The other day I shut my laptop after the final Telehealth session of that day, closed up the office, and stepped into my car with a weird feeling in the pit of my stomach. I cannot find any other words to describe what I was feeling. Sure, I knew where that feeling was coming from, and I won’t get into the details because of client confidentiality, but it was a heavy conversation for me to now have to carry alone. I drove home feeling some of my personal struggles rise to the surface as I processed what my client had unknowingly spoken about. I knew I had two options at that moment: to continue about my evening and place my mind on the million other distractions that I could so easily bother myself with or reach out and speak to someone.
“Can I talk to you?”
This is the text message I sent a friend of mine.
Now as a therapist, it could be very easy for me to hide behind the façade of the “counselor mask” and present as everything is peachy. But in what ways would that benefit me? Or anyone else, for that matter?
What disillusioned mask do you find comfort behind? The perfect mother who cherishes every waking moment with her children? The Christian woman who never struggles with gossip, negativity, doubt, or fear? The wife whose husband is always loving and uplifting? The working woman who always lives a life of balance and calmness?
Why do we sometimes NOT admit that we are hurting and decide to struggle alone? (Pause and really think about what your answer would be for why, in some moments, you decide to not be transparent and open? Insecurities? Trust issues? Fear of appearing weak? Maybe those are the things that you need to address intentionally, rather than have them drive your decisions and behaviors.)
Ready to take it a step further? When was the last time someone in your personal circle approached you asking to talk and needing support? A friend? Spouse? Child? Coworker? Family member?
We are all struggling with something. Always. Why aren’t we talking about those things though? You might say, “But Natalie, I have conversations with my loved ones all of the time. If anyone needed to talk about something, they know they can talk to me.” But can they really?
Conversations and healing conversations are two very different things. We are having simple conversations on a daily basis. You speak. She speaks. While she is speaking, you are thinking about what you are going to say next. You speak. She thinks of a question to ask but decides to share her personal experience instead. You agree. You laugh. You both move on.
Who asked meaningful questions?
Did you think about what they really meant by what they said?
What was left unsaid?
When was the last time you allowed someone to do those things for you?
I want to take some time to go over a few things that come to mind when I think about how I try to extend myself to those around me and provide a space for healing conversations to blossom.
- Am I a safe place for someone? I am constantly evaluating my words, actions, and interactions, scanning for behaviors or language that might lead someone to not feel safe speaking with me. Do I show judgement or extend understanding? Am I quick to respond with an opinion or do I offer silence and listening? Am I trying to bring down defensive walls when loved ones speak with me or am I more concerned with being right? I want you to practice being more focused on your verbal and nonverbal language as you engage with others over these next few days. Do you have any habits that tend to close people off rather than send the message that it’s okay to be vulnerable?
- Am I scared to “go there”? There have been times that I know a family member or a friend is about to talk about a sensitive topic and I have been afraid of not having the right words to comfort or extend calmness. So innstead I avoid going deeper with them in conversation. Have you ever allowed yourself to be driven by the fear of possibly not knowing what to say to a loved one as they open up? I challenge you to recognize this as a semi-selfish act. In those moments, we are more concerned with our feelings rather than meeting the needs of the person in front of us. What message do you think you send when you don’t carve out the space to talk about whatever that loved one or friend is wanting to open up about? They walk away from those conversations thinking that either their situations aren’t significant, or you don’t care about their pain. It’s time that we place our own fears and personal comfort aside and be a comforting presence for those we love.
- Am I comfortable with emotions and vulnerability? I have found over the last 11 or 12 years of counseling that there are so many people who are simply not comfortable with their emotions and, therefore, not comfortable with the emotions and vulnerability of those around them. How do you feel when you begin to cry in front of others? How do you handle those moments when you have been hurt by someone close to you? Can you initiate a conversation that might be hard to have but is necessary in order to work through an issue? The only way to be comfortable with other people’s emotions is to learn how to be comfortable expressing yours.
- Do I recognize the power of my words? I think it’s so sad that we raise our kids thinking that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words would never hurt me.” That’s one of the biggest lies that we were told growing up and it inevitably sets us up for failure within relationships – over and over and over. I can’t tell you how many people sit in front of me in my office and will say, “Well I didn’t mean it” or “I didn’t think it was that big of a deal when I said that” or “I can’t get what he said to me out of my mind.” We underestimate the power of our words. The thing with words is that once they are spoken, they can sometimes become a part of our inner dialogue – repeating to us that same message again and again. So you can imagine that when hurtful or negative words are spoken, they can really have an impact on a person’s beliefs and ultimately their actions. The positive side to this process is that when uplifting and encouraging words are shared, they can have just as lasting of an effect. Do you recognize the power of your words when you speak to loved ones?
- Am I compassionate? I’ve had many people share with me that they just aren’t empathetic and compassionate people. “I’m just not wired that way.” And I lovingly challenge anyone who says that because compassion is simply showing concern for another human being. I don’t know anyone who would say no to that definition! (At least I hope not!) Now the difficulty is that we sometimes don’t know how to SHOW compassion towards our loved ones, and that would bring you back to point #3 above. One of the biggest lessons that my graduate professors instilled in me and my cohort was that our relationship with our clients was the number one indicator of the success rate of the counseling process; meaning, what mattered most in that counseling room was how clients felt with us, as people. Did they feel like we cared about them and their circumstances? Do your loved ones feel like you care?
I was listening to a podcast the other day and the guest speaker said something powerful. He said, “People heal in the presence of other human beings.” Take a second to let that soak in. Strength for positive change is generated when we come together, ready and willing to listen, care, and support. We are living in a time when healing is needed more than ever: individually, communally, and systemically. But it begins with you, and it begins with me. Take some time over these next few days to think about the nature of the conversations that you have been having lately. Are your conversations carving out space for healing or are they blocking potential moments of intimacy, connection, and relief? You are ultimately the one in control. 💜