As a counselor, I am often in the position of asking my clients to become comfortable with vulnerability. Vulnerability is, after all, a window into our true selves. And, what’s better than becoming comfortable with our true selves? Well, nothing! In fact, that is at the core of what I do for a living. I encourage people to allow themselves to be seen. To accept themselves (and others) as they are. And, to rise up and be courageous enough to be wear their vulnerability as a badge of honor because they no longer need to hide. But, embracing vulnerability and everything that surrounds it, the feelings, the emotions, the fear, is really hard – for everyone! And, I realize in writing this that I am not excluded from that. In fact, it’s why I am writing this. But, we’ll get to that in a minute.
People ask me all the time how I ended up with the practice and specialty I have. And, just as every good business person does, I have a very good (and genuine) response. One that is peppered with professionalism, educational credentials and just enough “me” to make it comfortable to say. But! There has always been something more behind those words. A longer, messier answer. An answer that is, perhaps, a bit more reflective of who I am. It’s long and twisty but it’s honest. It’s the answer I secretly want to give but one that I end up stuffing back inside – fearful of what people will think. I even create their response in my head before they have a chance to speak. Um, I didn’t really need to know all of that – or – Okaaaaay! That was weird. But, as my 10 year old said the other day, “So what? So what if that happens? How does that change who you are mom?” (I know, right!? Where did that come from? He really is very insightful but that is a story for another time). He’s right, though! The truth is that other people’s words really don’t change who we are but our interpretation of their words and the meaning we attach to them does.
All of this got me thinking – How can I ask people to embrace their vulnerability when I am not fully embracing mine? So, in an attempt to rise up and be courageous and slap on my very own vulnerability badge of honor, I have decided to give you my long and twisty answer. Typos and all. No pepper added. It might not be very exciting and I guarantee that it won’t be in it’s prettiest form but I always tell my clients that I won’t ask them to do anything I haven’t done myself. So, this is me holding up my end of the bargain. Shit!
Okay, now, ask me the question. No, really! Ask me!
(Hint: How did you end up with the practice and specialty you have?)
During graduate school I spent a great deal of time studying and researching a particular topic – preventative mental health & pregnancy. I didn’t intend to – it just happened.
I was the kind of person who sat in the front of the class. Not because I was a brown-noser but because I needed to remove unwanted distractions. To me, almost anything could be a distraction in class. Like, the way someone’s hair bounce around when they talked, or the person (and everyone knows this person) who nodded at everything the instructor said – the – entire – class! Um, if you already know it all then why are you taking the class?, or the not-to-subtle (never subtle) way someone would try to slowly and discretely open a bag of chips. You know that sound! EVERYONE knows that sound! You are not being sneaky by taking 10 minutes to open the bag. Crinkle – pause. Crinkle – pause. Crinkle – pause. Just open the darn thing! Everyone hears you. And, even if they don’t (which they do!) they’re bound to hear the CRUNCH! CRUNCH! CRUNCH! as soon as you start to chew. Good Grief! Do us all a favor—leave the chips at home!
Yes, sitting in the front of class was a good place for me but so was volunteering to go first – for papers, presentations, speeches, you-name-it. It was my own little way of controlling my nerves. My stomach would start doing flip-flops the moment I heard that we would have to do anything in front of the class. I’d tell myself, Just go first and get it out of the way! I figured that way if I was terrible no one would have anything else to compare it to. Now, I’m not really sure if that was true or not but the rational worked well enough for me.
So, it should be no surprise that I was sitting front and center in my Counseling Through the Lifespan class. The instructor was about to send around a sign-up sheet for the first presentations of the semester. YES! Being in the front always gave me an advantage for snagging the first date and time-slot. But, the instructor decided to personally torture me and instead began the sign-up sheet at the back of class asking everyone to fill-in their names and pass the sheet forward. What?! My heart started pounding and my stomach was doing flips. This meant that I might have to go last! Last?! Everything turned upside down. How in the world could I go last? I really didn’t think I could handle the pressure of being the exclamation point on the end of everyone else’s brilliant presentations. I sat and watched the sign-up sheet zig-zag toward me like a lion watches it’s prey before pouncing.
