When Things Fall Apart

“When things fall apart and we’re on the verge of we know not what, the test of each of us is to stay on that brink and not concretize.”

– Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

Many clients come to us with their own versions of “falling apart” and it is our privilege as counselors to share in that space with them and to not flinch, (or to flinch but still not run). In that space and with the understanding that there may not be a specific “destination”, but a belief that the counseling journey will produce movement, a more enlightened person or both. And it is that universal love for the client that allows the counselor to be in that space without agenda, impatience or predetermined result. If universal love is the foundation upon which the counseling relationship is built, then acceptance would then be the framework of that counseling relationship. The universal love can lead to an acceptance of the client for who and what they are, which is many times far beyond their actions and behavior. That growing space of acceptance, supported by the universal love, allows the client to feel safe enough to open those dark doors and shine light on dark hallways within them. But acceptance also requires that the counselor accept a few things as well. The first acceptance is that of the counselor’s limitations. Even with the best techniques, theories and counseling presence, there is a limit to how much can be accomplished. That limit is based upon many factors, a good number of which are outside of the counselor’s control (client willingness, client support systems, environment just to name a few). There is also an acceptance of the fact that the effective and productive counseling process is not free of pain or discomfort. Many times I have found myself shying away from asking questions that may cause the client discomfort or even pain. And I have had to realize that the client was ALREADY in pain and discomfort. So yes a portion of my reluctance was based upon that concern for the client, but a portion of that was also for me. I wanted to avoid the pain and discomfort that I would feel, so I avoided certain lines of questions and inquiries in part because of my lack of acceptance that discomfort on both sides (the client and the counselor) are a natural and essential part of the process of truer healing.

 

 

The Rest that Comes After

Aside

“Every person needs to take one day away. A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future. Jobs, family, employers, and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence. Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.” ― Maya Angelou, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now

The other day I was abruptly reminded that I needed to rest. I had just gotten home after a long day and somehow between turning off the engine and opening the door, I dozed off for 20 minutes. I might still be there if it had not been for the sound of a car door slamming somewhere else. I got inside the house and a familiar chorus ran through my mind, “I will rest after . . . .” After the treatment plan is done, after the chapter is read, after the email checked and after the project for work is completed. Rest for me did not come until after midnight.

I have talked to many of my colleagues, and my experience (with the exception of the car incident) is typical. Rest becomes the thing that comes after. Rest will come after work, after class, after meetings, after homework, after family responsibilities, and after essentially everything else. Quite often, the “after” does not come. We all know that we need rest, but making that rest a priority is a significant challenge.

A 2012 CDC study reported that more than 40 million U.S. workers get fewer than 6 hours of sleep per night. This obviously is less than the 7 ½ to 8 hours that is generally recommended. Just take a moment to reflect over the last month of your life and think of how many times you have gotten proper rest.

To make matters worse, our society often applauds persons for working themselves to the point of exhaustion.

So, we have exhausted counselors sitting across from exhausted clients. We have to do better and also have to encourage our clients to do better as well.

Rest always comes “after” something, but make sure that rest doesn’t come after everything!

Leaning In to Those Awkward Moments

By Kathleen Gerwin

For those of you who have spent any time around teenagers, I’m going to wager that you’ve heard this sentence uttered more than once: “Oh my God, that’s SO awkward.” As a high school teacher, it’s a phrase I cannot seem to escape and one that seems to be applied to just about everything, from a parent’s overly enthusiastic greeting, to public speaking, and everything in between.

Some of this is just part of growing up. In adolescence, as your body and mind are betraying you, developing in new and strange ways, it’s difficult to not view things through the lens of awkwardness. Who among us can forget those painful adolescent moments when it felt as if the room was closing in on us and melting into the floor seemed like the best possible outcome?

What worries me about teenagers today, however, is twofold.

First, the fact that many normal, developmentally appropriate situations are being painted as awkward. For example: on a recent service trip with my students, I was driving a group of seniors from our Habitat worksite to the Church that was hosting us for dinner. Our GPS had taken us off-course, so I asked one of the girls to call the Church to inform our host that we would be a few minutes late. From the look on my otherwise extremely extroverted, socially adept student’s face, you would have thought that I had asked her to run through the parking lot naked. “Ms. GERWIN,” she cried, “That’s so AWKWARD!” The rest of girls chimed in, agreeing that calling a stranger —even for less than a minute to convey information—was in the 7th Ring of Awkward Hell.

The second, and potentially more troubling fact, is that this generation of teens seems to have far more ways to avert or avoid those awkward moments: texting has made it so every response can be edited and reviewed by a jury of peers; silent moments at dinner can be filled with time on your phone or the drone of the TV; in a photo-shop, Facebook-centric world, pictures and profiles can be cleaned up so only the most “acceptable” self has to be presented to the world. The danger is that rather than having to sit in those awkward moments, teens—and perhaps all of us—never have the chance to come to the other side of those uncomfortable situations and realize that they won’t, in fact, kill us. Awkward moments, like adolescence, are periods of growth—often far from pleasant, but necessary if we are to develop properly.

