Owning Ourselves

As we progress through life, we meet people and sometimes have no idea what role they will play in our story. Nearly two decades ago I met  a teenage girl in Starkville, Mississippi. Her family is very near and dear to my ex, and once I spent some time in their home I understood why. They are a crazy mess of love and laughter, support and affirmations, success and struggle, hope and faith. Angie struck me as an awkward teenager. Pretty. Amazing vocalist. Witty (which I value more than funny). Smart. But there was a lot of teen angst when I met her. She was struggling to define who she was and what she wanted for her life.

I’d like to say that two decades later I know why Angie came into my life. I don’t. We aren’t at all close. She lives in New York and I am in Texas. I have not actually been in a room with her in more than ten years. We reconnected via Facebook, as is becoming a ubiquitous story. We’ve chatted a bit online. Exchanged messages and emails. And yet I feel I understand her much more now. Certainly distance lends perspective, but so does the maturation process. Hers and mine.

In fact, I will freely admit that Angie has become a source of inspiration for me. Perhaps that’s why she came into my life. I’m not going to tell her story. It’s an interesting one, but it’s not mine to tell. Much of it comes through in her music (Check her out here ). What I will say is that she is living the artist’s dream in NYC. We all know that dream. We’ve seen it in countless movies. Starving artist perfecting her craft on the gritty city streets, singing in clubs and doing odd jobs to make the ends meet. Waiting for that big break that might never happen. And if there is no break that’s okay because at least she’s being true to her craft and her dream. It’s a great plot line for a Lifetime or Oprah movie of the week. And, like most works in progress, her last chapters have not yet been written. We get to all hold out hope she does get her big break, whatever that turns out to be.

In the meantime, Angie posted on her Facebook this statement that stopped me midway to raising a much needed cup of coffee to an eager mouth craving a caffeine infusion:

I could be wrong, but I feel like folks’d be a lot happier if we approached adulthood less about owning property and more about owning ourselves.

Could be wrong? I doubt it. I think she couldn’t be more right. This is a woman who gave up so much to follow her dreams. She really puts herself out there with her music and her live performances. Following the progression of her songs, you can see moments in her life where she is gaining true insight. I’m not sure that’s really her goal, but it comes across regardless.

“Living within your means, but knowing that, no matter what your means, you always have YOU. Prince or pauper, unless you know and love yourself, the rest is all bullpoop.”

 I think of the growing Tiny House Movement (http://thetinylife.com and http://tinyhouseblog.com , I think about simplification and focusing on what matters in life. Believe me when I say I’ve spent just as much time as anybody trying to amass the perfectly curated collection of possessions. The right car, designer labels, house full of enviable decor (which is easier when your partner is a designer…double-edged sword), photos of great travel, and on and on and on. It’s pretty easy to do with enough money and time. To the point I’ve actually lived in a home and had TWO large storage units full of “stuff.” I don’t even remember what all the stuff is anymore. So clearly it was important! 🙂

What Angie’s describing is the quintessential existential crisis. Who are we? What is our place in the world? What do we want? What will fulfill us? Self-actualization. It’s the end-game of the human experience. And she’s sharing that insight most of us get at some point: it’s about the living and not the things.

Consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We start with the most basic of survival need and build upward. Once we have food, clothing, and shelter and a physically safe space to live, we can focus on love and connecting with others. Self-esteem and self-respect develops when we are accepting and valued by others. Self-actaulization is the top of Maslow’s pyramid and represents a state of realizing our full potential and reaching it. If we miss a step, we never get to the top and slide back down. Each level is built on the one before it. Later in life, Maslow actually argued for a stage beyond self-actualization that he called self-transendence. He came to realize that self-actualization is only possible in conjunction with self-transendence based on having a higher goal beyond ourselves that we can reach through altruism and spiritualism.

Do we need the trappings of life to reach the top of the pyramid? Can we be happy living in a tiny home? A cramped fifth-floor walk-up? Is that five-star restaurant so much better than a candlelight dinner at home? Are designer labels necessary for self-esteem? Angie’s right. We spend way to much time focused on finding stuff and not near enough time finding ourselves. We lead over scheduled lives trying to acquire all the things we think we’re supposed to have to be happy, and we don’t take enough time to enjoy what we do have. We work too many hours to make more money for the next purchase or experience. We spend too much time trying to impress each other with status symbols or social media-worthy happenings. And then crash into bed, exhausted and unsatisfied, wishing there were another way.

There is another way. A simpler way. A more emotionally and spiritually satisfying way. Stop chasing things and start chasing life. Stop living through cars and houses and wardrobes and exotic destinations. Start living in this moment. Start by accepting yourself just as you are, regardless of what you may or may not have, and believe that it is enough. Because it is enough if you let it be enough. YOU get to choose what is right for YOUR life. YOU get to set YOUR priorities. Not me. Not the neighbors. Not the snarky church lady two pews in front of you. No the other soccer moms. Not the guy in the next cubicle. You. It’s all on you to decide just how happy you will be with what you have.

