Category: Trauma

White clients, it’s time to talk about whiteness

I have been thinking lots about what psychologist and writer Natasha Stovall wrote almost a year ago, before the police killing of George Floyd, before the COVID pandemic exposed (yet again) racial disparities in our country. Stovall wrote this:

The couch in my therapy office is occupied mostly by white people. Anxious white people and depressed white people. Obsessive white people and compulsive white people. White people who hurt people and white people who hurt themselves. White people who eat too much, drink too much, work too much, shop too much. White people who are bored, envious, guilty, numb. Racist white people and antiracist white people. White people who look across the room and see a white therapist listening. We talk about everything. Except being white.

Stovall goes on to make the point (and this is a gross simplification; the article is worth reading in full) that white therapists need to support white clients to explore racial identity, including the negative ways white culture impacts all of us—even those of us who also benefit from it due to our whiteness.

I’ve been exploring my own white identity for the last few years, primarily through the workbook Me and White Supremacy, through regular meetings with other white therapists wanting to dismantle our own roles in systemic racism, and through expanding my reading list so it does less to center whiteness. I keep coming back to this checklist about white supremacy culture only to cringe as a recognize myself and many of my attitudes and behaviors on this list.

I am committed to doing my best to support all clients. That means continuing to work to become as anti-racist as possible, and, when clients are ready, helping them unpack the ways their challenges may reflect and result from our problematic culture. This is our work right now. This is my work right now.

If I got a dollar every time…

Say I got a dollar every time I heard the following words:

  • “But other people have it worse.”
  • “Yeah I’m depressed and anxious, but I have privilege so I shouldn’t feel this way.”
  • “I’m not sure I deserve to be in counseling.”
  • “I’m worried I’m taking your time away from people who need help more than me.”

How much $$$ would I have at the end of a year if I faithfully put a dollar in a jar each time I heard a variation of these words?

Enough to go out to a great dinner. A really great dinner.

We often wish we could decrease stress and depression and anxiety by reminding ourselves of the hard stuff that other people face. But that’s not how it works.

I’ve written on this blog before about what I call “privilege syndrome” — the belief that if we have privilege in some way, it can be easy to feel guilty or judgmental about the ways in which we struggle. And this is common.

I wish that privilege could buffer us from anxiety. I wish that knowing about climate change or homelessness would mean that people with secure housing and middle class incomes could be immune or invisible from stress or depression or trauma.

But the brain and body don’t work like that. While those of us with stable housing or relationships may be less likely to experience trauma or stress, our nervous systems aren’t designed to tease out nuances of privilege. The body just experiences a flood of stress hormones like cortisol or adrenaline. The body just knows we’re depressed or anxious. The body knows we don’t feel okay, even if we try to use our intellect to convince ourselves we should feel differently.

And the research shows that judging ourselves for our responses and reactions don’t actually do much help.

Instead, I try to help clients cultivate neutrality or even self-compassion for our experience. It’s only by accepting what’s here – the pain, the suffering, the fear, the sadness – that we can begin to move through these difficult feelings. It’s only by acknowledging what’s true for us – whether we like the truth or not – that we can begin to move forward.

Hi, I’m Dana – She/Hers/Her (Gender, Gender, Gender!)

I led a workshop yesterday on mental health for parents of high school seniors. Introducing myself, I said, “I’m Dana, and my pronouns are she/her/hers.” Those same pronouns are at the bottom of my email signature. Were the workshop attendees confused by my sharing of pronouns? I couldn’t tell. But for lots of reasons, saying my pronouns is something I’m trying to do more often.

For many cisgender people (cisgender: people who’s gender identity matches what they were assigned at birth) the movement toward saying pronouns has been a bit baffling. Isn’t it obvious when someone’s male or female, man or woman? Not always. I was excited to go to a great workshop recently all about gender with multilingual Atlanta therapist Irene Celcer (her website’s in Spanish), hosted by the Georgia Society for Clinical Social Work. We talked about the difference between sex and gender (“sex is biology; gender is society”; “sexuality is who you go to bed with; gender is who you go to bed as”), gender incongruence (often known as gender dysphoria) and best practices for therapists working with LGBTQIA+ clients.

