The Problem With Disney’s Frozen: Being a Savvy Counselor in an Emotionally Complex World

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Greetings all!

I know it’s been a while since my last post, but I’ve got a lot of new and exciting things to write about, so bear with me while I get them all posted.

For today, I’ll be talking about that wonder of mystical wonders, the recent and (purportedly) feminist icon of a film, Frozen. Now, I fully realize I’m probably stepping on quite a number of frosty toes here, so before you barrage me with indignance, allow me to explain. There are quite a number of well-written articles on why Frozen isn’t as feminist as it appears at first glance, but discussing the relative feminism of Frozen is not what I’m here to do. I’m here to talk about counseling.

So what does Frozen have to do with Counseling? Well, quite a lot actually. Frozen is a story about two girls who experience some pretty intense and damaging things in their lives (the death of their parents, Elsa’s realization that she’s a danger to herself and others, and Anna’s loss of her sister, just for starters). While I don’t anticipate encountering any ice queens in my office, issues like these can cause some pretty big difficulties in a young girl’s life. So it’s actually quite likely that people like Elsa and Anna will end up in our offices sooner or later. It can become easy to get caught up in the “magic” when Disney movies start to play, so I’ll break down the movie into (not-fully-comprehensive-but-good-enough) bullet points for you, along with the emotional allegory that the movie implies, from my point of view as a counselor:

  • Elsa discovers that she has magical ice powers (Elsa discovers that she sometimes has strong feelings)
  • Elsa accidentally hurts her sister with her ice powers (Elsa expresses her feelings in a way that is hurtful to Anna)
  • Elsa and Anna are taken to some trolls, who tell Elsa that she is very dangerous, that she almost killed her sister, that she’ll need to conceal her powers from now on, and that Anna’s memory will have to be erased (Elsa is told that it is not okay for her to have these feelings and express them, and the fact that she has these feelings is glossed over and not talked about or acknowledged)
  • Elsa is hidden away inside the castle, and her sister is forbidden from seeing her (Elsa is required to keep her feelings hidden so that everyone else will be okay, and her sister isn’t allowed to see that Elsa has these feelings)
  • Elsa’s and Anna’s parents die unexpectedly, and Elsa has to become queen and somehow not freeze the land she’s ruling (suddenly, Elsa is an adult and, even though her parents aren’t around to reinforce the message that she can’t have strong feelings, she still believes she can’t have them and that pushing them down will protect people)
  • Elsa freezes the land she’s ruling (Elsa slips up and lets her strong emotions out, and people respond by rejecting her, just as she’d feared they would)
  • Elsa runs away, builds a snow castle, and sings “Let It Go” (Elsa decides she’s tired of living according to others’ rules, and embraces her feelings…sort of…we’ll get back to this.)
  • Anna shows up and tells Elsa that everything is frozen, and Elsa gets very upset because she’s hurt everyone after all (Anna tells Elsa that her emotional outburst hurt people, and Elsa feels despair because she feels guilt for having hurt people)
  • Elsa sends a snow beast after Anna (Elsa’s guilt and anger lead her to lash out at her sister)
  • Elsa is captured and brought back to the castle as a prisoner (people label Elsa as emotionally unstable, and therefore someone who needs to be put in her place, because of her emotional outbursts)
  • Elsa escapes and tries to fix things, but ends up stabbing an ice spear through her sister’s heart (Elsa tries to make it better, but learns that she doesn’t know how to reverse the damage that her emotional outbursts have caused)
  • Elsa figures out that love is what will thaw the ice and save her sister (the way to heal the damage caused by strong emotional outbursts is through love)

With me so far?  Yes, I’ve left pieces of this out, and yes I’ve focused mostly on Elsa, but it will make sense shortly.

This sounds like a nice narrative…until you realize that it’s not real.  You may be saying, “well of course it’s not, it’s a Disney movie.”  But once again, bear with me.

Let me boil down this story a bit:

A girl is shamed for her feelings, and sanctioned for even the smallest display of anger, or similarly strong and “negative” emotions.  She is taught to hide her feelings, fear her feelings, and fear herself. She is forbidden from ever displaying these feelings by all of the authority figures in her life.  She never learns to feel things in a healthy way, and instead bottles them up inside, hiding from people and trying to be perfect.  And then, suddenly, her parents die and she is expected to take over all of the responsibilities of being an adult.  All of her life she has been told how to behave, how to feel, and now there is nobody around to tell her anything anymore.  But she still has this pressure to be perfect, to never feel “negative” emotions, and especially not to express them. 

