.
  • Your close relationships are still difficult.
  • Any of these:
    • Parts of your childhood left you feeling frightened, alone, or unwanted.
    • You don’t remember much from your childhood.
    • Your childhood was fine but you have responses or feelings as if it weren’t.
  • You are the rock for others in your life, but no one is your rock.

Did you answer yes to more than three of these questions? (Or answer a very strong yes to even one or two?) If so, I’d love to meet you. I love working with people like you!

Would you like to meet me? Read these testimonials, all from actual clients in their actual words. Then click here to schedule our initial consultation.

If you’re needing to get past challenges, get unstuck, honor your sensitivity and smarts, and pursue the life and relationships you really want, I’d like to meet you!

What it’s like to with me

What my counseling clients say:

“I can’t believe how much easier it is for me now. I can get through the day without crying. I can go to work. I can talk to people. I haven’t felt this good in a long, long time!”

“I was beyond burnt out on therapy before I met you, and never would have come to see you if we hadn’t met by chance. But I’m so glad I did meet with you, because you changed my idea of therapy, and showed me that I’m not just a ‘set of symptoms,’ and that there are things that can help me. I finally know how to keep my peace instead of going into a rage. I never would have thought this was possible before we met!”

“It’s like there was this sense of being blocked — like concrete in my heart somehow. I can feel the concrete melting now. I’m crying, but with relief this time.”

“I used to feel like I needed other people to take care of me, and I felt so desperate. It was a need that never felt like it eased up, and I had parts inside that wouldn’t work together. Now, it’s like the parts are along with me, and we’re working together. I feel like I can take care of myself now, like I have support from inside.”

“At the end of our work together, I know I’ve come a long way. And I enjoyed our work, too! And I love how many approaches you use, and how you’re always learning new things and bringing them to our work. It kept the work so fluid and dynamic. We did hypnosis, and I had big breakthroughs.  When we used EMDR techniques, that hugely helped me. The therapy that worked with my body helped me to feel a sense of boundaries and  solidity in myself. And your empathy helped me to feel what I was feeling, to stop suppressing my emotions.
My relationships are better. I know what I want, and I can say it. I’m taking care of myself, and all the parts of me are working together.

I know I’m ready to move forward. I was stuck, and you helped me to get unstuck!”

“When I first came to see you, I had an injury that wouldn’t heal and was going to need surgery. After what we did together, it started healing. I just went to the doctor, and not only do I no longer need surgery, I no longer need to wear a cast!”

I feel like you ‘get me’, and you know ways to help me to move through and past things that have been holding me back for a long time. I finally know how to keep my peace instead of going into a rage. I never would have thought this was possible before we met!”

“I know it’s safe in here because your words, your posture, your laugh — they all tell me it’s really okay to bring all of me here. It’s a sense of safety I’ve needed for a long time.”

“I suddenly had this epiphany — this realization — that most people are safe. Most people mean well. I hadn’t felt that before. I’d always been on guard without even knowing it.

I used to be so hard on myself. Now, I can catch myself starting to do that, and I imagine your compassion. Your compassion for me is helping me to be compassionate toward myself, and that changes things for me.”

“My energy is coming back, and I can focus now. With the things I’ve learned, I can settle myself and focus. I’m so much calmer at work, and that’s making my time there much more productive!”

“My boss gave me a piece of feedback, and before, I would have just shut down and felt angry at her — and like a failure inside. This time, I saw her feedback as a true gift, and I was able to take it in and make real improvements. She noticed the difference!”

“My partner and I got into an argument again, but I was able to calm down so much more quickly and speak so that he could hear me. He said this is the first time he’s seen me so at ease, and it’s so much easier for us to talk!”

All these words above are from clients of mine, folks who started out feeling unsure of themselves. Some of them had to work hard to get themselves to therapy! But they did schedule to see me, and they followed through. For some clients, coming to counseling is a leap of faith, or an act of honoring themselves even when they’re not sure yet that they can get better.

See Me in Face-to-Face or Over Internet Video

My counseling office is in downtown Corvallis, Oregon, so I am also within easy reach of Philomath, Albany, Lebanon, Monroe, Monmouth, and the surrounding areas.

And I see clients from around the world via Skype or Zoom video. See my online counseling page.

I'm ready for practical, interactive counseling!

 

Get more tips and information

To learn more, keep looking around! If what you’ve read and seen has connected with  you,  follow me on social media and/or subscribe to my newsletter! I put videos regularly on YouTube, and you can also find my latest stuff on Facebook, Twitter, or Google Plus — just use the social media icons you see on the screen to pick how you’d like to get your information!

Michaela Lonning
260 SW Madison Ave, Suite 104-5
Corvallis Oregon 97333

(541)224-6732

michaela@michaelas-counseling.com

Healing disorganized attachment

If you’re struggling with a disorganized attachment style, you are torn between two or three different impulses in relationships. It feels chaotic inside, and it can get chaotic in your relationships.

Sometimes, people seem caring but then they seem to turn on you. For no reason that you can identify.

You are fine with acquaintances, but once a relationship gets deeper, you start feeling some internal chaos — like you don’t know whether to get way closer, to run away screaming, or to split the difference somehow!

You find yourself feeling like you’re going in two directions at once in the same relationship, and it’s exhausting for you (and maybe the other person!). It’s like wanting to floor the accelerator and pound on the brake of a car at the same time.

You are afraid to get close to people, afraid of the chaos this might unleash.

You have a vague sense of dread in relationships. You may not be able to identify quite what this is all about, but somehow, it feels like you aren’t really safe with others. You can’t settle.

You feel out of control of your own feelings, impulses, and behavior.

You alternate between trying to avoid someone and wanting to be very close to them, and you often don’t know what’s governing these cycles of closeness and distance.

You say things that other people find to be inconsistent. Like you ask for help, but then if help comes, it doesn’t feel safe, or good, or like what you asked for. Maybe others find you hard to please.

You sometimes feel like giving up on yourself, or giving up on relationships. But you have intense yearning at the very same time.

You feel stuck in your relationships, and if you’re in therapy, often feel stuck there — like you, your therapist, or both of you, are being too difficult!

Relationships feel like a landmine.

And yet, you need relationships.

You want to be close. (We all do!) When closeness stirs up memories of abandonment or hurt, though, it’s like your body starts doing something else. It’s as if you move toward and away from relationships at the same time.

Connection has gotten entangled with hurt. With fear. With rage. With desolation. With desperation. With conflict.

This is understandable.

This is what happens when the people who were supposed to take care of you, listen to you, and keep you safe were also the people who walked away from you, couldn’t listen, or were the source of hurt.

As children, we can’t just walk away

When we’re young, we don’t have the option to look at our parents and say, “This isn’t working out well. I think I’ll find parents who are a better match for my needs.”

We have to connect to them. Even when it’s scary. Even when it’s confusing. Even when it hurts. 

But, when we’re being hurt — physically, emotionally, or spiritually — we also have other impulses, to flee or to fight. Our self-protective impulses kick in.

These are good impulses. But they aren’t safe to employ with caregivers who are bigger and more powerful, than the moment, than you are. You end up with suppressed rage, an urge to run but nowhere to go —

And  yet still, the yearning for connection.

Often, this all gets so confusing that you freeze up — it’s like you don’t feel safe coming toward your caregivers, but there’s nowhere to go. You can’t fight. But it doesn’t feel safe to connect either.

As an adult, you feel like these same binds keep playing in your relationships over and over again. You may sometimes feel like you’re insane, and other times feel like the  whole world’s gone mad!

Things just don’t seem stable, or safe.

You just can’t get comfortable.

Someone feels great to be around one moment, and terrifying the next.

It’s like everything keeps getting flipped upside down in your mind, in your world.

It doesn’t seem to make sense.

Even when you’re with a partner, or a friend, or a therapist, who demonstrates that they care for you over and over again, and who never hurts you, sometimes you still can’t trust them. And, on a deeper level, you feel like you can’t trust yourself.

So what can be done?

When I see clients who have struggled with these binds, hope often starts to come in quite soon. A lot of this is that I get it about disorganized attachment, so from our very first session, we start to talk in an open way about yearnings, fears, yearnings towards and push-aways — and this opens up a safe space for all of the parts of you to come forward!

