Re-claiming Sensitivity

    I’m still learning to validate my sensitivity. In a culture that has equated sensitivity with weakness and fragility, I came to believe early in my life that I was too sensitive, that I wasn’t okay. As I reacted in childhood to other’s worry, judgement, criticisim, personal attacks, and punishment I unconsciously learned to stuff my energy. I learned to deny myself breath. Growing up in my family of origin, meant living in a frazzled atmosphere of anger, depression, anxiety and fear. Like other men, I learned I should steel my face, not let my emotions show as much as I could. I learned to be guarded, apprehensive, vigilant. I learned to be still when I wanted to move. I learned to depress when I wanted to express. The reinforcement of those habits of repression, over and over again, were like a tightening rope around my interior.

    But my emotions came out in unconscious, uncontained ways that left me feeling vulnerable, exposed, ashamed. I still felt misunderstood and had difficulty recognizing, placing the intensity of my experience. With little-to-no reflection of my inner, emotional life or how to manage my energy, my body said what I didn’t know how to speak. Energetic blocks formed and manifested in childhood and into adulthood as isolation, emotional overwhelm, physical pain, discomfort. I didn’t know that my uncontained emotion—including uncontrollable crying, laughing— and physical symptoms were my life force trying to shine through. 

    Now, I know, when I give myself space, breath and attention, I’m welcoming the fullness of my aliveness to flow river-like through my body and into relationship. Of course, that’s easier said than done. To accept my sensitivity means it’s necessary to be curious and accept my uncomfortable physical sensations and ailments not as a “problem” but as information, as a path illuminating a way. Years ago, Chinese doctors told me I had “too much heat” in my body. The first time I heard that, I heard it as a problem—Too much heat! Oh no! I’m not okay! Before that, I’d already been diagnosed with a mild form of psoriasis and arthritic psoriasis—Oh no! I’m not okay! was also my response. I’ve had occasional inflammation in my joints over the last few years and I’m always surprised when the soreness visits. All these issues are related to an “over-active immune system,” which I know partly has roots in how prior conditioning shaped my psychological, emotional life and literally shaped my body. 

    Learning to stay Present with the sensations and accompanying emotions has been key to returning to balance, to making a grounded choice about how I want to let go.  Now, when I experience some physical discomfort I’m (sometimes!) grateful for the opportunity to develop my attention, for the opportunity to inhabit more of my emotional experience and energy. I’m grateful for the chance to identify the emotion and make the choice to show up for my self. I’m learning I can transform “too much heat” into a sustained, embodied warmth, a love that I’ve been longing to express through art, psychotherapy and intimate relationships.

    I’m learning to appreciate and flow with my sensitivity. I’m more present—and can presence more energy—and be more consistent and congruent. I’m taking risks to show up in ways I haven’t been able to in the past as I understand my feelings in the context of trauma and neurotic suffering. I’m less prone to being obstructed by unconscious fear, because I’m more familiar with the sensations and pure energy of fear. I’m learning too that this growing sense of aliveness and vibrance needs grounding. I’m taking better care of myself. I’m meditating to keep a light shining through my senses. I’m running and swimming to move energy. In the wake of this movement, I’m becoming more aware of a profound sense of freedom and beautiful translucence. 

    Making this developmental shift, I’ve become even more curious about the sensivity of many of the men I see in psychotherapy. (Men who are often stereotyped as being either insensitive or too sensitive.) I’m curious about how sensivity expands our capacity for intimacy. I’m curious how, when we feel balanced and safe enough, we can move our energy and find relief from physical discomfort and relational tension. I’m deepening my understanding of how emotional experience unfolds between myself and another, which includes within my psychotherapy relationships. My intentions are clearer: to tune and broaden my capacity for sensitivity, to embody feelings, intuitions, sensations from a pure—non-judgemental, non-conceptual—place of Awareness. It’s my intention to meet, in a powerful, authentic and transformative way, the people who have come to counseling to re-enliven their senses and find a vibrant path into relationship. All of us yearn to recover and reclaim our innate sensitivity and emotional life. Gratefully, I’m on my way. And I’m committed to welcoming others who are ready to embody the full force of their life.    

The River Home: Water as Emotional Resource

    Throughout my life being in water has been profoundly comforting. In childhood, I would swim in the Gulf of Mexico on spring and summer vacations. I spent as much time in the gentle, blue-green waves as I could, sometimes all day for weeks, body-surfing, snorkeling, diving down to the shallow bottom, collecting sand dollars. I felt rich, rejuvenated. In between those trips, I was lucky to spend regular time in pools, rivers, warm ponds and lakes. I simply loved swimming, and my memories of swimming usually evoke calm, a sense of flow and unity.

    Recently, a seasonal, temporary dam on the Russian River near our home was removed. The water is now shallow, running in narrow channels. The river has become an important place, where I can feel a sense of flow, intimate aloneness, vibrant connection and relief from uncomfortable physical sensations. In the last couple weeks, I’ve walked across the dry riverbed to look for dipping holes where the water is flowing. On a recent vist to the river with my wife and 20-month old son, we spent time wading, sending prayers to the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota who are protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline to keep their water safe and clean from potential oil spills. I prayed too for our future, our son’s future, for clean water, for healthy, repaired and protected ecosystems. In the middle of the river, on a shallow sandbar we wrote in red and white riverstones in the sandy, pebbly bed: WATER IS LIFE, NO DABL. 

    Our son played along the edge of the water, throwing rocks into the rippling current and splashing in the mud puddles. When we got too far away, he raised his high-pitched voice in complaint. I picked him up and he snuggled into my body and calmed. There was the sound of the river rippling over stones. My wife was bent down in the water, her hands writing her prayer. The sun rose higher and pulled back the shade and warmed our backs. A great blue heron flew over and landed heavily on a favorite branch of hawks and osprey. A green heron flew over, croaked frog-like and perched in a high tree branch on the opposite bank above us. Our son pointed out the usual crows and said one of his first and only words, “Caw.” Later, he jumped at the loud screech of a stellar jay. The bird song, the birds themselves, the sun, the river, the cool air, and the soft trickling of the rapids wrapping around our legs were their own prayers. After we finished photographing the prayer to post to social media—to contribute to the growing global awareness of the importance of clean water and healthy ecosystems for our well-being and the wellness of all beings—I set my son down and waded out into the river to swim.

    In moments of intense sensitivity and energetic obstruction, when it’s difficult to let go, I’m learning other ways to let go, cool off and flow. When I sit “in the heart of silence” with clients, especially on a morning just after being in the river, I have a strong sense that the river is in me and I am in the river and everything is moving and flowing, even those places of holding and obstruction. So much awareness can be born in that space. Everything is in, nothing left out. Emotions move. Or clearly don’t, as if we were suspended in an eddy. In general, those sessions usually have a contained fluidity, sense of unity and unfolding, ineffable beauty.


Okayness: On Being Enough

To know you have enough—time, money, food, connection, etc.—you have to feel like you are enough.

As I write this I’m sitting in a public courtyard. There are large planters overflowing with ivy. The faint sound of a piano comes from a nearby hotel lounge. It’s hot out and there’s a breeze. Dried leaves skitter across the concrete. There’s a distant cawing of crows. The occasional couple walks by holding hands. Some stop and read the menu posted in a nearby restaurant window. They look inside. Others search a street kiosk directory and map, then walk off in the direction of their desired destination. 

In any moment, we can have many feelings, needs and desires. I’m putting energy into typing these words. There’s satisfaction in writing. Though streaming through my overall contentment is a fear I won’t be able to articulate myself. There’s some dissatisfication already with how I’m expressing. If I hold all of these states as ripples moving through my awareness and take a breath and feel into the perfection of the moment, I can stay with whatever comes. I want to stay in my body and breath. There’s no where else to be. This is what I’ve decided I’m showing up for in this moment. No part of myself in need of improvement. No need to strive to be better. I am as I am. There’s nothing else to do other than to write and make myself okay as I am. In this space I’m aware of a sense of centeredness, solidity, awakeness and flow. 

People often come into therapy believing there’s something wrong with them. I certaintly have. What’s my problem? We want “a fix,” which implies quick relief. In our culture, “a fix” is associated with feeding our addictions. We can grab for anything—a drug, our cellphones, food, sex, relationship— to fill a void, to disconnect and numb out. Addiction usually accompanies feelings of isolation, depersonalization, depression, and a deep sense of lack, deficiency.  Addictive reaching for comfort means we’re just coping by altering ourselves with some input from the outside. Rather than being able to stay inside our own experience.

