In the Tools blogs I have written since the re-incarnation of “Newtopia Magazine,” I have been attempting to flesh out ways of approaching ourselves and our experiences that might be helpful and even transformative for us. Almost all of the “Tools” that I have written about have been picked from the vineyard of psychotherapy as I have come to understand it, over my forty-five years of practice as a psychotherapist. This month I decided to write about the process of psychotherapy itself as a tool of transformation, since I recognize how much my work on myself in therapy transformed me and changed the way I experience myself and my life, and how much the healing that comes from this process has helped many of my clients. I want to emphasize that these transformations took place little by little, rather than through a big bang experience. I definitely experienced some major catharses myself along the way in my therapy that were mind expanding, emotional revelations, but the results of these experiences evolved slowly and needed to be nurtured and supported with ongoing practice and attention.
My plan for my next few articles is to attempt to illustrate some of the transformational lessons that one learns as a client in psychotherapy. These learnings are going to seem very simple and obvious at first, and perhaps they should. For me, however, and for many of my clients, seem mind boggling. It can take some time to realize that the foundations that we build for ourselves in childhood and adolescence are often flawed, overblown, and hopelessly inadequate to support a healthy and fulfilling life. What follows here will hopefully give you some sense of how we can come to this life changing realization and move on to build a healthier foundation for ourselves.
One of the first important learnings that we can have when we first enter therapy is that we have an important story to tell, and that we need to find our voice and tell it. The story we need to tell is the “actual” unexpurgated story of our lives, not the glamorous version that we create to protect ourselves from what has actually happened to us. In the family I grew up in everything was supposed to be fine. We were a close, happy, loving family of intelligent and industrious people, ambitious, strong, and interesting. My parents were good people, churchgoing, active in the community, and supportive of education. My mother was active in the PTA, my father in the Lions Club, and the Masons, and an officer of the Church’s Vestry. We were a happy family and everything was great! This, of course, is the highly idealized version of the Goforth family’s story. Each of us has such a story that emphasizes the positive version of ourselves and our families, and tends to eliminate and minimalize the unvarnished truth of whom we are and where we came from.
Because of my insistence on my myth’s veracity, it was not surprising that the only reason, in my mind, for going into therapy was that I wanted to be a psychotherapist. I didn’t think of myself as having problems that I needed to work on. I felt good about knowing that anyone who wanted to be a therapist should experience what it was like to be a client. So when my therapy group members attempted to get to know me, what they got from me was very unsatisfying. They were not about to accept, however, that as a member of the group, I would only be there to learn to be a good therapist. So, as often happens when someone has created a fiction, the group members and the therapist began to confront me, fairly gently at first, expressing that they felt there was more to my story than I was revealing. This is usually what happens when anyone enters therapy for the first time. The story we have about our lives gets reflected back to us in a way that asks us to look more deeply into it.
Here are some of the things we might learn from our first experiences in therapy. We can discover that we have unconsciously deleted the more painful parts of our story: our losses and failures, the trouble that we got ourselves into, the level of craziness that existed in our extended family, for example. The alcoholism or drug addiction of a family member is likely to show up when we begin to reveal our true story. For example, I had completely deleted my Grandmother’s psychotic break with reality after my Father remarried, one year after my Mother died. I also skipped quickly over the painful years that my sister and I lived with our new step-mother, a woman who had no parenting skills, and who did not like children. I certainly had not forgotten that these painful things happened to my sister and me, but I had pushed the events all the way to the back of the filing cabinet of my memory. I had so much anger for my stepmother that I eventually dropped her out of my story altogether. Many of us discover that we have glossed over the realities and consequences of what happened to us in an attempt to keep our idealized self intact. For me, my glossy version of myself was that of a happy, intelligent young man, who was a good person, and who expected to live a happy and fulfilling life. I almost completely overlooked that I had suffered two terrible losses and that I was filled with grief.
As you might expect, when my therapist and my group pushed me to get in touch with my losses and my need for healing, it caused me a lot of anxiety. It also did something quite wonderful for me at the same time. I began to open up to my own story, and even more importantly, to the emotions that I was carrying just below the surface of my consciousness. A good therapist can provide a climate in which the expression of one’s truth is supported, and intimacy and openness are encouraged. This was new territory for me and it often is for many of my clients. Families can be close, but they may not be intimate. In a healthy family problems can be talked about, and what each family member feels can be expressed and listened to. In many families conflicts and difficulties are not mentioned or are blamed on a particular family member. In some families the only emotions that are allowed are the happy ones. My father was allowed to be angry and to punish us for selfishness and inconsideration, but my sister and I were not permitted to feel angry. I was taught, as so many boys were at this time, that crying, hurt, and vulnerability were unmanly. It was OK for my sister and my Mother to cry. This was part of being female, but my father was intolerant of hurt, or sadness, and was not particularly comforting if any of us were upset. If I cried or showed hurt or fearful feelings, he taunted me with shame inducing words like “Momma’s boy” or “pantywaist.” I didn’t know what a pantywaist was, but I was certain I did not want to be one.
