New Tricks


Therapists become ecotherapists when we… look to nature (both our own human nature as well as the natural world) as a teacher and source of healing; when we see that human suffering is intimately connected with the destruction of the web of life, and that healing is about making deep changes in the way we live and relate to the world around us.
~ Why and How Do Therapists Become Ecotherapists, by Mary-Jayne Rust
from Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind

Its happening again. Its happened before – so I know a little about how this goes but it is never an entirely comfortable process.

My stance is shifting, my professional identity reorganizing, my perspective and world view heading in a new direction.

There are always anxieties: How will I bring these new to me thoughts into the room, how will my clients respond? How will this change things? Will my colleagues think I’ve gone off the rails? Will I lose clients, income, reputation, momentum if I veer unexpectedly off to the left? Will I recognize myself in this new model, am I being true to my skills, my gifts, my values, my training, my clients needs, and my community?

When the therapist changes, the work itself changes. The questions we ask, the metaphors we choose, the subjects we become animated about or feel distance from, the defenses we challenge or suddenly accept, all have intended and unintended affects on the content of the work and the client’s communications.

More than that, when the therapist explores new aspects of their own identity – it impacts the client’s experience of themselves, invites new content into the room, changes prior assumptions of what therapy is for, opens up new challenges, and closes down old expectations.

What psychotherapists direct their attentions toward, what we express authentic, energized interest in, and what we consciously or unconsciously overlook has a powerful shaping influence on what clients feel is legitimate to discuss in session. By nodding, or staring blankly, our clinical mirror legitimizes or undermines a notion about the clients idea of themselves and what might be “good” grist for the mill.

A common clinical synchronicity: the very moment that a therapist is able to face down their own anxious conflict and incorporate the previously split off aspects of the Self that live behind it – clients suddenly and spontaneously speak up, initiating dialogue about the very same conflict within themselves.

A supervisor of mine would say with a twinkle in her eye:
“They must have been eavesdropping on your supervision session again.”

Bion says: “When two people meet an emotional storm is created” as their unnamable, ineffable unconscious bits swirl and entangle, exchanging information without our awareness.

My stance has shifted, mutated and incorporated new bodies of thought many times since my original training and clinical inheritance. Trained through social work school in ego-psychological models, and an analysand in a object-relational/self-psychological treatment my earliest clients were used to a certain kind of response from me: one that avoided conflict, was primarily “supportive” of strengths. I saw aggression as a secondary response to injury, as a regressive obstacle to relatedness, or a developmental phase. I believed that it was my job to accept and “absorb” aggression from the client, withstand it, and if I could survive it without retaliating, it would support the clients’ developmental journey to mature relatedness.

For some cases, it provided what they needed – but I noticed that for certain clients, it wasn’t working at all – and perhaps it wasn’t doing me any good either. I began seeking supervision and studying Modern Analytic models and suddenly I found a new voice.

I was joining resistances!
Confronting treatment destructive behavior!
Allowing my aggression into the room to protect the treatment!

New words came out of my mouth and into the room that I would NEVER have thought to say before.

To a client that continually questioned whether or not I was experienced enough:

“It’s certainly a possibility. Would it be more helpful if I referred you to better therapist?”

To another who complained repeatedly about their previous therapists failures:

“When I disappoint you will I get to hear about it do you think? What are all the ways that I am likely to fail you? ”

After great prodding in supervision, I finally confronted a client who constantly sought validation by men and regularly missed therapy appointments:

“Perhaps, therapy would be more of a priority for you if I were a man.”

As new concepts trickled down into practice and tentatively inched out of my head into actions and language, it was both terrifying and exhilarating. I never knew what would fall flat, what would be soundly rejected, what might provoke rage or scorn, what error I might make in this new schema or where the unforeseen dangers might hide.

As shocking as it felt to say such things – each time I did it, far more often than not – I saw the client feel safer with me, an obstacle surmounted, a test passed, a barrier between us, removed – and the work would flow again.

Not all clients needed this, but some did – and learning to form these words with my mouth, figuring out what to say – how to implement a theoretical idea about resistance and aggression and make it come alive in practice, was like learning a new language, while simultaneously trying to teach it to someone else.

When I dove into Jungian thought several years later it happened again: a new vantage point, a new clinical language, new tools, added to the old favorites in the box, a new bee in my bonnet, a new schema to try on, and incorporate. A new model to figure out how to make my own, to sort through what was useful, and practical in the consultation room for me for any particular client, and what was not.