(Oh, and, to make matters worse, I was sweating! I always sweat when I get nervous. It’s like pushing my own personal seat-heat button. I begin to radiate from within.)
Finally, the sign-up sheet reached my hands. I tried to play it cool but I immediately ruined any chance of that when I gasped (out loud) and practically screamed in disbelief, “no one signed up to go first!?”. If only you could have seen the number of eye-rolls I received at that moment. But, what did I care?! I was first! Plus, I vowed to never turn around again! AND, I made sure to intentionally bounce my hair and nod my head a lot too! Take that, Eye-rollers!
It took me a few classes to realize it but, as it turned out, going first was not a highly sought after position. For most of graduate school — I owned that spot! Ahh! Some things do fall into place quite nicely.
In any event, what I didn’t know about going first in this particular class was that Counseling Through the Lifespan would begin with The Period of Pregnancy and Prenatal Development – most specifically, it would begin with Genetics and Development. Umm, wait, what? I was ready to dive knee-deep into the value of counseling and it’s positive effect on people throughout their lifespan but instead I was now reading about genes and chromosomes, genetic technology, psychosocial evolution, the Fertilization Process (Really??) and development through each trimester. Good Lord! Did someone forget to tell instructor that this was NOT medical school! What had I gotten myself into?
Here is how it went: Genotype and Phenotype – read and repeat, Genetic Technology – read and repeat, Normal Development – read and repeat. Are you kidding me! I looked at the pictures, I studied the graphs. I read through those pages probably 2-3 times and each time I felt like hitting myself in the head with the book. I don’t know exactly why. I’m not sure if it was a particularly difficult subject or if it was just so different from what I thought I would be reading. Either way, I was ready to pull my hair out. It was not until I was – God only knows – how many pages deep into this ridiculousness for the 4th time when something, FINALLY, clicked. It was on the bottom right-hand corner – the last paragraph and, in particular, the last sentence on the page. This is what I read:
The mother’s emotional state during pregnancy has an impact beyond the events of childbirth. Women who experience notable anxiety or depression during pregnancy are more likely to continue feeling depressed after giving birth and are more likely to have additional depressive symptoms in the 5 years following childbirth. Clinicians who focus on the etiology of depression in women emphasize that the period of pregnancy and childbirth should be a time for preventative intervention. (Le. Munoz, Ippen, & Stoddard, 2003)
And, just like that, everything changed. It might not seem that mind-blowing to anyone else but for me…it was a game changer. Suddenly, everything – the genes, the genomes, epigenetics, the psychosocial environment – it all made perfect sense. It was as if everything I read had laid the foundation for that particular paragraph. Prevention! That was it! That is what I connected to. My mind was already off and running before I could even turn the page. The possibilities and the impact of prevention on mental health were endless to me. It was like being struck with a volt of electricity. It was, honestly, thrilling!
I know people hate hearing it (and sometimes I do too) but I truly do believe that things happen for a reason. I never would have felt the impact of prevention so deeply if I hadn’t previously read everything I did about genetics. It’s funny how quickly things can change. And when I say “funny” I mean only after the fact. It’s hard to see the humor while you’re in it. One minute I was knee-deep in the weeds of life – literally DNA! – and the next minute it all made perfect sense. Just like that! I wasn’t sure exactly where I was headed at the time but I knew it involved preventative measures in mental health. And, as the paragraph read, what better place to focus preventative mental health then during pregnancy. After all, it’s two for the price of one! Who wouldn’t want that? If you help mom, you also have the potential to help baby! Voila! And, that was it! I was officially up and off to the races! And, now, here I am today!
So, there you have it! My long and twisty self. Thanks for sticking with me while I earned my badge!
(Not the story – That’s over. But allowing myself to be vulnerable – that, I will continue!)