A Deeper Kind of Healing: How Getting Under the Surface Helps us Break Down our Walls

Written by Child & Family Therapist Holly Gilbert, MA, LPC

This Spring, I performed the dreaded task of weeding my garden. With my gloves on, I dug into the dirt, determined to pull the entire root up from the ground. There were several times that I was unsuccessful and would only grab the stem. I noticed that after some time, the weeds that were not fully uprooted grew back. This got me thinking about superficial care—when we only treat the surface layer of issues and expect long term results: when we confuse convenience with a cure.

I realized that in most areas of our life we are encouraged to address underlying issues; however, when it comes to mental health, we simply focus on symptoms. Why is this? If we knew we had a termite problem, we wouldn’t solely patch the holes. And we certainly would never prescribed surface level treatment to our landscaping. Yet, when it comes to our mental health we often are seeking to treat issues with skills, techniques, and easy fixes.  So, what exactly is the price we pay for this surface level approach?

  • We fail to go deeper into the therapeutic process and, therefore, focus on the breadth of solutions rather than the depth of the hurt. Superficial care is often more concerned with the outcome than the onset of issues. However, in Gestalt therapy, we recognize that instrumental change can only take place when personal insight is met with an awareness to present experiences.

For example, let’s say Mark comes into my office and shares that he is struggling with social anxiety. During our interactions, I notice that he breaks eye contact whenever I initiate a conversation. I begin to gently point this out to him in order to facilitate some awareness. Eventually, we explore his upbringing and the more volatile messages he heard in his home. As a result of his upbringing, he learned that to withdraw from social interactions—through means such as avoiding eye contact—was self-protective.

This past exploration deeply informed Mark’s present experience and will help produce more sustainable, long-term change. From the onset, I could have prescribed skills to address Mark’s anxiety or improve his level of intimacy. However, I believe that when we get to a person’s “truth” three things happen: 1) they develop a deeper layer of awareness to their hurt; 2) they encounter a greater sense of power over their experiences; and 3) they experience an increased level of investment in their change process. All of these things lead to a more sustainable and deeper process of healing.

  • We begin to view the person as a problem to be fixed. In our modern era, therapy has become less about the root and more about the results and this is detrimental to both how we view the healing process as well as how we view the person in general. In a conversation I had earlier this week about superficial care, I came to the realization that when we assume that people can be “fixed” through a series of tools, there is a level of dehumanization that takes place. To an individual who has already experienced a loss of power—whether through trauma, anxiety, or “normal” life transitions—this is unhelpful and can be detrimental to their sense of self.

In Gestalt therapy, we focus on the entire person being present to themselves as well as the therapeutic relationship and encounter. We expect and encourage the person to grow deeper in their awareness and rely on them to share their insight into their experience. I firmly believe that if therapy is not used as a platform that strengthens a person’s sense of empowerment rather than diminish it, we will not only impact their sense of self but also compromise their ability to encounter past, present and future experiences.

As someone who has experienced both the superficial care as well as the long term, sustainable care that promotes awareness, insight, and investment in the change process, I advocate for the latter. It is a privilege to spend my days sitting across from young men and women who have chosen to dive deeper than their surface level issues and invest in a longer but more sustainable therapeutic process. After all, don’t we owe it to ourselves to benefit from the same depth of healing that we offer our wood floors and our garden beds?

How often do you cross the line between caring and taking too much responsibility?

Caring and Taking Responsibility: How Often Do You Cross the Line?

By Stacy Ingraham, MSEd., LPCC-S

Do you have an innate desire to help others be happy and fix their pain? Are you a nurturer and enjoy taking care of others? When you see a loved one struggling, do you work harder than they do to find a solution? If you answered yes to any of the above, you may have a tendency to cross the line between caring and taking responsibility.

Intellectually, most of us know that taking away someone’s struggle is not only impossible, it’s not what they want or need. We all need to struggle if we want to grow. If you’re unsure whether you tend to cross the line, the following breakdown between caring and taking responsibility may help.