We also work, carefully, to help you through the traumatic reactions in your body — reactions to the “fear without solution” you experienced when you were small.

We notice empathically together what’s happening for you. For some clients, this is the first experience they’ve had of getting explicit compassion for their conflict within relationships. We start to notice what’s happening together, and what might happen next.

One client of mine and I started tracking a pattern together: She would feel connected in a session, like I was tracking her. She would start to share deeper things with me, to really start to kind of “land” — and then, all of a sudden, it was as if I couldn’t say anything right! The slightest shift in my tonality could be experienced as hurtful — and yet, it also didn’t feel safe for me to back off or be quieter to give her more room.

Knowing about this helped us both. We could talk, when she wasn’t in that fragile space, about what it might be about. We could connect, notice when she was feeling ready to dive deeper, and then check in with the part of her that might not feel safe to do that.

Therapy with disorganized attachment takes time. It takes delicacy! We both get to be human beings who make mistakes. One of the big things that heals is that I stick with you. We look carefully together at both the moments that feel great and the moments that don’t feel so good — and we find new experiences together. Experiences where you can come closer — and have your needs heard, met, seen, and understood. Experiences where you can have your terror understood, worked with, talked with directly, and soothed.

In this kind of therapy, you learn over time to be more compassionate with yourself. You learn to tolerate other people’s mistakes without them feeling so dangerous. You learn to notice what’s safe and what isn’t safe. You learn to draw toward people at a pace that’s safe for you.

We find together the moments where you connect in a secure, kind, well-boundaried way — and we notice this together! None of us are all one attachment style, so even though your relationships may have been fraught with significant conflict, there are still lovely moments that you have with people. You and I will have many great moments, and we’ll notice them together! We’ll notice what it’s like to come in my office and to just know that you’re welcome, or what it’s like to feel those tears of relief when your sense of urgent need is welcomed and understood.

We’ll work slowly and quickly, all at once!

Clients who do this deep work often report unexpected changes in their lives in a short time period: Sometimes, they feel an overall sense of increased calm. Sometimes, they find that they can take a nap when they’re tired and go to sleep at night, when this had been very difficult before.

Clients use words like “ease,” “safety,” “feeling welcome”.

Clients also use words like “relief” when they see and hear that I get them, and that we can work through the feelings that have been too hard to put to words — together.

Attachment wounds heal through relationships. So you and I work to build a relationship that feels safe enough, steady enough, good enough. (Not perfect, because no relationship is!).

If you’re dealing with wounds from this attachment style, please know that therapy can help. Even if it hasn’t helped before. Even if you’ve had your attachment dilemmas pathologized or you’ve been blamed before for your “faulty thinking” or your “poor communication.”

Once you work with a therapist who understands trauma and attachment wounds and knows how to work compassionately with them– well, it’s not necessarily smooth sailing. But it gets a heck of a lot easier!

Here are some therapies I highly recommend if you’re struggling with disorganized attachment types of struggles:

  1. Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. A therapy that helps you to feel safe, secure, and grounded in your own body, and helps you to learn to reach out in ways that feel safe. You learn lots of tools for self-soothing, you get help resolving traumatic reactions, and with a therapist who is a good match, you find new experiences in relationships. This therapy is compassionate, non-pathologizing, helps you to slow down and notice what’s happening within yourself moment to moment.
  2. AEDP – (Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy). A therapy that’s about developing a sense of safety with your therapist. A good AEDP therapist doesn’t just listen; she really engages and feels for you as you speak. AEDP therapists will help you to slow things down and to be mindful together of what’s happening within you. AEDP therapists say kind things, and then ask how you’re hearing those things — so that there’s lots and lots of space and permission to say, “I feel like it should feel good to hear that, but I actually feel scared…..” Or to say whatever it is that comes up in the moment. AEDP will help you notice what’s going on in yourself and in your relationships.
  3. Somatic Experiencing – Can help you to work through the intense feelings of overwhelm and shut-down in your body, and can help you to feel more empowered within yourself. SE can come as a huge relief for clients who “can’t talk about it,” because the therapist notices your breathing, your posture, and different motions you make, and helps you to find ways to feel better, stronger, and safer — often without any story needing to be attached at all!

The key thing is to find a therapist who “gets it” about disorganized attachment. Someone who you feel safe with who can help you to feel safe with yourself and connected with them. At a pace that feels right for you.

 

 

 

“Borderline Personality Disorder”

Clients who’ve been diagnosed as “borderline” often know very well what it feels like to be misunderstood, to feel abandoned by their treatment providers, and to feel confused by their own strong emotional reactions. There is true help for borderline personality disorder.

I see BPD as a big, long, agonized cry to have deep needs for connection and validation met. See my video on this:

Contact me if you’d like to learn more about the commitment it takes a therapist and a client to move through BPD symptoms and into healing. It’s work. And it’s worth it!

Looking for a way to counter splitting right away, and want a taste of how I conceptualize this stuff? Here’s my video on “How to Counter Splitting and Understand Relationship Triggers”:

Here’s a story that’s much like the stories of clients I’ve worked with.

She comes into me after abruptly leaving other therapies. She says those therapists started out okay (sometimes they even seemed wonderful.), but none of them really understood her in the end. . One therapist told her to “just quit being so emotional,” and another kicked her out of therapy after she showed up with cuts on her arms right after the therapist had tried to help her. 

She’s good at her job, but her home life feels impossible to manage. She locks herself in her room most of the time, and when she interacts with her husband at all, she very often screams at him.

She says she doesn’t know what comes over her, can’t seem to control these outbursts.

She’s attempted suicide multiple times, usually right after a boyfriend mentioned breaking up with her. She admits, with shame, that sometimes she’s even lied to keep a boyfriend from leaving. She would pretend to be pregnant or injured.

She’s lost most of her friends, and is afraid to reach out again. She feels like no one understands her, and why should they? She fears that if someone did understand her, they’d hate her just like she hates herself.

After our first session, she feels understood and starts to have an inkling that I won’t judge her. I talk straight with her early on, telling her that I know that I run the risk of her walking or running away, because she’s gotten so used to leaving before someone else can leave. I tell her that I sometimes make mistakes, and I will, at some point, probably inadvertently hurt her feelings. We discuss what we can do differently so that she can stay even when I don’t get everything right. And I help her to “pace” her sharing with me, and she learns that she can walk out of a session feeling good, feeling strong in herself. This is different from past therapy where she would sometimes blurt out so much information that she’d leave feeling raw with exposure and shame. She remarks on the feeling of safety she gets by knowing that I’ll encourage her to slow down her sharing if I see her getting overwhelmed.

In future sessions, I help her to focus on her body, on her sensations, and to build a sense of solidity and feeling grounded.

Throughout it all, we’re talking about her high sensitivity, how being so sensitive can feel like both blessing and curse. We do some guided imagery. We talk about some strategies she might use in her communications. And we help her to get in touch with a feeling of safety and confidence more easily.

Several weeks into therapy, she tells me that she’s quit screaming at her husband, and sometimes leaves her room and enjoys herself. We work more on other anxieties or anger she has.

Several months in, her life is looking much better and she’s gaining a sense of having options in how she acts.

Sometimes, she doesn’t feel like showing up to therapy. But because we made an agreement with each other, she shows up anyhow. We talk about what it’s like to run away, what it’s like to show up when she feels like running away, how difficult it can be for her to express her feelings directly. We talk about the things she’d like to tell me, the kinds of things she used to hide from saying by running away or hurting herself or raging. I ask, can she experiment with telling me openly how she feels, or maybe just a piece of it?

We together come to understand different pieces of herself, including a childlike part of herself who needs nurturing.

After getting in touch with herself more, she starts to explore other relationships. And to grieve the relationships she never enjoyed fully until now.

She starts to take up some hobbies she used to enjoy.

As therapy goes on, we walk together through the grief, rage, anger, and ultimately, sadness and sense of aloneness she’s experienced for so much of her life. This time, she feels like someone’s here with her, like she doesn’t have to endure these feelings alone anymore. With increased space to be herself and feel her feelings, she’s able to open up more with her husband as well.

