Facing (bodying) the fragility of life

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Image by eklektik2xs on FlickrToday I returned to my other job after two weeks away, and discovered that one of my coworkers – a gentle, pleasant soul I did not know well after a month and change at the company, but whom I’d decided I liked – had died over the weekend. He was climbing with friends near a waterfall in the White Mountains, and fell 40 feet. He was 29 years old.

It is hard to know what to do in the face of such shocking news. I came into work this morning and one of my supervisors took me aside to tell me about it, which he did, sensitively and quietly, as I have observed to be his way. I noticed that he hadn’t shaved today. When he said the name, I had trouble placing it; I am still learning everyone in the office. But a brief description made it clear, and I found myself struck by a strange and nonspecific sadness, nearly the same feeling as I’d had after the Sandy Hook shootings: a shock and slowness and weight of grief over sudden death that could have been prevented, but that isn’t that close. And in this case, the strange regret – guilt? – that I never got to know him well, that now I never will. I’ve been near tears several times today, but never all the way to breaking. Some part of me seems to say, What right do you have?

The office is subdued, though the QA team still chats about random geekery, the engineers still play video games at lunch. One coworker with whom I work closely has tired eyes this morning, and is the second unshaven face I see. The stoic and kind manager who works at the desk behind me looks like he has been crying, and brings extra chocolate for the edge of his desk. He doesn’t quite make eye contact with me. We joke that there’s very little that dark chocolate sea salt caramels can’t fix, but the unspoken, more bitter than the chocolate, rings out.

Flowers arrive and fill my nose with a lilly smell I can’t abide, and his boss and I start a small shrine amid the team. Last night, before I came back, a few people went out for drinks, apparently until late, to raise a glass and remember. It is unclear what else we are supposed to do.

Move slowly, keep up the good work, and remember seems to be the answer so far. I want somehow to reach out, to let people know they can talk to me if they want, confidentially, that I’m trained for this. But like everyone else, I don’t know what’s appropriate. How do we listen to ourselves, to each other, after such a loss?

[Rerun] Self-care made simple

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From Dr. Kathleen Young's blogOne of the most potent things I have found, both in my training and with my clients, is the utmost importance of self-care. For every acute problem, every chronic stress, every relationship explosion, cancer diagnosis, loathed job or existential crisis, self-care comes up again and again as not just the most important, but the very first thing that needs doing.

This is true not just for my clients, but for me, and other practitioners.  As they say, you’ve gotta make sure your own oxygen mask is secure before helping others.  And as the Rubenfeld principle goes, self care is the first step to client care.  And, lest we forget that other principle: each client is ultimately responsible for his or her own healing.

So it’s not all that surprising that when a client tells me something difficult, and I can feel my mirror neurons firing and my shoulders tightening, my breath growing shallow…the first thing I need to do, before I can even respond, is to check my own breath, my own body, return to my center, and respond from there.  If I do anything else, I put myself in it with them.  And, as anyone who has had someone so upset over something that happened to you that you ended up taking care of them knows, nothing good can come of that.

In my own continuing therapeutic journey, I’ve recently been introduced to Oasis in the Overwhelm, a little book by ex-Catholic nun, nightclub singer, type A go-getter, and Rubenfeld Synergist Millie Grenough.  Its essential core is four 60-second strategies for re-centering and calming yourself, basically at any time and place.

I already have a number of strategies that I use for this, and I pass them on to my clients when I feel they are needed. And of course there are more involved self-care pieces: working out more, eating better, getting enough sleep – all those things that your doctor is always telling you to do.

But for people who want solutions that they can learn quickly and use anywhere…I have to say that this is pretty fabulous.  Once I internalize them myself, I will definitely be incorporating them into my practice. Hint: they involve stretching, breathing, checking in with your body, and focusing on an object of comfort.

Go check it out.

 

[Rerun] Things Without (Shame)

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I recently discovered the wonderful little comic, Things Without Arms and Without Legs (A Comic About Creatures Who Are Kind), and it delights me.

But as adorable and lovely as they are all on their own, I was especially taken when I found this old post, about some favorite topics of mine: vulnerability and shame.

