This is a long post, folks. Just sayin’…
Here I am, sitting in the departures terminal at Louis B. Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans, Louisiana. I’ve been here almost a week, after a last-minute decision to attend the Imago Relationships Conference. I had planned to come all along but flights were too expensive, however the universe intervened and, voila! Off I went!
The past 7 days have been a fast-paced, action-packed, emotional ride and as I settle in to write this, I’m feeling extremely vulnerable. I want to cry. I wish I wasn’t in such an exposed public place so I could just let the tears roll. But exposed is what I am. In fact, I’ve been “exposing” myself all week and it’s been exhausting.
Let me explain.
I guess I started to pay attention to this idea on my second night in New Orleans. Some conference buddies (and fellow therapists) and I were strolling though the French Quarter after listening to a great set of music at the Spotted Cat on Frenchmen Street. As we walked along, I was intrigued by a woman, sitting on the street with a typewriter in front of her and a sign that read “Smut While U Wait”. I had to know what this was about. I approached her to find out what, exactly, she was offering. She explained that, for a donation of ten to twenty dollars, she would interview me about my sexual preferences and fantasies and then write a piece of erotica designed just for me. Fascinating. Edgy. I loved it. So, I handed her the fourteen dollars I had in my pocket and she proceeded with her interview. As my friends stepped back to give me privacy, she asked questions like: “Boys or girls?” “Cotton or silk?” “Toys or no toys?” And “What do you call your/his ‘junk’?” We also got into some specifics which, I think, surprised us both. She seemed delighted by my candour and said she felt she had a lot to work with. I trotted off with my friends to explore a bit more of Frenchmen Street while I waited in anticipation for my personalized smut story to be written.
When I returned, she stood, facing me, and read me my story. To be honest, the finished product was a bit of a let down. It was more of a paragraph than a fully developed story. I suppose my expectations that she would be able to write “Fifty Shades of Tracy” in 15 minutes were a bit too high. Nevertheless, I loved her energy and truly admire what she is doing. Plus, I had the added experience of having “exposed” myself to a complete stranger. Although it felt risky, it also felt safe. I had allowed myself to be vulnerable with her and we had connected. And then I left. Now that I think about it, maybe that’s what a really good one-night stand feels like. Cool.
After that experience, I began to notice how much vulnerability was all around me. Here we were, over 200 Imago-trained psychotherapists, learning, growing and risking together, moment after moment after moment. In terms of my own experience, I realized that I seemed to be showing a quite uninhibited side of myself, as was first demonstrated by my smutty encounter. I was also being led to do things that, among strangers, were typically outside of my comfort zone and somewhat uncharacteristic of me, such as sharing a room with someone I had never met and yelling out “Amen” in the middle of a seminar simply because I felt such appreciation and resonance with what was being said (and was not embarrassed afterward). I spoke up, asked questions, offered what I could and didn’t doubt myself. I talked to (and made friends with) everyone I met and I proudly shared with them the “Self-Love” work I am doing personally and within my community. I felt like a new & improved version of myself. It was invigorating.
I watched some of my fellow therapists stand up and share their deepest vulnerabilities in front of all of us. Together we cried, cheered, sang and danced. I also witnessed some conflict between them and noticed how their coping strategies emerged as a result. With all of us so exposed by what we were learning and sharing, its no wonder that some wounds got triggered. The interesting thing, however, is how I felt so drawn to those who were allowing their vulnerability to show rather than using a coping strategy (such as negativity, excessive humour, bossiness, or withdrawal) to run interference for them. Even when it was hard to witness, it felt safer because it was much more authentic.
I wondered how it was that I seemed to be one of the ones who stayed true to myself most of the time. I think it’s because, for whatever reason, I was able to keep myself feeling “safe” by remaining “curious” about what was going on around me and within me rather than “protecting” myself by isolating, being judgmental or self-conscious. It helped that I didn’t really know anyone because I had no agenda and no history with them. All this gave me the freedom to practice “just being me”. I also paid attention to my own coping strategies, such as fixing, analyzing and mediating and noticed I didn’t need them much but, when they did pop up, I did my best to keep them in check. The key, I found, was due to the fact that I didn’t feel “responsible” for these people. I could still feel concern and offer my help but then I was free to walk away. I trusted these people to do their own work. I didn’t take it on.
In general, I think it was my attitude of Curiosity and the practice of Appreciation, which allowed me to show up as the part of me who is alive, uninhibited, trusting, inclusive, confident, funny and loving. The perfect Self-Love recipe for an extremely positive experience!