She tells me, “I lost so much. I never knew that I could be like I am now. I thought I was evil inside. But now I feel beautiful. I understand why I did those things. But I don’t have to do them anymore.”

Sound good? Schedule your consultation with me here.

Some of the folks I’ve talked with who have been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder were dismissed by therapists and loved ones — They may have been told that their reactions and their feelings were “just being borderline” — A devastating thing to hear if you are highly sensitive, as folks with BPD are.

You may have learned to discount your own emotions while feeling immense shame at being “different” — and sometimes feeling rage at people who don’t seem to understand you. Rage, shame, chaos, numbness — the despair can seem inescapable. But there are ways out.

So what does this diagnosis really mean?

You can find the objective criteria by looking up those characteristics, so I’m not going to rehash the dsm definition here.

I’m going to speak about what I’ve seen this mean for people I’ve worked with.

Marsha Linehan, who’s done research on borderline personality disorder, likens the emotional experience of having borderline personality disorder to what it might feel like physically to “live without skin” — the lightest touch or contact can feel unbearable.

It means that your feelings may alternate between numbness and rage.

It means that you can feel super close to someone one moment, and the next, wonder why you ever wanted to know them.

It means that you may have a fear of abandonment that is truly frightening, and that, when someone leaves, you may feel abject terror — which can lead you to doing and saying things that you later just don’t respect. And you wonder, “Why did I do that? Why do I push the people I love away?”

It may mean that you get into relationships with people you’re not sure if you even like. Or that you feel like you create a new identity for yourself around each new relationship. You blend and become what you perceive other people want — often very skillfully. You may be charming, empathic, and give endlessly to others or just become what you sense they want. And at the end of the day, you may go, “But who am I?”

You may have hurt yourself or done some very impulsive things. Sometimes, it may have been because you felt you had no other way to express your pain. Sometimes, it may have been because parts of you felt so numb, and doing something intense helped you to feel yourself and your body again.

Many people who have borderline traits or experiences have not had many experiences with compassion and help working their way through their keen sense of sensitivity. Helping folks with this diagnosis, in my experience, involves a few different things:

1. Helping you to calm any crisis in your life. Safety first!

So we will want to develop ways for you to get through the day, ways to help ensure that you’ll stick with therapy so that we can make real progress.

We’ll work on helping you to feel a sense of stability and safety.

And we’ll work on helping you to establish a commitment to therapy, because if we’re going to work together, we need to get our relationship expectations and any concerns about safety sorted out. Working through struggles that come up in the therapy relationship is one of the fastest ways to change, and to move into true healing that extends to your other relationships.

Because the potential for change through this relationship is so important, and because you might be used to walking away before that can happen, I also require that, once you choose to work with me, you pay for several sessions in advance. Why? Because I know that feelings that come up in therapy can be tough, and I know that, in the past, you may have learned to walk away when you feared someone else would. You’ve likely abandoned yourself and your feelings so many times that it’s become automatic. We break that cycle in therapy right away by establishing a commitment.

2. Helping you to develop a sense of self. That means that I want to help you to connect with who you really are. Sometimes, folks with intense feelings end up living lives that end up being run by the chaos of just trying to manage or get away from those feelings — but beneath any chaos you may be experiencing is a deeply sensitive person with deeply felt values. Good therapy can help you to get in touch with who you are so that you can have a sense of yourself in the midst of relationships, and so that you can live from a place of integrity and solidity.

Some folks come into therapy actually needing to work through the sense of trauma of being abandoned so many times by people who couldn’t understand and couldn’t stay around the chaos.

3. Helping you to learn ways to soothe yourself and calm your own feelings and your own body. You may have been dealing with so much feeling and so much chaos, and it may be that you’ve never learned how to comfort yourself, how to calm yourself down. If your brain is screaming, “Danger!” when it looks like someone is about to leave you or when someone does something to trigger that sensitivity, it’s hard to even function in day-to-day life. You need help to develop resiliency, and we can work on that through helping you to develop ways to notice your feelings and calm them. You may have spent so much time trying to stifle your emotions or to get someone else to understand you that you haven’t yet learned how to identify your emotions and soothe yourself. We can work with that until it’s second nature for you to realize your feelings and to reach out when that will work, and to learn to self-soothe too. (Lots of clients tell me that my compassion for them becomes an internal presence for them quite quickly — and how rewarding it is to self-soothe through feeling the presence of someone else who cares for them!)

4. Helping you to build a life worth living. “Building a Life Worth Living” is a phrase I’m borrowing from Marsha Linehan, who developed dialectical behavioral therapy. DBT offers lots of ways for you to ground, cope, and navigate complex feelings and relationships so that you can do the work of learning who you are and you can build a life that you love to wake up to every day. Some of my clients find that they need tools to cope with trauma and emotional flashbacks. I offer tools for those too.

5. Helping you to heal from trauma. Many “borderlines” grew up in homes where their feelings were denied. You may have been much more sensitive than your parents were, and they may not have known how to teach you how to handle those emotions and express them in useful ways. You may have heard, “Toughen up!”, or “Stop crying,” or, “Why do you have to make such a big deal out of nothing?”

That, in itself, is a deep trauma that struck at the core of who you were, so you may have developed a “tough veneer” to avoid looking like things mattered — but beneath that veneer is still so much feeling that you’re not sure how to stand it.

Other traumas include outright abuse — sexual, physical, verbal, spiritual. This can occur in families, but also out on the school playground, or in churches — or in dating relationships or marriage.

Another trauma is that of the “borderline” label, which, while it can put some pieces together, can also be done in ways that are damaging. I’ve heard stories of counselors who waved off someone’s intense pain as okay to overlook because it was “just borderline manipulation.” I will take you seriously, and we’ll identify together where and why any “manipulation” comes in and how we can be direct with one another.

There’s hope of deep healing of BPD traits!

Many of the folks I work with start out with traits of this disorder, and I like working with people who struggle in these ways. Progress is often much faster than they expect once they have a relationship with me and some tools they can put to use right away. Most often, people feel like I really understand them and respect them in the first session.

People with bpd can overcome these symptoms. And when they do, they get in touch with that sensitivity and richness that was always there, and embrace them as gifts and traits to nurture. And they live lives full of purpose, joy, and deep emotion.

If you want to explore the possibility of working together for that, schedule a consultation with me today.

 

“Why feel a feeling?”

Some people don’t understand what utility feelings can have.

For example, a client of mine, years back, said, “I just wish I were a robot. I don’t want to feel. Feelings don’t help anyone. They just make you feel worse. They just make everything go wrong.”

The devastation behind her words was palpable, while she sat across from me, looking at me blankly, wondering why I would respond so emotionally to such a simple question.

Yet, as simple as a question was, and as deserving as it is of explaining, I was struck by the probable history behind such a question.

Because, when your feelings are met with care, you intuitively come to know that crying when you’re sad means relief, and means caring from others.

You know that your happiness is likely to be met by joy in another person’s eyes, or by you doing more and more of what leads to that feeling — because happiness makes us want to do the happy-making thing again!

You know that your anger, when on-point and communicated clearly, can help you to set a limit, can help others to notice your side, can help you to protest or leave an unfair situation.

Feelings connect us to ourselves and to our deepest wants and needs.

Feelings connect us to others, telegraphing what we can’t always communicate so easily in words.

Feelings can have many flavors and textures, varying levels of intensity and depth, and they help us to know viscerally something about ourselves, our experiences, the world.

Feelings help us to connect.

If your feelings have been responded to with enough consistency, with enough kindness, and enough guidance, you know without even having to think about it that feelings come in waves, and when we express them, they release naturally and they end with relief and renewed perspective.

When your feelings have been met with disdain, ridicule, looks of incredulity, rolled eyes, or taunting laughter, you learn something very very different about your feelings. You turn against your feelings, turning against yourself in the process.

You equate letting people see your feelings with being torn down — and so you bury your feelings, deep deep inside, where you hope no one will see them.