Especially given Atlanta’s big-big-big population of gender-nonconforming queer people, and the continuing discrimination and abuse they face – and often resulting trauma – it’s important to me that I and other cisgender therapists and counselors do our best to be respectful and helpful to these clients.

For lots of us who are no longer young adults, it’s a bit jarring to re-think our old ideas of gender, ideas we took for granted as reality. But one of the things I love about being a therapist is that I get to rethink old ideas and learn new ways of seeing and being. I am so grateful for this work.

I love the creativity of all the different affirming bathroom signs popping up around Atlanta.

“We’ve got to tell the unvarnished truth.”

I spent the weekend immersed in suffering. It’s a weird thing to say, but I’m not sure what else is there to say after a long weekend in Washington D.C. spent at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the National Museum of the American Indian.

I’m grateful for the time at these museums, the time to learn and to remember and to witness. It’s so easy to think that we alone have suffered and are suffering, that our suffering is context-less, that this moment will last forever.

But these museums provide an urgent reminder of not just atrocity and genocide and collective trauma, but that times change (for worse and for better) and that people can survive hardship and fight for dignity and impact the world in positive, beautiful ways. These sites remind me that we must not forget our shared humanity and the ways that our suffering is all connected. We suffer when we act in ways that strip the humanity from others or from ourselves. We suffer when we can’t see ourselves or others as fully human. (And yet, so often, it can takereal effort to see one another as fully human!)

I’m reminded, too, of the 1987 slogan of gay activists in the midst of the AIDS crisis: Silence = death. I saw that echoed in a quote from historian John Hope Franklin on the wall at the African American History and Culture Museum: “We’ve got to tell the unvarnished truth.” 

So much of counseling is learning to speak outloud the unvarnished truth – as painful and difficult as it sometimes may be. The unvarnished truth can be freeing, and powerful, and can guide us into discovering what’s next. Speaking the unvarnished truth about our experiences and life in therapy can be a brave, life-saving act – an act that protects our humanity and the humanity of others.

 

 

The Hardest Things To Talk About Are Sometimes the Most Important

It’s easy to circle around the hard things: Death, shame, our heart’s disappointments. They can feel too intense to name directly: abuse histories, experiences with sexual assault and harassment, death and loss, abortions and miscarriages. They hover at the edge of our consciousness, where we try to push them away and distract ourselves: the ways we’ve messed up or been let down, our regrets and fears, our shame and sense of unworthiness. They hover at the edge of our consciousness, where we try to push them away and distract ourselves. They can be overwhelming. We worry that if we let ourselves feel the feelings, we may get too immersed in them to find our way through.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot with the #metoo movement and #whyIdidn’treport. I’ve been asking the question: How is that I haven’t known until now that some of my beloved friends and family members have been assaulted? How is it that even in intimate relationships, these things go unspoken – and unasked about?

Asking takes courage, though of course it takes more courage to name outloud, to ourselves and others, the hardest things we’ve experienced. That’s why I have so much respect for all who continue to share their stories of surviving trauma, including assault and abuse.

We need these stories to be out in the open. The hardest things to talk about are sometimes the most important. For healing, we need to be able to hold each other with compassion and support – and to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. For a more just society, we need to call out abuse and abuse of power. We need to address barriers to naming these difficult truths out loud – barriers that are significant to all people, and barriers that are often most profound for women of color.

I am continuing to work to make workspace a safe space, for all stories, for all aspects of self, for all experiences that have led us to this moment. I am working to ask and to listen to your stories, even the ones that are hardest to tell.

 

 

 

 

Blog Hodgepodge: ACE Scores, Bias, Lived Experiences, and A Radio Interview

Blog Hodgepodge: ACE Scores, Bias, Lived Experiences, and A Radio Interview

I got to talk on the radio recently about depression, suicide, and teenagers. I’m glad to continue to spread the message about adolescent mental health concerns, even though it’s always sobering to consider how mental and physical health issues can be created or exacerbated by so many preventable factors.

I’m a big fan of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Scale as a quick way to look at what sorts of factors may have been present – or absent – in my clients’ lives that may impact them to this day. None of us exist in a bubble. There’s good research on how trauma, neglect, race, class, immigration status, gender and gender identity, and so much else plays into how others treat us, brain function, and how we end up feeling about ourselves. (Here’s a recent reminder of racial bias affecting views toward young black girls.)