Being in a therapy can introduce us to a new universe in which it is understood that human beings are emotional and vulnerable. We will be encouraged to get in touch with and express what we feel. In a group setting, the group members are often accepting and supportive when anyone expresses their pain and unhappiness. It took me some time to integrate what I was learning in the group, but the process felt liberating and humanizing. I began to feel some acceptance for myself as an emotional person, who needed to feel and express what was going on inside him. I wasn’t very good at these new skills, but somehow I knew that what I was learning would be very important to my healing and growth as a person. In the context of being listened to and understood, the importance of our stories starts to become clear, as does the knowledge that it is our real stories that need to be told, listened to, and empathized with.
A second realization can emerge as well. Not only is it important to tell one’s real story, it is equally important that the story be listened to by someone who is interested in you and who is able to care about you. That experience broadens our map of what an OK human being looks like. At that time in my life, in order to be seen as a good person, I believed that I had to have my act totally together. I needed to portray myself as an ambitious and successful person. No flaws in the armor were permitted. Any injury or disappointment was unimportant. A real man was confident, courageous and strong. All wounds were mere flesh wounds that could be overlooked and dealt with later. No weakness would be tolerated or accepted. For me, the ideal masculine image was of the Gallant Knight, a skilled and courageous warrior who was prepared to fight against all odds, to protect women and children no matter what the cost, and to lay down his life if necessary to protect his family or his country. These were the virtues of war. My father spent two years in the South Pacific fighting the Japanese, when I was a very small child. Like most Veterans of that War, he passed on the virtues of the warrior to his son, virtues which were invaluable in fighting an enemy who is trying to destroy you, but insufficient and nearly irrelevant when you are participating in loving relationship.
My group therapy experiences, not only in that first group, but in training groups that followed, taught me that it was possible to be both sensitive and strong. I began to catch a glimpse of how important it was to soften and surrender to the experiences of being loved and cared for. I began to learn how essential it was to be able to express tender, loving feelings, not only for the woman I loved, but for my male “brothers” who had needs, vulnerabilities, and fears of being hurt, afraid and ashamed, just as I did. I was years away from being able to understand fully the role of shame in my development, but I began to know that I was going to need to understand and accept all the experiences that had affected me in childhood and adolescence. This is one of the many important rewards of being in therapy. We can learn to be accepting and appreciative of the full range of our human experience, and begin to free ourselves from feelings of shame and guilt that bind us up and create anxiety and depression.
Although I have written of many of these experiences before, here I am trying to put them in the context of being a client in therapy. Without knowing it fully, a number of shifts in one’s consciousness, and a multitude of insights, understandings, and revelations begin to take shape that are both liberating and inspiring. In this series of blogs, I hope to be able to point to more experiential lessons that can emerge from and are inspired by choosing the path of psychotherapy. If this installment has been a useful introduction to what can be derived from telling your story to someone who will listen empathically, to how important it is to find your voice and to tell your true story, and to how meaningful it is to have your story received and reflected back to you in an accurate and insightful way, then I have succeeded in revealing the first steps on the path. The climate of psychotherapy is meant to be one in which we can feel understood, accepted and appreciated for who we are, so that we can begin to embrace ourselves with love, acceptance, and appreciation. This is the healthy foundation on which we can come to stand, where we are true to ourselves, and strengthened by understanding both where we came from, and what can become possible for us when we accept ourselves fully.
My thanks to you, dear readers for following this blog, and my gratitude and appreciation to Toby Landesman for her wild and wonderful photography, and to fine artist Tracy Taylor for her fierce Cowboy painting. You will find Toby on the Web: tobylandesmanphotographics.com. Visit Tracy Taylor’s site here: http://www.tracymtaylor.com/index.html.
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Article Written by Thomas Goforth
Newtopia staff writer THOMAS GOFORTH is a psychotherapist and pastoral counselor working in Chicago, IL. He was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 1967 and served as Chaplain to the Cook County Jail and the Chicago House of Correction while working for St. Leonard’s House, one of the first halfway houses in the country.. He did draft counseling and community organizing during the Viet Nam War, and was one of the founding members of the Lincoln Park Therapy Collective, an all volunteer organization which provided free group therapy for people living on the North Side of Chicago from 1968 until the mid 80′s.He helped organize the first crisis phone line in Chicago, and later helped train the staff counselors for Kool Aide Youth Emergency Services and Metro Help. He was an actor in the Free Theater Company and Rapid Transit Guerrilla Communications, two groundbreaking political theater companies performing in Chicago during the late 60′s and early 70′s. In the 80′s he helped found the Milton H. Erickson Institute of Chicago and became its third president and a member of its teaching faculty. At the invitation of Charles Shaw, he became the acting “Pit Boss” of the New Poetry Collective, the poetry arm of Newtopia Magazine in its first incarnation. Follow him at Twitter @thomas_goforth.