For a therapist, I make a lot of faces.

There’s a long, and arguably harmful, tradition of therapists being trained to be “blank slates.” This is the style of therapy we still see sometimes in TV and film: the client talks, struggles to express feelings, maybe even blows up in frustration. And the therapist, sitting back in the chair, takes notes, looks up blandly, and says, “How did that make you feel?”

In actual practice, this is far less common now than it once was. Therapists are more frequently trained to attune to their clients, to use empathy as a tool, and to reflect, but also direct. Yet in my practice, I still often hear from clients that they’ve experienced this kind of un-attuned therapy in the past: therapists who’ve just let them “vent” without offering much guidance; who they didn’t feel understood them or their problems; or whom they had to educate extensively before they could be helped.

And, this may be a news flash, but: most people come to therapy looking for help.

A lot of people, too, come to therapy from a background of PTSD or C-PTSD, or if not, experienced some disruptions of attachment in childhood. And one of the roles that a good therapist can fill is that of the attuned listener and empathic presence that may have been missing from the client’s life for a long time.

I’ve been reading sections of Pete Walker’s book on C-PTSD and treatment, and one of the most profound lessons I’m taking from it is how important it can be for clients to see a therapist respond appropriately and sensitively to their feelings. Many people with trauma histories haven’t always—sometimes, haven’t ever—been received accurately. They haven’t felt seen and understood by people, nor sensed that their feelings mattered deeply to someone. They haven’t been able to find relief for what are often overwhelming emotions, or been given a sense that their feelings are welcome, or even real.

Walker talks about the importance of empathy and authenticity (among other qualities) in a therapist, especially when talking with traumatized clients. For some clients, the therapist may be a client’s first experience of someone being truly present for them, seeing them accurately, and accepting rather than rejecting their feelings. Walker is a survivor of C-PTSD himself, and notes the moment when he met the first therapist who truly helped him:

My therapist’s modeling that anger, sadness, fear, and depression were emotions that could be healthily expressed helped me to renounce the pain-repressing, emotional perfectionism in which I was mired. With her, I learned to stop burying my feelings in the hope of being loved. I renounced my just-get-over-it philosophy and embraced vulnerability as a way of finally getting close to people.

Pete Walker, from Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving

As a somatic therapist working entirely remotely for the past year, I’ve had to draw a lot on what can be communicated solely through my face, along with my voice, of course. Luckily enough, I’m also trained as an actor, and have always had a very expressive face, or so I’m told. It might even be impossible for me to be a ‘blank screen’ therapist—or to have any skill at poker. I’m trained in projecting my emotions through my face at a distance, but I also do it largely without thinking about it.

The result of this tends to be that I react authentically when clients tell me about their experiences. Sometimes—perhaps even much of the time—these responses in my face tell them something about the way they themselves are feeling about the experience, but have not felt comfortable feeling openly. Seeing my emotion, often a client is able to safely connect with their own. As Walker writes, “Clients need to feel safe enough with their therapist to describe their humiliation and overwhelm. At the same time, the therapist needs to be nurturing enough to provide the empathy and calm support that was missing in the client’s early experience.”

I am conscious and careful, though, not to be demonstrative in a way that might disrupt the client’s process—not that I am always completely successful. Witnessing a feeling that is misattuned, or inaccurate, in a therapist’s face can be extremely alienating, and lead to a breach in trust. And as Walker also writes, a sense of trust is something that is often already very damaged in survivors. Therapists often have to reestablish trust repeatedly, as the client’s inclination may be more to withdraw trust than to give it.

And so one way that I seek to establish, and then reestablish, and reestablish again if need be, the trust that is so crucial to successful therapy is by responding authentically and personally to clients’ stories. So my eyes will widen and I will look incredulous when you tell me about the shitty thing your boyfriend did. Or I may tear up when you reveal some vulnerable truth to me.

From my own training, I am mindful not to over-identify: the last thing a client needs is for me to become so emotional on their behalf that they then have to take care of me. But I do my best to be present with your emotions as a client, and to reflect them and even amplify them if that seems to be what’s needed. Sometimes, you need to see what you’re not sure you’re permitted to feel, reflected back to you and affirmed. And when I’m lucky, I can provide the space for that.