Sounds horrible right?  Sounds like a great reason to seek therapy.  But the story continues:

The girl gets angry at someone, and everyone sees it.  They shame her too, just like her parents did.  She can’t handle her “failure,” and runs away, trying to get away from the pressure.  When she’s gained some distance, it gets worse.

Have you ever stopped to listen to the lyrics of “Let it Go”…?  The song contains choice phrases, such as:

  • “No right, no wrong, no rules for me”
  • “You’ll never see me cry”
  • “The past is in the past”
  • (and my personal favorite): “The cold never bothered me anyway”

Alright, now let’s all put our therapist hats on.  You have a client that comes into your office and says that she was shamed and silenced her whole life, that her parents just died, that she is completely estranged from her only living relative, that she has no friends, everyone she knows hates her, that she’s hurt everyone she’s ever been close to, and that now she’s completely self-isolating with no intention of ever building up a social life again.  And she’s saying things like “you’ll never see me cry,” “the past is in the past,” “there’s no right or wrong,” and “[strong feelings] never bothered me anyway.”

I don’t know about you all, but I would be looking into a long future of slowly working with this client through the process of uncovering the grief, the anger, the pain, the guilt, the shame, and the realization that she had never really been given a chance to be a healthy, happy person.

But this isn’t what happens at all.  Elsa doesn’t sit in her ice castle and grieve.  She doesn’t feel her feelings.  She suppresses them.  “The cold never bothered me anyway.”  It’s all right there.  Her whole life has been a spiral of shame surrounding her ice powers (feelings) and now she’s saying that her powers (her feelings) never bothered her anyway.  That’s pretty classic denial if you ask me.

I’d love to say that the movie gets better after this…but it really doesn’t.  Elsa realizes that her feeling still exist (snow beast) and is then forced to confront the people whose town she froze (whose feelings she hurt).  And when it seems like all hope is lost, she figures out what will undo all those years of neglect, shame, and bottled-up emotions.

Love.

….Really?  Love?  Aren’t we missing something?  Or maybe, several somethings? 

Here’s the real problem with frozen.  Up until this point, I think it could have been salvageable.  But instead of Elsa realizing that she needs to feel her feelings, feel her anger, feel her loneliness, feel her guilt and grief and sadness and pain, Elsa feels love.  And love makes all the other feelings go away.

Which, once again, is some pretty classic denial.

Because you can’t just love away anger.  You can’t love away what some would call abusive parenting, and what would almost certainly cause major childhood-attachment issues.  You can’t love away everyone you’ve ever known shaming you for your feelings.  It doesn’t work.

You know those kung-fu movies where the kid who has never practiced a martial art becomes a master in the span of a few intensely-filmed training shots that last about two minutes of real time?  I think this is what we sometimes expect in therapy.  It’s a nice thought—it would be great if we could bring clients into our offices, teach them to love (themselves, others, the world, whatever) and send them out beaming.  But therapy doesn’t work that way, and neither does real life.  We can’t move through the healing process if we skip all the middle steps.  We can’t learn to love ourselves and others if we try to jump there directly from crippling shame and guilt.  We have to realize what our feelings are, what caused them.  We usually have to get angry about them (and this process definitely isn’t a hurried one).  We have to feel sadness over the loss of the nurturing and support we were never given.  We have to learn to find resolution through our tears and our pounding fists and our despair.  We have to touch those wounded places in ourselves and, slowly, stitch the jagged edges closed again.  And we will always have scars.  Only then can we start moving on to love—love of ourselves, of our families, of those who hurt us.

Love doesn’t heal all.  Love is what waits for us when we’ve healed.  Because it’s the process of going through all the painful, messy, horrible steps that allows us to love ourselves, to have compassion for ourselves.

So why is this relevant to counselors (particularly to Naropa counselors, I might add)?  Because we so very want it to be a true story.  We want to jump from shame to love.  We don’t want the messy steps.  As counselors, we’re trained to know that we have to go through the messy steps.  But our clients aren’t taught this.  It’s our job to gently let them down into that realization, and support them when they get there.