The gift of sitting in awkwardness is the realization that there is a Self within us that goes beyond feelings, situations, or judgments. And that is certainly nothing to feel awkward about.

Showtime

By the time you read this blog, millions of people will have already attended an Easter service on Sunday. Many parishioners will have purchased new clothes, and numerous churches will have spent money to make sure that their buildings and the worship experience are as attractive as possible. There will be plays, dramatizations, special guests, and special effects. In an overheard conversation, one pastor even called Easter Sunday, “Showtime”.

I thought long and hard about that statement. What exactly are churches offering on “Showtime” Easter Sunday? And why is that offering not compelling enough to encourage persons to come back before Easter of the next year? Is that an indication of their lack of religious conviction or an indictment of the relevance of the Church? Many churches are reporting that attendance is dropping and it is not beyond belief to wonder if eventually Easter will just become another Sunday.

I don’t think it has to be that way. Even in our age of smartphones, tablets, and virtual-almost-everything, I still believe that the community church is relevant and necessary. There are challenges that the Church must address. How does the Church really feel about marriage equality and why are so many Church marriages failing? What does the Church really think about issues like gun control, poverty, and equal rights? Has there ever really been a separation between Church and State and, if so, what are the boundaries? These are questions that need answers and not all of those answers are easy to obtain. And most of the people who found their way into Church doors on Easter cared more about the love they felt rather than the answers to those questions.

So maybe rather than Showtime, it is “time to show” the love of Jesus in a relevant way. It is “time to show” that church members are not perfect, just persistent. It is “time to show” that wearing the right attitude is more important than wearing the right clothes and that what you are driving is far less important than what is driving you. For the Church it is time to show that compassion, forgiveness, redemption, hope, and love are really the most impressive things that can ever be shown. So is it Showtime? Yes, every single Sunday; hopefully, the Church will make sure to show the right things!

Self-user friendly

“Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-law. But always meeting ourselves.” James Joyce (Ulysses)

Messages come from God/Spirit all the time and they are not always delivered via a burning bush. Okay . . . in my lifetime so far, they have NEVER been delivered via a burning bush, but I get them other ways. As my friend, Deb Rollison, said “if you hear something twice, that may be Spirit talking.”

Last week, fellow blogger,Glenda Dickonson, delivered an article on counselor self-care. That same weekend, before the article was published, the question “how can I practice better self-care?” came from another friend, Stacy, who is also in our pastoral counseling program. Both Glenda’s article and my conversation with Stacy yielded valuable and practical ways to take better care of ourselves.

But there was one practice of self-care that Stacy mentioned which, at first, seemed logical and easy enough. It was “be open and friendly.” Our interpretation was, of course, to be open and friendly to others. As we continued to talk, however, we realized that the question had been how to practice self-care, and so we pondered how to be more open and friendly to ourselves.

The answer did not come easily. Days later, I am still dancing around that doorway wondering how to get inside the open and friendly way of being with myself.

I observe when I am open and friendly with others and ask: am I being that way with me? Am I treating me with compassionate honesty, authenticity, caring, kindness, and acceptance?

I imagined myself as a friend who I have known for a long time. I know all of her challenges, her failures and disappointments, and her secret successes. Parts of life come easy for her while other parts are elusive mysteries that leave her puzzled and asking. I know where anger waits with ferocity (be warned anyone who mistreats children and animals!). I know what will bring her to sudden sadness (none of your business). I ask: am I being to myself the best friend I could possibly be? Am I being as open and accepting of myself as I am with other people?

No, I am not . . . not as often or as well as I could be. For some reason, I have different rules – a set of standards that says I should be-know-act-respond better than, holier than, more knowing than anyone else. Others are allowed to be more human than I am, and therein lies the lie and the key to that door. When I open the door, I discover that the truth is I am just as human as anyone and I am worthy of my own self-love, kindness, compassion, understanding, and acceptance. The same Divine light inspired me to life as inspired you and the rest of humanity.

And every bush around me is breathing another sigh of relief.

Loyola Magazine » Playing through Grief: Helping Children Heal

Beverly Sargent, a current Ph.D candidate, published two books about helping children use child-centered therapy to play through the grief of losing a parent. She was featured in Loyola Magazine’s December 2012 issue.

Read more here:

Loyola Magazine » Playing through Grief: Helping Children Heal.

