“Hi Karen. Your Job. How do you do it??”

“Hi Karen. Your job. How do you do it?? It has to feel overwhelming at times. All those stories and people with so many challenges – I know you love it and are passionate about what you do but there must be times you just want to bury your head and cry for the people who are suffering. I’m guessing the joy of helping someone pull out from under heavy burdens is the reward that makes it all worthwhile.”

LA

This heartfelt query arrived by email a while back and, as a counsellor/therapist, I get various versions of this question all the time! I completely understand the curiosity … people assume that ‘a typical day at the office’ means I am drowning in people’s upsets, distress, wounding and pain. But, in all sincerity … that is not my experience of my work at all. I am so incredibly inspired … on a regular basis … by the people I am fortunate enough to work with. Yes. I am both honored and humbled by the depth of genuine and authentic connection that characterizes my job. I can never know what the day will bring, but I feel a deep sense of reverence for each moment I get to spend with my peeps. I just never tire of the work I do. I wish I could sum it all up in one nice, concise, tidy paragraph … but … there are so very many layers and complexities involved in ‘how I do what I do’. I’m just hoping I can do it all justice here on these pages.

First, let me begin with a little back story. Even as a small little girl, I always knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. For me, ‘success’ in life would be realized when I got my PhD in Psychology and could help people heal the wounds of their childhoods. I dreamed of helping humans thrive despite the trials/tribulations/traumas that threatened to deter, derail, diminish, and/or defeat them. I could think of nothing more compelling than being seated before someone in a sacred space of sharing and fully honoring all the parts of their lived experience.

Some wise soul said we often want to give others what we most need to receive ourselves. I suspect that is true for me. So, the first part of my answer to ‘how I do what I do’ is that I have always had a passion for it! I have an insatiable curiosity about our collective humanity. I love to hear people’s stories. I have book shelves filled with self-help books. I am fascinated by neuroscience. And, as schmaltzy as it sounds, I feel like I really am living ‘my purpose’ on the planet. I cannot imagine a more rich or rewarding career.

All that said, and even though this vision was always crystal clear to me, it took me about a quarter of a century longer than I expected to get here. There were a whole number of zigs and zags along my 25-year path to this career. Somewhere along the way I realized that I didn’t need a doctorate in psychology to live out my dream. Initially, I became a Integrative Coaching Professional certified by The Ford Institute. And while this career choice deeply nourished my passion for a number of years, I eventually pursued and obtained both my Bachelor and Master of Social Work degrees as well. And sometime later, I was also inspired to become certified in the most powerful interventions for healing and processing trauma … i.e. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing [EMDR] and Accelerated Resolution Therapy [ART].

I should also share that I don’t think I could ‘do what I do’ if I didn’t hold so much reverence and respect for the people I am fortunate enough to work with. I remain deeply humbled by the depth of adversity we humans are invited to endure along life’s journeys. The stories that people share are replete with both reprehensible heartache and rich resilience. I have nothing but the utmost admiration for the folks that find their way to my office. And, I feel incredibly privileged to be welcomed into the the most tender and fragile parts of their being. They have taught me so much about myself and stretched my appreciation for the magnitude of the human spirit in the most magnificent ways.

In keeping with that, I must take issue with anyone who might regard counselling/therapy as something reserved for the weak or broken. Nothing could be further from the truth! It takes incredible strength and courage to reach out when we are struggling. It takes so darn much tenacity to look inside ourselves. I so deeply respect those who are willing to tease out what is not working well in their lives … and also then … assume responsibility for addressing it. It requires a level of candid honesty, transparency and authenticity that terrifies the best of us. I have absolute reverence for humans committed to their own healing. I honor and applaud them because I know they are often scared spitless and, yet, they show up for themselves anyway. 🙌

Perhaps the most critical prerequisite to doing what I do is ensuring I have done/continue doing my own inner work. It is essential for me to make peace with my own past so I can stay fully present for my peeps. If not, my unhealed stuff will invariably get activated by what is happening in their lives. If what I am observing triggers any kind of emotional discomfort and/or psychological judgment inside me (i.e. if I start bleeding myself), I have been hijacked back to my own unresolved stuff and can no longer tend to their wounding. And, if/when it happens (which it does on occasion), I see it as a red flag pointing me to additional layers of my own healing that need more attention.