I’ve heard a lot of therapist friends of mine espousing about the wonders of Frozen.  And sure, it has its good points.  But I think a lot of them missed this.  Even therapists want to believe in the healing powers of love.  And it’s true that our compassion and empathy for our clients can be tremendously healing.  But that doesn’t prevent the messy parts of healing.  It just makes them more bearable.

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Wake Up: This is Naropa, and You’re Missing It.

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.

A Naropa Wrap-Up: Reflecting on My First TCP Semester

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Well folks, it’s Thursday of the very last week of the first semester of grad school.  As could be expected, I’ve been thinking a lot about how this past semester has gone, how it met or did not meet my expectations, and what I have gained during my time here thus far.

Might as well get it all down on “paper,” right?

So here goes.

The first thing that has become very apparent during my first semester is that Naropa is not a shining beacon of beauty, love, and unity for all beings.  Sure there’s more emotional connection and acceptance going around than I would expect to find in just about any other program, but it’s not an all-inclusive buffet of positive vibes.  Naropa has its shadow issues too.  These show up in many forms, but the biggest one that I have noticed is the way Naropa handles anger.  In Duey Freeman’s Human Growth and Development class, he says that when we are young, we learn spoken, unspoken, and secret rules from our parents that influence the way we live.  Well, Naropa is a young school, and it’s got its rules too.  In regards to the anger issue, Naropa’s spoken rule is that “anger is an important and useful emotion, as long as you don’t let it control you.”  The unspoken rule is that “anger is something you should work on yourself; don’t expect others to process it for you.”  The secret rule is that “it’s not okay to be angry as a student at Naropa university.”  That’s not to say that you’ll get in trouble for being angry, but people here don’t always know how to handle it, and they’d rather not see it unless you can keep yourself calm and collected.

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Needless to say, this has caused problems.  It will probably continue to do so.  But every school has something, so I hardly think it’s fair to judge it based on this issue alone.  Naropa has a lot of great qualities as well, and it would be a mistake to ignore them.

The second thing that’s become apparent to me is that the faculty here have a subtle, but strong undercurrent of interpersonal and institutional politics.  Some instructors don’t like it when you disagree with them.  Some don’t agree with other instructors.  Some think that some other instructors’ courses aren’t necessary.  Once in a while, something you say will really trigger one of the instructors, and you’ll be left wondering why the thing you said was really such a big deal.  Grad school isn’t a game, but you do have to play to the politics of the school from time to time.

Bear in mind, I don’t think this is unusual for any type of institution.  All schools have interpersonal politics, as do companies, families, social groups, etc.  It’s impossible to get away from them.  But it’s important to be aware of them too.  Sticking your head in the sand and ignoring this important aspect of the Naropa dynamic can lead to problems.  Of course, I may have encountered this more than most, as I have trouble keeping my mouth shut in class.  I’m sure people experience this to varying degrees.  But it is a real aspect of attending school here, and worth keeping in the back of your mind.  And, having said that, the positive sides of the Naropa faculty far exceed the negative.  The instructors here are truly amazing people, and considering that they work for almost no pay, you know they’re teaching you because they want to be.  I am unceasingly amazed at the incredible knowledge and competence of Naropa’s teachers, and feel extremely grateful for having the chance to learn from them.

The third thing that I’ve noticed is that Naropa’s TCP students are incredibly mature.  Really.  I feel like a little kid in some of these classes.  I am, admittedly, on the low end of the age spectrum here, but it’s worth noting the incredible intellect, savvy, and skill that people bring to this program.  And for me, this fact makes every class an absolute delight.

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Finally, my fourth observation is that Naropa has got something.  I know I’ve said this before, but this semester has really reaffirmed it for me.  There is an almost tangible X-factor here that changes you in some way.  Whatever it is, you can’t go through a semester of this without feeling its impact.  And the anger-related issues, politics, etc. are well worth it to have the privilege and the pleasure to attend this school.

So there it is–my first semester is over, and now all that’s left is to wait and see what the next one will bring.  However, I’m sure my experience is not universal.  How has your semester gone?  Feel free to comment on your own experiences during these last four months!

Confessions of Naropaholic: My Flaws, Faults, and Failures


Hi everyone.  My name is Mari, and I’m a Naropaholic.

“What do you mean?” you may be asking yourself.  Allow me to explain.