I’d always included exploration of dream work, metaphor and symbol in my practice, but this was so much more explicit: I began bringing in more metaphors and analogies drawn from myth, folklore and sacred texts, discussing archetypes, ego inflation, shadow, encouraging clients with sufficient ego strength to reach for their underdeveloped aspects.

I explicitly asked newer clients to keep a dream journal and tried to introduce the notion to “older” ones. Some bit, some nibbled and others spit out the hook.

I encouraged appropriate clients to court and consult their psyches about the topics they were consciously focusing on. We began to bring the Unconscious into the office as a full collaborator to assist and guide the treatment, rather than scorn it as a mere symptom-generating, conflict-laden mess-maker.

I felt the same nervous sense of exposure as I tested out new ways of being in the room while playing with constructs that I was just beginning to understand – and would only be able to integrate and comprehend through use, failure, success and practice.

In ecotherapy we venture beyond the traditional questions. The ecotherapist is curious about human-nature relationships as well as human-human relationships radically expanding the range of discussion. ~ Asking Different Questions: Therapy for the Human Animal by Linda Buzzell from Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind.

I am yet again, finding myself trying to wrap my mouth around new words, trying to engage in unfamiliar dialogue about how the natural world effects us, and how we affect the natural world. Attempting to summon the same confidence and professional aplomb that I would draw on to explore any “legitimate” mutually interdependent relationship.

I’ve had more and more outdoor, walking sessions, through the parks of lower Manhattan and the Brooklyn riverside. We notice the urban wildlife as we walk – plantings, and wildflowers, cormorants, hawks, mockingbirds, nuthatches, and Zelda the wild turkey.

The hurricane forced many outdoor walking sessions, as well as sessions in the community garden – with clients I wouldn’t have considered interested candidates otherwise – while the office was inaccessible with no power or heat. It has opened up a new world of connection and communication for some clients, and it is clearly second choice, too diffuse and distracting for others.

Words flow differently as our bodies move, as we watch the waves along the river and scan the horizon side by side.

In and out of the office a new realm of connection emerges, as I meet and invite and clumsily try to introduce new aspects of myself and my clients to each other.

To a client who focuses regularly on perceived conflicts with neighbors and co-workers:

“Wait! Did you just say that you were feeding the birds when you spied your neighbor? Do you do that every morning?”

The client no longer clenched with fear and agitation – brightens, and tells me about the taming and feeding wild birds by hand, the fruit trees, past and present that have thrived and died behind the house, and shares photos of carefully tended rose bushes in bloom next to the garage.

To another, a parent, chronically fretful, obsessive and sometimes completely panicked about toxins and contaminants in their child’s environment:

“What if there is nothing you can do? What if you are absolutely right and there are chemical hazards all around? What if our culture has filled our environment with so many pollutants that there is nothing that you can do to prevent exposure? What if there is no way, as things stand now, to keep our children ‘safe’ from toxins in our air, food, water and homes?”

The client breathes deeply as if for the first time in many weeks and says softly:

“Then I guess I’d just have to live in the moment and face each day as it comes.”

Following the hurricane, a client who had avoided the worst disruptions of the storm describes it as a “no big deal for me personally.” When I ask if they had any thoughts or concerns about climate change, and how related events might effect them in the future, the client shuts me down:

“I prefer to focus on things I can control”

It seems a uncontestable given, a unilaterally accepted rule of life, an obvious and practical mandate for healthy coping, proof that the through-line I am pursuing is pointless. I surrender, just a matter of days after the city flooded, to talk of families and jobs, and online dating.

On the subway ride home the response I wished I’d had surfaces -my thoughts too slow, and my new learning too unintegrated to parry-repost in real time:

“Why, I wonder? What would happen if we talked about all the things we cannot control and how we might feel about them? What might we be avoiding in ourselves and in the world around us by focusing only on what we might be able to control? What if that makes your life feel unbearably small, and is not actually safer in the long run? What if that is an illusory construct ? Is it frightening to feel out of control? Too vulnerable? Might there be something reliving or even healing in it?

What if feeling whole in this lifetime comes from understanding our real relationship to benevolent, destructive and wild forces far beyond our control?”

You can lead a horse to water, but perhaps before you can teach old dogs…

You have to learn the new tricks yourself.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

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