In my work as a therapist, I continue to be committed to seeing my clients as individuals whose own stories and experiences are a part of a larger social and cultural framework.

Some helpful stats about the importance of ACEs.

 

Beyond Upset? 8 Small Things To Do Right Now

  1. First Things FirstFirst: Don’t make major life decisions in the middle of a crisis. If you’re feeling an impulse to make a big change right now, notice that impulse and then do yo
    ur best to sit on it for a few weeks.
  2. Undercommit. During times of challenge, you’re allowed to be a little flaky. I recommend sentences like “I’m a tentative yes for this” or “I’d like to, but I need to think about whether I can do this.”
  3. Limit your exposure to information you may find upsetting. Set a timer to remind you to stop compulsively reading whatever is making you panic. There will be plenty of time to read and learn later on. It’s not selfish to choose to opt out for a while.
  4. Get outside. Once there, move your body. Slowly is fine. Less slowly is also fine.
  5. Eat. At regular intervals. The best you can.
  6. Sleep. At regular intervals. The best you can.
  7. Find comfort. Take comfort. Give comfort. Cookies, TV, books, friends, and food are all good starts.
  8. Figure out a small way to use the power you have in a tangible way. That may mean doing something kind for someone else. That may mean volunteering. That may mean writing a letter to the editor. Be careful not to overextend yourself! Refer back to #2.

Turning Off and Tuning In to Another Mass Shooting

black ribbonI found out the horrific mass shooting yesterday in Florida this morning, not because of the TV or the radio or the internet but because someone I happened to be with mentioned it.

Word of mouth is how I’ve learned almost all of my news for the past two months. It’s been part of an experiment that has involved purposely turning off and tuning out the barrage of news and infotainment that I had eagerly welcomed for so long.

Before these last two months, my radio was on constantly. I was constantly reloading the New York Times website. I could sound informed and knew a little bit about a lot.

But I was also getting numb to it all. Information overload can increase stress and make it hard to absorb anything at all. And so while it’s important to me to be engaged in the world beyond my nose and take action where I can, it’s also been important to see what happens when I turn everything off for awhile. If I’m not distracting myself with the news or really entertaining podcasts, where does my mind go? If I’m not hearing about everything that’s truly terrible in the world, what does that do for my ability to feel and act calm?

We need to notice the impact that news has on our spirits and sense of well-being. We need to try to be mindful as we figure out the right ways and times to be present with the world around us. That’s what I’m working on.

Please join me in adding your name to the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence’s petition for stronger gun control.

 

 

 

 

You’re probably not crazy

Am I crazy?Lately I’ve been reflecting on the magic I’ve found in three words that I’ve been using often in my therapy office. These three words lead clients to visibly relax — to breathe more deeply, sit more comfortably, and move quickly (if temporarily) through layers of worry.

The words are these: You’re not crazy.

Oftentimes, therapists forget to tell our clients they aren’t crazy. We assume that our clients already know this — that they have a sense that what they’re experiencing is solidly in the range of normal human experience. But the truth is that life can be so difficult and paralyzing and isolating that it can be easy to begin to believe that nobody else thinks this way, or feels this way, or is this way.

And yet what neuroscience has been teaching us lately is that even very scary mental health concerns have very real neurobiological underpinnings. There are good, brain-based reasons to explain why kids and adults sometimes feel depressed and anxious. There are clear brain-based reasons that show why people sometimes experience temporary relief in self-harm. There are straightforward, brain-based reasons why trauma survivors often are flooded by memories. It’s important for clients to know that they  are having a very normal (if challenging) response to what’s probably an abnormal, stressful situation. In other words, they’re not crazy.

Of course, there’s a difference between hearing your therapist say something and believing it. But after clients have trusted me with their vulnerabilities and truths, it can be powerfully reassuring for them to know that I still think they’re as sane as the next guy — or me. It’s not a magic pill, but it’s a start.

Is your sanity feeling threatened? Contact Dana to set up a time to talk through what’s been going on with you and figure out a plan to move forward, sanity intact.