Defining lives and careers: It goes both ways

Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.
Confucius

In pastoral counseling at Loyola, students invest long hours preparing for the
diversity of clients who we will counsel during our clinical internship and afterwards in the “real” world. We learn to identify and treat depression, anxiety, trauma, and personality disorders. We learn how humans become who they are and the dynamics of family life. We investigate the insidious disease of addiction and avenues of therapy. We choose our theoretical approach to practice and how to integrate psychology and spirituality. When I took a class in career counseling, however, I puzzled about its usefulness in pastoral care.

Then, America found itself in a recession. Suddenly, my internship was full of clients who were unemployed and looking for more than self-esteem boosters. They knew why they felt bad and what would help them feel better: a job. I turned to Loyola affiliate faculty, Deb Rollison, Ph.D., who teaches career development, for some guidance.

The people who were having the hardest time finding employment were in their late 50’s and early 60’s. For these clients, Dr. Rollison recommends:

  • Do not put dates of graduation on resumes
  • Summarize work experience that is ten years or older
  • Reframe what older means by exploring advantages: experience, loyalty, fewer sick days, wisdom, and perspective
  • Think in terms of accomplishments, including volunteer experience; list 6 to 8 PAR key accomplishment statements that show:
    • Problem – what did you face?
    • Action – what did you do?
    • Results – what happened specifically and measurably?

Exploring your clients’ accomplishments, what they enjoy, and how they effectively managed difficult times in the past is key to helping people develop self-reliance and coping skills. I encourage and coach unemployed clients to talk about what they have done and why it mattered. This helps them sell themselves both to prospective employers and to themselves. It is a constant reminder of their self-worth.

AARP’s job hunting web page is a good resource for older Americans. America’s Career InfoNet is a gateway available to everyone to explore careers, State job banks, occupation and industry information, and much more.

The longer unemployment goes on, the more strain there will be on relationships, finances, and families. If you are counseling a person with a history of substance abuse, unemployment may be a trigger or a slippery place. I have helped clients with social services, fill out forms, identify their current assets and budgets, and find the closest AA meetings.

Deb Rollison put it very clearly: Career is not just a job but a whole life – it is leisure, priorities, and purpose. In helping others define their careers and make their lives whole, my career and life as a pastoral counselor become whole.

 

 

 

Tiffany (Coons) O’Hara – An M.S. Graduate Success Story

JoAnn: What led you to Loyola’s Department of Pastoral Counseling and Spiritual Care?

Tiffany: I got my undergraduate degree from Mt. Saint Mary’s and knew I wanted to stay in Maryland.  While looking for graduate programs in Clinical Psychology, I saw Pastoral Counseling, but I had no idea what it was. I researched it, and the more I learned about it, the more I realized that it was the perfect fit for me with its blend of psychology and spirituality. I was not comfortable pushing aside my faith in my career path. I discerned Loyola was a good fit for me.

JoAnn: How was it at Loyola?

Tiffany: I loved Loyola from day one!  Starting class with a prayer, meeting people from different faith backgrounds, experiencing everyone’s passion to help other people, and the way they integrate spirituality into their work was so inspiring for me from my first class to my last and now.

JoAnn: What were your most memorable experiences?

Tiffany: Dr. Sharon Cheston’s and Dr. Frank Richardson’s classes stood out for me. Family Counseling and Pastoral Integration were my favorite classes. The clinical portions of my studies were meaningful for me. Getting hands-on experience with different supervisors was extremely helpful.  Two years of internship gave me the confidence to go out into the workforce and know that I was ready.

JoAnn: Where did you do your internships?

Tiffany: My first one was at St. Francis Academy, a Catholic High School in Baltimore, and the second year I was at Lighthouse Youth and Family Services. I had a practicum supervisor, an on-site supervisor, and a small group supervisor in my first internship and two supervisors in my second.  I learned so much from all of them and would advise students to make the most of the supervision that they receive.

JoAnn: I heard you got married, bought a new house, went on your first ever cruise for a honeymoon, got a new dog, wrote the Professional Seminar paper, and got a new job!  How did you juggle it all?

Tiffany: Through the grace of God!  And, with very supportive family/friends and self-care. I did a lot of knitting and crocheting blankets/scarves. I prayed and journaled. I had a “keep my eyes on the prize” mentality.  Everything that happened, while stressful, was a positive thing, so that helped.  Knowing that I was called to be a counselor helped me to get through the program.

JoAnn: How was the job hunting process?

Tiffany: I started job hunting my second to last semester before I graduated. Perhaps I was a bit pre-emptive, but I am glad I did. The process was frustrating and discouraging! I put out so many resumes and only got only two bites. I was in a catch-22 situation. I had not yet graduated or gotten my license. I interviewed with Contemporary Family Services. I told them I wanted to be a school-based counselor and they were looking for a counselor for their charter schools in Baltimore. They offered me the job on the spot! I will start as soon as my LGPC (Licensed Graduate Professional Counselor) certification is completed.

