Ask anyone in the healing arts — a therapist of any stripe — what our biggest challenge is, and if they are being honest, they will tell you it’s getting in the other seat.
I mean the other seat in the therapy room.
The client’s seat. The seat for the person who is willing to be vulnerable. The seat for the person brave enough to admit she doesn’t have all the answers. The seat for practicing the critical muscle of receiving.
For the past nearly 20 years, I have been training or serving as a therapist. And I’ve never, not once, met a healer in the healing arts who is as strong at getting vulnerable, or “being in the other seat”, so to speak, as they are at aiming therapeutic goodness outward.
I’ve taught in academia. I’ve healed in the VA system. I’ve cozied up with the private practice clinicians. I’ve served through a non-profit. I’ve worked for a sex-positive corporation. I’ve sweated with the yoga teachers. Run with the radical social justice activists. Boogeyed with the conscious dancers. Joined or founded multiple, grass-roots, peer-lead connection groups.
And yet no matter the terrain, and despite all the other cultural differences, what I have found in common across the health service systems where I have trained is a model of healing founded on contradiction. Saying one thing but practicing another.
I remember where I was when I learned the definition of hypocrite. I must have been 13 or 14 years old.
Sitting in my father’s car, hostage to his aggressive yelling no matter how fast I ran when he said, “Let’s go”, I was bracing against yet another tirade. Somewhere inside as I dissociated into my rapidly developing intellect, I grabbed a hold of a word. “Hypocrisy: the act of saying one thing and doing another”. A tremor shot down my spine, hot and light, as I traveled far away from the density of that tiny, terrible front seat.
While I was growing up, my father worked as a substance-abuse counselor. He founded a Christian based, non-profit adolescent and family recovery center where many people found genuine healing. Even after he closed the doors of the treatment center, Dad served as a a spiritual guide to many. Years after his death, I still hear from people how much they cherished his guidance.
And Dad was also a hypocrite. He had a lot of wisdom. But in his lifetime, he couldn’t get all that beauty reliably into his own bones.
I don’t blame him. My father gave me many gifts. But he was born in an era when we hadn’t yet grabbed a hold of a missing ingredient in our model of healing, the notion of making the healing of the healers a priority.
Revealing that story to you, I am already breaking the code. The implicit agreement woven into the parchment paper of my doctorate that says, we don’t air our wounds. We the providers of healing and health sit comfortably behind our degrees and certifications and talk about what everyone else needs. The problems “over there”. Not…here.
As if we aren’t made of the same messy, dripping, breakable human substance.
But it’s neither pleasant nor sustainable back here. It’s lonely. The role of therapist often squeezes out the presence of human. It’s often very confusing. If I’m not serving you, who am I?
My kind are sometimes referred to as the “Wounded Healers”, the idea being that our healing gifts flowed through the place where life also marred us. That is true for me.
Early in life I lost my primary caregiver to sudden illness. Dad raised us and I believe did his best in a tragic circumstance. It fell short. So I grew tall. But not without sustaining significant wounds around my sense of safety, belonging and being loved.
My work as an adult involves creating communities where people feel they belong and helping broken hearts mend, a la, the work of the Wounded Healer. The work I myself most need.
I think there’s something beautiful about giving to the world what I most need. However, the way the professional healing role is currently designed, there’s no way I myself can get access to the thing I’m offering. I would have to de-compartmentalize and admit those threads of humanity that bind me to the people I sit across from every day.
I’m no longer satisfied by this fragmented personality of mine. Compartmentalization is the hygienic word for dis-integrated. I want to get messy. Mostly I want to get healthier.
I think it’s time to diligently evolve into the healing healers. I believe the era of the self-sacrificial healer has run its course.
“What if they knew”, seems to be an inner chorus sung to a fearful tune by the wounded healers hiding behind our professional veneers. What if they knew how — “fill in the blank” — I am. How much my life is falling apart, how sad I get, how lonely I feel, and so on.
I suggest that particular timorous chorus is on to something. It’s just 180 degrees wrong. IF THEY KNEW, WE COULD ALL HEAL.
