I see therapists as surgeons of the soul who have learned to help clean out the wounds of clients who come to us for healing themselves and then sew them back up. It is an honor to be in that role. It doesn’t come without its own challenges. One came up recently that I have needed to address and remember the adage, “Healer, heal thyself.”
It began with a bit of muffling in my hearing in my right ear. As a swimmer in my youth, I was accustomed to ‘swimmer’s ear’ with a sloshing feeling, but this felt entirely different. I swallowed and it cleared for a bit. Then it leapt across my head to the left. I tapped into what I knew to do; wax dissolving ear drops, anti-histamine, essential oils massaged around the outside of the ears. My holistically- and medically-oriented friends had other suggestions, with one being visiting my PCP and have him flush out the ear canals. As I am wont to do, I chose that as the last resort, thinking I was too busy, or it would somehow clear on its own.
I also consulted the work of Louise Hay, author and speaker whose classic book You Can Heal Your Life highlights specific physiological and psychological conditions and her take on the emotional contributing causes. Note that it is not meant to be diagnostic or offering medical advice. It is merely something to consider and speaks to the idea that our thoughts are powerful and can influence our sense of wellness or illness.
She relates the ears to the capacity to hear. – Ache: Anger. Not wanting to hear. Too much turmoil. Household arguing.
As someone who is anger avoidant, which I attribute to family patterns of same; rarely was it expressed in my childhood home, I learned to submerge it. In my marital home, it sometimes erupted with ferocity (on occasion words would come out of my mouth that shocked me) while my husband was intimately familiar with explosive expression since that was modeled in his childhood home. As a therapist, I feel called to help clients with assertive but not aggressive verbalizing of their feelings. I often sit with those whose relationships are missing an easy verbal flow. Some have no idea how to say what is in their hearts or on their minds. I listen with presence, taking in what they are saying as we craft conversation with those who matter to them. Some of them are in tumultuous circumstances in which arguing, and anger run rampant.
My ability to hear is crucial, so when my ears began to clog (imagine placing your palms over your ears and holding them there), I felt the fear rising. “What if it doesn’t get better? How will I do my job?” Of course, there are therapists in successful practices who are deaf or hard of hearing, and yet I didn’t want to find myself in that situation.
Over the weekend, I taught two workshops and had to tell the participants my dilemma and asked them to speak a little louder. I practiced lip read skills and on occasion requested that they repeat themselves. I took a deep breath and reassured myself that I had over the years recovered from a series of health crises; shingles, heart attack, kidney stones, knee injury and pneumonia. I had no reason to believe this would be any different.
As I often do, I consider how I would advise a client in the same situation. I would encourage them to remain as calm as they could and weigh the options. Yesterday, I sat with my first client who was in grad school who raised the concept of compassion fatigue in which the person in question feels “all gived out,” and needs to replenish their stores. I added that it contains the paradigm of vicarious traumatization whereby the therapist is immersed in what I call “emotion soup,” and may take on the spillover feelings from clients. For those who are especially empathic (more than merely empathetic) who can sense the emotions as if they are experiencing them it is a particularly intense occupational hazard. I fall into that category and feel as if I need to “shake it off,” when some clients complete their sessions. I leave the office and take a walk around the halls and return a bit more refreshed. As I was with this particular client, I was able to process my own self-care, or lack thereof.
As I had a break later in the day, I knew I had to call my doctor and see if he could fit me in. Blessedly, he could. A few hours later, I found myself perched on the exam table, holding a spillover container to first one ear and then the other, as he flushed out the wax and wonder of wonders, my complete hearing was restored. No infection, no residual impact.
A relatively simple fix, but one that came after deep exploration of what it means to really listen to my inner voice. I had to be comfortable enough with sitting in relative silence since my chattering monkey mind attempts to distract me. In the midst of the mini-crisis over the weekend, I inquired about what it was that I had not been listening to. It came down to the age-old belief that I could never do enough or be enough, despite the feedback I receive from those I serve. It came down to the worthiness issues I hold. It came down to the shadow I am afraid to face. It came down to the some of the same vulnerabilities that my clients bring to the sessions. It came down to the understanding that if I am to be effective with helping them heal, I need to first have the courage to admit that I can’t be all things to all people. It came down to being authentically vulnerable. It came down to listening to the sounds of silence.