A year without touch

A thin woman with rounded shoulders, holding her hand up near her right shoulder. She seems to be coated in grey ash or dirt, and has bright pink, messy stripes of body paint across her face, down her neck and chest, and down her arms and hands. She wears a complex wire-weaved round earring in her left ear, which faces the camera.

Much has happened in the past month to give us hope that this new year, 2021, will be better than the last. (It’s not a very high bar.) But a thing that has stayed constant—indeed, has gotten worse—is this pandemic. This morning saw reporting that the world has passed 100 million known cases; in the US, we recently reached the grim number of 400,000 deaths.

A less-discussed casualty of the pandemic, however, is the the way that isolation from one another has been affecting many of us, particularly those that live alone. The Guardian recently put out an article exploring how the lack of touch affects our mental health, with lots of little juicy science bits about the ways our nervous systems respond to touch. I’ve discussed some of the touch science in the past, but it has become newly relevant in a time when even I, a therapist who uses touch in sessions, can’t provide physical touch to people who were missing it even before this began.

In their talks with scientists, The Guardian spelled out several things about touch and the human condition that run deeper than most of us realize. “The human body has built all its models based on touch received from caregivers,” says Dr. Katerina Fotopoulou, a professor of psychodynamic neuroscience. When we go without touch for a while as adults, we may not even realize what we’re missing, according to another neuroscientist, Prof. Francis McGlone, a leader in the field of affective touch. “But when we talk about the problem of loneliness,” he adds, “we often ignore the obvious: what lonely people aren’t getting is touch.”

Fotopoulou remarks that “a lack of touch is associated with greater anxiety,” and “having more touch from others helps us cope better” in times of stress, bringing down our cortisol levels. “Lots of studies support the theory that touch gives the brain a signal that it can delegate its resources for coping because someone else is there to bear the brunt. This relaxes the body, going some way to restoring the stress budget,” she adds.

I especially loved the comments from Prof. Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist, for the way they brought in the metaphorical language we so often use when we talk about the body. Talking about how primates, including humans, tend to develop small social groups of around five people we consider close friends or family, he says that “these intense coalitions act as a buffer; they keep the world off your back.”

A lot of us have been going for some time now without the comfort and protection of people who can keep the world off their backs. Meanwhile, the strongest concentration of C tactile afferents, or CTs—those nerve fibers that exist solely to register gentle, stroking touch—is in the skin of the back, largely in places that we can’t easily reach for ourselves. It’s little wonder so many of us are suffering.

There are alternatives, luckily, although nothing quite takes the place of the touch of another human. The whole Guardian article is very worth reading, and includes some closing paragraphs about how we can self-soothe.

And while I’ve not been able to see clients in person for going on a year now, I have also been working on ways to help my clients self-soothe, tap into their bodies’ wisdom, and regulate their nervous systems without being able to touch them directly. Some of that involves “virtual touch,” using meditative techniques and imagination to bring a sense of being touched to clients. Some of it is simply reminding clients that they have a body, and that it might just have messages for them.

If you’re struggling during this time, feel free to reach out.

That’s how the light gets in

A pink, turquoise and purple winter sunset, reflected in a lake, with pine trees on the right and dark clouds on the left

This time of year, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, is home to many celebrations, nearly all of them involving people gathering together, feasting, and filling their homes with light and warmth. This past Monday was the longest night and the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, and in spite of everything (or perhaps even more fiercely because of it), people have been doing their best to bring light to the darkness.

One of the many traditions around the longest night hinges around the fact that after that late December eve, the sun starts to set just a little bit later every day. The sun’s return is not something we can appreciate right away; in fact it’s going to be dark in the Northeast for quite a while yet. But making a point of marking the time when the change starts, however small, is a good way to notice, and continue noticing, the little ways that things get a little better over time.

The night that the country learned that the 2020 presidential election had been called for Joe Biden, I was out at a birthday dinner, seated outdoors with a heat lamp and masks, and watching as fireworks went off in my town, fireworks that felt at once like they were for the whole world, and for me alone. I felt what I distantly recognized as joy begin to unspool in my chest.

