I think that the rawest, most brutal parts of our humanity… can be incredibly beautiful if we’re willing to see it that way. That’s the great disparity. … When we can really embrace every bit of our humanity, even the parts that shame us the most, there’s such great beauty in being cracked open. How much beauty there is in our brokenness.– Joe Henry, interviewed by Krista Tippett on On Being
I have a weird job. Most people don’t understand it.
A couple of months ago, chit-chatting with friends at a happy hour, a friend-of-a-friend entered our circle and we were introduced. That’s when I got The Question:
Friend of Friend: So what do you do?
Me: I’m a psychotherapist in private practice.
FoF: Oh wow! (He smiles. Or was that a grimace?) What kind of stuff do you work with?
Me: I work with people who are grieving, or trying to heal from childhood trauma, or going through some sort of life transition and are wondering who they are now.
FoF: Hmmm. (Whistles through his teeth. Frowns. Here it comes… The Question) Isn’t it depressing to sit around and listen to people’s problems all day?
Me: (Sad sigh. Once again…) That’s not how I see it. At. All.
Penny practically crawled into my office, with a pinched face and a headache four days old. Her voice cracked and she looked at the floor as she haltingly described her pain. A few days earlier, during a group therapy session, she and another client had gotten into an argument.
Upon seeing the anger on the other group member’s face, Penny had instantaneously dropped into a spiral of shame — terrified that her essential badness had caused the argument, ashamed that terror had shut her down so thoroughly, then even more ashamed when she couldn’t climb back up out of the shame vortex on her own. Round and round she twisted in anguish.
Gently, kindly, I slowed Penny down and offered her this:
Me: There’s been so much hurt in your life. You were told so many times in so many ways that you weren’t good enough. (Her mother was abusive, mean, and shaming throughout her childhood.) So it’s no wonder that if you’re part of any tension or problem in the group, you feel responsible for it. But if we slow down and go back to what happened in the group, I wonder if I can help you see it in a new way.
Penny: (nodding vigorously) Yes, yes.
Me: It seems like the shame comes and washes over you in a huge wave. (more nodding from Penny) And you know how you look up through water and everything’s all distorted? It’s like you’re under this wave of shame, and when you look back up through there at what happened in the group it’s all through this distorted lens of watery shame.
Penny: Yes, that’s exactly right. (deep sigh)
Me: I wonder if I could “hold your hand” and help you pull your head above the water, and tell you what I saw happening in the group?
Penny: Yeah. I’d like to know how you saw it. (choked voice) I’d like to know what I did wrong.
Me: See, that’s the first thing! I didn’t see you do anything wrong…
I went on to narrate the story of the underlying dynamics I saw unfolding in the group, moment-by-moment — how group members courageously shared vulnerable feelings, and how in their vulnerable states, neural nets from past traumas lit up, so old feelings burst into the foreground. I mirrored to Penny how she and the other group members valiantly tried to separate past from present to be able to share with each other the truth of now:
– how much they cared about each other,
– how much it hurt when another person dismissed their experience or misunderstood their true intent,
– how making repairs for mistakes and practicing new skills to prevent the same mistakes from happening again helped them heal old wounds and face present life anew.
Penny listened to my retelling of the group story with rapt attention. Her breathing deepened and color returned to her face. When I asked her how she was doing, she said, “The feeling inside of me is like woooow! Somebody cares about me?! In the face of making a mistake? Instead of pushing someone away from me, I drew them toward me? (huge breath)Woooow. I feel the air again. I feel life again. That’s what I want.”
In that moment of transformation, Penny discovered, through a new lived encounter with me — an experience of being treated with kindness and respect, of having me understand and explain the reasons behind her emotions — that she was a good and valuable person, that she was not a shameful creature who “only caused people trauma, and drama, and pain” (her mother’s words).
The enormous relief and gratitude she felt and shared with me from within this radically new scenario touched me deeply, brought tears to my eyes. She and I shared rounds and rounds of gratitude and care and healing. Both of us were tremblingly moved by her awakening into an unshakable sense of her own value and truth.
In our culture, we’re socialized to look past pain like Penny’s. To pretend that ongoing grief over a big loss, or childhood trauma, or painful circumstances in adulthood are incidents that are in the past, incidents that can be simply “gotten over” and left behind. In this way, we not only leave suffering people alone in their pain, but we also miss a profound opportunity to share the healing beauty that can emerge from lovingly connecting within the painful places.
When my husband died almost three decades ago, when I was 30 years old and my son was a baby, I learned in an agonizing way that having a loving and caring person (my therapist) sitting across from me in my devastation and anguish was life-changing.
She didn’t try to change me or talk me out of my feelings. Instead she willingly walked with me all the way through the darkness, as hard as it was, week after week. By witnessing those dark places together, I received the unchosen (and sometimes HATED) maturation and softening that can emerge from going down and through intense suffering. The moments of connection she and I shared were profound and expansive.
Brokenness is part of life, part of being human. Every person will at some point live through loss, trauma, cruelty, hurt feelings, or some other hardship. Grief and protest and fear and all the emotions that arise around brokenness are wired into us to heal the wounds that naturally occur in a human life. IF we have help to bear their intensity.
Cultural dismissal of the need for connection around these “brutal parts of our humanity,” these wrenching emotional states, robs us of the beauty that is embedded in the sharing of our pain. In isolation, these feelings can be hell. When we share pain, both the sufferer and the helper are transformed. Softened. Moved by profound connection that springs up within the depths of universally experienced life.
No, painful or cruel events and circumstances are not beautiful. But the sharing of the ubiquitous, unavoidable pain — so that the facing of it is not destructive — allows our old, defended selves to be cracked open, our old ways of being to be painfully, unchosenly shattered in a way that may usher in a new, wiser, more compassionate way of being in the world.
The world needs softer and more compassionate people. We need to understand “how much beauty is in our brokenness.”
So in my job, hour after hour I get to sit across from the most interesting and healthy people on the planet. I get to engage with people who are aware that they’re feeling emotions that are overwhelming or that they don’t understand, aware that something might not be going right in their lives, and who have the courage to get help to face those situations in order to bear the enormity of their experience, to heal, to grow.
I have the honor of spending my days in deep connection with fellow humans who are willing to own their brokenness and allow themselves to be cracked open into new insights. I have the privilege of witnessing my clients’ blossoming out of old cramped ways of being and into flourishing and thriving.
Is it depressing to sit around and listen to people’s problems all day?
No. Just the opposite.
I get to “embrace every bit of humanity” with brave and vulnerable people all day long. Connection within brokenness enlivens me. The moments of my days crackle with meaning.
I wish the same kind of loveliness for you.
Tell me about a time you were cracked open and had help to discover new but painful truths about yourself and about life…
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Previously published on Deeper Dimensions blog