So, if I am doing my job well, I need to arrive at the office as emotionally clean and mentally clear as humanly possible. That said, I have been diligent about doing my own inner work for almost 30 years. Pursing my own personal development is an investment I make in myself that benefits both me and my people.

Source unknown, but deeply appreciated.

And, after years of ‘doing what I do’, I have learned I also need to be well rested and emotionally/mentally grounded so I can hold sufficient space to best honor people’s needs. Given the gravity of the challenges that often typify my work, I cannot just ‘coast’ through my days in any way, shape or form. I need to be as alert, attentive and aware as possible. As such, committing to an impeccable level of self care becomes an imperative, rather than simply an optional indulgence.

This does not mean I am spending time in luxurious spas … although that can be very nourishing too. Solitude is one of my saving graces. So is walking outdoors in the sunshine and communing with Mother Nature. Limiting my exposure to sensationalized news reports is essential because all that fear-mongering is not good for my nervous system. Did I mention the soothing capacity of candles and twinkle lights? Never underestimate the profound peace inspired by casting a warm glow across the darkness. There are infinite ways to kindle our inner flames.

Given the tremendous compassion and empathy I feel for how harrowing, hard and horrendous my peeps experiences may have been … another requisite for how I do what I do’ is to ensure I do not to ‘join’ people in the overwhelm they might be feeling. Just as a life guard does not jump into the water to save someone who is flailing/floundering … I will not be able toss my people a lifeline if I get lost and/or mired down in the murk/mayhem they are experiencing. Rather, I must always keep an eye fixed upon where ‘the way out’ may be for them. One of the most vital parts of my job is helping folks find a way to ‘live a great live anyway’ … despite any people, challenges and/or situations that have been holding them hostage and/or keeping them stuck.

It’s not that I see myself as some expert who can swoop in and fix, rescue or protect people. No. It is not my job to save anyone. In fact, it would be a grave error for me to presume that I have all the answers for another human. They are the expert of their lives, not me. What might serve one person very well in a particular situation might not be the optimal answer for someone else in the same circumstances.

Ultimately, I trust that the people who choose to work with me are best served when I can meet them with compassionate curiosity about what is happening in their worlds. I truly believe the answers people are seeking are tucked deep down within their own souls … it’s just really hard to see the picture when you are inside the frame. My job is to guide the exploration so they can better sort things out and can become the hero/heroine in their own story. That way, they can save themselves.

Source Unknown but deeply appreciated.

The conversations in my work days are often heartbreakingly heavy. However, as identified by the author of the aforementioned email, it is exceptionally encouraging and infinitely inspiring to witness people overcoming the things that threaten to take them down to their knees. The best I can do is offer people tools to help them build or rebuild their lives. It is up to each individual to decide whether or not they will pick up those tools or leave them behind in my office.

People might fly or they may continue to flounder. It is entirely up to them … but only 100% of the time. I can take no credit for any gains they might make. Any and all success they procure belongs completely to themselves. In addition to that, I must also humbly accept that despite my best efforts, I may not be able to help everyone. In order ‘to do what I do’ – I must be at complete peace with that. Otherwise, I will be more invested in their healing than they are. And that never serves the greatest good. The most meaningful transformation comes from people liberating themselves. I do not ever want to rob them of that joy.