Since that night, I’ve allowed myself to cautiously hope. I’ve said that the feeling is as though someone has pushed open a door that has been stuck shut for years, moved it just a crack, and then slipped a candle through into the darkness.

The other night, the longest night, I lit a candle at sunset, keeping it burning through the long dark.

In a year like this—and when has there been a year like this!—it can feel almost impossible to hold out hope. Despair can close in on us, the weight of all the horrors both individual and collective threatening to shut us down as tightly as business districts in March. It can feel naive or selfish to celebrate the return of the light, when the realities that light shines on are still so very, very dark.

Yet that is what we do. We light candles, fires, trees. We light our faces with the glow of our laptop screens, Zooming our holiday wishes across space. We do, in essence, all that we can. And hopefully, we hold on.

To everyone: I wish you the strength to hold on in this dark season, the light to see the truth by, at least one hand to hold and fellowship to share. We all need it, terribly.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

-Leonard Cohen

Hey man, slow down

Sometimes I get overcharged
That’s when you see sparks
They ask me where the hell I’m going?
At a thousand feet per second

Hey man, slow down
Slow down

-Radiohead, “The Tourist”

Sometimes as I’m working with clients, I start to notice that I’m saying a particular phrase a lot. Probably my most common phrases are still and always “What are you noticing?” and “What’s that like?” But especially since the COVID-19 pandemic changed all of our lives, the thing I find myself saying a lot is “slow down.”

In many ways, the pandemic has forced us to slow down. There are so many things we can’t do, places we can’t go, people we can’t risk being too near. There’s a lot of talk about social distance and isolation, which are concepts of space. But there isn’t that much talk about the speed of our lives—which is a concept of time.

For some people, the pandemic has brought their work lives into their home lives, their children into their space all the time, their spouses always in sight. Their spheres have narrowed, while at the same time, their sense of privacy and solitude has evaporated. The boundaries between work, home, love, and care have all blurred together.

For other people, living alone now means being alone most of the time. For still others, it means having to keep going out into the world and work, hoping that they can stay safe and keep their families safe while the virus rages.

For most people, the world has gotten a lot smaller—not in the sense of being more connected, but in the sense of the walls closing in. A friend recently told me that everything feels “abbreviated,” a word with both space and time connotations. And a common response to this seems to be an attempt to replicate the pre-pandemic speed of life: do a lot of Zoom calls, schedule lots of activities, try and be as “productive” as possible. The stresses of pandemic life also have a tendency to speed up the nervous system, ratcheting up anxiety and intrusive thoughts.

In the midst of all this, I’m finding that clients are falling into habit quite a lot, and having trouble being in choice. And in an attempt to manage their shrinking worlds, they defend their diminishing space by shutting down, sniping at loved ones, overcommitting to projects, or doomscrolling.

I’ve never found a more effective way to short-circuit these (incredibly natural!) responses than to help the person slow down. It turns out space and time are related, and when you can slow your roll, you may suddenly find you have way more space to work with. With space comes greater choice. With choice comes discernment, and the ability to respond rather than react.

Much of what I do with clients works this way, actually. Folks come in with their burdens and problems of the day, week, life. Maybe they talk about them for several minutes, if there’s a need for venting—a wonderful term that implies letting off pressure, the thing that’s reducing their sense of spaciousness and choice. At the end of a good vent, often there will be a huge sigh. And that’s where the slowing down can begin.

Slow down. Notice what you’re experiencing right now. How does this feel in your shoulders, your stomach, your jaw, your breathing? What happens as you take a moment to give attention to your emotions? To your tension? To your breathing?

What would happen if we allowed the slowness of this moment in time, this awful year, to be a guide rather than a goad? What could enter into the space that opens up when you start to slow down, to do one thing at a time, to bring awareness to the book, or child, or room, or dirty dish in front of you?

I don’t like to engage in toxic positivity, or suggest that something as devastating as this pandemic is nothing more than an opportunity for self-actualization. I’m also very aware that sometimes, slowing down and paying attention gives space for anxiety and pain to creep in, and the speed of life is sometimes an excellent coping mechanism, at least for a while.

