My first spiritual teacher, Laurel Keyes, used to say that teaching was like “offering cookies on a plate.” She said you put together the very best ingredients you can find, bake up a batch and offer them generously. Folks could pick out the ones they liked and leave the rest behind. This was not just a lesson in non-attachment.
While recounting Laurel’s stories to a friend recently, I realized that Laurel – long gone now – was referencing a true story from her childhood spent on the Colorado plains in the very early 1900s. She wrote the story in her book, “Dust Thou Art” about an upper-class woman, Emma Whitman, who was from St. Louis and married a man setting his sights on staking a claim in frontier Colorado. She agreed to come with him on the one condition, that she could bring her beloved piano along – even though it would be an odd addition to the dirt-floored sod house they would live in.
Off they went, and a few years later they were blessed with a baby girl, Stella. One afternoon, Emma was alone with her two-year-old when her husband had gone to mend fences far away from the little ranch house. She put her daughter, Stella, down for a nap and decided to bake cookies. Just as they were ready to come out of the oven, the wind changed, causing the chimney not to draw properly, and the room filled with smoke. Emma opened the window to create a draft and redirect the smoke up the chimney, waving her apron around the room to chase the smoke out. As she turned to the window again, she saw a war-painted Indian there, appearing to have menace on his mind.
Trying not to panic AND not to alert her sleeping daughter (can you imagine? It gives me chills!) and as calmly as she could…Emma took out the trays of cookies, walked up to the Indian and set them on the ledge wordlessly. She then sat down at the piano and began to play beautiful classical music. When she turned her head, trying to compose her face in a smile, the Indian was staring at her with a look of fear, and soon after that, she watched him ride away in a rising cloud of dust with three other Indian warriors on their ponies.
This is a great story about staying calm under pressure, regulating oneself in a very activating, potentially, life-threatening situation, staying active versus falling into freeze and about a mother protecting her child… and a great cookie recipe to follow – just kidding.
How does this relate to being a therapist?
THERAPIST’S SELF-REGULATION: In a way, we do this every day when we learn to self-regulate and to “keep our seat” when working with severe trauma to help our clients with high activation histories and/or attachment injuries. I would like to send you some ideas that have been helpful to myself and others in regulating ourselves when we are, as professionals, on the receiving end of “activation injections” from our clients. How do we stay connected and able to offer a safe container, no matter what comes up? Sometimes a client offers material very close to home and it might be difficult not to react personally.
Here are a few self-regulation suggestions:
1) WIGGLE YOUR TOES! The reason shifting your joints even slightly works is that any joint movement sends thousands of little announcements to your brain via neurons and synapses to tell you where your body is, which naturally increases proprioception/body awareness. This enables you to stay embodied so that you don’t dissociate with your clients.
2) “KEEP YOUR SEAT” is a Buddhist phrase reminding us to stay grounded and may refer to knowing where the saddle is while riding a horse. Sometimes when clients are recounting hair-raising stories, it can raise another part of us too! We can literally start lifting out of our chairs. At times like these, I remind myself to push my feet into the floor slightly and to land my seat in the seat again. It IS a practice.
3) RESOURCE YOURSELF AS WELL AS YOUR CLIENT: It is most important that you stay regulated, as this is a powerful invitation for your client’s perhaps dysregulated nervous system to find its easier rhythm again. When you feel your regulation slip – we are HUMAN after all – try switching your focus to your own resources. I suggest filling your office with reminders, pictures, or symbols of what resources you. Wear your favorite jewelry. I have a misty photo of a forest with a tire swing hanging from a tree in my office, as it reminds me to relax and settle – “Life is just a tire swing…”
4) HEALING IN TRIBE: None of us heals in isolation. Try this: imagine your mentors or friendly supporters as your special tribe surrounding you, to support you and your valuable work with your clients. Suggest to your clients to imagine, identify, describe and invite their special tribe into the session too.
In the trainings, we often use what I call, the “Greek Chorus” to amplify support for the client who is working in a demo with me. If they are having difficulty saying something to someone who hurt them – like, “Back off” or “NO!” – I may ask them if it is okay for the whole group to say it with them. Sometimes we could wake up the dead, but it sure feels good and sends a powerful message that we are all in this together!
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