It was July 2021 and I had been up late talking to a close girlfriend about all the woes of the past year – and there were many. COVID, working as a double disaster responder with covid & local wildfires, my Mom had passed away and my life partnership was struggling through it all. I was feeling victimized by it all!
Our conversation was overheard by one of my good buddies who said matter of factly as he headed to bed, ‘Stop feeling sorry for yourself and go to bed.’ This was typical tongue in cheek from this lovable friend, however his girlfriend even gasped at him for sounding so insensitive. All things considered, perhaps it was a bit tart, but it was coming from care and shockingly exactly what I needed to hear.
Now, I want to give a little disclaimer here: for the most part the world is lacking BIG TIME in validation & empathy, and my friend’s comment could most definitely be categorized as invalidating. I’m not recommending more people go around making abrupt, invalidating comments – less of that please.
This blog is instead an exploration of those specific times where hearing direct feedback can help us get un-stuck and out of a rut. In this personal situation some straight talk actually really helped me, and I want to explore how this can sometimes play out in the coaching and therapeutic relationships as well.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy has an ‘agreement’ that is helpful to provide some context to this discussion: “I may not have caused all the problems in my life, but I still have to be the one to solve them.”
We are each responsible for our lives, healing and creating happiness – even if that starts with reaching out for some help. It’s also important to mention the benefit of working with an expert if you are struggling with the impact of traumas – big or little.
I say the following with compassion for myself and my nervous system, but in that moment and conversation, I had been seeping in my micro-traumas and my brain was still struggling to process it all over the past year. I felt victimized by my life in many ways. Naturally! When losses occur – drastic collective traumas, unexpected changes, once certain things turn uncertain – the brain struggles to cope.
The definition of trauma is when something happens that is more than the nervous system can process and move through. There are big traumas and little traumas, and each person is equipped to cope with traumas differently – both from a biological standpoint and learned skillset capability. It takes time.
As therapists we are often seen as ‘loving listeners’ who validate and allow others to process in a non-judgmental space. This itself can be healing, especially when loving listeners out in the world may be few and far between. However, there is another aspect of change and healing that is sometimes needed – direct feedback and straight talk.
There was a study done called ‘Three Approaches To Psychotherapy’ or ‘The Gloria Films’ where a woman saw 3 different psychotherapists Albert Ellis, Carl Rogers, and Frederick (Fritz) Perls. This study is a bit ancient from the 1960’s and to make it short and sweet – the woman felt really nice with the gentle and ‘client centered’ Rogerian therapy but felt she made the most progress with the more direct, sometimes abrupt, Fritz Perls who created Gestalt Therapy.
When my friend said that to me, I stopped crying and I actually felt immediate relief. It was like a sudden realization, there was another option! ‘I don’t have to keep seeping in this!’ That’s exactly what I wanted – I wanted to stop wallowing, stop suffering, and move forward! I just hadn’t figured out how yet and got stuck in the shock phase, which is super common.
Did you know that your nervous system is programmed to protect you and stay ‘on the lookout’ for dangers and possible threats? Our brain also has a ‘negativity bias’ and likes to focus primarily on negative things as a defense mechanism. In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) it teaches how ‘Emotions Love Themselves’ – when we experience sadness, anxiety etc. our brain wants to keep looking for reasons to fire that emotion.
There is also a therapeutic intervention that we use in DBT called ‘Irreverent Strategies’. It’s all about very strategic timing and tone (I often straight up tell my clients ‘I’m about to be irreverent for a reason’), but it’s about dropping a comment that is a bit jarring and abrupt- to help someone jump the tracks in their thinking pattern and think outside the box. This strategy is buffered and cushioned with a LOT of empathy, warmth and validation. Again, I would say leave these interventions to the professionals as this usually isn’t effectively used.
In this situation, it was a longstanding friendship so I knew it was not coming from actual harshness or cruelty, and I’m thankful he said it because I don’t know if anyone else would have had the courage to. His statement helped me jump out of autopilot and get back into the captain’s seat. Had he said it 6-9 months earlier it would have been too soon, and had it been much later I may have been stuck much longer.
We are all victims of life and circumstances at times (accidents, losses, traumas). Being a victim of something may be a fact of life, however if we develop a victim mindset and begin identifying ourselves as a victim this is where we truly suffer. This leads to feeling powerless, hopeless, distraught, angry, resentful and just plain STUCK.
Jungian psychology looks at unconscious patterns that we may have operating in the ‘shadow’ or background of our awareness, and the ‘Victim Shadow’ is one of them. We blame external circumstances for almost everything, and struggle to find a sense of empowerment to make changes in our lives and heal. We place our happiness somewhere outside of ourselves, ‘when this external thing changes’, when I have this job, when I have this partnership etc. It is disempowering to be stuck there, and miserable.
After that night a corner turned for me. I didn’t suddenly feel magically healed and better, but I was moving forward from a different mindset which snowballed in time – I was ready to remember that my happiness was my responsibility. Had I experienced high chronic stress, a significant loss with complex grief, the near loss of my closest partnership – Yes. I could validate all of those experiences, but I no longer wanted to live there and live in those stories. I didn’t want my life to be defined by that anymore.
This blog is NOT about rushing the healing process. Each person’s journey is unique, and only you know your needs and timing. And when I was ready to decide I was done identifying with the year+ of overwhelm, anxiety and shock, I started looking towards new horizons. What was ahead, instead of what was behind. What strengths and wisdom I had gained, instead of what I was ‘lacking’ and what had happened ‘to me’.
Healing doesn’t mean repressing and ignoring the past, healing means remembering your wholeness, capability and empowerment despite it all.
So I would encourage you to ask yourself in any areas where you have experienced hardships – is there anywhere that victimhood has seeped into your identity? If so, how could you give yourself some compassion? And then what would it be like to ‘stop feeling sorry for yourself and go to bed’. Saying this from a loving friend. Tuck yourself in, drink some hot tea, sleep, and start afresh tomorrow.
And never underestimate the power of reaching out for help from a therapist or coach.