At the same time, practicing slowing down can open possibilities: for your relationship with yourself and others, for your sense of agency, for your body’s ability to find rest, for your sense of spaciousness, visibility, existence.

It’s my profound hope, actually, then when the pandemic does abate, we don’t return to the speed, toxicity, wastefulness, cruelty, and fractured attention that characterizes 21st century life. It may be too much to hope for, but in the meantime, I can help people slow down, one at a time.

Giving thanks in rough times

In a few days, many people in the United States will celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday as rife with problems as it is with traditions. At the best of times, Thanksgiving is a special dinner with family and friends, but also a reminder of our whitewashed narratives of the violent colonialism that is the true story of American Thanksgiving. At the worst of times (which this year certainly qualifies for), the holiday also sparks family conflicts, activates old trauma narratives, and triggers relapses of addiction.

This year, when we’re asked to be distant from each other for everyone’s safety, those complications are even more complicated. Spending Thanksgiving alone seems antithetical to the whole idea of the holiday, which (again, at the best of times) is associated with togetherness, warmth, and enjoying the fruits of harvest. But for some people, having the year off from dealing with arguing with Racist Uncle Ralph may be as much of a literal lifesaver as avoiding the dangers of the pandemic is.

Whether you usually celebrate or not, whether you’re finding new ways to celebrate (virtually, with a small household group, or something else) or not, remember that it’s okay to need some extra support right now. This year has been exceptionally rough, and the four years before it weren’t exactly a picnic. It’s okay to be struggling. It’s okay to reach out.

During 2020, I’ve been helping run a small mutual aid group within my overlapping communities, and it’s been incredibly nourishing to have the reminder that people want to help, and giving help is one of the ways that humans get their happy chemicals. We’re here to be in community; we’re here to help each other. It’s how we’re made. Having to stay distant, not being able to touch others: it’s hurting us. And so we find new ways to touch.

And hopefully, at the same time, new ways to be thankful. It’s a good time to remember the power of gratitude practice. It’s a good time to search for things to be thankful for, and say them aloud. It’s a good time to eat some pumpkin pie, even by yourself.

And if you’re struggling, please: reach out. Call your mom; call a friend. Call me, if you need to. I guarantee you that someone out there is thankful that you exist.

My presentation is Wednesday night – here’s how to join us

The second Massachusetts Holistic Practitioners Roundtable is coming Wednesday night, November 18, from 7pm to 8:30pm.

Join me, Chris Burgan of Full Heart Tarot, therapist Jill Briansky, holistic educator Lori Walsh, and Reiki Master Louise London-Choate as we discuss ways we can help you through your life stresses, along with those of this extraordinary year.

Go to this Zoom link at the start time:

Holistic Practitioners Roundtable, Nov. 11 and 18

Text reads: MA Holistic Practitioner Round Table. November 11th and 18th, 7:00-8:30PM. Meet healers from across Massachusetts and learn how they can help you beat stress and give you guidance in this free online event.

On the next two Wednesday nights, Nov. 11 and 18, nine other practitioners and I will be offering a free roundtable discussion on Zoom. Come listen to somatic therapists, herbalists, and others talk about how they’re helping their clients find stability and strength during this stressful time.

I’ll be speaking on November 18, though I plan on attending the November 11 event as well. Both events are free, and run from 7pm to 8:30pm, EST.

Register using the Eventbrite form below, and I hope to see you there.

Contact Improv: a study in touch and consent

Contact Improvisation Trio Dojo Florence

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to go to a contact improv lesson and jam, something I haven’t done in years. For the uninitiated, contact improvisation is a style of dance characterized by the words in its name: the dance is unchoreographed and improvisational, and the dancer strives to stay in contact with one or more other dancers the entire time. The results of this, over the two hours I was there, were profound for my embodiment work, for my sense of self in connection with others, and for my thinking around consent.

I have never been much of a dancer. In fact, I was extremely clumsy and out of touch with my body when I was younger; I remember at one point the humiliation of having to take remedial gym class. I dropped out of ballet when I was four because pointing my toes caused my feet to cramp horribly, and I was the only girl I knew of who couldn’t do a cartwheel. (Still can’t.) Over the years I gradually got more comfortable in my body, learned more of what it could do, and how to push it to do things it couldn’t yet. We had to take credits in dance in my college theatre program, and though it never emerged as a primary talent, I got by well enough.