You may not know what you yourself feel anymore. And when this happens, you also may feel adrift, empty, unmotivated. You’ve lost your sense of vitality, and your life force. You may seek ways to “stop being lazy,” and think that feelings are the last thing you need! People who’ve shut off their awareness of their own feelings may feel threatened by the very prospect of therapy that seeks to find the feelings again. “Why bother,” they may say. “Feeling has never led to anything good.” “I just need a few strategies.” “Why aren’t you helping me to just solve my problems?”

But feelings, when worked with carefully in a relationship that feels safe enough, can lead to a tremendous increase in energy and motivation. Far from making you “dramatic,” a careful exploration of feelings in a safe environment makes you more effective, less likely to fly off the handle or find yourself numbed out or enraged when you least expect it. (No one can hold all their feelings in forever, so they do leak, sometimes in ways you might not like or understand.).

Feelings bring you back home to yourself. They bring you to safe connection with others.

“Why feel a feeling?”

Because our feelings, when worked through carefully, tell us the truth. They tell us who we are and what we want, and what we love and what we won’t tolerate.

Feelings free up our love, our vitality, our well-being.

Blocking feelings leads to a sense of emptiness, to a sense of chaos, and to the anguish of unbearable aloneness, to pressure inside, and sometimes to chronic tiredness or pain.

If you’ve tried to block your feelings, it may be time to start getting to know them again. Safely. More tips on that to come…..

 

 

Group counseling

Group Counseling

Most of the people who are looking for help and healing have one major thing in common: They’re longing for a solid sense of connection. Common questions in therapy touch on this:

  • How can I hang onto who I am when I feel criticized?
  • Why don’t I have better, deeper, richer relationships?
  • Do other people experience what I’m talking about? Do I make sense?
  • I keep ending up in the same relationship patterns — I keep becoming the caretaker, or getting too needy, or ending relationships or having people fade away: What the heck is going on?
  • How do I come to feel worthy of love and connection?
  • How do I keep an open heart without being taken advantage of?
  • How can  I depend on other people when I’ve had to depend on myself my whole life?
  • Why do I get so anxious around other people? Will this ever stop?

Group therapy offers you powerful answers to these questions and more, in the form of experiences. In group, people come together on purpose, and they work together to build a sense of connection. In the kind of group I lead, you’re welcome to show up with your struggles, your yearnings, and your fears. The group helps you to put this stuff out there, and to be heard and responded to with genuineness and warmth.

A safe place to try something new

Often, our relationships are held back by us not knowing what’s okay to say, and what we need to keep hidden. Or our relationships end up in patterns that feel familiar, and we don’t know another way to act. Clients who are feeling stuck in these ways often say things like this:

  • I want to get closer to other people, but I don’t know when and how to open up.
  • I want to set boundaries, but I’m afraid I’ll be too harsh and I’ll lose people in my life. I need to know what to say and how to do this!
  • I wish I could stop taking care of other people so much, but I don’t know how to interrupt the pattern of everyone coming to me with their problems. It’s like I’ve trained people not to ask me about myself! So what now?
  • People say I’m standoffish, or too nice, or too needy — but I don’t know quite what that means. What am I doing, and what can I do instead?

In group, you get to try new things. You get to try on new behaviors, and practice saying the things you haven’t said to people in your world. You get to ask questions: “How am I coming across? What do you think of what I just said? Why do I feel like everyone is pulling back from me right now? I feel unheard, and I don’t know what to do.” In group, we make space for these questions, we make space for their answers, and we make space for you to fill in the gaps in your relationship experiences. If you tend to people-please, we help you to set kind boundaries. If you tend to disconnect, we help you to reconnect. If you do something that people find off-putting, we not only help you to identify what that is — but we help you to do something else that better meets your need and other people’s need for connection.

In my groups, I’ve had the privilege of seeing the healing power of community. When people deliberately come together for the purpose of connecting, amazing things happen.

“How do I sign up?”

If the stuff I’m talking about sounds like something you’re looking for, please contact me on my “Meet with me” page. Just schedule a consultation for my group — the consultation is free. I will want to meet with you one on one a couple times before the group, so we can talk over what the group entails, and so I can learn about you and what you’re working on. I’ve heard from group members that feeling safe with me first helped them to feel much safer in the group, much sooner. When you know that I’m attentive to your concerns and that I am here to support you in the group, it helps things a lot. So sign up for a consultation on the work with me page, and we’ll get that process of safety building started. You may opt to work with me one on one for some time before joining a group, or we may meet just a few times and get you started in group quite soon. We can find out what works best for you, together.

“When, where, and what’s the fee?”

My group will be meeting at my office, on 260 SW Madison Avenue (across from Many Hands Trading), in downtown Corvallis. I’ll fill you in on the details of when we meet in your consultation. I bill for group sessions by the month, and my current fee is $225 per month. This is less than half the cost of individual therapy, but many clients say that they get huge results from group work – they feel more confident in their relationships, more open, more able to set boundaries, and they stop feeling alone.

Schedule your meeting to discuss my group right here.

I look forward to meeting you!

 

 

 

 

The trap of apparent competence

What is apparent competence?

You just got home from work. You’ve put in a full day of bubbly interaction. You have gotten stuff done, and you’ve done it well! You are truly competent at your job, and your skills are real. They matter. And yet, you feel like a fraud. No one has any idea how much you’re struggling. Your despair is just beneath the surface, threatening to overwhelm you.

Your partner says, “How are you?” And you respond, “Ah, just a little stressed.” You put your characteristic smile in place, and you trudge through the evening. Are you in despair? Loads. Do you feel like you’ve asked for help? Maybe. If you said you were stressed, you may have hoped that your partner would pick up on how you felt.

And yet, your partner read your nonverbal cues. The cues that keep telling people, “I’ve got this. I’m okay!”

You have learned to act as if things don’t affect you as deeply as they do.

But things do affect you. You do need help. The fact that you can manage your day does not mean that all is well. The fact that you smile when you communicate distress does not mean that you’re happy. The fact that you have a professional, clear demeanor when you tell your therapist that you’ve been considering self-harm does not make your distress any less.

But it does make it harder for you to be understood and to get the help and validation you truly need.

Apparent competence is something we can learn when we’re young. If you learned apparent competence, it comes very naturally to you to act perfectly professional. Maybe you’re even the shoulder other people cry on. Apparent competence is a great skill that often has a great deal of heartache beneath the surface. We develop the mask of “everything’s fine” when we learn, at some level, that to show that we aren’t fine wouldn’t be okay. We learn to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps,” to “just move on already,” that “it’s not such a big deal; quit crying over spilled milk.” When you’re deeply sensitive and you receive these messages as a child, you wisely learn to start masking your emotions. Even more harmful, you might have learned to invalidate your own emotions, telling yourself things like, “I should be okay! I need to just stop being dramatic — it’s no big deal. I’ll fake it till I make it. It’s fine.”

Apparent competence can help you to get through some very hard times. It can even help you to put a calm enough face on that  you can communicate in ways that maximize your chances of getting help.

On the other hand, you may also accidentally confuse yourself and other people. You may be stunned and feel rejected to find that, when you say you’re really upset, no one seems to care. Your voice is so calm, so measured, and maybe you’re even joking — they don’t hear distress! You’re smiling, though, and your makeup looks so perfect — they don’t see distress!

But your pain is real.

“So what can I do if I have this apparent competence thing?”

First off, awareness is a great first step. It’s not enough, but it will help you! If there are people in your life who are supportive of you — a therapist, a partner, a close friend – Explain apparent competence to them. You might say something like, “You know when I say I’m really upset but I act like things are okay? Well, they’re not really that okay. But I feel like I’ll burden people or something if I act as scared or sad as I feel. Can you ask me about it if I say I’m upset?”

Notice your apparent competence. Notice those moments when you feel awful, but you may be projecting something different. Sometimes, this skill is a big help, like if you’re in a class or at work and you need to keep things together for that moment to keep your job or participate in the class. At other moments, like with your partner or therapist, it may not be so good, because your needs aren’t being met or heard.

