You Have a RIGHT to be Here

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“You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”  
-Desiderata by Max Ehrmann

I lean forward, resting my elbows on my knees. I look my client in the eye intently. She looks back uncomfortably. This is one of those situations where I am want her to be uncomfortable, because what I am about to say is, I know, as imperative for her to learn as it is outside of her norm to consider.

“Take space.”
“I’m sorry?” she says.
I stand up, spread my arms out, breathe in, lift my chin up and proclaim like a madwoman to the room “TAKE SPACE!!!”
Now she’s really uncomfortable. I sit down and resume the intense posturing of a Superbowl coach during halftime.
“The only thing I teach people to do in therapy is to take space. Make room for your needs in your life. Stop living as if your feelings are a liability, your wants are a burden, your boundaries are destructive, don’t live as if what you require for peace of mind is stressful for others, that to ask for nurturing is selfish. Placed in priority above your own well-being is an intense fear of appearing ungrateful, weak, self-centered, gluttonous or narcissistic. This is all based upon the habit of self-constriction, the idea somehow that the world doesn’t have enough space to accommodate your needs, or that for some unstated reason your existence demands that you suppress your desiderata.”

“SO! Remember when I said ‘You are what you need’? If you don’t make room for your needs in your life, then what does that do to the self?” I ask.

“It makes the self smaller.” She says.

“Genius! And if the self is smaller or weakened, then self-worth is what?”

“Weakened,” she answers.

“Brilliant! And if self-worth is weakened then what happens to self-care?” I ask.

“It’s reduced,” she replies.

“Prodigal! So what is an eating disorder?”

“It’s not taking care of myself because I don’t feel like I deserve to,” she says, looking down.

“Yeah…” I whisper.  “Hey. What do we need to do about that? Should I give you a lecture on why you should take care of yourself or is that just information you already know?”

“I already know it, I just can’t do it,” she says.

“OK. So instead should we work on helping you take space in the world? Building up your fulfillment of your needs by asking your world to nurture you? This might increase your ability to feel worthy of eating, worthy of taking care of yourself, worthy of taking action on all the healthy things that everyone says you should do for you?” I ask.

Smiling shyly, she nods.

“Where should we start?”

“Well, I could tell my dad that it feels good when he hugs me goodnight, I could take out my jewelry kit and start working on making some bracelets…just for me!” she adds, grinning. “I might even ask mom for help with the jewelry. I could ask my friend to stop teasing me about what I wear…is that taking space?” she asks.

“You got it!”

-P.S. last week I wrote about the poem “desiderata” as striking at the core of my system of Thermodynamic Psychology. I had never looked up the definition of “desiderata” though, until recently.

desiderata:  plural noun, singular desideratum:  things wanted or needed; the plural of desideratum

In that moment, I was overwhelmed with a feeling that, perhaps the universe really IS unfolding as it should….

In Pursuit of the Gentle Self

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Therapy does so many things that to try to sum it up in one sentence seems obtuse and myopic. And as often as we complexify (DEFINITELY a word) a discipline, perhaps all discrete pieces of truth circulate around a unified core axiom. I believe in psychology, we do not have that veracity pegged, so our systems so far seem to reflect  an expansion rather than a contraction of ideas. Yet, there is serenity to be found through the pursuit of parsimony, clarity is found in simplicity, and this is never more marked than in the formation of a new counseling relationship. In these early sessions, I must briefly, concisely convey how I treat mental illness and eating disorders so a shared vision of progress can be achieved. In the past I have struggled to fit  concepts that I could spend 10 hours explaining into a manageable, user-friendly brevity. In fact, often I feel like the ideas of Thermodynamic Psychology (ThP) are like the Death Star–I don’t need the whole thing at once, I need the Lego version!

But therapy is a deeply spiritual process, and what is spiritual is always infused with feeling. So instead of asking myself to lecture about my system in a linear logical way, I focus not on what Thermodynamic Psychology IS, but rather on what it FEELS LIKE. This approach not only cuts to the core of the system, but invites a more authentic and holistic unfolding of the counseling bond. To sum up the essence of ThP, my heart turns to the Desiderata by Max Ehrmann, and it is with these words I encapsulate my design.

“Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

For this article, I will take only the first sentence and describe what it means to me.

Beyond a wholesome discipline…

Sometimes we need to do things that are for the maintenance of our achievement goals, things that are hard or boring, things that are somewhat aversive but in the long run create a value-rich life. For instance, I force myself to eat kale and salmon, go to bed at a reasonable time even though I want to stay up reading Jean-Paul Sartre (Stephen King), drink water even though I might want beer, exercise regularly and take my vitamins (even though the fish oil I take occasionally bursts in my mouth and I spend the next 6 hours gagging). Do healthy stuff. Also, I do things that get me closer to my goals. I have to finish my papers even when I am tired, go to work even though I would rather stay home and play Legos (I have 2 boys so that’s not weird), pay my taxes, take care of my business. I have to clean the house and the cat box, do laundry, cook (bleh) and keep my home homey, etc. even when I might not always feel like it. So a wholesome discipline means conscientiously endeavoring toward one’s achievements while tending to the needs of those around you. In other words, eat your broccoli and be NICE to your sister!

be gentle with yourself.

Amidst all the accomplishments and duties, the hustle-bustle and “to-do lists” of our day is the experiential self, and if we neglect this core element of existence, we suffer. Living gently means showing empathy inward and taking time/energy to engage in process-based experiences that are fun, relaxing, restful, peaceful, spiritual, and enjoyable. Giving yourself permission to nurture priorities that are “just for you” and not outcome-driven, not other-driven, while inviting others to see and respond to your needs in kind…this is being gentle with yourself.

I pride myself on having a firm grasp of the obvious, and in my view, people with eating disorders are not gentle enough with themselves. They drive toward an internalized “self-expendable” goal that toxically eclipses self-nurturing. Kind and empathic self-sustenance is lost, such that a person starts to resent himself for what he needs. Concern for the needs of the self are displaced by self-directed admonishment, beratement, and guilt, and eventually the requirements for rest and restoration start to be seen as a liability and weakness. Eating disorders are about self-deprivation and self-punishment, where monitoring and accountability that may in measured doses be healthy for one’s life runs rampant and overtake the ability to be inwardly gentle. A good therapist will need to hold this hopeful and gentle care for the client until she is ready to claim it as her own. Good therapy is always a journey of love.