The most impressive thing I’ve been able to witness in my time working with patients is the experience of healing that comes from sharing a pain with one who doesn’t judge or condemn, and who instead provides the safety and space for their feelings to exist, their story to be heard, and the compassion to join them in their sorrow. I often weep after meeting with a new patient. I absorb a little piece of their agony. In addition to sharing in my patient’s emotions, I carry an extra level of pain based on a single premise: How did we get to a place where masking emotions, identity, or trauma is the accepted standard of behavior and is often rewarded by community, commerce, family and faith?
Suppressing those parts of ourselves deemed socially unacceptable to share without repudiation or unrighteous judgement has repeatedly been shown to result in feelings of loneliness, isolation and desperation. Left untreated these feelings quickly begin to appear as physical symptoms… sleeping longer or having trouble falling asleep, lack of energy, lack of motivation, or worse. Suppressing that pain will often result in long term health consequences including heart conditions and shortened life spans. For a growing number of individuals, a considerably shorter life span. This is the price we pay to feel included, accepted, and maybe if we are really lucky… liked.
We frequently unleash our masterclass skills of deflection when an individual musters the courage to let us into their anguish. Our natural instinct is to be defensive. Is this person blaming me for their situation? Usually, no. We’re also really good in the art of blame and shame. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear somebody reply to another, “that sounds like a personal problem.” As a species our brains are hard-wired to be reliant on each other. Where did we learn that another person hurting doesn’t affect us? Where did we learn that telling a person seeking help that what they’re feeling is not OK to share? As these feelings are integral to their existence, you are in effect telling them that who they are is not OK.
To present ourselves as whole, stable, or otherwise worthy of friendship and inclusion we turn to strategic suppression and self-deception, ultimately hiding our brilliance and glory. These most beautiful parts of ourselves are also the most fragile. How often have you had your eternal value validated and reinforced? Not nearly as often as you’ve been told that who you are is not enough. I believe this type of self-suppression is not only self-harming, it reinforces the disturbing social standard that emotional actions and reactions are signs of personal weakness. They aren’t!
Life has also taught us that our words will be used against us. I love the line… “I’ll tell you my sins so you can sharpen your knife.” This is reality. This is evil. We have been taught that sharing what the world deems as weakness will be used by others to feed their insatiable need of superiority. Sadly, the self worth of many humans can only be maintained by dehumanizing those who they don’t understand or otherwise fear. People who live authentic lives are terrifying to these insecure sucklings of humanity.
I was taught a concept in school which resulted in considerable discomfort, Unconditional Positive Regard. This is defined as “the basic acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or does, especially in the context of client-centered therapy.” I have sat across from individuals with nefarious and malevolent pasts. I have heard the first hand accounts of heinous acts committed against the most vulnerable souls. How could I possibly exercise unconditional positive regard in these circumstances?
Experience has now taught me how beautiful this approach really is. When an individual can feel safe around another… safe enough to reveal those intimate, traumatic or otherwise painful parts of themselves, knowing that their story will not be judged or condemned, they instantly begin to heal. There have been times that I’ve seen a visible relief, as if a tangible weight has been removed from their body. Can I explain exactly how this process happens? Yes, but that gets boring quickly. Instead, I’ll ask: Have you ever felt a sense of relief after sharing something you’re struggling with, or burden your carrying, with another? Assuming you answered yes, then you know exactly what I’m talking about and know this phenomenon is real. If you answered no, text me. Whatever you send me will be received with love, support, and zero-judgement.
Fostering safe spaces of healing is not limited to professional settings. Ideally, this would be the norm in every home. What if a child felt accepted and valued regardless of whatever they have going on in their life? What if they felt safe enough to share a struggle knowing they will not be chastised or rebuked? My heart aches pondering this devastating reality. Few will lower their pride long enough to love an individual in their trial. Many religious humans consider their disdain and judgement an act of love; as if the person hurting wasn’t already acutely aware of their struggle. If I could rid the world of any ungodly practice, it would be this one.
Having sat across from thousands of people telling me their story, I can tell you that every one of them already knew the depths of their agony, confusion, loss, addiction, or struggle. Telling an individual that they are living in sin, making poor choices, or are otherwise living a life incongruent with your standards conveys only two messages: First, you’re not a safe person to talk to. Second, you’re probably a sadist.
Another thing we are really good at as humans is thinking we know better than the person how to fix their problem. There are countless times I’ve wanted to tell a patient of client, “Just do this and you’ll be all better.” I have no idea how to make anything better for anyone, including me. I’m pretty good though at helping people see options. We can provide choice, we can’t force change. In other words the best we can do is get out the way of a persons progress, and be there with safety and space for those who need it (which is literally everyone).
We are all beautiful. Not only are we inherently worthy of love, but we are inherently worthy of being heard and understood. We are innately deserving of those safe spaces, where we can share what we’re feeling without others collecting that information to use to their advantage, or as evidence to further persecute. Yeah, humans are really good at that too. That’s what safety means, and we have a long way to go to make that the new norm.