Toward the Light, Part II

I wrote last time about how I agonized over the decision to become a psychotherapist because I just couldn’t find a crystal clear sense of certainty about it. I imagined, though, that once I had made the decision and actually started school, then I would know. Then all would be clear.

And of course—you see this coming, don’t you?—that is not how it was.

I loved the whole school experience: the reading, the writing, the discussions, the immersion in the vast and fascinating world of inner experience. The passionate belief that our inner worlds matter. That we can trust our inner figures and voices. That they do not lead us wrong.

At the same time, I had so many questions about actually being a therapist. How would I make enough money? Where would I work? How would I pay for my student loans? How would I ever make the transition from my 20-year technical writing career into being a therapist? And looming even bigger than all those questions: could I truly help people who came to me with real, big problems? What if someone had a problem like <insert imagined catastrophic scenario here> or, even scarier, a problem like <insert an even more catastrophic scenario here>?

I often had the thought that, yes, I was enjoying the coursework, but I was the one in my cohort who couldn’t actually be a therapist. I was the one who didn’t belong.

And yet I still had a fire in my belly for what I was learning and the experience of learning it. I inhaled it. I wallowed in it, like a pig who has found a glorious, cool mud hole on a hot day. It was divine. I adored it, even though I had to juggle it with full-time work and do homework almost every weeknight and weekend. Even though I had to fly to California once a month for two years to attend school. Even though my schoolwork required me to deeply examine all of my own issues through the lens of everything I was learning. Even though I had to write a Masters thesis—an excruciating but rich process! —in the third year.

I loved it.

And I wrestled with uncertainty the whole time.

I struggled with uncertainty so much that I choose it as the topic of my thesis research: therapists’ experiences with uncertainty. I interviewed therapists at length, all of them oriented in depth psychology. And I found that they all experienced uncertainty in their work. Every single one. In fact, they all said it was crucial to embrace it in their work. Most of them said it was hard to do at times but absolutely crucial. To do otherwise, they all agreed, was to lapse into assumptions and shut down possibilities for their clients. So, quite often, their work was to help their clients be more comfortable with uncertainty too.

Photo Credit: Werner Kunz via Compfight

Photo Credit: Werner Kunz via Compfight cc

Finally, all of it started to sink in. My studies were teaching me that I could trust my internal voices. My thesis research was teaching me that I would lose something if gave up this process for the hollow safety of certainty and that, if I just kept going instead, I would find what I needed. This is how I finally learned that the passion I felt for my studies was enough. It was enough to start with. My inner voices, the very voices I was learning to be the guiding light for clients in therapy, were also the guiding light for me as I found my way in this massive career transition. They were saying, Yes! More! That was all I needed to know at that moment. I might not know The Path ahead, but what I was learning felt right. And I could find my way from there.

I had to return to that idea, that sense of rightness, again and again, each time the process of becoming a therapist required me to step into something new and I felt scared:

  • Doing practice “therapy” for the very first time with acquaintances and friends and also in front of my classmates
  • Working with actual clients for the first time
  • Studying for and taking the oral exam for my Masters degree
  • Writing my thesis—formulating the idea, setting up and carrying out the research/interview process, reading the existing literature, analyzing the interview material, and finally, shaping all of this into a concrete, coherent, and very long piece of writing
  • Studying for and taking the state licensing exam for my intern license
  • Seeing my first clients outside of school, as a licensed intern, which didn’t even get to happen first thing because I was… (see below)
  • Waiting for clients to contact me—to want to do therapy with me, an intern, not some other therapist in the therapist-saturated city of Austin, which stirred up mountains and oceans of angst and self-doubt
  • Waiting for more clients to contact me
  • Starting work in a chemical dependency treatment program

At every one of these points, facing yet another challenge and another round of fear caused me to think about going back to my old tech writing career. Sometimes they were mild, passing thoughts: I could go back. Other times, they were frantic or terrified longings for that old, familiar world: I have got to go back, I can’t keep doing this, this is way too hard and scary.

And at every point, I re-chose my new path. Every time, I actively weighed the two careers against each other, and I realized AGAIN that being a therapist lit me up in a way that technical writing never had and never would. Returning to tech writing would only feel good temporarily—it would mean I could stop pushing to make this new thing happen. I could stop doing the hard, scary stuff. But then I knew the reality of tech writing would quickly set in again. And my soul would feel trapped again. And I would have lost—abandoned—the new thing. I knew, I KNEW, I would deeply regret turning back. And so I chose to forge ahead and do the next hard, scary thing. Again.

Sitting on this side of it now, having just received my full counseling license a few weeks ago, I know that I’m glad I kept saying yes to each challenge. That seems obvious, I think, in the way I am writing about this. Less obvious or understandable, perhaps, is that I also know now that my process of becoming a therapist needed to be like this. I needed to be afraid and yet choose to keep going, again and again. That is how I cemented the decision for myself. That is how I knew I wanted it.