Dear Things,” begins this post, which addresses the creatures directly and seeks to know what it is that their creator likes so much about them.  

You don’t carry shame. Shame that slowly steel the stars, creeping up like pollution and city lights. Stars diminishing in number, the weakest lights smothered first, then a narrowing field of the brightest lights, and maybe the smog will take them too.

Things, you don’t carry shame. Sometimes you feel guilt, but that is different. Sometimes guilt can face the risk of turning into shame and presses against you, but it is a puzzling thing to be looked at, to be asked questions, treated firmly and kindly and put down. There is no shame in worry, no shame in vulnerability, just an open, natural questioning. For you, shame is not a natural piece of star stealing virtue. Even shame is something you look at without shame.

The post then links to this wonderful video by Ze Frank:

And of course, in the end, it all comes back to Brene Brown.

Many layers of linkage for a Monday.  Enjoy, everyone, and come back here and tell me about your experiences with guilt, shame, and vulnerability.

Wednesday Sway: Taking flight

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Three bikes on the canal bridge in Amsterdam, by joiseyshowaa via Flickr

Three bikes on the canal bridge in Amsterdam, by joiseyshowaa via Flickr

I’m going out of town at the end of this week, and I’m not going to be super-available by email or phone between July 25 and August 8. I’m thrilled to report that I will be traveling in Europe, for the first time in 20 years, and most of the places I will visit will be for the first time, period.

This trip in particular has got me moving with the idea of spontaneity. If there’s a single kind of movement I’d like to restore in my life, spontaneity is it. I’ve come to recognize that, especially when planning a trip, I can get very caught up in the little details, and very anxious that everything be planned in advance.

A long walk and talk with my partner in this journey helped me unpack, as it were, some of what is going on for me here. Raised in an atmosphere of uncertainty and lacking a sense of security, I often didn’t know what I would be doing or where I would be living next. Vacations, when I had them, seemed to pop up out of nowhere, suddenly, and holidays – which became very important to me – were often chaotic. In my teenage years, I often felt like plans could change on a dime, and things I was looking forward to could get randomly cancelled and changed without notice. I often felt left in “wait and see” mode, in a kind of suspended animation until decisions I had no part in were made around me. The message I took from this was: if you don’t do it yourself, it won’t happen.

As I became an adult, I tried everything I could to make special occasions special, and to make trips worthwhile. This resulted in a lot of nitpicky planning, especially since money was also often tight. I tended to get more and more stressed out with every event, trip or occasion, worried that we wouldn’t get to see everything, do everything, make everything perfect.

Naturally, this way of being isn’t easeful for anyone around me, and it also keeps me from having as good a time as I could.

My partner, in contrast, grew up traveling the world with his small family. They went everywhere – cycling across Europe, diving in Fiji – and they traveled lightly. They would find places to stay as they went, take the less beaten path when something interesting presented itself, have guidebooks on hand but go without a strict itinerary in mind. This left a sweet taste in my partner’s mouth: not planning too much means I can relax, and that I’m secure enough to do things on the fly.

So as I prepare to take this trip, I notice myself getting anxious, shoulders tightening, breath short, as I peer at my packing lists and things to do and stress over things like whether we have time to visit Alsace or not, because it runs parallel to the route we’re taking through the Black Forest.

And then I think of my partner, take a breath, and think about what it’s going to be like to be in a tiny European car with him, tooling through gorgeous countryside and seeing what kinds of adventures we stumble upon. And then my breath lengthens, my shoulders descend, and I can almost feel the warm summer breeze off the Rhine on my face.

I look forward to seeing you all when I return.

The power of instinct

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I feel good! Photo by emdees via Flickr

I feel good! Photo by emdees via Flickr.

Instinct. It’s a thing we tend to ignore a lot in our culture, preferring reasoned thought, logic, and thorough consideration. We “have a bad feeling” about someone we meet, but we give them a chance…and then another. We know what our gut is telling us about a situation, but we second-guess ourselves. We’ve been this way before and something is telling us that we should turn right here, but we follow Google maps instead and get lost.

