I wanted to start this post by saying “I’m sorry, this is a departure from my other posts” and other things. But you know what? I’m not sorry. This needs to be said.
In the past few weeks, I have come to feel markedly less safe here at Naropa. I don’t need people to agree with me in order to feel safe, or even to accept me necessarily, but I do need people believe in the integrity of my own experiences, even if they don’t understand where I’m coming from. And I need to know that, if someone uses a power dynamic or a privilege against me, that someone will stand up for me if I’m feeling too ashamed, or fearful, or dissociated to do it myself. We were taught in Helping Relationships that even if we are the “authority” on mental well-being in therapeutic relationships, our clients are the “authorities” on their own experiences. No matter how much we understand, no matter what we learn or how long we practice or how many clients we’ve seen over the years, we will never be more of an expert on a person’s experience than that individual is. This is because, regardless of how much we empathize, we can never actually know what it is like to be another person.
I fully believe this. Unfortunately, this belief does not only come from the classroom. It comes from a long history of misunderstanding and judgment from people who did not understand me. While I have become accustomed to this, it is a lonely and painful way to live. I’ve outgrown most of the people I’ve loved. I’ve stood up for my beliefs, even when they were different than everyone else’s. I’ve been ignored, teased, threatened, and even physically attacked for disagreeing. I’ve had to quit jobs, withdraw from classes, and seek out resources for myself because nobody offered any. I’ve had to advocate for myself quite a bit, and while I suppose I never really expect this to end, I had hoped that maybe I wouldn’t need to do this quite so much at Naropa. Unfortunately, I’ve found the opposite to be true. I’ve had to advocate for myself here, as well as for others, more than almost anywhere else I’ve been because Naropa asks us to be so incredibly vulnerable. And while I’ve had a lot of practice advocating for myself, many others have not. I’m starting to recognize more and more the incredible damage that can occur when vulnerability and misunderstanding are mixed.
Because that’s what we do here. We’re vulnerable. We break ourselves open and ooze onto the floor and hope that nobody minds the mess too much until we put ourselves back together. And in our deepest hearts, we hope that people will understand. Or, even if they don’t, that they’ll step up and say:
“Wow, I really have never known what it’s like to experience that. I won’t pretend that I have…I know pretending would be meaningless, and wouldn’t help you. It would only be to make myself feel better. But I want you to know that I heard you. I didn’t ignore your pain, and I’m not going to drop the ball. I’m going to sit here with you and help you hold your fragile pieces together until you’re okay to hold them by yourself. I’ll listen to what you have to say, really listen, and I won’t judge you for your perceived ineptness. And I’ll help make sure this space is safe for us to do just that.”
But for all those hopes, I’ve noticed something in our classes. I noticed that I am almost always the one who steps up when the space isn’t held. When microaggressions happen, when people express powerful, scary things that are summarily ignored, when people express a need that the group can’t meet. When issues of privilege and oppression come up. When someone forgets, and slips in a prejudicial stereotype. When someone makes an insensitive joke. When someone’s real and honest feelings are labeled as “projections” because those feelings too scary for someone else to deal with. When that happens, I step up. And almost NOBODY ELSE DOES.
I routinely sit in classes of up to 45 people, who know and care for each other, who have been together through intense emotional and academic rigor, and who claim to feel deeply the suffering of their peers. And it is ludicrous how rarely someone else steps up, ignoring the anxiety and fear of speaking the uncomfortable words that are needed to advocate for those who have been marginalized. And every time I step up, a couple of classmates (and not just the same people over and over) come up to me after class and say, “Thank you so much for saying something, Mari. It was totally unfair what that person was saying.”
And I just have to wonder if what they’re really saying is “thank you for saying something, because I didn’t want to, and now I don’t have to feel guilty for not speaking up.”
There are people in this program who have experienced such withdrawal, such mass ignoring, such utter lack of support and understanding and empathy from us that they have stopped speaking about their deepest feelings altogether.
Let me repeat that: THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO FEEL SO UNSUPPORTED BY US THAT THEY HAVE STOPPED SPEAKING.
We are here to learn to be therapists. How are we going to do that if we can’t even stand up and say something when our own classmates are marginalized???
What would you do if your therapist couldn’t handle your pain? I know what I’d do, because I’ve had to do it with therapists who couldn’t handle my pain. Who changed the subject automatically. Who asked if maybe I was really dealing with some other issue, and that the issue I’d brought up was in fact just *hiding* something more important (so let’s not deal with the it please). Who were so unable to tolerate their own anxiety that they wouldn’t let our sessions go deep even when I was ready.
You know what I did? I left and never went back.
We can’t become good therapists if we can’t address our own problems, and most of us can’t address our own problems without a supporting relationship in which to process. Naropa offers an opportunity the likes of which most of us will never have again. We will probably never again have an entire community full of professionals and peers whose sole purpose is to instruct and support us in our personal and professional development in this way. This is the best possible opportunity that we have to learn to advocate for others who are being marginalized. And we simply cannot utilize this opportunity if someone else is always coming to our rescue. Yes, it’s scary, and we’re afraid of confrontation, and we were yelled at as children, and we were never taught to handle anger. So what? Do you think our clients are going to care about that? At best you’ll lose your client. At worst, you’ll re-traumatize them and set their healing back years.
So think about that the next time someone says something oppressive, or microaggressive, or dismissing. Think about that when you’re waiting for me, or one of the handful of other people who regularly step up to challenge inequities. Maybe next time, I’ll just stay silent, and see if anyone steps up. Maybe next time, you’ll step up instead.