Later, I discovered things like Journey Dance and contact improv and other outgrowths of the modern dance and meditation movements. Dances where what you looked like wasn’t as important as how you felt, where whatever  movements you made were accepted. Contact, though, remained something I dipped a toe into, and then out again, and yesterday, I was reminded of the why of that particular struggle.

Contact improv is intimate. Potently so. It invites the dancer to connect with another body, in a way that our society has few outlets for. I have always looked on with envy at people who are comfortable cuddling with friends, being in close contact casually, enjoying the simple warmth and pleasure of it. As an only child in a repressed family, it never felt like I was allowed to have that. And we Americans don’t touch each other very much anyway, as I’ve often bemoaned. Men in particular have few avenues for touch that don’t also involve sex. The rise of professional cuddling, cuddle parties, expanding bodywork modalities, and so on are a testament to this: people know they need non-sexual touch, and they know they aren’t getting it.

In this age of #metoo, touch has become an even hotter point of contention than it was just two years ago. Consent – that paramount prerequisite for a healthy sexual society – has been shown to be utterly broken, and we are undergoing a transformation as a society that must start from square one: this cultural moment requires that we return to the first principles of using our words, respecting each other’s space, and assuming nothing. Sadly, while this is utterly necessary, it also isolates us from the opportunity of human touch even more – until and unless we learn better.

I teach consent workshops, and part of my framework for them involves inviting people into their bodily sensations, the way things other than their prefrontal lobes experience ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ My focus has largely been around helping people identify and communicate their ‘no’ sooner and more easily, because of my strong belief that without the availability of ‘no,’ there cannot be a true ‘yes.’ And as a person heavily invested in a healthy and fulfilling sexuality, helping people find their ‘yes’ is my truest goal.

Ultimately, I would love for the majority of humans to be able to navigate consent using so much more than just words. For men especially to be able to read the subtle signals that tell them something is wrong and they should stop, ask, step back. For women and nonbinary people especially to have more access to their words in a way that feels safe for them and doesn’t carry unacceptable consequences. For consent to be – as it were – a dance between people, a series of negotiations that is alive and continually evolving.

Contact improv, as currently practiced, invites that kind of communication by its very nature. When it’s working well, it feels like an intimate conversation: will you dance with me? yes? let’s move this way. will you support this? no? I’ll go this way then. sure, I can lift you. now let’s go to the floor. here comes someone else. can they join? yes? now we’re all here. who’s leading? who knows. this is fun. thank you! i’m going to go now. It’s a flowing, changing, present way of being with others. The thing I noticed more often than anything else was spontaneous laughter: not the embarrassed laughter of discomfort, though some of us were shy and there was some of that. Most of the laughter was surprise, joy, delight. The laughter of this feels good! that was unexpected! I haven’t done this since I was five. The profound rest of laying your head in the crook of an unfamiliar, but supporting, shoulder. The joy and silliness of moving in close contact with one person, only to see another face appear on the floor, moving between one of the dancer’s legs. The places where, as the faciliator taught in the first few minutes, you can find that sense of “ahhhh.”

Naturally, with this kind of contact in a society that’s touch-sick, there is a lot of potential for error. I understand that there have been consent issues and a reevaluation of consent culture within the dance community, and it sounds like that is ongoing. Though I did not encounter it directly, it is very easy to imagine people taking advantage in a culture that’s not only permissive but predicated on assumed consent for touch. In my experience yesterday, I found it welcoming and playful and lovely: at one point, I was stretching on my own when one of the more experienced women came over and started imitating my movements next to me; next thing I knew we were hip to hip, and starting doing funky stretches together. There were a few words exchanged, and smiles and inquiring eyes, and we were off to the races. After a while we spun apart and went to move with others, or alone. Another time I was lying on the floor, and the facilitator leaned over to look at my face upside down, smiling happily at me and saying, “Hellooooo.” I laughed, then sat up, which put my back to him; he didn’t approach further until I’d gotten up and turned around and made clear with eye contact that sure, I’ll dance some with you. But I can see a person making it creepy at the drop of a hat, and the ongoing ‘yes’ of the space being violated by someone pushing themselves on someone.