The mindset I bring to my work is a pivotal part of ‘how I do what I do’. So, over the years, I have found it beneficial to ground myself, both personally and professionally, in a theoretical standpoint that helps me hold a sacred space of healing for the humans that seek me out for support. Debbie Ford, (author and my life coaching mentor/trainer) contended that there is ‘a blessing in every challenge’ and/or a ‘challenge in every blessing’. I must admit it took me a while to warm up to these unorthodox suppositions.

She used the wise analogy of baking a cake to explain this seemingly preposterous premise. Debbie reminds us that when baking a delicious cake, there are a lot of bad, icky, bitter ingredients that are essential to include (i.e. flour, baking soda, baking powder, vinegar, salt, etc.) In and of themselves, these ingredients are downright inedible. And, if they do not get blended well enough into the mix, they can become distasteful ‘lumps’ in the batter. Yet, if you tried to make the cake without these unpalatable ingredients… the outcome would be undesirable as well. The most delicious cake requires a thorough blending of both the bitter and the sweet ingredients.

If metaphorically speaking … the cake is our life … our trials and tribulations are the bitter bits that can become ‘lumps in our batter’ if they are not sufficiently integrated into the whole. They can unexpectedly show up and spoil the sweetness in life that we would otherwise enjoy. Often, humans invest a whole lot of energy trying to avoid, escape, repress and suppress those ‘lumps’. We welcome the ‘good’ and do anything to avoid/reject all the ‘bad’. But, unfortunately, eliminating the challenges from our lives is no easier than trying to extract the vinegar and baking soda from the cake batter. It just can’t be done.

Debbie invites us to consider that the grandest versions of our lives (i.e. the most delicious cakes) are better accessed by embracing all of our experiences. What if it is true that in order to live our very best lives, we need to accept and integrate both the good and the bad? Perhaps we might actually rise into the best expression of who we can be in the world by making peace with the past and blending together both the bitter and sweet experiences into the ‘whole’ of our lives.

For example, I was an only child who grew up in an unstable and chaotic home with a whole lot of ‘lumps in my batter.’ My dad was an emotionally volatile alcoholic. My mom suffered from clinical depression/anxiety … perhaps exacerbated by chronic physical pain. She became addicted to prescription drugs. She and my dad divorced when I was 12 years old after years of fighting and financial instability. My father moved a thousand miles away so I had no ongoing relationship with him. My mom and I lived on welfare. She was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was committed to psychiatric hospitals on a number of occasions. I ended up in foster care three times for various lengths of time. My mom also had multiple surgeries and was relegated to a wheel chair after one of them. Yes, their were lots of lumps in my childhood batter.

While it was not at all evident to me at the time, when looking back through the lens of ‘lumpy batter,’ I can see there were many gifts wrapped up in these ugly challenges. I can see, in retrospect, that these experiences actually grew me in very significant and welcome ways. They stretched my capacity to read people’s emotions. I am able to tap into what people are feeling very easily. They sharpened my intuition/instincts. I can often understand what people have trouble articulating. They deepened my compassion for people’s struggles. I have such empathy for the pain and wounding people have endured. They taught me that we do not need to be defined by our circumstances. I learned that shame and blame can be transformed. Ultimately, the lumps in my batter helped shape the compassionate eyes I bring to the counselling room.

I would add that when you’ve been through adversity yourself … it shifts the ‘way’ you listen and ‘what’ you hear. It can help you tap into the ‘felt’ sense of things.  It offers you an understanding of the parts of the situation, circumstance and/or event that aren’t easily described in words. Yes. Somehow, my prior lived experience has stretched my capacity for understanding of what is not being said in addition to what I hear folks vocalizing. I would argue that looking beyond the ‘ugly wrapping’ and/or blending and integrating the ‘lumps in my batter’ was helpful in terms of stretching me into a really humble, intuitive and non-judgmental therapist. Who knew my childhood was the real training ground for my dream job!!