Now granted, blind following of instinct or gut feeling is no better. Diving into unsafe situations without preparation because they seem like fun can get you injured or dead pretty quickly. Responding to physiological nervousness or fear even after it proves to be unfounded is classic anxiety. Following a hunch in spite of contrary evidence is what got us into the Iraq War.

But instinct is a valuable starting point for many investigations, experiences, and creative endeavors. The gut feeling is a literal thing, as it turns out, a sensation that comes from the complex nervous system of the gut. It is evolutionarily very old, and is our body’s way of telling us what seems good or bad, unsafe or comforting, exciting or frightening. We ignore such signals to our peril, and often, they can be powerful messengers.

I have found great value in following my instincts in Rubenfeld Synergy. But I had some practice long before, as part of theatrical training. Actors, when they are good, are often spoken of as having “good instincts” and making “strong choices.” These performers are open and flexible, taking what comes to them and making it into actions and characterizations that are compelling to watch.

In Rubenfeld Synergy, I have found that the most profound, helpful, and healing sessions and moments come about when I relax, get my feet under me, and follow my instincts. I’ll say what comes into my head (within reason), even if it doesn’t yet “make sense,” because I have already sensed it. Nine times out of ten, what comes to me ends up unlocking an “aha” for the client.

I worked recently with an actor in a Rubenfeld Synergy session, and I was having fun noticing the way her vocabulary and the way she experienced her body lined up with the way I worked. It was easy for her to feel and locate sensations, to access emotion through the body, and to feel subtle changes as they occurred.

After working on one side of her for a bit, I came to her opposite hip. For some reason, a silly German accent came into my head; I have been learning a bit of German recently and am planning a trip there soon. For no real reason other than that it was there, I said something like, “Und now ve come to dee right hip…vich for zome reason ist German…”

This moment of silliness opened up a whole line of inquiry for the client. “That’s my German side,” she said, after a little laugh. “The rule-follower.” And we were off and running on a thread about the division in herself, between the fun-loving, connected, relaxed and artistically free person, and the person with so many responsibilities that she sometimes feels like she’s holding on for dear life just to keep up the appearance of control.

This could have begun another way, but my choice to follow what seemed like a whimsical instinct to do a silly German accent was what helped that story emerge. And at the end of the session, the German – who developed a personality, a look, an entire image in her mind and body – was what she said she would take with her.

What might change for you if you paid attention to your gut feelings more often?

When your body is a prison

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prisonI had the pleasure recently of listening to Invisibilia, the relatively new podcast that spun off from Radiolab with Lulu Miller. The first episode concerns thoughts – one of the many invisible forces that powerfully influence our lives.

The second story in the podcast follows a very bright young man named Martin, who, at 12, suddenly fell ill with meningitis. It completely paralyzed and debilitated him, and left him in a vegetative state for about two years.

But after that time, he emerged from it, fully conscious, intelligent and aware…only to find that he could not move his body at all.

This, of course, ties into many of our worst nightmares: we are paralyzed during surgery, but conscious and cognizant of pain. Or we are trying to run from something, only to find our limbs feel like we’re trying to drag them through concrete. One of the most common fears – being buried alive – also comes to mind. You’re alive, conscious, living, breathing, and in full possession of your faculties. But you’re completely and utterly powerless to change your position, or communicate, or…anything.

In this state, the man in question thought endlessly about how pathetic, how helpless, he was. Until he chose to begin ignoring these thoughts, to let them float away. At which point he became detached to the point where each day, he wished to die. “It’s a very dark place to find yourself because, in a sense, you are allowing yourself to vanish,” says Martin, who now communicates through a computer much like Stephen Hawking’s. “Days, if not weeks, can go by as I close myself down and become entirely black within – a nothingness that is washed and fed, lifted from wheelchair to bed.”

But the remarkable thing about this story was that, shortly before he began to restore some functionality, he chose to return to engaging his thoughts, to draw attention to them, to wrestle with the darker thoughts as they came up. He began focusing on the few things he could control, like teaching himself to tell time by the shadows as they moved through the room. And over time, through many neurological developments, he began to regain some small amounts of movement – the ability to squeeze a hand, or hold himself upright in his chair. It was one nurse – a woman who believed that there was more going on inside than the doctors believed – who urged his parents to have him tested for intelligence.