But that ongoing ‘yes’ was fascinating to me, and felt almost miraculous: what if, I thought, we could exist like that as humans? We used to, I’m fairly sure. Touch was a larger part of our communicative vocabulary, and still is in many cultures. But because the structures of power and the culture of shame has made touch toxic for so many for so long, it’s an uphill battle to even think about exploring it.

There’s good reason for this: as I’ve learned in so many contexts now, touch is a powerful form of communication: much more direct, deeply-reaching, and potent than speech. A single touch can bring comfort, pain, safety, violation, belonging or alienation. And the touch I experienced at this single improv jam reached through to my core: I felt more alive, more vulnerable, more connected, more part of the human family – and it happened almost instantly.

What kind of world would it be, I wondered, if people touched each other like this, all the time? Would people not, overall, be more attuned to when touch is wanted, when it isn’t, and how to communicate that? What would it be like when someone did take advantage, violate someone – or miss a cue and make a mistake? How much easier would it be to tell the difference? How much less frequently might it happen – and how much more quickly could it be caught and dealt with in a compassionate way?

A lot of thoughts from a single event. One thing I do know: I plan to go back. And hopefully, someday, participate in Touch & Play – a gathering that seems to be looking at all of these questions very closely.

Somebody Hold Me

There’s a wonderful Kickstarter coming to a close today for a book called Somebody Hold Me. Epiphany Jordan (great name, right?) and her crew in Austin have started a touch practice, allowing people who don’t have enough contact in their lives to experience non-sexual, loving, and playful touch. I’m a big fan of this, as you can well imagine.

There aren’t nearly enough people out there working on this problem of modern life: that touch, outside of a sexual context, is absent from many lives. The research keeps stacking up showing that the need for human touch is profound, and that it continues throughout life.

The Kickstarter just funded, which pleases me, but go and check out the work that Jordan is doing to help people receive the touch they need – and if you feel so moved, make a pledge! Nothing like taking a project well over goal to show how critical an issue is.

Big men do cry – and it saves lives

No man is an island

We’re guarded. We’re fearful. We’re so angry at each other because we don’t see each other, really.

-Roger Fox, son of Rick Fox, asset manager for Shell’s Ursa deep-water oil rig

Though much has changed in recent times, the message that “boys don’t cry” is still powerful in the lives of men. But in a story reported by Invisibilia, some of the toughest men of all – oil rig workers – received an intensive course in vulnerability. The fascinating part is why.

Claire Nuer, a leadership consultant, teamed up with Rick Fox, an asset leader for a deep water rig for Shell, to get the men that would work there in better touch with their feelings. As the men – and therefore the company culture – transformed, Shell’s accident rate dropped by 84%.

As Nuer had predicted, training these men to be open and vulnerable helped them communicate better, ask for help more often, and not try to do things alone out of pride or over-inflated self-reliance. “Part of safety in an environment like that is being able to admit mistakes and being open to learning — to say, ‘I need help, I can’t lift this thing by myself, I’m not sure how to read this meter,'” says Robin Ely, who wrote about this in the Harvard Business Review. “That alone is about being vulnerable.”

The process was far from painless. I was deeply moved reading about these men’s experiences – the toughness that was instilled in them, the hardships they experienced growing up, and the ways this work transformed their relationship with their families and with themselves.

Tommy Chreene, who had a tough reputation, broke down and wept before the group as he talked about his son’s terminal illness. “I was weeping like a baby,” he says. “And nobody ever come to me and said, ‘Aw, you big crybaby.’ “

Fox himself transformed his relationship with his son, Roger, before putting Nuer’s work into motion with his staff.

I’m so grateful my son did not have to wait till he was 40-something years old to have the experience of being able to question his own habits and his own way of thinking about things,” Fox says. “My son is a beautiful human being, and I cannot get enough of being around him.

I am constantly amazed by how much more we can achieve, and how much stronger we are, when we are vulnerable than when we are closed off. Thanks to one of my clients, a man among many dealing with old messages around toughness and self-reliance, for pointing me at this article.

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