Zooming Out: Endings, Reflections, and Meaning-Making

In the process of coming to know and understand one’s emotions, and indeed one’s self, an important aspect of the process is self-reflection. Some therapy communities refer to this as ‘meaning-making,’ others as ‘meta-processing,’ or ‘consolidating’. (Check this final link out for intel on why cramming is physiologically inferior to studying spaced out over time, and why a nap after therapy may help you get your money’s worth!) Educators and SA Professionals may be more familiar with the concept as laid out in Kolb’s Reflective Cycle. While each of these articulations will include different nuances and subtleties, they all include a process of active reflection upon the processes and/or outcomes that emerge from engaging in any new endeavour or experience. That is what I have given myself space for in this final post in this series – reflecting upon the journey of writing Focus On Emotions, consolidating and making meaning of what I have learned, and creating a good ending to scaffold whatever the next new beginning will be.

The journey of writing this series started on the subway as I made my way back downtown from York University after facilitating at a training workshop for therapists on the practice of Emotion Focused Therapy. My thoughts (and feelings) were spinning and I decided to type as I rode. As I was consolidating and thinking through facets of what I had learned, taught, experienced, and witnessed, I wrote some of my ideas down and idly toyed with the idea of submitting a short article to the #RyersonSA blog. Then, I did nothing for 18 months. My own inner critic voice drowned out the excitement and thoughts of writing with images of humiliation, fears of making mistakes, and nausea at the thought of being judged (we call this a projected critic, by the way – assuming that others view you the way you view yourself in your darkest moments).

When I finally bit the bullet and submitted a first draft of “Coming Out: The Superfeeler in Our Midst” to then-editor Luke Gobert, he loved it. As we spoke about my hesitation in submitting this piece, the idea of including my self-critical voice in the writing process was born, as was the idea for a series focusing on emotion and well-being. My goal was to create a series of accessible posts that would inform and educate SA Professionals, training therapists, and prospective clients about the science and practice of working directly with emotion in promoting well-being.

It has been surprisingly difficult to sit down and start this last entry in the Focus on Emotion series. To be fair, I don’t love endings. In fact, I often avoid them. I’m not proud of that. I really do believe that every good beginning starts with a good ending (And, I wish I could remember who first said that to me – whoever you are, thank you – I quote you often).

My initial plan was to write 12 posts in as many months. In the end, this journey has spanned 14 posts over two years. Along the way, I have learned to allow myself to slow down and to enjoy the process along the way to completing a goal. I have learned to be flexible, allowing time and space for other priorities and dreams as needed. This strikes me as especially meaningful at this time of year when, in the post-secondary landscape, so many students, staff, and faculty are shifting from the excitement of new goals, projects, and adventures to the perseverance, grit, self-compassion, and detours needed to fulfill so many of our short- and long-term goals.

The process of writing this series has involved finding my voice in ways that I would not previously have imagined possible. I have spent a fair bit of time, especially early on, combating my own inner critic which has quieted substantially as self-compassion and confidence in this new arena have indeed increased. In the end, I feel proud of this series, and as I reflect upon that feeling of pride, I can take it in and enjoy it as a positive experience (which by the way, is an example of meta-processing).

“Self: Some of these posts you’ll be proud of, some you won’t. Some will be well crafted, while others may be rushed. Hope each may inspire curiosity about emotion itself, greater understanding of an emotion-focused perspective on human change and development, and a desire for greater understanding of self and others. Checking in, you feel excited … and a little nervous. You’re ready to more fully enjoy what has lain in the dark.”

–Sarah Thompson, 2016

Throughout the process of writing this series, I have found myself often thinking about my “Granny T.” She was a very important woman in my life and was, among many other things, a writer. For years, she wrote a weekly column called “The Farmer’s Wife” in a series of small rural community newspapers. The title alone speaks volumes about the opportunities she was afforded as a bright woman growing up in rural Eastern Ontario during and following the Depression. (Spoiler alert: there were few – at least as viewed through the lens of 2018). In part, writing this series has served as a stark reminder of the profound opportunities I have had and continue to have – to attend university, to complete graduate degrees, to work in a field I am passionate about, and to have the resources needed to access physical and mental health care when I have needed it.