The way out of addiction, out of compulsive filling up and disconnecting, is to learn how to feel securely in charge of our lives, to be able to find an internal state of okayness. Emotional, psychological stability and security is earned only in relatively safe relationships. If we surround ourselves with people who also practice making themselves okay, who practice compassion, acceptance and understanding, we will have the support we need to hold ourselves. In attuned, grounded, compassionate relationships we can practice resting in the truth that we are enough, adequate for this moment. 

Katherine (not her real name*) was a hard-working, passionate artist prone to panic attacks. When she started therapy with me she described feeling stressed out. She said she felt distant and cut off from others, including family members. While she considered herself to be a caring person, her relationships were in turmoil. She often felt pressured to take care of others, while being confused about her own needs. 

She was prolific in her art, yet felt stagnant and dissatisfied in an ineffable way. She wanted to create something that felt alive and new. She wanted to rid herself of “anxiety” and feel more connected and effective in her life. And yet she wouldn’t give herself the space to slow down or try something new. Whenever she completed a project her mind raced ahead toward the next one as it always had. At the end of most days, she usually drank or smoked marijuana “to shut my mind off.”

In the first few weeks of therapy, she noticed the more productive she wanted to be the more anxious she became. No matter how much she felt she accomplished, she accelerated toward the next goal. She literally didn’t know how to slow down or stop, always preoccupied with something, always filling up with experiences. Her panic attacks were usually related to completing and showing her work, giving talks and being alone in crowded spaces like the subway. 

In therapy any time she became aware of some part of her experience she made that experience into another project, something she needed to work on. She had difficulty resting. Her thoughts moved incessantly in frenzied webs of assessment, analysis, interpretation, visioning, goal setting and planning. She anticipated that I was going to offer lots of interpretations and analysis. For a while our work together was strictly goal-oriented until she became aware that she approached her therapy the way she approached her life, from a strict habit of doing rather than being, from outside rather than inside

It became clear over the course of therapy that many of her actions were fueled by a fear that something was fundamentally wrong with herself. The less we focused on completing a goal or on any particular tool, the more she began to settle into the present and find space. She began to encounter other feelings she had little experience naming—anger, grief, emotional pain. Along the way she realized how afraid she was, afraid of feeling and expressing her emotions, afraid of inhabiting her own body.

Katherine was also insecure about the many connections she’d made in her work. She usually felt very nervous, on the edge of panic, when she put her work out in the world. She was wary of being misunderstood, disrespected, exploited. Because Katherine so often came from a place of inadequacy she didn’t trust her feelings about others and often felt indebted. She was often in a position where she felt pressured to explain her self. She capitulated easily to other’s needs. Without being able to access a sense of adequacy, confidence, solidity, she had trouble standing her ground and being direct about her needs and desires.  

Over time, she discovered that many of the decisions she made were based in fear and inadequacy. She began to connect those feelings to the insecure conditions of her childhood. 

She’d rarely stopped to ask how and from where she made decisions. As she discovered a multitude of voices and feelings and learned how to be with herself, she began to develop a stronger sense of her own authority. She integrated her fears and they no longer caused her panic. She began to be able to tell the difference between making a decision from fear and choosing from a sense of clarity, flow and ease. She recognized more clearly uncomfortable sensations, feelings in her body and how she made choices to distract herself by grasping for something outside. She began to locate her authority right at her core, to know and feel: I'm the author of my life. I’m in charge. And over time deepened her capacity to stay present and simply be. She allowed herself to work less—to rest and be still—until she got clear about a new direction. She felt more balanced. When her life got busy again she felt full and present, more engaged, more joyful.  

When we acknowledge all the time we have lived as if something had been wrong with us, as if we weren’t okay, it is natural to grieve. In psychotherapy it is possible to re-inhabit the life we vacated when previous conditions made it unsafe to remain. To leave was necessary for our emotional survival. To return means to reclaim our felt-sense of wholeness. In therapy we can learn to recognize and hold our emerging needs, desires and feelings and give them expression. We can learn to recognize and let go of the contraints on our life force. And along the way, in a given moment, it is entirely possible to recover our innate sense of being one hundred percent, absolutely okay—enough. 

*Please note: all biographical details have been significantly changed to protect the confidentiality of my client.