Caring for another involves the following:

  1. Listening with genuine care, respect, and an attempt to try to understand what a person is experiencing. If you want to learn how to be a better listener, check out the article, “What Great Listeners Actually Do” by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman.
  2. Offering assistance while setting limits to how much you’re able and willing to do.
  3. Asking someone if they want advice or feedback before giving it.
  4. Remembering that you are separate from the other person. Their feelings and behaviors may not have anything to do with you.

Crossing the line into taking responsibility involves the following:

  1. Helping by completing a task that takes away a person’s opportunity to struggle and therefore, grow. For instance, doing your son’s homework assignment because solving math problems is difficult and gives him anxiety.
  2. Planning or organizing someone else’s life in an attempt to make a day or an event go as smoothly as possible for others. This can involve questioning someone persistently, or asking “are you sure?” multiple times when he/she has stated their decision.
  3. Taking on another person’s emotional pain by taking the fault when it has nothing to do with you. Or, trying to make someone feel better by talking them out of their pain and then feeling irritated when they distance themselves or do not feel better.

Crossing this line over and over again becomes painful, exhausting, and feeds anxiety and depression. It can lead to loneliness, resentment, and frustration in relationships. A powerful gestalt intervention involves helping individuals enhance their awareness. Therefore, if you tend to cross the line from caring into taking responsibility and want to change, practice noticing each and every time you approach the line.

  1. If you feel resentful toward others when they dismiss your advice or help, you may be crossing the line.
  2. Perhaps you start worrying excessively about others and spiral into “what ifs.” You may say to yourself, “If I don’t do his homework, he’s going to fall behind, get teased, fail math, not get into college….”
  3. Perfectionists can cross the line in an effort to ensure that everyone is happy, having fun, and getting along. Along the same lines, if you need people to like you, notice when you start trying to figure out how you can help make things easier for them.

As your awareness increases, you can decide how to care and set limits so you avoid crossing the line. Remember, we can care deeply about others and help them without taking away their pain, fixing their problems, trying to make their life perfect, and enabling their troubling behaviors.

Thank you to Norman Shub for identifying this important theme.

 

 

Five Ways to Be More Engaging in Conversation and Relationships

5 Ways to Be More Engaging

By Stacy Ingraham, MSEd., LPCC-S

Imagine if you felt heard, important, and respected during most interactions. We do not often leave conversations feeling this way, because many of us aren’t very good at engaging others. When we engage someone, they feel like they matter, are heard, and appreciated. If you care about the person and especially if you want to grow a relationship (personal or professional), learning the skills of engagement is imperative.

  1. Be a really good listener. Listen for details, so that you can ask specific follow-up questions about what they share. If you are preparing a witty response, planning a grocery list, or consumed with worry about what the other person thinks about you, you are not being a good listener.
  2. Be curious. People who are interested, are interesting. A common mistake many of us make is talking too much about ourselves. This can come across as though you are trying to convince that person to like you. Instead, ask open ended questions, so it requires more than a “yes” or “no” response. And if you have been listening, you will be able to ask those follow-up questions.
  3. Is your anxiety getting in the way of being present, or really with someone? If so, you may be putting too much pressure on yourself to be liked and accepted. Take a few deep breaths and trust yourself. A little anxiety is natural and motivating. Too much can be debilitating – consider seeking counseling or coaching if you can relate.
  4. Speak non-verbally. Make eye contact, smile, have an open stance, lean in, nod…. We are always communicating.
  5. Show vulnerability. Giving someone a genuine compliment, accepting a compliment, sharing how you feel about something and asking for help are ways we can be more vulnerable. For instance, if you are enjoying the conversation, tell them. If their smile is warm and friendly, let them know.

These skills do not come naturally to many of us. If you want some help, consider the following:

-Get connected with a skilled coach or therapist whom you trust to provide feedback with support and compassion.

-Seek feedback from friends.

-Get out of your comfort zone and practice. Take small risks in your everyday life by striking up conversation, making eye contact, and noticing when your body language could be more open.

-Watch Amy Cuddy’s “Your Body Language Shapes Who you Are,” and Brenè Brown’s “The Power of Vulnerability”

-Read Developing High Self-Esteem and Leadership From the Inside Out by Norman Shub, Gestalt as a Way of Life by Cyndy Sheldon