It is also how I’ve learned deep down that I can do it—I can walk through scary places and stay upright and emerge, stronger and more deeply rooted, on the other side. It is how I learned that those scary challenges will keep coming. And it is how I finally learned to let myself lean on others.

It is also how I have learned to be with my therapy clients in their scary places and to be a sturdy support for them.

Does this feel familiar to you? Have you pursued a light through the darkness, even though your knees were shaking? Or are you trying to find the courage to do that now? If so, I hope you will share in a comment. The more we share our struggles, the less alone we feel with them.

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Toward the Light

Finally, the finish line is in sight: the soon-to-be culmination of almost nine years of constant work to become a licensed psychotherapist. I started graduate school in 2006, I started my internship in 2009, and I will attain my full license in the next two or three (thank heavens!) months. I could not possibly have anticipated what a transformative, deeply rewarding, and intensely hard process it would be.

I had no intention of becoming a therapist. It wasn’t something I dreamed of from a young age. Or even from a middle-age sort of age. As the idea came around at various points, I dismissed it almost immediately. My husband said many, many years ago that he thought I would become a psychotherapist. I laughed. And quickly moved on to the next topic in whatever conversation we were having at the time.

Many years before that, I had entered into my own therapy for the first time, seeking some kind of answer to the daily boredom mixed with anxiety that I felt. In the process of that first therapy experience, a lot of the “givens” in my life started to unravel. I felt like I was in one of those movies where someone finds out they have been living entirely in an artificial reality and all the structures they had just accepted as the Truth become suddenly and undeniably false.

I felt liberated but disoriented. I knew now, finally, that I had been contorted inside this box (I didn’t know at the time how many other boxes were still in place), but I still didn’t know what was right for me. An irreversible process had been set in motion, but it would still be a long time before I felt I had found MY path. At one point, I sent off for an application to a graduate school for counseling (Pacifica Graduate Institute, where I ultimately did get my masters degree). The application arrived, I looked at it, and then I stuck it away in a file cabinet where it sat for several years.

Even when I became pretty miserable in my old career and the idea of becoming a psychotherapist started to take on some weight, it still felt a bit crazy. I imagined my family saying, “You’re going to do what?” It felt completely out of left field. But then, what did it feel like to enjoy one’s work? To feel passionate about it? To even know what you enjoyed? I had no idea.

All I knew were Two Things. That my own therapy was the only thing, other than my marriage, that made me feel deliciously awake and alive. And that I really enjoyed helping others and it felt important to find a way to do that. From there, it felt like a leap of faith—did just these Two Things, all by themselves, mean I was supposed to be a therapist? There were pieces missing it seemed. Shouldn’t I know more clearly somehow? Wouldn’t there be some internal ding! of recognition if this were my destined path? I searched and searched within, for days and weeks, waiting for some click. I only told a handful of people, my husband and a couple of close friends, about my ponderings because I wanted to keep the decision as untainted as possible. And still, no click. No ding. Just flopping back and forth between the crystal clear feeling of how deeply my therapy thus far had mattered (and was still at work within me) and the equally clear, it seemed, sense of needing something more concrete to base my decision on.

But nothing else emerged either. No other ideas or inspirations raced forward to say, Here! Here I am! Ding!

So. Desperation born of emergent soul suffocation and the Two Things I Knew won out. I was in a completely dark cave, and I decided to walk toward the only light I could see. Light is light, after all.

Given that I am now a psychotherapist (and that I have found it to be such rich work that is a deeply authentic expression of who I am and my values), you might think that is where the story ends, that the act of starting school gave me the clarity I needed. Yes and no. Which is why I am writing about this here—because it is a helpful reminder to me (and hopefully for you too) that a path that is right and true doesn’t always present itself with banners waving and big, flashing neon signs. It might seem murky. Or impossible to imagine. Usually, it’s scary. And it can remain that way for an uncomfortably long time.

To be continued…

© Amanda Norcross and Learning to Listen to Soul, 2014.

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Sifting and Weighing

As I mentioned last time, I’ve been having a hard time lately writing blog posts. I think one of the biggest reasons is that so much is in-process for me right now. I am in the final year of my counseling internship, and it has been and continues to be an exciting but challenging journey. My time, my mind, and my heart are full, and I am always pushing what they called in graduate school my “growing edges.” I am going through lots of growth inside and out. And it is hard to know how much of that to bring here.

In wrestling with that question, I remind myself that the title of this blog is “Learning to Listen to Soul,” not “Learned to Listen to Soul.” Present tense, not past. Ongoing, never finished. To me, the ongoing nature of the process makes it exciting and hard all at the same time. Finding it exciting is why I created this blog: to share my learning process with you. Finding that same process to also be hard is why I struggle at times, like now.