This really all begins with a belief that a lot of people who meet me seem to have.  They tell me, “Mari, you really have your shit together.”  Well, first of all, thank you very much.  You have been a great reassurance to me and my insecure need to seem like my life fits into a neat little box.  But of course things are more complicated than that.  And since I can’t seem to shake this false image of general invulnerability (and also because I think I scare people off), I thought I’d take some time to share with you all exactly how not-together I am.  Because let’s face it, nobody is really that “together.”

First of all, I don’t get all of my reading assignments done.  I realize that this is an expected byproduct of being in grad school and also being human, but it bears mentioning.  I also sometimes finish assignments the night before, or occasionally right before class.  I don’t always give myself enough time to print papers, and so I’m often late to classes on days when papers are due.

Speaking of which, I am also not always on time for things.  I go to sleep late, then wake up late, and barely have time to shower and get dressed before I’m rushing out the door.  I end up buying food and coffee instead of making them at home, which means I’m pretty constantly broke.  While I’m usually pretty good with finances, I’ve been lax about it lately, which has caused problems in my general life stability.  This in turn makes me cranky.  I feel rushed and tired all the time.  I don’t take the time to properly care for myself.  My room is a mess, and my bonsai tree is dying because I haven’t had the time to figure out what the hell is wrong with it (or so I tell myself).

I’m also emotional, in a sometimes destructive way.  I’ve been known to get angry for no reason.  Usually there is a reason, but I’m more angry about it than is warranted.  I tend to blame people for things, even when it’s really my own damn shit that I need to work through.  I also don’t know how to express gratitude.  I don’t expect people to appreciate me, and when they do, I become awkward.  I often turn bright red when people’s attention is unexpectedly focused on me.

Which is probably why I’m writing a blog instead of saying all this in class.

And speaking of class, I talk too much.  Yes, I will be the first to admit this.  I’m sure part of this has to do with not really being heard when I was younger, but whatever the cause, I still end up talking disproportionately more than most other people that I meet.  Think about it this way: if you consider how much I talk in class, and how much I talk when I run into you, AND the fact that I have a blog in which I can just rant about whatever the hell I want to anyone who will listen for no real reason other than personal enjoyment, you will get the idea.  Thankfully, my partner talks a lot too.  We have lots of drawn out conversations in which both of us cut each other off and then get upset when it happens to us, and ultimately realize we’re both incredibly lucky to have the other around.


So that’s a start.  I could probably go on for a very long time, but I’ll cut it off here. You may be wondering how this relates back to Naropa.  Well, I’ll tell you. Naropa points these things out.  Not overtly, but it does.  Mostly it helps me notice these things about myself, and work on them.  And as someone who puts off this affect of “togetherness,” I really need that.  I need an external force to point out my flaws.  Because let’s face it, I’m bullheaded and I don’t always slow myself down when it’s warranted.  But the longer I’m here, the more I start to notice these things without other people pointing them out, and the more I progress.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Naropa teaches me to be a little less hard on myself for all of this.  It shows me that we all make mistakes, and that there’s wisdom in anger, and that I don’t have to take myself so seriously all the time.

So I’ll admit it to everyone.  My name is Mari, and I’m a Naropaholic.

Thankfully, this sort of “addiction” seems to be helping rather than hurting my spiritual, emotional, and intellectual growth.  So I think I’ll keep at it for a while, and see where it takes me.

Women, Women, Everywhere: The Missing Men of Naropa University

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There are a lot of things you’ll notice within your first few minutes at Naropa—there’s nothing weird about wearing yoga pants for any activity here, hugs tend to go on for potentially uncomfortable lengths of time, and the school has its own vocabulary that is baffling to non-Naropans (including atypical definitions for “contemplative,” “container,” and “space,” just to name a few).  But probably the first thing that you’ll notice, particularly if you’re male, is that Naropa is dominated by women.

In fact, according to Naropa’s facts at a glance page, 61% of first year students are female, compared with the 39% who are male.  And while I couldn’t find any percentages for the TCP specifically, I suspect that the numbers are even more skewed.  Admittedly, these statistics don’t take into account individuals who do not identify as “male” or “female,” but no matter how you look at it, there are a lot of women here.  I’m sure that these figures won’t surprise anyone who’s wandered the halls for more than five minutes, but to the unknowing applicant, this may be somewhat surprising.