If my clients knew how human I am, they might feel more permission to forgive themselves to be human, too.
If they knew, they would no longer be striving to aspire to some psychological perfection that I am falsely representing.
If they knew, I myself could collapse into the safety of my own belonging. In my work day after day, I wouldn’t hide. I could re-associate with parts of myself I’d cut off because I’d said, I’m a healer, it’s not okay for me to be so damaged, like everyone else is.
And then we could really be getting somewhere.
I’ve been writing about this topic for the past three years. I’ve been practicing putting my humanity out where all can see and smell it for at least this long. Recently, I took the next step.
I called it, “Leadership From the Inside Out”. A three-month pilot program to train seven other intrepid healing artists in how to give themselves permission to admit their humanity. How to prioritize, listen to and practice meeting their needs in community. And how to stay vulnerable while actively leading.
I’ve been applying these principles in my own life. I wanted to see if I could teach them.
Earlier this year, the first cohort graduated. And, I discovered the answer to my question was, yes.
At the end of the final day, my production assistant and I were leaving the yoga studio — all hugs already hugged and participants gone, our altar wrapped up, and that feeling of gratitude at its peak. Unexpectedly, the studio manager bustled into the foyer.
She looked at me as I was walking out and said unblinking, “You look tired”.
To this I simply replied, “Thanks”.
She continued undeterred.
“It’s exhausting, huh?”referring to leading and teaching I presume.
“No”, I said, deliberately. “It was, in fact, a very nourishing weekend”.
It’s time to tell a different story.
And telling a “different story” is what we did for three months, we the eight healers in this first cohort of Healing Healers.
We considered and researched the living possibility that our healing gifts could feed us directly.
We laughed and cried together. We negotiated conflict in real time and leaned into the discomfort together. We all took turns leading and following, sitting in the middle of receiving and holding the circle of giving, until the roles began to blur. We danced and we sat in stillness together. And we grew.
It was a heartening, exhilarating start. I am currently in the process of designing my next training, a longer version of this winter’s pilot trial. Someone who read a draft of the description for my next leadership program recently advised me, “Your writing is too forceful. Other therapists are not going to dare come to your future trainings. You need to soften your tone”.
I thanked him for his counsel and truly understand his perspective. It’s been the one that has guided most of my career, up until now. And I am leaning into the possibility that precisely because we have toned down our genuine voices, we the therapists of the land are representing a watered down, compromise-driven version of what healing can look like on the planet right now.
I call the passage below, “The Manifesto of the Healing Healer”. It’s the words I feel on the inside. Unmitigated and undiluted. And daring to tell a different story.
It is time to change the culture around our work as healers.
It is time to join together with other powerful healers and allow ourselves to practice being supported and held.
It is time to allow ourselves to practice coming apart and make no apology for our grief and pain.
It is time to allow ourselves to receive support, acknowledge our limitations and reveal our insecurities.
It is time to embrace our perceived flaws as emblems of our shared humanity.
It is time to celebrate that the more we befriend our previously unwanted parts, the more concentrated our healing offerings may truly become.
It is time to reject the model of perfection and fully acknowledge this model’s incompatibility with the endeavor of healing.
It is time to bravely become culture creators celebrating the rightness of the human mess.
It is time to give permission to ourselves to join the village of humans, step out of the isolation of shame and impossible expectations and tap into a lineage of healing that brings our whole selves forward in service.
It is time to clear the channels through which our healing pours by healing ourselves and getting out of the way of the vast and deep help that the world most needs.
It is time to walk the path of the Healing Healer, the one who will show the world the work that we are doing and in so doing hold ourselves accountable.
I believe this world — filled with so much distrust, shame, disconnection and suffering — is asking the healers among us to concentrate the force of our healing so that we can lead our communities out of disconnection and back to love. But to be prepared for that task, we ourselves are being called to let ourselves be loved. I believe the healers willing to step out from the safety of giving and muster the enormous courage to sit in the seat of receiving will be leading the charge of this global transformation.