Experiment with dropping your mask a bit, in a place where it’s safe to. Maybe you work on not smiling or doing that “super polished delivery” next time you talk with your therapist or friend. Maybe you let yourself feel a bit more of what you’re saying. This involves taking a risk, being a bit more open with your true emotions and the depth of them. It can be a very rewarding risk to take, as you find that people hear you more clearly.

Use your apparent competence on purpose to pull you out of despair.

Yup, your apparent competence may sometimes be your best friend! Let’s say that you feel awful, but there’s no help available right now. You’re at home, and you’re miserable. You’re having terrible thoughts. No one close to you will be available until tomorrow. Well, one option is to acknowledge your own emotions, do some self-care, journal perhaps, or meditate. But what if the emotions are too hard to be alone with? Well, if apparent competence is one of the ways you’ve learned to cope, you might, for a short time period, want to get into a situation that will cause you to “act okay,” just to give you some breathing room from emotions that might overwhelm you. So go to a meetup, even if you don’t feel like it, knowing that your apparent competence has your back and will make it possible to socialize and have some fun amidst some truly lousy feelings! Or go to the grocery store, knowing that just seeing the cashier will pull you into a “happy face” for at least a moment.

This is not an ultimate solution. This is not invalidating the level of despair you really feel. This is a way to use your skill to get yourself some breathing room for emotions that are a little too hard to face head-on just yet.

Over time, the solution to apparent competence is to realize that it’s a skill you learned when you were young, but it’s one you can start to override when it’s safe to, and when it would be more helpful for someone to see what you’re really feeling.

It will take time to feel like it’s okay to express your true emotions. You may feel “dramatic” or “overemotional” on your first try or two, or feel stilted because this way of expressing yourself is new. Be gentle with yourself. Know that your emotions are worth tending to, that there are people who will accept you for who you are, and who really want to know if you need help or support. Realize that some of the people you’ve felt invalidated by may have accidentally invalidated the wrong part of your communication, and that this may have been an honest mistake — they didn’t know how upset you truly were.

You can learn to communicate in a more authentic way. As you learn to acknowledge your emotions for what they are, you’ll be able to take much better care of yourself, to start to befriend your emotions, to be able to see when they’re too upsetting to face head-on, and to see when they are appropriate to communicate. Your communication may be “dramatic” for a little bit, because you’ve pent up so much pain for so long. Work to be specific in your requests, to ask for help that others are likely to be able to give, and to learn tools to manage the level of distress you’re really feeling.

This will get better, over time.

 

4 things your depression could be trying to tell you

Is your depression trying to tell you something important?

 

In this post, I’ll list 4 different things your depression may be trying to tell you. Maybe one will resonate. Maybe all of them will!

 

1.  You need more connection.

We all need connection. We need to feel like we’re seen; we’re heard;we belong. When these needs aren’t met, we suffer. When we’re abandoned or betrayed, we can shut down too. (For more detail on this, see my post on abandonment depression.)If these needs don’t get met for a long time and you don’t know how to get them met or if you ever will, you may start to withdraw, to be passive, to quit trying. It’s painful to feel rejected and left out. A person who is suffering with depression may find that it’s simpler to isolate, to quit trying, than it is to keep trying to connect and to feel like it won’t work. But your depression could be signaling you about the importance of connection in your life. It may be telling you that it’s time to reach out for help.

2. You need to work through toxic shame.

Guilt is a powerful feeling. When it’s in check, it signals us when we’ve behaved in a way that isn’t in keeping with our values. It propels us to apologize, or to behave differently in the future, or both. Shame happens when we feel a disconnect from other people, and that we’re unworthy of connection. Guilt and shame can lead us to reevaluate our values and our behavior, and to turn over a new leaf. But in the case of depression, guilt turns into rumination. Shame feels like a void that you can’t escape. It feels like there’s no redemption, no way to come back to connection with yourself and with others. You retreat. With help, though, shame can be worked through. Maybe your depression is signaling you that it’s time to do this work so you can find your way out of the prison of shame?

3. You’ve been through a trauma that it’s time to really resolve.

When you endure something traumatic, there’s too much happening to process all in that moment. And you feel powerless. When we feel powerless, we shut down. This is something our brains and bodies do to try to help us! Think of a mouse playing dead so that a cat moves on to chase a live mouse. That momentary immobility, that playing dead, is a way that mouse survives! Humans can have a reaction like this too. When it becomes a habit, it can look and feel a lot like depression. Coming out of this kind of depression benefits a lot from a trauma-informed approach, because this isn’t “depression as usual” — this is a special adaptation, sometimes to one big event, and sometimes to many little events. The impact of trauma can be transformed, and you can get your vitality back. Maybe it’s time to get started on that process.

4. It’s time to get support to truly grieve so you can finally move forward.

Grief can hit us really hard. There are stages of grief we go through as we come to a new equilibrium in our lives, as we arrive at acceptance and resolution. But if your grieving is stopped before it resolves, you can feel stuck in despair, feeling unable to truly grieve or move forward. Grief demands that we grapple with what’s been lost. If you haven’t had support to grieve, though, or you’ve had the feeling that it’s “negative to think and talk about it,” or “crying is pointless anyway; it’s time to move on”, you may find yourself with feelings of depression that are saying, “Wait. Stop! This loss is important. It needs recognition.” Your losses matter, and your depression may be telling you it’s time to give them the attention they deserve.

 

Depression as a time out to regroup

Depression is often a signal. It’s a signal that it’s time to slow down. It’s time to reconnect with a self that we’ve lost track of, or to reconnect in relationships and hobbies that nourish us.

Depression, when you get help for it, can lead to big life changes. Depression is often saying, “My life no longer feels livable as it is.”

Often, depression is saying something very important. In therapy with me, we listen carefully to your depression. We pay attention to cues of unmet needs. We identify places and ways in your life that you’ve shut down, and we look at how and why that may have made sense for you.

We take a holistic approach, looking at your relationship with yourself, your relationship with others, your work, your lifestyle. Often, this leads to more than just “feeling better.” It leads to finding a whole new sense of who you are and what you want in your life.

Maybe your depression is telling you that it’s time for a change, and it’s time to stop doing it alone.

If this is the case, finding a therapist you click with and who can help you to decode your depression can help!

With help, you can find the keys to decoding your depression, and it can be the beginning of something new, something vibrant, something good.

The process of healing from depression is the process of coming alive again.

 

 

 

Abandonment depression

Pete Walker, author of “Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving,” has eloquently put into words what many clients with complex trauma feel deeply but can’t always put words to.

Emotional flashbacks to abandonment

Someone I’ve worked with used to call this abandonment depression “psychic death.” She described a place she went inside where no one was there for her. When she reached out for help, it was tinged with hopelessness and a “why even try.” She needed connection. But her body and her mind were already preparing for prolonged shut down.  She was in a flashback to early childhood or to babyhood, when care from the people around her was not at all certain.

Unfortunately, that flashback colored her communication, so that when she did reach out to people who were available for her, they couldn’t tell if she wanted their help or not! She was giving up before she’d even started.

And that makes sense. Because her abandonment flashback told her to just give up and expect the worst. It’s no wonder her requests were tinged with both passivity and anger—anger at herself for wanting something she was sure she couldn’t get, anger at others for not being there for her. It was a mess!

More powerful than you’d think

Often, clients are startled to be experiencing extreme distress when they feel that “other people have been through so much worse than me.” But being abandoned or ignored in times of distress, to our young selves, constitutes a big trauma.

This video of “the still-face experiment” shows what happens with a baby whose mom is usually present and attuned, but who goes still and unresponsive for just a minute. As you watch baby’s reactions you’ll see what I mean about trauma. Notice that the mom came back to the baby, and all is well. If you struggle with abandonment depression, there’s a place in you that got the feeling that no one would come to help you with these terrible emotions, the feeling that no one would take delight in you.

If you experience abandonment flashbacks, then you know these debilitating feelings of hopelessness, despair, and shame. I suspect that some people with social anxiety are actually anticipating abandonment or rejection, and experiencing panic to keep them from nearing what feels like the tortuous zone of potential rejection.

There’s no denying it

“So why does this hurt so much?” you may ask. “I’m an adult, right?” One client reasons, “It’s fine for me if not everyone likes me.” But her emotions tell her differently.