I have envisioned, throughout this project, focusing this last article on unpacking the self-critic arc that appears throughout the series. I had imagined, in this final article, walking the reader through the changes in the self-critic arc as a teaching tool highlighting how change happens in Emotion Focused Therapy, using this discussion as a concrete example of how to change emotion with emotion. However, the reality is that this arc was messy…and was a great learning experience in the necessity of fully planning out key elements of a series from beginning to end ahead of time. While not as neat and tidy as I might have imagined, as I have reflected upon the evolution of this self-critic arc, four things have jumped out at me:

  1. Planning a story arc over several articles (or chapters, or workshops, or lectures) is challenging and is a real skill that can be honed!
  2. It’s easy to get lost between content and process – this is true in therapy also. While spontaneity and genuineness are important, so is content and planning. The process of writing this arc wasn’t what I thought it would be. It wasn’t smooth, linear, or straightforward. I didn’t have a clear sense of where I was going at first – I wrote largely based on intuition (feelings sitting upon a foundation of prior learning, pattern recognition, and procedural knowledge, not well articulated in linguistic [or declarative] memory). If I were to write this series again, I would focus more on clarifying and refining the inner critic arc purposefully throughout the series – having a clear guideline for the role and development of the critic voice in each segment, and then focusing on genuine self-critical expressions within that framework – nesting spontaneity within structure if you will. This is a lot like experiential therapies, where the therapist holds expertise in the process of working with emotions, and the client is supported in spontaneously experiencing and expressing their inner world with focused guidance from the therapist. Through this process the the therapist follows the client along the threads of emotion, to what is most poignant and salient amidst the myriad details of their story. The therapist then leads certain processes aimed at transforming painful experience – transforming “maladaptive” emotion with “adaptive” emotion.
  3. My critic has changed. A lot.
  4. Vulnerability is, in my continued opinion, a positive force in the world…and it’s incredibly hard to share with others.

There are also a few lessons I am carrying forward:

  1. Constructive criticism from trusted others is invaluable. Many people are very kind and generous in their feedback and focusing on that is helpful.
  2. Explaining something is a wonderful way to deepen one’s own learning.
  3. It really is ok to fail, to learn, to pick up and start again, to alter goals, expectations, and plans – the key is to keep moving, and when you notice that you are moving in circles, or have stalled, ask for help.
  4. Maybe I want to write a book. As I play with the idea of drafting a book for children, I am putting lessons from this endeavour into practice. I am working hard up front to fully develop my character arcs and plot developments and am engaging in preliminary world-building exercises. And of course, in my world, emotion will be central to the plot lines! While I have no idea where that particular project will end, and if that end will ever include a completed and/or accepted manuscript, I am enjoying the journey and process along the way.

Returning to the evolution of the self-critical dialogue, I notice several changes from beginning to end, some planned, some emergent. The first entries are closer to what I hear when clients first come in to see me for counselling for depression, anxiety, or to work through past traumatic experiences. Their self-critical voice may be harsh, but they have typically developed tools to soothe, manage, contain, or minimize it. My own focus in dealing with early self-criticism included taking a closer look at the content of the criticism, identifying how accurate or inaccurate it was (a common facet of cognitive behavioural therapies), and then later beginning to identify the feelings and experiences it evoked in me (most typical of experiential therapies). I clearly recall the acute vulnerability of beginning to voice my inner critic “aloud” in these articles. This too parallels early stages with my clients, many of whom find it hard to speak aloud how “mean” they actually are to themselves. I am reminded of a powerful video, courtesy of Dove France that I often use for teaching, demonstrating with visceral impact the effects of self-criticism as women confront the messages they deliver to themselves about their own body and appearance. If you have a few minutes, this video will undoubtedly stay with you for a while.

