Monday, January 13, 2014


For some of our clients we are an island of sanity amidst the madness of their lives. Sometimes there are so many things happening in their lives that they are completely overwhelmed and on the edge of panic much of the time. Sometimes what is happening is mostly internal. They are feeling so much conflict among different parts of themselves or some unwanted long-repressed feelings are emerging from underneath or there is some deep sense of dread about what is going to happen next. Our clients in these situations are feeling very anxious - near terror - that they are going to "crack up" or totally collapse.
During these very difficult times they look to us to be a reliable source of stability - an island of sanity - when everything around them and within them feels like an unending turbulent storm. Our peaceful and compassionate presence provides a sense of refuge that they do not feel with other people in their lives. Our office space,by how we have furnished it and the objects we've place within it, also helps to create this sense of tranquility. This aspect of psychotherapy is rarely ever talked about in our training with its emphasis on theories, techniques and professional objectivity. Yet, I have experienced the importance of this way of being for our clients especially when their outer world or inner world is coming apart.
Jennifer,an old patient of mine, recently called me. The company where she had worked for twenty years decided to close, her husband was diagnosed with cancer and her daughter - the mother of her beloved granddaughter - had inexplicably become closed off. She was having frequent nightmares, daytime panic attacks and felt like "I'm falling apart and I'm going to crack up." Jennifer felt quite embarrassed that she was in this state after having done so well since we ended her psychotherapy ten years earlier. I let her know that I was not disappointed in her and felt honored that she was seeking me out during this very difficult time. I also said it was not unusual for patients to reconnect with me during these kind of crises.
Jennifer felt so relieved to be in the sanctuary of my office where she could feel the reliable safety and peaceful security of my presence. I helped her to understand that part of the reason for her being so overwhelmed and terrified was that these current events were triggering the chaos and profound neglect of her childhood home. This perspective helped her to feel somewhat more stable. However, increasingly she felt flooded by these memories. Combined with the powerlessness created by the unfolding events of her life she continued to feel very anxious about having a breakdown.
I did with Jennifer what I have done with other patients under these circumstances. I gave her something personal from my office that she could take home. I handed her a carving of a tree that I had brought back from a vacation in the redwood forests of Northern California. Redwoods, of course, are trees that heave survived many storms, fires and attacks from insects. They are an iconic image of strength and stability. I held the carving for a while, rubbing my hands on it and said, "Bring this home with you as a reminder of what it feels like to be with me in this office. When you're feeling overwhelmed pick it up and hold it. Keep it until this storm is over and then bring it back to me." My perspective in doing this is that she will be borrowing my strength for a while until she can reclaim her own.
I also asked Jennifer if she felt like there were any other places where she felt safe and sane. She remembered that throughout her childhood she had always gone into the woods near her home. She felt safe there and not alone - like the big trees were protecting her from the emotional insanity of her home. I encouraged her to spend a lot of time in the woods now to recapture that childhood sense of sanctuary and tranquility. I also asked whether she had any photos of those woods or some similar woodland setting. She recalled that she did have a photo of a wooded place that reminded her of that childhood refuge. I told her "Put that photo up in your home. Whenever you're feeling very anxious look at it, remember what it was like to be there . Then do some meditational breathing. Amidst the powerlessness and panic of what's happening in your life now you can reconnect to that old familiar sense of sanity and peacefulness that at some level of consciousness you still carry inside of you." Jennifer smiled warmly, "I like that idea, I can do that."

These ideas are based on the Sanctuary chapter of my book, "Working From the Heart: A Therapist's Guide to Heart-Centered Psychotherapy