What I know ‘for sure’ is that my decision to embrace life from this empowering perspective has shifted ‘how I do what I do.’ No one grows up without some lumps in their batter. I no longer pity people who have lumps in their batter because I opt to explore how those lumps may perhaps bring blessings (growth, lessons, learnings, insights etc) and/or bear other ‘gifts’ in really ugly wrapping. Yes. I give myself permission to flirt with the notion that people may be experiencing exactly the circumstances, challenges, difficulties and situations that can help them grow into the next best expression of who they can be in the world. 

While some of you may be skeptical whether or not all this conjecture is ‘true’ … it strikes me that proving the veracity of these tenets is of no real relevance. I would humbly suggest that the more substantive speculation should rest on whether or not embracing these perspectives serves our humanity in a meaningful and beneficial way. Does it ultimately help us navigate the prickly parts on our paths? Does it invite us to step out of powerlessness? Will it bolster our inherent strength and resilience?

And, from my experience, I would say it does indeed! I just know that looking at my life and other people’s lives through this empowering lens shifts ‘what’ I see and ‘how’ I interpret what is unfolding around me. And, it is widely touted in the therapeutic community that ‘perception creates reality’. Two people can look at exactly the same thing and see something entirely different. Two people can experience the same circumstances and feel entirely different.

As depicted in the graphic, truth is often relative. If/when we shift our perspective, we shift our ‘truth’. And THAT is an absolute game changer! Our thoughts/ideas/beliefs hold powerful keys to our how we experience our ‘realities’. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is not what happens to us that makes us happy or sad, but how we interpret it that creates our ‘reality’.

For example, let’s say it is raining. Rain is neither inherently good or bad. In ‘reality’ rain is just water falling from the sky. It is our perception of rain that fuels our experience of it. If we are a farmer during a hot, dry summer … the rain is perceived as a blessing. It makes us happy. That is our truth. If we are on vacation on a beach in a tropical climate, the rain is perceived as a curse. It invites us to be grumpy. When we tell people “the rain ruined our vacation”, we are speaking our truth.

However, rain is just rain. And, likewise, my childhood was just my childhood. If I focus upon how I think it was wrong and bad and the folks with the ‘white picket fence’ had it much ‘better’, I make myself miserable. If I choose to see how my childhood also primed me and prepared me to do the work that I absolutely love … then I can feel grateful for it in many ways. I’m not suggesting we ignore, dismiss or deny the pains of our past. No. Not at all. Rather, I am suggesting we explore whether the challenges we have endured may also serve us in some meaningful way.

Maybe in their totality … everything in life has a positive and negative pole? A whole atom contains both positive and negative particles. A whole day contains both light and dark. What we ‘see’ depends solely upon our perspectives. So, we might be very wise to doublecheck our perspectives and make sure we are looking at the ‘whole’ of it. What if … after honoring, acknowledging and validating the heartaches and hardships in our orbits … we also opted to look for anything good, right and/or beneficial that could also be tucked in those same experiences? How might that shape us?

The way we decide to ‘see’ things is a choice we get to make. It is simply a perspective we can choose to claim. And, I am going to suggest that when we decide to embrace the perception that “there is a blessing in every challenge” (Debbie Ford) … and/or … that “everything is happening FOR you and not TO you (Byron Katie) … and/or … that “everything is rigged in your favor” (Rumi), our felt sense of our ‘reality’ is shifted in the most rich and rewarding ways.

And, even if none of these premises are true … I really like the way I move through the world when I choose to believe them. Harnessing these perspectives (both personally and professionally) keeps me from assuming I ‘know’ what would serve any one of us best. It keeps me from judging things as right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust. It invites me to hold space for someone’s pain, help them grieve and mourn their circumstances … and then … help them identify the ways they might use their challenges to help them grow … lest their wounding be in vain.

Choosing to accept that our trials and tribulations may be ‘celestial benedictions’ sent to stretch and grow our humanity, invites me to see so much possibility for the folks that I am privileged to serve. It honors people’s inherent strengths and infinite potentials. It keeps me curious about how my peeps might rise above whatever is threatening to sink them. It means we can honor the pains of their past without staying stuck in them. It means we can begin looking for the pony in the poop.