Once he began to have the tools to communicate, he began to return – not just his mind, but his body as well. Not full functionality, but over several years and with a lot of physical therapy and training, the ability to have a job, to fix computers, to go to college. And, recently, he got married, and is planning on learning to drive.

Listening to this story, I teared up, remembering a story on Radiolab with a similar theme that blew me apart when I listened to it the first time. Here were two examples of people who had been abandoned, left for dead, treated like a houseplant that needs regular feeding and watering and maintenance, but has no way of letting the world outside know what is going on inside. Until through some combination of love and hope from the outside, and hard work linking the mind and the body back together on the inside, the person emerges again.

In Rubenfeld Synergy, we so often work with the body as an access point to the emotions and spirit, as a way to let the mind light upon associations and make sense of life. Here, though, is a way in from the other side: using the mind and its capacity for deep attention to restore function to the body, and indeed, restore a person to life.

Listen to the whole thing here.

Shakespeare helps restore the body’s story to prisoners

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At the recent conference of INARS, the professional organization around Rubenfeld Synergy, we talked a great deal about the restoration of movement to the body, and how restoring movement can give us our sense of soul back. In an interview with Bessel van der Kolk, he spoke of how in trauma, the body gets stuck in the experience, and the brain is unable to make narrative out of it – the story we have about our lives that helps us process and synthesize intense experience.

So when I also heard in that interview about a Shakespeare program as an alternative to prison for juvenile delinquents (van der Kolk joked about them being “condemned to be a Shakespeare actor”), I started thinking about the ways that theatre can help restore people to themselves. I had heard a This American Life episode called simply “Act V,” about a group of maximum-security prisoners performing a portion of Hamlet, and I was transfixed by the ways in which working with Shakespeare’s text and embodying his characters helped these men to reflect on their crimes, to know themselves better, and to heal.

It turns out that this idea has some traction, and a simple search on “shakespeare in prisons” turns up Shakespeare Behind Bars, a Shakespeare in Prisons conference, an Atlantic article and an NPR article on the topic, covering instances of this practice in Kentucky, Indiana, New York, and at Notre Dame.  What is it that makes the Bard so compelling as a tool for prisoner rehabilitation?

I cannot overstate the power of narrative to make sense of emotion, of difficult experiences, of our very lives. Human beings are meant to tell stories; it is something we have done in one way or another since there were people we can recognize as human. And making stories – whether with spoken word, ritual, theatre, writing, art, music, dance, or games – is the most powerful tool we have for freeing our bodies from the “thousand slings and arrows that flesh is heir to,” and making the things that hurt and scare us most manageable. In acting Shakespeare, what has been trapped inside literally becomes expression, emotion and story that happens outside the body, even as it is generated by the body – the limbs and heart and face and vibrating vocal cords of a human being trying to make sense of the world.

In Rubenfeld Synergy, we combine talk and touch in order to help people not just access the stories that are held within their bodies, but to tell them in words – to make narrative out of the body’s sometimes incoherent signals, responses, pains and tensions. By going inward we find how the mind makes associations with sensations as we pay close attention to them. But the next and vitally important step is to express outward – to tell that story so that we may better understand ourselves.

These prisoners, then, in my view, are using the Bard’s words to help them in their journey of self-knowledge, and in acting those words, are moving emotions through their bodies that are similar to ones they know from their previous lives: jealousy, love, anger, guilt, shame, the thirst for revenge, the possibility of redemption.

I work with text as well as the body. If you are a performer, a storyteller, or just someone who wants to make sense of your life – contact me.

Owning yourself fully: Bessel van der Kolk and healing trauma through the body

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Image by Run Jane Fox on Flickr

Image by Run Jane Fox on Flickr

The big issue for traumatized people is that they don’t own themselves anymore. Any loud sound, anybody insulting them, hurting them, saying bad things, can hijack them away from themselves. And so what we have learned is that what makes you resilient to trauma is to own yourself fully.