When she sees that look of indifference in a coworker’s eyes, she sinks so deeply into herself that she feels tranced for the rest of the day. Or she asks a friend out to eat, the friend isn’t available, and she wilts, despairing that anyone will ever want to spend time with her.

Attachment is as necessary as oxygen

When we’re little, proximity to our caretakers is life. We need to be attended to. We need our cries to be met with love and reassurance. We need people. It’s how we’re wired. It’s good that we need people.

When we have caretakers who, for whatever reason, weren’t around to adequately meet our needs, we skid into despair. It’s like a part of us freezes, gets stopped in time. This part shuts down. They can’t get their needs met. They can’t stop the sense of need. They panic. They shut down, because their needs for soothing aren’t being met and they don’t yet have the capacity to self-soothe. How could they? We learn how to soothe ourselves through being soothed by others.

As you saw in the video, when we need soothing and we can’t self-soothe, we protest. As babies, we cry and maybe scream. After protest, if no one still comes, we shut down. It’s like a part of us gives in to the inevitability of no help. No help ultimately means death. Our bodies are hard-wired to know this, to feel this. And to shut us down if they anticipate no end to the need, no comfort, no help.

Two stages of abandonment depression, and becoming stuck between the two.

When we anticipate that our needs may not be met:

  1. First we protest.
  2. Then we give up.

The “protest” stage

A person in protest may be called “needy” by others, and may hate herself for being so. Or she may be extremely demanding and perfectionistic, demanding that other people meet her needs just right.

One person I worked with was so demanding that his wife do everything just right that the wife was fed up. He acted as if he had a huge sense of entitlement. What turned out to be beneath this imperious surface was a child part that was terrified of the smallest hint of abandonment. So he protested loudly, repeatedly.

Unfortunately, if you’re stuck in protest, it’s like other people can’t do enough. Why is that? Because in this state, the sense of distress, or perhaps of imminent loss, is overwhelming. You get time with someone, you are given attention—but a part of you is afraid that they have to maintain their engagement through constant, active, ongoing, moment-by-moment management. If the crisis settles, the other person will begin to behave normally! Thus reducing the level of contact, and causing the panic to flare up again.

A part of you has taken up the role of fighting for your needs, and that has been very necessary. Unfortunately, this “fight part” keeps you from a true sense of safety in connection, a true sense of being able to settle down and relax when things are okay. This “fight part” can push people away from true connection with you as they scramble to meet your needs.

This is a tough place to be!

The good news is that, as you work through your abandonment fears with a caring-enough other person, your sense of panic and urgency will diminish, and you’ll find yourself more relaxed in your relationships.

The “shutdown” stage

If you’re protested and tried very hard to enlist people to be there for you, and you haven’t had your needs met adequately (or haven’t been able to notice they have), you go into a terrible shutdown place. There’s suppressed longing, and despair, maybe a bit of rage. The protest has stopped, and now you’re mostly numb. You may sleep a lot, or do escape activities. There’s a giving up on others and on yourself.

For some people, thoughts of suicide start hitting at this phase, or a sense of just overall despair.

Both phases at once

So in protest, we protest, sometimes furiously! In shut-down, we give up.

What happens if you get stuck between the two phases?

Well, you get passive-aggressive! Or you reach out in ways that are less than effective. The near certainty of abandonment that you feel makes you feel futile in reaching out, but a part of you is also telling you that you must try to get help.

When these two strategies duel, you end up asking for help in exasperating ways that preclude the possibility of someone else truly helping. (This is what I think might be often happening for people labeled with “borderline personality disorder,” displaying, as Marsha Linehan calls it, “active passivity.” They state their issues, but they also seem to refuse to move on their own behalf, to ask clearly and concisely for the help they need, or demand that their help take an outlandish or impossible form.

Well, why not? If you’re convinced nothing will help you anyway, why would you (and how could you) be precise in your request?

And once your helpers fail, and you’re all alone, then at least you’re on familiar ground.

Is abandonment depression a mental health diagnosis?

No, it is not. Depending on the details of how the person with abandonment depression behaves, it may look like:

  • A depressive disorder.
  • An anxiety disorder.
  • A dissociative disorder.
  • A personality disorder such as borderline personality disorder.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder.

The reason to be aware of abandonment depression is that more targeted therapy is likely to be more effective.

Is there help for abandonment depression?

Abandonment depression is all about not really believing that help is possible. So from the heart of the abandonment depression, you might not believe me. And that’s okay.

There really is help, though. This really can change.

It’s hard to change this all by yourself. The antidote to abandonment isn’t self-help. The antidote to abandonment isn’t to do something in lonely isolation.

The antidote to abandonment is connection.

How do you connect when connecting is the whole problem?

By working with a therapist who does connection work or attachment work with people like you. This is a skill that some therapists have. Not most of them, but some.

Therapists who have been through these courses have received training in attachment/connection work:

  • Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, year 2
  • Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP)
  • Lawrence Heller (The Neuroaffective Relational Model)
  • And others, who have taken a deep interest in this work. (Like me!)

 

6 things transgender clients taught me

My transgender clients have often been very articulate as they navigate the ups and downs, the joy and the confusion and the sudden “click” — of putting words to realities that have sometimes been buried somewhere within them for years.

Sometimes, clients come to me well after they’ve begun their transition. They’ve already done mammoth amounts of research. They know who they are, or they’re comfortable with knowing that they don’t entirely know, but they can point out where they feel they identify on a spectrum, or even explain why they find the spectrum itself too confining. They know the language around this stuff, have explored their feelings and thoughts in depth, and will talk readily about it if given an opening.

Other times, I’ve seen someone begin to explore their gender more openly midway through the therapy, at a time that they’re feeling less fear than they used to, are getting more comfortable with themselves and their emotions — and as they’re exploring the, “Who am I now” question, some questions emerge about gender, questions that have long been there but have patiently waited until the person felt safe enough to open up to the exploration.

I’m definitely not an expert on transgender concerns. At all! But my clients are very good teachers, and the more they open up to me about this aspect of themselves, the more I learn. Here are some things I’ve learned from them, thus far:

  1. When you are having discussions with someone about their sexual identity, just wanting to understand can go a loooong way. I’ve sometimes felt awkward when I haven’t known the terminology, or have fumbled a word or a question. The fact is, often someone who is in the midst of a gender identity exploration has felt an implicit message to just stay silent about these issues. So showing interest in an awkward way beats out silence any day! I tell my transgender clients that I’m likely to say something dumb every now and again, and I want them to tell me about it when I do.  This alone helps them know that I’m on their side. They tell me that, just by me wanting to understand and by my awareness that I may get it wrong, they feel safe with my questions.
  2. Do some research! My clients have been incredibly helpful with this, eager to share links to videos and blog posts they particularly resonate with and that walk people through the terminology and through the steps of various transitions. For me, just taking half an hour to watch videos explaining more about transgender, testosterone,  hormone inhibiting, and a bunch of other things involved with transitioning, made my next conversation with a client that much more interesting. By showing an interest in the language, the processes often involved in transitioning, and issues that often come up, I’ve felt more comfortable with these conversations, and clients have shared much more with me.
  3. Sometimes clients want to talk this stuff through at length, and will tell you a lot, and with great relief, once you bring up the topic and show some knowledge and interest. Others will test the waters a bit, talking about it a bit today, and then waiting to see if you’ll still be interested next week, or next month. And still other clients are not that interested in discussing this facet of their lives, at least at the phase of therapy they’re in with you. If someone comes in and says that they’ve transitioned from male to female or female to male, but says the issue they really want help with is a specific relationship, that’s great! I show interest and curiosity while letting the client steer. I express enough curiosity to facilitate it if they want to discuss this facet of themselves, but I don’t continue to ask questions if they don’t show much interest in the topic. I just say it’s something that I’m open for them to talk with me about. Any time. And then we move on to whatever their concern at that time is.
  4. Integrity is often an important value, hard-won, by folks who are openly stating their gender identity. They’ve often done LOTS of self-exploration, have been through their share of self-doubt,  done their research, risked lots of invalidation — and shared the truth anyway. There’s a bravery in this, an integrity.
  5. By openly stating their gender identity, often choosing a new name, and having all these discussions with people in their lives, they’ve chosen integrity. And that’s huge. It’s something I like to really expand upon, and to talk with them about the import of their coming out. It’s often meaningful on spiritual as well as emotional levels. I want to acknowledge this.
  6. Often, the person has encountered a million little wounds and invalidations throughout their lives, a whole bunch of ways they have felt like they can’t be true to themselves. Maybe they’ve felt shamed for being who they are, and still do sometimes. Maybe they tell me proudly about their identity, or they tell me as if it’s no big deal. And at the same time, parts of them have felt shamed about this facet of their lives. I express interest in what clients have learned about themselves, and also mention that sometimes, people feel despair about this stuff, or used to. Sometimes people feel terrible when the people around them refuse to use the appropriate pronouns, or when people cast doubt on who they are or why they’re making changes. Often, there are stories about that right beneath the surface. Sometimes, clients have been afraid to share about the times that they’ve felt shame, because it’s so important to them now to feel pride in who they are. When we take some time to gently work with the shame, it helps the person feel more free to feel exactly how they feel about themselves: Pride, or stability, or that ongoing question mark that keeps them exploring and being curious.