One of the questions this topic brings up for me, and something I often talk about with my therapy clients, is how much each of us reveals about experiences that are new or still unfolding for us.

By Olesachem (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Sifting, The Manhattan Well Diggers by Olesachem, licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes I need to share what is new—it needs light and air to continue to grow. Sharing it solidifies and nurtures it. Speaking the words furthers it in ways that keeping quiet does not and elicits responses from others that feed it.

Other times, I need to wait to share the new thing. Usually this is because it feels premature to share it. Sometimes it is a process that isn’t done yet. Sometimes the experience is still raw. Sometimes it is a tender, green shoot that I need to protect for a period of time so it can develop sturdier branches and roots before I reveal it to others.

Each of us tends to lean one way or the other: we share too much about what is in-process for us, or we share too little. Sharing too much can leave us feeling vulnerable and exposed. It can also drain the life from experiences that need to incubate in the dark for a while. Sharing too little, on the other hand, can leave us feeling alone and overwhelmed. It can deprive us of crucial support and encouragement so that we miss seeing our strengths and vitality during a challenging time.

When I’m going through a lot, my tendency without question is to share too little. If I’m not careful, I fall into my old pattern of isolating and believing I must handle everything all by myself. And that is what I am continually weighing in deciding what to share here with you, especially right now during this time of intense growth. Which experiences are still too undigested and need to metabolize more? Which things need to be put into words here, even if it feels a bit risky? And if not here, where? And how do I know the difference?

Thank you for letting me sharing my thinking process with you. I realize I do that here sometimes: I talk about my process of sharing, rather than just sharing. But I also know, as both therapist and therapy client, that talking about what it feels like to share your experiences with someone else is just as important as actually sharing them. I value being able to sift through my thinking here about what I’m sharing. I hope it is helpful to you too.

© Amanda Norcross and Learning to Listen to Soul, 2014.

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To Create You Must Keep Going

I’ve been working on various chunks of writing for blog posts for the past many weeks. I wound up feeling dissatisfied and irritated with each one of them. I even wrote a blog post about feeling irritated with them. Then I read an excellent essay by Annie Dillard called “The Writing Life,” and things snapped back into perspective.

One of the things Dillard describes exquisitely is the challenge of writing. I know that to be true, but as happens so often, there is a difference between the idea of it and the actual experience. Knowing in your mind that writing is hard is quite different from sitting there wresting with an actual piece of writing. Having just written about feeling irritated with writing, something in me was soothed by Dillard’s words. It didn’t make writing any easier, but it did help me realize more deeply (again) that, oh yes, this is just how writing is. For all writers. It doesn’t mean I should stop. It doesn’t mean I am creating something horrible. It is just part of the process. The key is to keep going.

Dillard alludes to the process being similar for painters as well, but I think what she says is true of any act of creation, so I’m going to quote some passages of Dillard’s essay here. Whether you’re creating art or a career or a family or yourself, the process is not an easy one, but it is rewarding, even though the result is often not what you had envisioned.

In one passage, Dillard describes the daily routine of working on a particular book. She talks about having to crank herself up.

I pointed myself. I walked to the water. I played the hateful recorder, washed dishes, drank coffee, stood on a beach log, watched bird. That was the first part; it could take all morning, or all month….Now I smoked a cigarette or two and read what I wrote yesterday. What I wrote yesterday needed to be slowed down. I inserted words in one sentence and hazarded a new sentence. At once I noticed I was writing—which, as the novelist Frederick Buechner noted, called for a break, if not a full-scale celebration.

Dillard then talks about drinking more coffee and overcranking herself. Then she draws all over her writing.

Where next? I knew where next. It was within my possibilities. If only I could concentrate. I must quit. I was too young to be living at a desk. Many fine people were out there living, people whose consciences permitted them to sleep at night despite their not having written a decent sentence that day, or ever.

Dillard later says this about the vision you see in your mind’s eye versus the actual words that you end up putting on the page:

The work is not the vision itself, certainly. It is not the vision filled in, as if it had been a coloring book. It is not the vision reproduced in time; that were impossible. It is rather a simulacrum and a replacement. It is a golem. You try—you try every time—to reproduce the vision, to let your light so shine before men. But you can only come along with your bushel and hide it.

And yet she says it is the page that teaches you to write:

…the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nonetheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed threat of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength: that page will teach you to write. There is another way of saying this. Aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood, you will have nothing. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood; aim for the chopping block.

That is, to me, the essence of the process of creation: aim for the chopping block. I can feel when I get focused on the wood, whether it’s in my writing or my psychotherapy work or my personal life. When I am focused on the wood, I feel narrow, restricted, closed in. I tend to get tangled up in the particulars, and then I start to fret or collapse. When I focus on the chopping block, the minutiae recede and I can just keep going, knowing that what underlies is what matters. The essence of what I’m doing is what matters. The cumulative effect and the effort to chop wood, again and again, is what matters. And then the work, whatever it is, unfolds, often in ways I never could have planned in all my fretting.