-Bessel van der Kolk

In the course of thinking about Rubenfeld Synergy Method in the context of trauma, I’ve been looking at the marvelous Bessel van der Kolk, known by many in the area as the head of the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, MA. Krista Tippett interviewed him for On Being late last year, and the result is a remarkable look into the man’s life, work, and personality. He has been working with trauma since his time with Vietnam veterans at a VA hospital during his training as a psychiatrist. It was there that he first became fascinated with the idea what trauma is and what it does for us: a soldier refused to take the drugs prescribed for nightmares, because to him, the nightmares were a way of keeping the memory of his friends alive.

His recent book, The Body Keeps the Score, is being cited more and more in the healing circles I travel in. It is an exploration of a lifetime working with people who have become living memorials in some way: their bodies unchanging testaments of traumatic events. Trauma, he says, happens when the mind is unable to synthesize a narrative about what has happened, and the events get “stuck” in the body, replaying themselves. Even Darwin, as early as 1872, wrote “how emotions are expressed in things like heartbreak and gut-wrenching experience. So you feel things in your body. And then it became obvious that, if people are in a constant state of heartbreak and gut-wrench, they do everything to shut down those feelings to their body.”

I have seen this phenomenon in my practice, where clients often cannot feel what is happening in their bodies, or are unaware of what their bodies are doing, or they “leave the room,” in essence, dissociating whenever their awareness is called to their bodies. The experiences that they have had there are too intense to be repeatedly endured, and they have found ways to disconnect from their somatic experience. And so the process of addressing trauma somatically starts with helping people reconnect with their bodies in ways that can begin to feel safe.

van der Kolk has worked with yoga, eye movement therapy, and other somatic practices to help people return to their bodies. “It was very striking in our yoga study,” he says, “even during the most blissful part of the yoga practice called Shavasana, what a hard time traumatized people had at that moment to just feel relaxed and safe and feel totally enveloped with goodness, how the sense of goodness and safety disappears out of your body basically.” In his work, as in Rubenfeld Synergy, van der Kolk has found that “something that engages your body in a very mindful and purposeful way — with a lot of attention to breathing in particular — resets some critical brain areas that get very disturbed by trauma.” It can take a while to help someone reconnect with their own breath, to have a sense of their skin and bones and muscles, to have a relationship to their own sensations and emotions that is not simply another way of triggering the trauma. But the research is clearer and clearer that returning people to their bodies is a clear route out of the cycle.

One of my favorite bits of the interview was about stress hormones and their value, and how what really prevents overwhelming experiences from becoming trauma is movement:

“The stress hormones are good for you. You secrete stress hormones in order to give you the energy to cope under extreme situations…What goes wrong is, if you’re kept from using your stress hormones, if somebody ties you down, if somebody holds you down, if somebody keeps you imprisoned, the stress hormones keep going up, but you cannot discharge it with action. Then the stress hormones really start wreaking havoc with your own internal system.

But as long as you move, you are going to be fine. As we know, after these hurricanes and these terrible things, people get very active and they like to help and they like to do things and they enjoy doing it because it discharges their energy.”

This links back to a post I wrote years ago that continues to be popular, about trauma and streaming. When action is possible in a moment of crisis, it is less likely to become “stuck.” But when trauma is repeated, or when movement or action isn’t safe, then the event or events can become “frozen” in the body, stuck in a repeat loop until we can return a sense of safety to the body, and a sense of consciousness to the ongoing experience of being embodied.

Except for a small number of practitioners, the connection between trauma and the body is a minority voice in psychology. Luckily, it is expanding, but it has taken some time. I am hoping to connect with Dr. van der Kolk and the Trauma Center soon to talk about how Rubenfeld Synergy can contribute to this process of healing from trauma. For now, I recommend listening to the whole interview here , or reading the transcript here.

More awesome body-mind connection techniques at the Mind Your Body Expo

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expo

The show floor at the Natural Awakenings Mind Body Expo

Yesterday I had the opportunity to go to an exhibition of dozens of workshop presenters and vendors on more holistic approaches to health at the Natural Awakenings Mind-Body Event. Amid some things that admittedly felt quite woo-woo, I found some really great practitioners and doctors doing work in ways that align with what I’m seeing in my own work, and the day was well-attended, enthusiastic, and inspiring.

The show floor was filled with healers of all kinds, vendors of healthy foods, people giving demonstrations and hands-on work. The highlight for me, though, was the workshops, and I got to attend three and meet some great people.