At any rate, it is not my intention to convince you that I am right. I am just hoping these meanderings help to explain ‘how I do what I do’. I also hope I have rendered visible that identifying people’s problems is just a wee part of my job. My ultimate work is helping people rise above the rubble … retrieve any messages in the mess … and … figure out how to use what has happened to them in order to live a great life anyway.

I cannot imagine a more meaningful and rewarding career. I cannot think of a greater gift than to be offered a chance to hold a sacred space of healing for someone who is struggling, suffering and/or stifled in some way, shape or form. I think I gain as much as I give in my exchanges with my peeps. And honestly … there is nothing more inspiring than witnessing people shining brighter and brighter and brighter … despite the depths of darkness they have endured. It’s hard to put into words just how fortunate I feel to be seated across from another soul … and … simply ‘do what I do’.

With deepest reverence for both the blessings and the challenges inherent in all of our journeys … Karen

P.S. Counselling/therapy is so incredibly complicated and intricate. There is no ‘one size fits all’ in the work that we do. I realize that my approach works in my practice with those who seek out my professional support. I am also well aware that the strategies outlined herein may not be a good a fit at all for therapists working in some settings and/or with specific demographics and/or with clientele experiencing diminished capacity for self-determination. There is certainly no one “right” way to do what we do.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Marie Hutchison
    Jan 11, 2023 @ 17:06:00

    You have captured the essence of the work in such a profound and beautiful way as you highlight the mutual rewards for both the clinician and the client! It is, indeed, such a honour and gift to share space with the beautiful souls who do, what can be both heart-aching & heart-expanding work. Thank you for articulating so eloquently a response to “how do you do it?” Not an easy question to answer when there are so many layers and complexities to being human! 💖

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

    • Karen Lanser
      Jan 11, 2023 @ 17:19:13

      As a colleague an fellow therapist … I so very much appreciate your deeply attuned reflections. I wish I had thought to describe our work as both “heart-aching and heart-expanding.” That perfectly describes the work we do in private practice. And, as you referenced … there are so many differing demographics and differing needs in the work that we do. My thoughts are in by no means fitting for one and all who ‘do the work that we do’. Thanks so much for adding such powerful depth to the conversation.

      Like

      Reply

I'd sure love to hear your thoughts ...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

My Tributes: Better Because of You ...

Better Because I Can Forgive Myself …

I acknowledge that for much of the first 40+ years of my life, I hid behind a really beautiful mask. I might have looked like I had it all together but, as I shared in another blog, I was suffering in silence and was a pretty conflicted soul. I deeply and desperately wanted to create […]

All our Lives are Better Because of our Laudable Leah!

I started this blogsite with the intention of honoring the people in my circle for the ways in which my world was a better place because of them.  And, for the most part, I have acknowledged friends, family and colleagues.  The person I have chosen to honor today was an acquaintance of mine for many […]

Better Because You Spark So Much Light!

Can any of you guess who this bright-eyed beauty might be?? I’d sure love to know what she was thinking when this picture was taken. I adore the gentle glow that ever so delicately glimmers through her upward glance. I can also sense such a sweet and sensitive soul reflected through that precious smile! I’ll […]

An Advent of Love … Better Because I’m bringing You Home For Christmas Momma!

Those of you who read my “Better Because you Spared Me …” blog will already be aware that Christmas 2019 marks the 30th Anniversary of my Mom’s passing. You will also know that I didn’t even realize the loss of my Mom had remained so unprocessed … until the words, tears and unspoken grief spilled […]

Better Because You Spared Me …

Do you suppose this is true?? I am purposely pondering this possibility because … I don’t even know the man.  I do know who he is, though. And because we have lived in the same small, rural community for the past quarter of a century, I have seen him out and about every now and […]

%d bloggers like this: