Permission to Feel and Reflect

Permission to Feel and Reflect
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I took a writing class after being a stay-at-home parent for two years with a colicky baby/toddler.  I had space for myself, which was a lifesaver at the time. 

It was a class called “Absolute Beginners.”   The instructor lauded the value of the journal.  Especially crucial was the sanctity of permission within the journal to write about any feeling or thought without judgment or criticism, as well as the importance of privacy in strengthening this sense of permission.  I was reminded of the value of honest reflection.

As a therapist, I am struck by the similarity between the journal and Freud’s “fundamental rule,” where he emphasized the centrality in therapy of saying whatever is on one’s mind without editing.  It is here where things feel alive and true. 

This freedom strengthens the self, and it is quite growthful for people.

My spouse and I were both from larger families, and family lore told us we were easy children to raise.  We were both seen as compliant, pleasant, “people-pleaser” types.  So when our child was anything but easy, and when it was apparent that the structure of our lives was poorly suited to soothe this kid, it became clear we’d need to alter almost every dimension of our lives to raise this child.

The writing class helped me “find my mind,” and think about the opportunity this offered.  I got back into therapy, and I embarked on a new chapter of my life that barely resembled the previous chapter. 

This, of course, is not easy to achieve.  We all resist change, and we all become comfortable with our inner worlds, even if our lives are maladaptive.  After a long time of hearing one is “easy” to be with, becoming a person who is more difficult is, well, difficult.

And budgeting for others not really accepting newer versions of ourselves is not particularly comfortable either. 

This is how I see therapy working: by helping people create new versions of themselves in a new way.  It requires a lot of time and attention, in the context of a trusting, patient relationship where this can safely evolve over time.

They say that in becoming a parent, everything shifts.  One theory of post-partum depression is that this drastic change reconfigures the mother’s life to keep the baby alive and well, and that, as a result, all her relationships are experienced differently. 

Mothers need to be much more self-centered; many don’t understand how to do that.  It is a shift in the tectonic plates, like a massive earthquake.

As a therapist, I have seen these shifts in many of my patients at pivotal times: a divorce, a job loss, a parent’s death, and even sociopolitical events.  This summer’s pandemic and murder of George Floyd here in Minneapolis are stark examples. 

Therapy helps people process the shock, and birth new chapters of life and identity.

In my own life, it has been very helpful to use therapy as a place to grieve the old and welcome the new, while staying in one piece.  The more we see this as doable and interesting, and stop wasting time feeling guilty and ashamed, the more we can accept and celebrate others doing the same.
 
Ellen Chazdon, PsyD,  is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Minneapolis.  She is an advanced candidate at the Chicago Center for Psychoanalysis.  She can be reached at www.ellenchazdonpsyd.com.

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