Now…it’s time for me to start clearing out some storage space with a donation to the thrift store. I’m letting go of things, and in doing so I’m letting go of the mindset that led me to the things. Ready to join me? Ready to walk another path? One less travelled and far less littered? Hand in hand we go.

The First Session.

How to begin.

Therapy 1The questions I am most often asked by friends, family, potential clients, and even strangers at parties are “What is therapy like? What happens?” Some people who have never sat on the couch genuinely wonder what goes on behind that closed door. Others use this is as a way to tease out my particular therapeutic style. Most often, though, it is a question about what happens in the first session with any therapist. I certainly understand the question.

Picture it. Jonesboro, Arkansas. 1998. A young man goes to a therapist’s office for the first time. There was nothing that drove me to therapy. I was not depressed. I was not anxious. There had been no breakup. Work was good. School was good. I went to the therapist because it seemed like I should. Most of my friends were in therapy. Everyone had an “analyst” even if they had nothing to analyze. And then we analyzed that! Seemed very Woody Allen-esque to me.

I showed up for my first session and the therapist matter-of-factly asked what was wrong. When I explained that there was nothing wrong and I was perfectly happy, he had the unmitigated gall to accuse me of masking symptoms and living in a state of denial. Well now we had something to discuss! And we did. For three weeks. And I got bored. And then he got bored. We ran out of things to talk about. And I found other ways to spend money and be entertained.

I’m not sure if that was how my introduction to therapy was supposed to unfold. From what I hear from friends and colleagues, there is no one single way for a therapist and client to first connect. That’s certainly been my experience. In the last decade of working in mental health in various office, jail, and correctional facility settings, I have never found one sure-fire way to begin a therapeutic journey.

It’s perfectly normal and natural to feel nervous about your first counseling session, or your first session with a new therapist. I understand it takes a lot of courage to share your feelings and experiences with someone you just met. Our first interaction is really about establishing an initial connection. You deciding if I’m a good fit for you, and me deciding if I can help you. We work together to identify and understand your concerns and develop a plan to make changes in your life. This process usually takes several sessions. I think of it as the “getting to know each other” stage of our new relationship. This is a collaborative process, but ultimately you are in the driver’s seat.

Switchback at the base of Cape Smokey, Cabot Trail, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.See, that doesn’t sound at all scary, does it? In my mind, therapy is a purposeful conversation between two people where one of those people happens to be in need of some assistance and guidance and the other one has some training to be helpful. We talk. A lot. We both talk. And I listen. A lot. We discuss. We explore. We. Both of us talking together. It’s a collaboration. And from my experience, if you’re able to talk to a friend then you’re pretty well able to talk to a therapist.

I know what you’re thinking….”does that mean you’re a paid friend?” Absolutely not! I am a paid professional who is good at relating to people and getting them to open up about what’s working and not working, and then helping them find better ways to problem solve and be happy. It sometimes seems like a friendship because there is genuine caring and a certain amount of back-and-forth in my conversational approach. But I am not a paid friend. I am a therapist and my job is to help you live your healthiest and happiest life.

But stop and consider this. If it often seems so friendly, doesn’t that mean it’s not really that scary? I sure hope so. I like to think I’m the least scary person on the planet. I take great pride in making people comfortable so we can effectively problem solve. I try really hard to lessen any anxious discomfort and allow you to focus on what’s happening. Does that mean it’s all laughter and giggles? No chance! There are tears sometimes. Every now and then you might even make realizations you didn’t want and consider throwing a brick through my window in the wee hours of the morning. I just ask you show up at the next appointment so we can talk about it and keep moving forward. And maybe that you wrap that brick in a reminder slip so I know who to bill. Just kidding. Sort of.

If you really want to get a feel for what that first session will be like, ask to talk to therapist for a few minutes over the phone. Most therapists are frequently quite busy and booked much of the day, but there are opportunities to return a five-minute phone call. Given that therapy is not inexpensive and requires some commitment, it only makes sense to me that you might want to chat me up for a few minutes before making an appointment. It’s similar to the “free consultations” offered by a lot of professionals, just briefer. Though it would be unreasonable to expect more than five or ten minutes, it’s a sensible request and one that I always honor.

From there the journey is something we navigate together. There is no one right way or one right path for all clients. See what happens. Take the chance. I don’t know the statistics on people dying from anxiety or fright in a therapist’s office but I’m pretty sure those are some low odds.

Happy SandSo back to the original question. When I went to therapy “for real,” the first session was nerve wracking. For all of about ten minutes. I didn’t know what to expect. It was a woman. And a very young one. Fresh out of school, in fact. But I went because someone I trusted recommended her. The interaction was professional, but friendly. She asked me so many questions I thought she was ghost writing my autobiography. We talked. We laughed. I cried. She comforted. I felt like she understood me. It still wasn’t that easy for me to open up, but once I did my life got a lot better. I returned. There was a lot of back-and-forth as I thought through issues and she made poignant observations and helpful suggestions. And from time to time I still check in as needed. Yes, therapists sometimes sit on the couch as well, but that’s a whole other blog entry. If you’re in pain or confused about life or want things to be different, go that first session. Walk through the door. Take that first step on a journey of enlightenment and improvement. It can be so worthwhile.