JoAnn: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Tiffany: I am thankful, grateful, and blessed to have gone through the program, graduated, and to be where I am now.  I enjoyed my years at Loyola in the PC
Program
and I miss it much more than I thought I would.

Meaning Making is a Super Power!

“Each of us is questioned by life; and each of us can only answer to life by answering for our own life.” Viktor E. Frankl , Man’s Search for Meaning

Talk about “meaning making.” Dr. Viktor Frankl was a Holocaust survivor who came to understand that all of life—including life in a concentration camp—puts forth the possibility for life to be made whole. In many ways, this wholeness emerges in responses to our choices, even if our choices are limited by circumstances (like suffering imprisonment, losing every loved one in your life, or other unspeakable harm).

In such a case then, one’s choice is the option to grow and be something more than who s/he is today or to stay focused on current ways of being and knowing in order to survive. No one can stop us from new growth, unless we give our permission. No one can stop us from making meaning in our lives unless we allow them to do so.

  • Failures of the past or present, rather than stealing meaning, create NEW meaning as we use our new information to discern the path that is laying itself before us in this new moment.
  • Wounds that we bear, rather than create victims; create heroes with hearts of strength who choose to forge ahead despite all odds.
  • Challenges we face encourage us to remember that we can’t do it alone—we need help. Even as we step toward new horizons of meaning, we are walking with others as they do the same.

THIS is the privilege of being a pastoral counselor: Even as we seek to make meaning in our own lives, we are graced with the privilege of accompanying others as they make meaning in theirs. In this process, my life is changed. In this process, the lives of others are changed. In this process, our lives together are changed.

And therein the world is changed.

Now there’s a super power I can get behind. My life’s journey isn’t about questioning what is happening to me. Rather, life itself is questioning me about how I plan to engage my existence.

I’d love to hear about your super power. Whether it is invisibility, flying, million dollar metal suits, or “meaning making,” what are your super power’s effects on the adventures of your life?

Disordered Affection: Finding God in all the wrong places?

The phrase “disordered affections” captured my attention while I was reading James Martin’s The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. St. Ignatius of Loyola first described disordered affections in his Spiritual Exercises as whatever keeps us from being free. It is an “affection” because we find it appealing. We are drawn to it. It satisfies a hunger – a need within us, and, after a while, it becomes an “attachment.” We think we cannot live without it. Thus, it is “disordered” because it is not “life giving.”

As I chased down its meaning, I uncovered how I use disordered affections in my life to distract myself from my path and growing closer to God. In pastoral counseling, it is easy to identify the disordered affections and attachments that are obviously not “life giving” and cause harm: substance abuse, alcoholism, hoarding, obsessive-compulsive disorder. But what about those disordered affections that are seemingly harmless like watching television, the Internet, reading, exercise, work, and, um, chocolate?

So, I did a little research and found a definition on This Ignatian Life :

 “Disordered attachments are those things (objects, experiences, activities, even other people) who become the focus of our desires and, consequently our time on this earth, rather than seeking the will and companionship of God.”

Hmmm. This might mean that my job qualifies as a disordered affection . . . but we’ll deal with that later. Here are some questions This Ignatian Life recommends we ask to identify disordered affections:

  • Does the object of your affection distract you from your focus to be closer to God? (Only after lunch and only when it involves chocolate.)
  • Is more of your time spent attending to these affections rather than the work you need to be doing? (No, I can eat chocolate and answer e-mail at the same time.)
  • Do you have a fear of feeling empty if you do not attend to your affections? (Darn it . . . yes! Only chocolate will fill that emptiness!)
  • Is your time spent trying to accumulate more time with or material objects surrounding your affections? (Hmm. I purchased the party-size bag of M&M’s® and carry it with me. At first, I thought I would just carry a serving size but what if it was not enough and I want more? It doesn’t make sense to BUY more when I already have $11.99 worth at home.)

Interestingly, St. Ignatius offers a way to overcome disordered attachments that might sound a little familiar to pastoral counselors:

  • Begin by naming the disorder. (Chocoholism.)
  • Admit that the disorder impacts your life and relationships. (Sigh . . . see the 3 out of 4 “yes” answers above.)
  • Remember your desire to move closer to God and your commitment to serve others. (St. Ignatius also reminded me that my desire is also God’s desire to be closer to me, and I never share my M&M’s® with anyone.)
  • Seek the grace to be strong and committed to your path. Rather than completely deny the object of your attachment, seek only to hold it openly, in ways that free your soul from fear. (I was inspired to purchase an M&M® dispenser and place it on the desk in my office. Now, people trickle in for a handful of candy and stay and chat for a minute or two.)

Ignatian spirituality calls for us to find God in all things. Even within a disordered affection, if I seek to find God and His grace, I will find my freedom and perhaps a few other souls along the way.