Often, I’m asked, “What does the fire-making process have to do with therapy?” I embrace this curiosity and even expand it to relate to thriving in life.
Intensive. Isn’t that a funny word? Therapeutic intensive. It's kind of scary sounding. And still unclear in what it actually means. Right? When I am asked what I do for a living, and my response is “I am a therapist. I run therapeutic intensives”, the responses are awesome. I typically get, “Woah. I need one of those,” “Oh no! Don’t diagnose me!”, or complete blank confusion. So, regardless of your response, here I am to share what I so passionately call my career!
Three months ago my life changed forever when I gave birth to a beautiful, healthy baby girl. The experience has already begun to teach me many things about myself, my partner, my family and friends, and even the world. One of the many things inspiring reflection came when I started to introduce our daughter to her younger cousins and family friends. Whenever our baby was in the presence of these small children, I found myself constantly reminding the children to “be gentle." All other adults in the room did the same. We even used a gentle coaching tone when we echoed the words. Of course, we did this because newborns are delicate and young children are often unintentionally clumsy and unaware of the impact their actions may have.
In my work with parents of students in our wilderness program, I often tell them two things that I believe are the most important way to help their kids while in the program. The first of these is to show up for your child. The second is to do your own work so that you can be the healthiest you can be and therefore support your son or daughter in their process, successes, and struggles. In this article, I will examine further what doing your own work means.
I was recently talking to a friend of mine, Rachel, who works in the field of higher education at the University of Utah, and I mentioned a presentation that I was beginning to prepare for on the role that technology plays in the mental health of young adults. My co-presenter (Tim Mullins with Evoke Therapy) and I had come up with some ideas that we wanted to explore and flesh out, and I was talking to Rachel about these still unhatched ideas. She was very excited to hear of the topic we were presenting about, and she told me of a book that she had recently read called iGen by Jean M Twenge. Let me clarify: Not only did she tell me about it, but she also said I HAD to read it. So read it I did.
A year after I graduated from high school I found myself flying home from a 7-week backpacking trip in Thailand. On the way, our plane hit heavy turbulences while over the Himalayans. At one point, the aircraft fell into an extreme descent and, I was certain that we were going down. I thought to myself, “this is it”—luckily it wasn’t. If it had, I wouldn’t be here writing this. We continued in the unstable air for hours. That experience has made an indelible impression, rising to the surface whenever I am once more at 36,000 feet. I have anxiety. Fear creeps into my bones, I can hardly breathe whenever it gets bumpy.
Several years ago I started to notice this sense of free-floating anxiety. As I explored it deeper and worked with my own therapist, I recognized that my anxiety was connected to needing to be in motion. I felt the constant need to be doing, completing, and accomplishing. Slowly I began to recognize my struggle with just being, sitting, and really feeling. With being, came self-judgment. I made the realization that my sense of self-worth was tied into my ability to be productive and my fear that if I am not productive and purposeful then I won’t be good enough. As I built this awareness, I was able to explore new ways of showing up in the world. I began to push against my own discomfort, fears, and insecurities in order to embrace just being. This was no easy feat and I cannot pretend to have mastered it. However, I will say that I no longer believe I need to be productive in order to feel good about myself and I no longer feel that free-floating anxiety.
It is common for people to ask therapists, “Are they mentally ill? Is it a mental illness?” This question comes up often from parents asking for their child, who is struggling. If the answer is “Yes,” and if a diagnosis is provided with some root causes added, the parent often feels some relief and is more apt to respond with empathy rather than frustration or anger. I hear this same question raised when people are talking about a public figure like a celebrity, politician or mass shooter. In these cases, the therapist does not have the ability or license to formally diagnose the person but may talk about behaviors consistent with a specific diagnosis. With the diagnostic manual and our training, our license allows us to weigh-in on a diagnosis after personal observation or testing. There are clear lines drawn that delineate if symptoms reach the clinical level qualifying the individual as “mentally ill.” Yet, rather than thinking of mentally healthy and mentally ill in a binary way—mental health goes in one pile and mental illness goes in the other pile—I have found it helpful to think of the mental health-mental illness distinction as a continuum and one that we are all on. In this way of thinking, we all have some mental health and some mental illness. This takes some courage and we must walk past the shame and stigma which would have us externalize any of the bad we see in us, dismissing or at least minimizing it. I heard one person describe it this way—mental illness is anything less than ideal in the way we process, respond to, or treat another person.
“We’re all neurotic, by the way.” I say smiling to a class of yoga students, as they sit on their mat, looking at me expectantly. Some of them smile and chuckle with me, others nod eagerly at me and others seem to be having a difficult time paying attention. I continue: “So if we can just accept that for what it is, we will be able to find more compassion and acceptance for where we are, which leads to a little less suffering.” They’re expecting to start moving or practice some kind of meditation or breath-work, but probably not expecting to have to sit with a statement like that. I laugh because I know this idea to be true in my own life and work. They chuckle probably for a few reasons- they might be thinking: “What is she talking about?” or “Everyone else might be, but I’m not,” or they laugh knowingly because they have encountered their own neuroses and are working on accepting themselves exactly as they are, with varying degrees of success. True healing requires us to pause and seriously consider our own wounding. Yoga is another tool for healing, so I often bring topics like this up in the yoga room as well as in therapy sessions with clients. Neurosis, in this sense, is not as serious or as awful as we might have previously thought, and it certainly does not indicate or point to a life of misery. it simply refers to the conditioning, internal suffering and defense mechanisms most human beings develop as a response to everyday life.
Why do some people succeed while some who are equally talented do not? What is it about wilderness that can produce such dramatic results? The foundation from which both answers arise is one of mindset. Mindset, in this case, refers to the mental, emotional and cognitive structures used to process one’s experience. Another way of understanding this idea is asking this question: “What kind of meaning is being created out of any given experience?” Yet another question to help clarify is: “Is learning occurring from a given experience?” The concept of mindset is germane to both answers.