“Inner Critic: How can you write this inconsequential piece when there is such fear and uncertainty in the world? This is pointless! You’re wasting your time.

Self: Inner critic, you’re depressing, literally. When you say these things to me, I feel inadequate and defeated and I just want to give up. Critic, these are uncertain times on so many fronts, but attacking me is inappropriate and unhelpful. Stop being so mean. I’m not going to listen to this anymore.”

–Sarah Thompson, 2016

As I reread this series from beginning to end, I myself found the critic voice to be painful to read at times. My critic in article four, “Orchids and Dandelions: What Kind of Feeler Are You?” was particularly harsh. I edited that entry on the day after Trump was elected; even therapists have bad days. In a prior article, Identifying Feelings in Yourself and Others, the article is arguably going well. It built nicely on articles that came before; it read well, and then boom – the critic voice comes from nowhere and is so jarring. But this is what anxiety is like – it’s not really linked to the here and now. It’s a vestige of our past – a self-protective maneuver, previously learned, to avoid feared consequences in the present – an internal process that rapidly generates symptoms and helps us to effectively avoid whatever lies underneath. Much like in therapy, at this stage, I’m skipping over the impact of my own critic upon me – shifting from self-criticism to fighting back (“Lay off! Be nice!”). But it’s the middle part, actually feeling the impact of self-criticism upon me, and identifying what I really need when feeling its impact where the change happens. And like so many of my own clients, this is what I too was avoiding early on.

“It was like I had a smart operating system that programmed itself optimally to survive in an environment where bad things could happen—then shut down; preventing any new code, optimal to new situations and environments, from getting in.” (Sarah Thompson, 2016)

By the middle articles, I see shifts in my self-critical voice – some feeling forced, some naturally mirroring shifts I was experiencing in working through this series. I begin to portray the critical voice as motivated by a set of values – of wanting to protect me from a greater shame or humiliation. I even forget to include a critic voice in one of the articles – it just didn’t come up! In therapy, clients are often surprised to learn that their inner critic is actually fueled by deeply held values – a desire to achieve a longed-for outcome. Research into self-critical processes in therapy has revealed that it is often (though not always) the inner critic voice that somehow holds a core experience of fear and defends a person’s values or needs: a need for physical or emotional safety, the stability that success represents, or deep acceptance from others. So often, however, the inner critic is working in ways that are no longer helpful in the client’s life.

“Inner Critic: You don’t know enough about this topic. You’re not up to the challenge—the literature is too broad. You should skip this topic and move on.

Self: Listen critic, you’re depressing. It hurts when you say things like that. I feel exhausted and down when I hear this over and over again. Enough already! Why on earth do you work so hard to go after me this way? Just stop it!

Inner Critic: …I don’t want you to get hurt. If you fail, it will hurt too much. It’s better to just not try. Then, you won’t be disappointed.”

–Sarah Thompson, 2017

By the 7th article, on “Emotions in Decision-Making,” we begin to understand that the self-critic voice is a combination of ‘then and there’ reactions to ‘here and now’ triggers. We see that how we treat ourselves can take on a defensive function but one that becomes unhelpful over time (our operating system is no longer being updated in response to current environmental demands). In experiential therapies, we seek to actively create the conditions for change in session – captured through expressions such as ‘feel it to heal it,’ and ‘neurons that fire together wire together.’ We seek to help clients lean into painful internal experiences, to activate associated neural pathways to prime these same pathways for growth and change, and then to help clients to become aware of and maximize alternate healthy reactions in the moment – changing emotion with emotion, if you will. Then, we help clients to reflect and make meaning, to understand their internal processes, including the defensive function (when one exists) and underlying value of patterns of self-criticism, avoidance, anxiety, irritability – and then to understand and lean into what is actually needed in the present to transform old emotion patterns in the service of well-being and goal attainment.

