Category Archives: Resilience

Who Am I Now? – Leaving identity behind in transition

I’ve got one more day with my clients. One more day in my identity as a social worker, as a counsellor, as a therapist. Letting go of this identity was not something I thought would be so hard. I know, what was I thinking? Oh, wait, I was thinking, not feeling. That’s my default m.o. when I’m under stress.

I thought that all my work with grieving, transitions, and loss would prepare me. After all, I’ve left lots of identities behind over the years. I’ve graduated from various schools,  moved house, and even country, a whole lot of times. I’ve married, became a mom, even got (temporarily) un-married. Not that those transitions into and out of an identity were pain- or challenge-free by any means.

But I’ve never left a job that I loved before. I’ve left jobs because the contract was over. I’ve left jobs because the pay wasn’t enough to support me. I’ve changed careers due to burn-out. I’ve even walked out of a particularly bad job in the middle of the day -not exactly polite, but I’m very proud of the boundaries I set for myself that day!

Honestly, most transitions are more of a “one at a time” kind of deal. This one isn’t everything, all at once, but it comes awfully close. Tomorrow I leave a job, and soon I will leave a home, a city, and even a country, that I truly love… how do I do that? It’s one thing to move from one identity to the next logical one: you get married, you know you’re becoming a spouse. You have a kid, you know you’re becoming a parent. But what am I becoming? I look down into the void and I see infinite stars… it’s a good thing my scared little self has my bigger self along for the ride!

I started to write this blog a few weeks ago. The word “day” was “month.” Then I started again last weekend. The word was “week.”And here I am yet again. Sitting down to write is not coming easy to me these days. Watching endless old familiar TV shows is very easy. Reading old familiar and comfortable books is comforting.  Art – which “ought” to be my mainstay – is almost as uncomfortable to get into as writing. But at least I’ve done it a bit more consistently than writing, and so I thought perhaps it’s best to break this long silence and share what I’ve got.

Zoom!What is it about this awkward space between one identity and another? At the beginning, it was an incredibly exciting feeling, like bursting into a clear sky, with nothing but forward and upward momentum. Hooray! Bruce got the job in Crete! Amazing! Look at the incredible landscape! The food! The ocean! Ah the inspiration will be there for the taking, and I will have all the time in the world to become the artist I always wanted to be…

But… what if I don’t? 

I watched a crow down by the beach a week ago. I think it was young. It zoomed up to a forked branch in a tree, and perched there, one foot on one side and one on the other, wobbling back and forward. I stared for a while. The crow might have been more self-conscious if it had known the attention it was getting! But since its back was toward me, its feet splayed out in opposite directions and its tail-feathers flipping up and down as it tried to keep balance between the two ends of the forked branch, I was privileged to feel its struggles as if they were my own. And I felt it. Right down to the bottom of my own toes. All my “what if’s” flood into my legs and make them weak and wobbly.

What if, despite the job offer, the Greek consulate says “no, we don’t want you here.”? What if we get there The Earth is Shakingbut I totally squander my time, and end up watching Netflix while hiding in my shuttered house from the extroverted neighbours?  My wiser self (and sometimes that’s an inner voice, and sometimes it’s a supportive friend) asks me some better questions. What if it’s fine? What if your neighbours are really sweet and even a little introverted themselves? What if Greece doesn’t happen, but by making the preparations you end up opening a magical door you didn’t even know existed? What if you wobble a bit on your branch, and then take off and fly into the beautiful sky and sing above olive trees and a turquoise ocean?

Wait and see...What if I sit with this feeling of in-between-ness, of not-knowing, and just BE with it for a while. Underneath the noisiness of my fear, I can feel a steady bass-beat of something else. Back when this started I even said out loud that what I was seeking, in taking this chance to completely change my life, was an experience of free-fall. To so completely let go of what I know, that I would have the chance to learn who I really am outside of all the other definitions and assumptions. I find myself scrolling back up to the first drawing, looking closer… I want to see those stars close up. And I do want it badly enough that I will try again to re-settle myself into waiting and being with what comes.

So … one more day of being with my clients, who have blessed me over and over again in their own willingness to BE. And now I’m feeling it. All of it. And I’m sad.

 

 

 

How Art Making Nurtures Resilience

 Resilience is a bit of a buzzword right now

 And there are good reasons for that. Focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses has a great track record of bringing people to healthier, happier lives after trauma. This focus isn’t meant to deny the pain or woundedness of our lives, however. Resilience is the characteristic of being able to bounce back after stress or injury. Like a rubber band, we don’t know if it’s working until we’re tested – stretched – by adversity. How can we work on increasing our natural resilience?

Art making is a natural resilience booster.

Art is a place where we can make mistakes that don’t have earth-shattering consequences. We can practice problem solving and decision making in a piece of art. We can try new things and experiment. We can see our situations or our histories and possibly even ourselves in new ways. Art lets us put the intangible and tangled thoughts and feelings of our inner lives into a visible form where we can attend to them compassionately. We can view our habitual reactions to frustration or  success, and learn new ways to reflect and respond thoughtfully. Art can do all these things, and more …

 … as long as it’s supported by a safe container.

Resilience
Resilience

To make art in the pursuit of healing – in the pursuit of higher resilience – the artist needs to feel emotionally safe. A number of factors play into emotional safety.

Freedom from judgment or punishment. Art making to deal with pain, loss, or trauma should be done in a place that is sheltered from the curiosity of those who do not know how to react in a healing way. Art made in this spirit is not to be shared lightly, nor observed out of mere curiosity, or subjected to critique.

Freedom from inner sabotage. Sometimes the danger of judgment comes from the artist’s inner critical self as well. It’s helpful in such cases if the artist is able to rely on someone else’s voice of acceptance and compassion. A supportive therapist can be that voice. So can the knowledge that there are others who have been down the same road and battled the same inner discouragement, and that those inner self-shaming voices are only the voices of fear, not truth.

Respect for the limits of emotional tolerance. One of the more subtle boundaries that need to be maintained around the creation of art as a healing modality is the level of emotional intensity that an individual can tolerate before either shutting down or becoming overanxious. Neurobiology has taught us that only in a state of relaxed alertness does new learning take place. This is different for each one of us depending on character and personal history, and can vary from day to day or minute to minute. For those who have suffered trauma it is an especially delicate balance to maintain. It takes care and skill to create a comfort zone that allows for challenge without boomeranging into deeper trauma. There always needs to be permission to back off, clear grounding techniques to help you do so, and confident encouragement to try again another day.

Next time I’ll write more about some useful grounding techniques to help you find moments of peace during challenging times.