I still have much to learn!  It’s part of what makes this work so rewarding, this learning. Sometimes, when a client and I discuss things, we struggle together to find the words for what most truly expresses them. This is true with feelings, thoughts, and issues of identity too. These conversations are worth it. These struggles are worth engaging with.

On the other side is a person who stands strong in who they are, and often has an amazing sense of their masculine and their feminine side (and often a sense of a self that transcends gender roles and expectations!)  and what this all  contributes to their lives and to their relationships.

 

 

 

Connection Survival Style: When longing is mixed with dread

A client walks into my office. She sits down, hunched over. Her face is pale. Her hands shake.

I say hi, and she says hello robotically almost, a fake smile covering her face. Then she looks down, away. Then stares at me, trying to keep eye contact. She’s heard, after all, that it’s only polite.

Her issues? They vary. People with the “connection survival style,” a phrase coined by Laurence Heller, often talk about a feeling of emptiness, and say, “I want to find out who I am.” Sometimes, they pride themselves on not needing anyone, but they are starting to feel twinges of longing, or they’re starting to develop a close relationship. Their sense of longing is becoming a fear, too, of being too much. Of losing their independence. Often, it’s a fear too old, too primal, to put into words.

She may have very well-rehearsed social skills. Or she may be huddled in her home most of the time, maybe spending most of her time with animals, or on nature trails. Whether she presents as sophisticated and poised or she presents as ill-at-ease, she’s likely dealing with the most fundamental of our emotional needs as an infant:

She didn’t get the level of connection she needed to really feel like she could be herself. She may not feel that she has a real self. She has been trying like mad to mirror others, in hopes that, by approximating the moves of connection, she’ll find her way in, find her way to being welcome.

At the same time, she’s terrified to reach out. Terrified to want. Terrified to connect.

Longing mingles with dread. Possibility and hope mingle with fear and despair.

She has a deep yearning for connection. But she fears connection too. Because it wasn’t dependable when she was young. Maybe her parents were ill, or preoccupied. Maybe they weren’t nice to her. Maybe they communicated to her, with their hurried way of tending to her young needs, that she was a burden.

Are you struggling with the connection survival style? Here are some indicators that you may be:

  • You feel like you don’t know who you really are.
  • You struggle with feelings of meaninglessness, emptiness.
  • You sometimes feel spacey, or like you’re floating, or disconnected somehow.
  • Other people feel foreign to you somehow, like you “don’t belong here”. Relationships don’t make intuitive sense. You don’t feel welcome or a part of things, no matter what. You may have learned lots of ways to compensate for this, but at heart, you feel like you’re acting somehow, going through the motions.
  • You experience unexplained fatigue, tension, and aches and pains.
  • You aren’t in touch with feelings of hunger and fullness. You may undereat or overeat, or forget to eat until painful hunger takes over, or until you’re physically weak.
  • You experience social anxiety.
  • You long for closeness to someone, but once you do get close, you get scared. Fear of abandonment creeps in, or anger at unmet needs, or you cycle between feeling exhilarated and disconnected.
  • You feel this underlying sense of dread in the pit of your stomach almost all. the. time. It may attach itself to different things happening in your life, but it seems wordless, sourceless, everpresent. Sometimes it’s a dull background feeling, and sometimes it almost overwhelms you.
  • You feel a lot of shame about wanting anything, about making yourself known, about speaking up — about many things. You may, deep down, feel ashamed for existing.

2 Subtypes of the connection style — or, in other ways, two common ways people escape the pain of their unmet connection needs:

  • Intellectualizing. You escape into the world of your thoughts.  If people ask you how you feel, you tell them what you think. If you start to feel something, you start working to think your way out of it. Maybe you analyze everything. Maybe people tell you you overthink things. When the longing in our hearts feels crushing, we go elsewhere: One place we can go to is the safe world of thinking. Maybe you’ve developed research skills, or hidden in the world of books. You probably have a great breadth of knowledge. But somehow, all that knowledge hasn’t brought you closer to knowing who you are.
  • Spiritualizing. If this is a way that you’ve worked to meet your connection needs, you are likely very sensitive to the spiritual world. While this is a gift and a resource, Laurence Heller also hypothesizes that you may be so skilled in picking up on spiritual things because it “has never felt safe to land on the planet.” Not feeling connected to people, you connect to God or spiritual beings instead.

Working with clients with the connection style is one of my favorite things. The fact that you are struggling with connection means that there are some basic unmet needs that go a long way back for you.

Here’s the good news:

We all have a fundamental need to connect, and we have the ability. You do too! The struggles you have just indicate that the need hasn’t been met for you. You didn’t get enough nurturing for you to quite land within your own body and your own experience.

Your shame isn’t based on a badness in you, even though it feels so deeply that way. It’s based on very young needs that went unmet. When those needs go unmet, we feel awful. If we feel awful for long enough, we start to give up hope, without being able to give up the need. If we give up the need, we start feeling that our need is bad. That we are unwelcome, unwanted, unlovable.

But that’s not the case. The case is that, for whatever reason, you didn’t get the nurturing you needed. Maybe you weren’t welcomed when you arrived on the planet, even, and so you didn’t get that basic message we all need when we’re born: “Hey, you’re here! And wow, you’re so delightful! Welcome to the family!” If you didn’t get that, you don’t feel welcome on the planet.

This can change. It takes time, it takes gentleness, and it takes patience. It takes a safe relationship. Some people find this through a pet, and then later on, they find a partner.

Some people find this first in therapy.

The connection survival style is a set of ways you learned to adapt, to survive, when your needs weren’t being met.

Now, the task is for you to connect to yourself, maybe for the first time. Sometimes, this starts with very simple things, like body awareness.

Often, we need a “safe enough other” in order to do this. A therapist who understands something about this survival style and how to work with your emotions, your body, your nervous system, and your spirituality — will have a good chance of helping you to navigate your way safely, gently, and gradually — into connection with yourself, and with others.

It’s beautiful work. Because the wounds of the connection survival style are preverbal, the therapy work we do around it is often difficult to put into words too.

But when people experience this work, they notice some things start to shift:

  • They start to feel a sense of safety, of welcome, first with me, and then with others.
  • They may notice changes in body temperature, like feeling warmer. Sometimes, they hadn’t noticed they felt cold! But the warmth, they notice.
  • They begin to notice and tend to their bodily signals, like hunger and tiredness.
  • They begin to reach out for connection with others, and to feel like it’s okay to do this!
  • They speak more easily. Some clients have told me that they had a throat constriction and that, in the course of this work, it loosens up.
  • They may even breathe more easily! When you’re unsure of yourself and your welcome, it can be like a trauma in your body. You may have tightened up, and you may be unconsciously holding your breath much of the time, or breathing shallowly. This work tends to help people to feel an openness in their chests, and to begin to breathe more deeply.
  • You feel settled, centered, calmer.
  • You start saying, “I would like….”, “I prefer….”, “I’m really feeling a longing for…..”
    And you can act on your wants and yearnings! Some clients say this gives their lives an organization that it’s never had before, that it’s like going from floating around waiting for things to happen to knowing what they want and feeling that, at least much of the time, they can make it happen.
  • Your shame diminishes, and as this happens, you get in touch with healthy anger. Anger helps you to set boundaries, to know when you’re not getting what you need, and to advocate for yourself.