By the end of the series, we see what a transformed critic looks like – no longer abusive, contemptuous, or catastrophizing, but representing a healthy awareness of various aspects of one’s inner world. Ideally, this includes an awareness of current emotion signals, associated underlying needs, and a capacity to act in accordance to meet one’s needs. For individuals who have lived with chronic anxiety or depression through much of their lives, this can be a truly novel experience. For those with secure attachment and routine healthy emotional processes, this is simply daily life.

“Self: I’m having a great day! I felt anxious and tense this morning, listened to a meditation to soothe my nervous system, immersed myself in two hours of writing, got really excited in framing some conceptual arcs for finishing this blog, got hungry and tired, ate, set myself the goal of finishing off one particular section, and then took a break to go outside and enjoy nature. Loved this day!

Inner Critic: Yep. Pretty much!

-Sarah Thompson, 2018

Much like in psychotherapy, change does not typically happen in isolated events or within one location or framework. While writing has contributed strongly to an increase in confidence and self-compassion in my life over the past two years, so have many other experiences:

  • Completing my second term as Clinical Coordinator of Ryerson’s Centre for Student Development and Counselling in June 2017 and stepping “down” into a greater focus on balance. I am an orchid after all, so environment matters a lot to me.
  • Taking on new and rejuvenating professional pursuits like stepping for the first time into the role of trainer at the York University Psychology Clinic, and finally opening my own small private practice here in Toronto.
  • Taking up distance cycling and biking to Ottawa (yep, 450 km in 5 days!) with #RoadToCACUSS in June 2016. I’m proud to say that I completed my first (Imperial) century ride of 100 miles in a day this past summer.
  • Learning to use my voice (loudly!) in martial arts, progressing from white belt to blue belt in the past year.
  • Refocusing on being the kind of parent and partner I want to be in my personal life.
  • Returning to therapy, again, to continue to work on my own processes to facilitate both my own mental health, and my capacity to truly help my clients move through aspects of their own experience that are associated with strong feelings of fear, shame, or anger. It’s hard to take a client to a place that one, as a therapist, is uncomfortable with.

Looking back, the first post is still my favourite. I still feel vulnerable each time I read it, but I don’t feel shaky anymore. I also don’t hear the voice of my critic looming large, but instead experience a lot of self-acceptance and compassion. It’s a lovely feeling, really. It’s also a lovely example of “changing emotion with emotion,” in this case, working with my own self-critical voice (and what I know about emotions and therapy) to co-activate compassion and confidence while also feeling anxiety – helping these response patterns to ‘fire together to wire together’ to strengthen new ‘here and now’ responses to current situations, rather than repeatedly re-experiencing old ‘then and there’ fear-based responses in the present moment. In some ways, I have finally gone back and updated my operating system. There are limits though – it’s not like I have transformed from a MAC to a PC; I am definitely still an orchid.

What impact has this series had on my evolving sense of identity? As I reflect upon this, let me share two favourite quotes from Brené Brown. The first: “People who wade into discomfort and vulnerability and tell the truth about their stories are the real badasses,” (Rising Strong). The second, in addressing her own critics: “I see you. I hear you. But I’m going to show up and do this anyway. And I’ve got a seat for you, and you’re welcome to come, but I’m not interested in your feedback.” (From Why Your Critics Aren’t The Ones Who Count)

As I wrap up, I am enjoying a moment of seeing myself as something of a badass, and (maybe) as a writer. I am taking in and enjoying the knowledge that Granny T would be proud. And, I’m feeling gratitude towards those who have helped me on my own journey towards self-compassion, including John Austin and Luke Gobert, for gently encouraging this endeavour. As you read this final entry, I hope that you too have learned something about yourself, about emotions, and have taken moments for self-reflection along the way. Now go be your own badass and pay it forward!

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