Tuesday, July 26, 2016


This is one of those periods in human history where we are being hit with one crisis after another raising big questions about what is happening, where are we going and what can we do. The list of crises include: terrorist bombings and mass shootings, increased racial tensions, income inequality, climate change, dysfunctional political processes... a powerful mixture of feelings are being evoked: fear, rage, sadness despair, injustice, powerlessness, distrust... They affect our communities, our families, our patients, us. The cumulative effect of so many feelings over a period of time can be overwhelming producing powerlessness, paralysis, apathy. So much needs to be done to make the necessary changes. As psychotherapists and counselors what is our part?


From my perspective as an elder in the field of psychotherapy one primary way we can have a lot of impact is through our work. What is common to all of you readers is that we are working with clients who are suffering and struggling in their personal lives. They are being greatly affected by all this societal instability. We can help them feel empowered amidst this turmoil and to each make their unique contributions to the changes that need to happen. Imagine the ripple effects.
The first step of this process is to help our clients to feel fully all the myriad feelings that are being evoked. This will help to reduce denial and minimalization. Our clients are often afraid of the power of their feelings and what they may trigger from their own personal journey. Through our compassionate hearts we can invite these big feelings into the safety of the therapeutic space. This will provide a container to hold the feelings so that our clients will feel less overwhelmed. This will also increase their compassion for others all over the world who are suffering too. And diminish their feelings of separateness and aloneness.
It is then important to explore more deeply what aspects of their personal story are being tapped into. How do the feelings evoked by the societal crises connect with the feelings of deep sadness,rage,fear,injustice,hopelessness,powerlessness that they have felt in their childhood,adolescence, and adulthood? Exploring this connection can provide an opportunity to deepen their personal work. This will also separate out the past feelings when they usually felt powerless from the ones now being evoked by current events. The awareness of this connection is empowering.
The next step is to encourage our clients to hold these feelings in their consciousness AND to ask themselves the question,"Where is my empowerment now? What can I do?" The cumulative impact of all these issues fell so overwhelming, the amount of work to be done seems so daunting that it produces a sense of powerlessness. However, if we ask ourselves "What connects with who I am and what my interests are? What about my life experience gives me something to offer?" then something will come into our consciousness that can be our unique contribution. We can tell our clients that we are not all called to act on the big stage, but we all can contribute our part to the larger movement for systemic change.
Ralph is a sensitive artist and naturalist; he is a Vietnam Vet in his 60's. All the terrorist attacks and the shootings of black men and policemen were triggering his PTSD. All the impacts of climate change upon "our home - Earth" combined with the political dysfunction were triggering memories of the devastation wrought upon his childhood home by his mother's bipolar disorder and alcoholism. He was feeling enraged, fearful and powerless. After several years of sobriety he had started to drink again. He was ashamed of that and was embarrassed to tell me because he thought that I would be disappointed in him. Of course I was not - it was a projection of his disappointment in himself. I told him many people are coping with the big feelings evoked by these social crises by the addictive use of substances and addictive behavior.
After we worked through more deeply the feelings of his earlier traumas that were being triggered by the current events I told Ralph"It is now important to discern where is your empowerment in these recent world issues." He felt most strongly about the climate change issue. He has a deep heartfelt connection to the Earth as "our home" and feels that we are despoiling our home. He started to think that if he could help people develop a deep personal connection to the place where they lived, the natural setting near their home, they too would develop a deep heartfelt connection. Extending this heart attachment to the natural world they would want to take better care of their home Earth and become more involved in climate change issues. Ralph started by taking his teenage son's friends on nature walks. They loved it. This evolved into him leading guided nature walks for parents and kids in the local high school. The response was very positive and Ralph began to feel that he was making a contribution.
A few other examples: Tom who had been homeless for several years in his late teens and early twenties spoke at his synagogue about "giving voice to the voiceless" including non-human creatures and about the interconnectiveness of all beings; Carla, who had always felt like a "timid mouse", joined the Citizen's Climate Lobby and traveled to Washington to speak directly to Congressman; David decided to make monthly visits to some isolated members of his community; Walter led several workshops at his conservative Christian church about the congregation becoming more inclusive. The connecting thread in all these stories is that each of them moved beyond powerlessness and a sense of hopelessness into taking some action that fit with who they were. They felt also that they were contributing to something greater than themselves.
Of course we can contribute concurrently to working on these societal issues in ways that resonate for us personally. It is important, however, to realize that we can use our unique positions as psychotherapists and counselors to encourage and empower our clients to find their individual pathway - even though it may seem small - of making a contribution.

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