The transformation in therapy with folks with the connection survival style is profound, as you can likely tell from this list.

This kind of work goes way beyond teaching you strategies or relationship skills. Clients who go through this work, and stay with it, say that they feel like they’ve finally come home. They say they feel like they know and like who they are.

They sometimes have difficulty putting into words how profound the changes are. But they do say that they can feel the shift in their bodies, in their emotions. Their loved ones say they too notice a deep difference.

You can experience profound shifts if you’re struggling with this style.

*This style and 3 others are explained in depth in Laurence Heller’s book, “Healing Developmental Trauma.” Laurence has offered a training called “NARM”, a method that combines Somatic Experiencing and relational work. Other people skilled in working with this style may have trainings like these:

-AEDP – Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy. An exquisite therapy model that lets you and your therapist develop a connection that feels good, safe, and right, and that can help to heal very young hurts.

-Internal Family Systems Therapy – Helps you to get to know and care for the different parts of yourself.

-Somatic Experiencing or Sensorimotor Psychotherapy – Both of these help you to release trauma that’s held in the body and in habitual postures. Somatic Experiencing tends to focus more on body sensations, whereas Sensorimotor Psychotherapy will more often focus directly on relational trauma and themes around connection.

The most important thing in finding a therapist is your own sense of safety and the sense that you want to develop a connection with that person. The therapist who is helpful to you may have none of these trainings, or some mix of them or similar ones!  I list these trainings because, if your therapy thus far hasn’t helped you, it might be time to find someone with focused knowledge in the area you’re struggling with. Hopefully, this list gives you a start in knowing what you might want to look for next!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“My counselor just echoes me!”

You ever had a counselor who echoed whatever you said? You said, “I’ve had a hard week.” And he said, “You had a hard week, huh?”

Or if he was a creative echoer, maybe he changed it up a little from time to time. You’d say, “I had a hard week.” And he’d say, “So your week was difficult.”

Empathic, kind, caring listening can heal. But when a counselor just echoes you, you often can’t really tell if they’re really hearing you. Anyone can echo words back. It’s a game we learn to play as kids to infuriate our siblings, in fact! Remember this?

“Stop echoing me!” “Stop echoing me!”

Echoing is a technique of supportive therapy, and therapists who echo you a lot imagine that they’re practicing “reflective listening.” Sometimes they just echo you word for word.  At other times, they change the wording. Some try to reflect more than what you said, and this is where real resonance can happen, when someone acknowledges what you said and takes it a step further, in a way that’s deeply accurate and helps you to feel more of the feeling behind your own words.

Some clients mistakenly think that all counseling is reflective listening. And reflective listening can be maddening! Especially when it involves no real reflection on your words.

Other counselors steer clear of reflecting much on their words, and go instead straight for solutions. You say you’re angry, and they tell you why they think you’re angry, or what they think you should do about your anger. “Oh, you’re angry? I have this worksheet on the five steps to communicating anger in a healthy way.”

Or, “Oh, you’re angry? That’s good! You should express your anger.”

Or, “Oh, you’re angry? You need to learn to take responsibility for yourself and stop blaming others, and then you won’t be angry.”

Most of the time, things aren’t really said this simplistically, of course! But it can feel that way!

So if reflective listening isn’t helping me, but I don’t want a torrent of advice either, what’s left for a therapist to do?”

There is so much that a therapist can do that goes beyond parroting your words or advice-giving.

Here are some of the favorite things I’ve stumbled upon:

  1. Genuine reflection! Rather than echoing your words back, your therapist might reflect out loud on how your words hit them in that moment. A client of mine was complaining about a landlord of hers that sounded super unreasonable. And, at one point, I said, “Hey, can you give me her name and phone number? So I can, like, never call her?” She burst out laughing, and that became a natural launching point to more discussion. The fact that she knew I was on her side and shared her indignance helped her to move on to another piece of what was happening for her.

Another example of genuine reflection is when a client shares something difficult, and the therapist says, “Wow…..I’m just trying to imagine what that must have been like. I imagine I’d feel enraged, but like there was nothing at all that I could say or do. Is that how it was?”

If the client says that’s exactly it, with feeling, then I know we’ve landed on something important. If they say, “Well, not really like there was nothing I could say, but kinda like whatever I said would be used against me, but I had to speak up anyway,” then that moves us in another direction. It’s interactive, and everything the client says informs my next response. If your counselor is responsive in this way, she may sometimes be warm, and in the next breath be offbeat or funny, or be indignant on your behalf, or be feeling delight at some moment you shared. This kind of listening is more than reflection. It’s being with you, being affected by you. This kind of relationship can heal, the one where you feel not just seen and heard, but you feel felt.

2. Relational reflection: This is yet another layer of genuineness a counselor can bring to the encounter with you that can bring things up to a whole new level. You lean forward, and she leans forward too, delighted by your approach. Or you share a story, and she’s visibly moved by it. Or maybe you say something that really throws her off guard, and rather than going “neutral” (fake neutral!) or attempting a “counselory” response, she says, “I’m thrown off-guard right now! I’m not quite sure what to say.” She lets herself be visibly impacted by you. This is deeply healing when others have walked on eggshells around you. Or when no one, ever, has really seemed to stop and be moved by your words, your pain. Or when you haven’t had someone express genuine delight in your presence.

This kind of relationship and interaction can be life-changing, showing you what a genuine, feeling relationship can be like. If you’re struggled with relationships, this will inspire healing, a whole new experience that you start to take outside the therapist’s office and into other relationships in your life.

3. The “experiment”: This is one I learned in a training on Sensorimotor Psychotherapy training, and it’s used in somatic experiencing to some extent, as well. If I’m doing this, I encourage you to notice what happens when…..And then we try something. If you struggle to set boundaries with people, I might ask you to say, “no,” just that word, and imagine what happens in you when you do that. If you’re struggling to reach out to new people, I might ask you to simply imagine reaching out to me, and notice what happens then.

These kinds of experiments have so much possibility, and very often, they help clients to connect with emotions in  new ways. Sometimes, when I ask someone to feel a boundary around themselves and imagine that they can let people in and they can keep people at a safe distance, it’s life-changing right away.

Or we might do a verbal experiment. I might wonder if you’re struggling with feeling good enough, so I’ll ask you to notice what happens when I say, “You’re good enough!”

Or, “You’re worthy of love.”

The possibilities with this are pretty much endless, and it’s so much different from simply echoing your words back and it’s so much different from giving advice. This kind of therapy leads to whole new experiences within yourself.

Therapy can be interactive. It can bring you new experiences, new feelings. It can reconnect you with yourself and with other people.

When clients experience this kind of therapy, they say things like, “I thought I would just gain more insight into my problem. I didn’t know a completely different feeling was possible.”

They say, when the genuine relationship has been the missing piece, “I feel like a need is being met that I didn’t even know was there, and I feel safer and freer in my whole life now.”

They say, when we find a resonant experiment, “Wow! I can really do that?”

They say things feel new. They say that they feel relief, hope, connection.

This kind of therapy is possible for you. And there are other possibilities besides the ones I shared here!

You do not have to resign yourself to a therapy where you feel like you’re doing all the talking, or where your therapist simply offers tools and strategies. Keep looking for a therapist until you find one that helps you to experience something new. If you struggle with relationships, find a therapist who will relate to you in a way that no one has before. If you’ve been talking and talking and you know your intellectualizing isn’t helping you that much, find a therapist who does more than work with your thoughts.

If you’ve been stuck in your emotions, unable to move past tears or rage that seem to take over, find a therapist who knows how to help you to feel something different.

It’s a key to a healing therapy: Having a different experience than you’ve had before. And a different experience than you’d get at home with a very good parrot!