In Imago therapy, we call the “dialogue” (also known as a “safe conversation”) the “listening cure” because the practice of “active listening” (mirroring, validating and empathizing) is what heals the rupture between two individuals. Another very important practice in Imago therapy is “Zero Negativity” which has been found to transform a couple’s habitual dynamic in as little as 90 days. So I wonder…if the Dialogue “heals” and Zero Negativity “neutralizes” and maintains safety, then surely Curiosity & Appreciation serve to create and nourish new possibility.
It certainly is true for me. For instance, since last week I have gone from “How am I ever going to write a book?” to “I am writing a book”. In terms of being a therapist, I have always been my own guinea pig and only “preach what I practice” but I’m expanding that to other realms as well. I’m no longer waiting around for others to do things so I can figure out how it’s done or whether I want it or not. Besides, it’s much faster that way. And, rather than being afraid of the unfamiliar, I’m starting to tell myself that I’m about to have an important new experience and, in doing so, I am reconnecting with the disowned parts of myself. “There are no mistakes”, I tell people, so it’s high time I stopped behaving as if I believed the opposite.
But there’s just one thing…
It’s really great and obviously beneficial for me to have these insights while away but, what happens when I get back home, to “normal” life?
As it happens, that question became all too clear yesterday afternoon when I had an exchange with someone from home who was disappointed because they had not heard from me while I was away. In that moment, I was reminded of the people with whom I do have a history and for whom I do feel responsible. And, in flash, all my own familiar coping strategies resurfaced, once again.
After a week of such intense emotions and feeling so newly exposed in many good ways, this exchange brought me to a place where I suddenly felt as if all my old wounds were exposed, as well. I was reminded that I was soon heading home to face the reality of helping others to manage their expectations and their coping strategies and how overwhelming that sometimes is.
When I’m feeling overwhelmed, my default coping strategy is to withdraw and avoid communication. In those moments, I don’t want to be “seen” I just want to get far, far away from all the responsibilities and be left alone. If, during that time, anyone “needs” or “expects” anything from me, I “cope” by getting angry in an effort to push the responsibility away. I’ve been working hard to manage my own anxiety in moments like these so I can bring myself to a safe place from which to respond. This is tricky, because I have to find a way to be kind and empathic while making sure I’m not putting my own needs on the back burner in favor of the “other”. This is actually a perfect example of a good time to “dialogue” but since I was still in New Orleans, I had to try and contain my feelings and respond as best I could. Here’s where it gets interesting. In doing so, I heard myself say things to that person which had been said to me by my ex-partner from time to time. When he said it, I thought he was being insensitive. Now, with the tables turned I began to question if I, too, was being insensitive and if what I was feeling now was even justified. Of course, where feelings (and dialoguing) are concerned, there is no “right” or “wrong” and as I went through the process of trying to mirror, validate and empathize with this person I quickly realized that this was what had been missing in my exchanges with my ex-partner. While he was always very kind, and clear in his communications with me and while I agree that his needs were always perfectly justified, it still left me unsatisfied. Undoubtedly, he must have had the same experience. Perhaps, if we had used an intentional practice of mirroring, validating and empathizing, we could have made our relationship a much safer place to feel vulnerable in.
Here is what I wrote in my journal today:
“Recognizing the “other” is crucial and it can’t be conditional. The “other” always exists, regardless of our need in the moment. When we want to connect and be heard, we must understand that it is not the “other’s” job to “turn off” their feelings in order to be fully present for us but rather to step into our world, temporarily, and simply listen to our experience. We must appreciate that it is their choice to do this willingly, because they love us and because they know the value of learning something new and important about us. Beyond that, it is up to them to choose (or not) to incorporate what they learn into their “knowing” of who we are and into their practice of empathy and appreciation toward us.”
As I said earlier, when I sat down to write this I was feeling very vulnerable and wanted to cry. That’s because I wasn’t sure which “Tracy” was the real me. Am I the version at the conference or the often overwhelmed version at home? Am I vulnerability? Am I a coping strategy? And once you know how to “do” vulnerability, does it just end up becoming another way to cope?
All I know for sure is this. We are all vulnerable and we all learn to cope. The problem arises when how we cope moves us farther away from our true self and causes us to experience disconnection. The version of me at the conference felt connected and safe. The version of me who sometimes feels overwhelmed, ashamed, judged feels disconnected and unsafe.
So, as much as possible, I’m going to come from a place of curiosity and appreciation. If it worked for “conference Tracy”, hopefully it will work at home, too.