Furthermore, the men at Naropa seem to have a different sort of affect than many American guys.  While I don’t have any stats to back this up, my own personal observation has been that many of the men here are decidedly more connected with their emotions, more ready to engage in dialogue, and less inclined to assert the stereotypically qualities that are often associated with masculinity.

Which should be great, right?  Well, it depends who you are.  If you’re a woman, having this many other women around is probably pretty nice.  You can express your feelings with the knowledge that if someone complains about you being “too emotional,” that person is probably in the minority and will likely be socially castigated.  Plus, in the classroom, the discussions tend to be very accepting of women’s struggles in a largely patriarchal society, and acknowledgement of sexism is expected.

But what about the men?

I’ve brought up this topic to a few men outside of Naropa, and their responses have been invariably the same: “awesome.”  Yes, most non-Naropan men that I’ve talked to don’t seem to mind the idea of having two women for every man in every class (if not more).  However, the reality is not necessarily so cheery.  Because after a while, it gets tiring.

Think about it this way.  Women tend to have a sense of community.  We gravitate toward each other for support.  If a woman is crying in the bathroom, many other women will stop to see if she’s okay, and offer her a tissue.  Women chat with each other at bus stops.  When we’re clothes shopping, we can probably go up to almost any other woman and ask for her opinion about the dresses we’ve tried on, without worrying about it.  Women complement each other, help each other out, and generally look out for each other.  And when there are this many women in one place, we tend to form a pretty tight knit community.

But what about the guys?  What happens when you’re one of three men in a class of twenty five?  What happens when that class starts discussing sexism, and suddenly all of these hurt, frustrated women who have never been able to express this stuff in a safe setting let loose their stories of injustice?

Not sure? Well, what would it feel like to be the one of three women in a class of twenty five men who are discussing how angry they are at women?

No matter how you look at it, there’s bound to be some discomfort.  And this entire program is mostly women.  That means that men spend several days per week, for three to four years in a setting where they are bound to feel like an outsider at least part of the time, if not more often.  That alone would be enough to make a person’s life more difficult.

But as I said, women tend to have a sense of community that men often don’t have.  Of course, men have friends and colleagues that they get along with, and many men have female friends.  But it’s not quite the same in some ways.  Men aren’t used to looking to each other for emotional support.  Men who show vulnerability in dominant U.S. culture are often insulted and ridiculed, and sometimes just showing emotionality is considered grounds for physical violence.

I have spoken to a few men in this program, and while most of them don’t feel exactly unwelcome here, many do feel a certain degree of isolation.  This is particularly true for men who were raised in families or cultures where the “stiff upper-lip” mentality was prevalent.

Alright, so why did I choose to write a lengthy blog post about it?  Well, for two reasons.

The first reason is for the men at Naropa.  I can’t understand your experience, necessarily, but I do acknowledge it.  And I want you to know that I am choosing to be consciously aware of it as often as possible.  Please know that your presence here is important, and that I value your opinions as much as those of the women in this program.  I know it might be harder to speak up in class on gender-related issues, but I for one will always be interested in what you have to say.

The second reason is for the women here.  We need to be aware of this.  I know that we’re used to not having the privilege that men have, and that suddenly being in an institution where our sex is well-represented, both in the student body and in the faculty, can be incredibly comforting.  But please remember that not everyone here is comforted by this, and as the majority, we have a certain degree of power here.  We must use it responsibly.  I believe that it is our responsibility to keep ourselves from crowding out the men at Naropa.  So I’m asking you to let the men in your classes know that you value their opinions and their presence here.

Finally, I am interested to know more about the experiences of men here at Naropa.  Can you identify with this, or has your experience been different?  Please post your thoughts, if you feel comfortable doing so.  I am eager to hear your voice.

Therapy-Lite: Naropa’s Sink-or-Swim Approach to Counseling


This week, I found myself sitting in a chair across from someone else, with the hope that in the next twenty minutes I would find a way to make a difference in her life.  Although I have only been in this program for 6 weeks, I am already scheduling therapy sessions (albeit practice ones) with real clients who expect me to know what I’m doing.  No pressure, right?

Actually, right.