First for me was a crash course in Biofeedback, with Kim Larsson at Boston Behavioral Medicine. I hadn’t been familiar with what biofeedback was before, and its principles are very cool. Essentially, they take readings from people of their heart rate, muscle tension, breathing, skin conductivity (sweat and gooseflesh response), heart rate variability, surface skin temperature, and other markers that are known to respond when the body is in a state of stress or relaxation. Through getting immediate, externalized feedback of how your body responds to stress by seeing the readouts on the screen, biofeedback practitioners then train patients to self-regulate their own stress responses, thereby keeping their bodies at a healthier baseline in a conscious way and learning how to consciously relax. What I noted about it most is how much it aligns with Rubenfeld Synergy’s strategy of teaching increased somatic awareness, and how that awareness is the first step to opening up possibilities for change. I liked the idea of actually being able to see what is happening, and develop a concrete sense of agency over your own body’s responses to stress, anxiety, and trauma triggers.

The other talk I really enjoyed was by Barbara Gosselin, a physical therapist who does cranio-sacral therapy. She spoke about the importance of working with the body with trauma. Her profound interest in and expertise in the body, including the much-overlooked fascial system, overcame any skepticism I had about CST, and it became clear that she, too, is doing work very closely aligned with RSM: gentle, listening touch, waiting for subtle change and release, and noting that with trauma, sometimes you don’t need the whole story – you just need to help the body return to a more relaxed, parasympathetic response to stimuli rather than the hyper-response that often gets stuck in the body in people who have experienced trauma.

I’m looking forward to being in touch with both practitioners, and making more connections across the Boston area with people who are doing grounded, effective mind/body work. If you want to know how to increase relaxation, diminish stress, and heal from trauma, I hope you’ll contact me.

Working with love

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Image by Candida Performa on Flickr

Image by Candida Performa on Flickr

Given that I work with individuals most of the time and my work tends to involve a massage table and touch, it’s probably hard to imagine how I work with couples or groups. But given that I also sometimes work with sexuality, I do sometimes have the occasion to work with couples who need help sorting out their relationships.

If there’s one thing I’ve observed about relationships, it’s the same thing I’ve learned about individuals: awareness heals. When a person becomes aware of one’s own habits – not just intellectually, in that “Yeah, I know I do that…” kind of way, but in a visceral, slowed-down, embodied way that allows them to notice it as it is happening, that is what can effect real change. When a person can feel a familiar emotion arising, and begins to ready the familiar reaction: the snipe in anger at your partner’s comment, the defensive posture, the eyeroll of contempt – and stop, feel the emotion move through, breathe, and make a different choice…that’s when true communication can occur.

Another thing I’ve learned from the training and used since: change happens in the relationship. What does this mean? Simply that what was wounded between two people, can only be healed in a relational context. Neither wounding nor healing happens in a vacuum. Sometimes, the wound has to be healed with a surrogate, like a therapist or other healer, or a friend, or another partner. If a relationship is abusive, for example, the abused partner will need to seek healing elsewhere than in that relationship. But it is still most likely that healing will occur with the help of another person, just as repeated wounding will often happen when an abused person enters another relationship. Those wounds happened in relationship, and express themselves again in relationship.

The best-case scenario is when the wounds incurred during a relationship can be healed within that same relationship, bringing wholeness and depth to that relationship’s story. When I work with couples, this is what I endeavor to do. As with all of my work, I help them tune in to their bodies: their posture, their breath, their physical sensations. I help them locate their feelings in their bodies, and often, this brings emotions to the surface, allowing them some release. I notice their gestural language, how they sit in the room, how they look or don’t look at each other. If and when it seems appropriate, I help them use touch to make contact with each other, to talk openly, to invite vulnerability. Most of all, I want to help them become aware of the patterns that have gotten to this place, find them in their bodies, and find a way to move out of them into something unfamiliar, unhabituated. To get in touch with each other in a new way, the way that is about what is true now, and what is possible, rather than about how they hurt each other in the past.

If traditional couples therapy hasn’t been working for you, please feel free to contact me, and dare to find a new relationship with someone you’ve known for years.

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