As Dillard says,” You know that if you proceed you will change and learn things, that the form will grow under your hands and develop new and richer lights. But that change will not alter the vision or its deep structures; it will only enrich it. You know that, and you are right.”

© Amanda Norcross and Learning to Listen to Soul, 2014.

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Revelations of Dirty Hair

“You wash your hair every day?” my hairdresser said kindly, but clearly surprised.

“Um, yes,” I said. I instantly felt I’d been caught in the act, though I’d no idea there was an act to be caught in.

In that moment, we suddenly realized that, even though she had been cutting my hair for 14 years, we had somehow not talked about this really important topic before. I had been working for years to imbue my fine hair with body and volume, something that all people with fine hair have to work at and that, apparently, some manage by not washing their hair every day.

Broom Bristle Landscape

Broom Bristle Landscape (Photo credit: wayne’s eye view)

After we laughed at ourselves and recovered from our surprise, we talked about a no-washing schedule to try. I had this image in my mind of walking around looking awful with obviously greasy hair, but I understood the logic of letting my hair be dirtier and was actually excited to give it a try. I’ve been doing it for a couple of months now (just to be clear, I rinse my hair every day and only wash it every three days), and the difference has been pretty miraculous.

I’ve also been thinking about what I have learned from this seemingly ordinary experience. Well, not so much learned because I already knew these things in some ways, but it feels like I integrated them in a whole new and profound way because they surprised me by emerging out of the most mundane situation.

  • Sometimes we have to go against what we have learned is “right”—I know women who don’t wash their hair daily, but it had never occurred to me as something I could do. Something that could be helpful to me. I just assumed it was something other people did and that it wouldn’t work for me. It was just a given in my mind that I had to wash my hair every day or it would look awful. Lo and behold, the thing that I thought would be terrible is the very thing that I needed to do. It required a big mental shift (including breaking the habit of grabbing the shampoo bottle when taking a shower), but my hair is much happier and healthier for it.
  • Sometimes simple is betterIt is so easy to get caught up in thinking you need all these fancy hair products and techniques to make your hair look good. While I have always tried to keep my hair situation really simple, I’d been struggling for years, as I’ve been letting my hair get longer, to figure out how to give it body and volume. While most of the products and tricks I’d tried worked pretty well, I’d had to work at it more than I wanted to and still felt a bit dissatisfied. I didn’t realize how forced it all was until I just let my hair be dirty and do its natural thing. Isn’t that how we are in life sometimes? We think something has to be really complicated, and we suddenly discover that we can do something more simple or just let it be and all will be well.
  • Sometimes dirty is betterDirt has a purpose. It is useful. Plants grow out of dirt. It has nutrients and all kinds of good stuff in it. And yet we shun it so much. Sometimes dirt (or in the case of hair, oil) is the very thing we need. Sometimes in life we just need to be in the mud (metaphorically speaking)—in the messiness, in the darkness—and let things grow and incubate in that place. The image of the lotus flower blooming out of the mud is powerful for people for a reason.
  • Sometimes you can do what you need to do for you, and no one else has to know—Okay, so I’ve put this out here in a public forum where people will see it (and I can imagine my hair will be getting some extra scrutiny as a result), but really, no one had to know. If I felt not okay sharing it, I didn’t have to. But I could still do it for myself. Maybe there is something you do (or need to do) to take care of yourself or help yourself in some way and maybe you feel weird about it. You can keep it a secret. There is no rule that says you have to share all aspects of yourself with others. Trust your sense of what feels right to share and what doesn’t. And you can find delicious satisfaction and self-efficacy in knowing you can do what you need to do for yourself without anyone else’s opinion or approval.
  • Our selves (body and mind) can be trusted to let us know what we need—To me, this feels like the most profound lesson from my hair experience. We too often dismiss signals from our body or mind that something is amiss or needed. We can’t always immediately recognize the signals or know how to respond to them, but our bodies and minds are incredibly good at functioning and signaling when there is an inefficiency or problem. My hair, by tending to be limp and flat, was telling me for YEARS that it needed to be dirtier – I even realized that it looked better at the end of the day, when it was good and dirty (and when no one else could see it, darn it) – and yet I didn’t absorb the message until a month ago.  It is miraculous and funny to me that the answer to my hair problem was right there, right in front of me, all along. So even when you don’t recognize the messages from your body or mind about what is needed (or you do, but you don’t know how to respond),  it is still important to remember that the messages are always being conveyed, that they have significance, and that the answers will come. You just have to remain open and curious. And ready to be surprised.

© Amanda Norcross and Learning to Listen to Soul, 2013.

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