I think this is the hardest thing I’ve had to learn at Naropa so far, and I am by no means finished learning it.  Most American graduate psychology programs involve a great deal of theory, research, and general book-knowledge.  Of course, Naropa requires some of that too, but the vast majority of the work that we do here is experiential.  And the plain truth is that you can’t study for that.  Unless you go around finding extra people to be practice clients in your own time, you will invariably go into your first few (or possibly, first many) sessions feeling ill-equipped, inadequate, and largely like a bull in a china closet.

But here’s the catch: if you’re anxious about about seeming professional and about being a “good therapist,” this will probably keep you from succeeding.  Why?  Because therapy isn’t about you.

This bears repeating: therapy is about your client.  The therapist is merely a facilitator.  Your client’s responsibility is to be vulnerable, to explore painful and uncomfortable feelings, and to identify and alter the cognitive and emotional blocks that prevent growth.  The therapist’s job is to basically support the client through this process.  We aren’t here to make brilliant analyses of our clients’ defense patterns, or provide illuminating insight and epiphanies.  We’re here to make a connection with our clients, to provide that interpersonal x-factor that allows them to feel safe enough to become an emotional mess and then sort through it.

Are there techniques, guidelines, and skills that we can utilize?  Of course.  But those are secondary.  Study after study has shown that the type of methodology used is largely irrelevant if that therapeutic connection, that relationship between the therapist and the client, is not sufficiently strong and sufficiently intimate.

But wait…intimate?  You mean we should be mushy and vulnerable with our clients?  Well, yes.  The real key difference between a therapeutic relationship and a regular (non-sexual) relationship is that in a therapeutic relationship, the entire purpose of the interaction is for the benefit of one person: the client.

And that takes practice.   It is virtually impossible for a student at my level of training to get this yet…and I certainly don’t.  I have ideas, and vague sensations about what works and what doesn’t, but ultimately getting this requires time.

So how did my first therapy session go?  Well, I fumbled around a lot.  I said “um” no less than 64 times in 35 minutes, and I laughed at completely inappropriate moments.  I asked superficial questions that didn’t really relate to my client’s content, and I repeatedly felt inadequate, unskilled, and generally ineffective.  And that’s perfectly normal.  We aren’t therapists yet.  We’re just babies in this world of therapy, and we’ve got to learn to roll over, and then crawl, and eventually walk, long before we can run marathons.

So for all of you who are feeling like you’re blundering around, playing therapist as though you knew what you were doing, but secretly trying to figure out why you signed up for this program, trust me–you’re right on schedule.  And personally, I feel better knowing that we’re all learning the hard way, and that when our trial-by-fire is past, we’ll be better therapists for it.

7 Things You Will Learn in Your First Month as a Naropa Grad Student

Today is the first day of my fourth week of classes, which can only mean one thing: life is getting complicated!  The amount of reading and writing is intense enough, but when that is combined with the emotional upheaval that this program produces, the result is quite a bit of frantic rushing around attempting not to go crazy.

So, in light of this madness, I thought I’d write a list of 7 important things I have learned as a Naropa grad student in the last few weeks:

  1. You will never be able to finish all of the reading and still have a life.
    I’m serious about this one.   I’ve already had two of my instructors (that’s half of them) tell me that they simply don’t expect their students to complete all of the reading.  At this point, I am at least skimming all of the online material, and I am thoroughly reading through the physical texts.  This puts me at somewhere between 15 and 20 hours of reading per week.  To give you some perspective on this, if I were working a job at $12.00 per hour, I could earn up to $240.00 in the time it takes me to do each week’s reading.  Simply put, if you have a commute, a family, a job, or anything else that takes a major percentage of your time, completing all of this reading will likely be impossible.  But that’s okay, because your instructors understand that.  Just make sure you get the basic idea for what’s being learned that week, and come prepared with notes and questions on anything you come across that doesn’t make sense.
  2. Everything you could usually do easily will now be difficult.
    Naropa is designed to make you flip out.  The psychology program here is based on the idea that if you haven’t dealt with your own psychological issues, you will be in no position to help anyone else with theirs.  This means that Naropa will bring up all of those dark, uncomfortable, lurking things in the corners of your mind that you really don’t like paying attention to, and it will make them your new best buddies.  You will be thinking about these things as you go shopping, as you do homework, as you exercise…basically there’s no escaping from them.  Which means that you may start sobbing halfway through dinner and have no idea why.  You will feel emotionally drained, you will be irritable for no apparent reason, and you may even find yourself hysterically laughing at the most inappropriate times.  Basically, it’ll be like going through puberty again (without the uncomfortable physical issues), so don’t rush yourself.  Give yourself time to get things done, and leave room for interruptions.  Which brings me to my next point:
  3. The time will go faster than you think; don’t procrastinate!
    Reading takes longer for some of us than for others, but when there’s this much homework, it will take a long time no matter what.  And since classes only meet once a week, there’s a lot of information packed into each class session.  Furthermore, instructors will not be as lenient with deadlines as they may have been during your undergraduate studies.  Many papers can significantly impact your grade (think up to 25% on average, if not more), and anything below a ‘B-‘ grade counts as failing.  Complaints of printer malfunctions, hard drive crashes, and sudden food poisoning will probably not garner you any leniency.  So do not procrastinate! Your success as a grad student depends on this.
  4. Your relationship will probably get rocky.
    I think people often discount this point, which is a big mistake.  When stress runs high, and emotions run wild, relationships suffer.  Combine this with the major time constriction brought on by mounds of homework, and it suddenly becomes incredibly difficult to show your partner that you care.  To counteract this, you’ll need some pretty good time management skills.  Schedule date nights for the two of you (and don’t bring your books, or you might be tempted to study).  Get out of the house and take a relaxing walk, drive up to into the mountains, splurge on a full service meal at the lovely Dushanbe Tea House–anything that will allow you two to spend quality time together.  You may also want to start practicing nonviolent communication, for when those inevitable arguments pop up.  I’ve even heard of people scheduling fights for later, so that the tension has a chance to decrease before you discuss volatile material.  Sound crazy?  Wait until you’re in it.
  5. You will start to see the things you’re learning everywhere.
    You will learn about projection, and suddenly you’ll understand that your mom is taking out her frustration about your dad on your brother.  You’ll learn about Piaget’s stages of development, and you’ll start to notice that there really are significant differences between 3 year olds and 4 year olds.  Everything you learn in these classes will start to make sense in your daily life.  Some of it is nice, like the positive effects of meditation on awareness and attention-span.  But some of it will be more difficult, like noticing the subtle racial slurs spoken by the people behind you at the checkout counter.  Whatever happens, just know that you will start to see the world differently than you used to.  This is a good sign.  It means you’re growing.
  6. If you don’t take extra good care of yourself, you will get sick.
    Since the start of this program, I have been devouring veggies and flushing my system with ginger tea and plenty of water.  I’ve been exercising regularly, and trying to get enough sleep.  The good news?  I haven’t gotten sick.  But a lot of people have.  I learned in my Human Growth & Development Throughout the Lifespan class last week that the stress hormone cortisol suppresses your immune system.  This means that when you’re stressed out from all of the work, your body can’t protect itself as easily.  When you combine that with a poor diet, insufficient sleep, or inactivity, the results are disastrous.  And once one person gets sick, it’s that much more likely that everyone else in their class will.  So take care of yourself.  Don’t sabotage your efforts by being lax about your health!
  7. You will probably be very emotional, in class, in front of lots of people.  This is actually encouraged.
    Although this is 7th on the list, it is perhaps one of the most important things to know.  Not only does Naropa stress you out, make you sick, and take up all of your free time, it makes you wildly emotional.  As mentioned in point #2, the program is designed to bring up all of your “shadow” issues, and it’s generally pretty successful.  And the more trauma you have experienced, the more intense this will likely be.  But that’s okay.  Naropa actually encourages you to feel what you’re feeling, and express it.  If you’re discussing a difficult issue in class, and it brings up traumatic memories, you may start crying right then and there.  But nobody will think badly of you for it.  In fact, I haven’t had a single class yet where someone hasn’t cried.  You don’t have to throw caution to the winds and disclose your entire past, but don’t worry too much about opening up either.  Naropa puts a lot of work into making sure you’ll be supported.
  8. Bonus: It will be worth it.
    I’m sure that this all sounds pretty intimidating, but the reality is that it’s worth it.  This program melts you down, and forges you into something stronger than you were.  Not only does it teach you how to be a great therapist, it teaches you how to be great at being you–how to appreciate and trust yourself, and how to know what you need.  If you can get past the reading, writing, crying, stressful aspects of the program, you’ll come to appreciate the incredible change in yourself, and you’ll know that you were responsible for making it happen.

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