The Courage to Be Present

Ancient wisdom from Buddhism for today's therapists and clients.

Inter-Connection: "Exchange" Goes Both Ways

How we work with our own experience affects others.

When you're feeling upset and in need of some company, who do you want to be with? Sometimes when I feel troubled, I choose to be with someone who can offer me wise counsel. Other times I pick someone who can help me figure things out for myself. I find, though, that most of the time when I feel unsettled, anxious or worried, I want to be with someone who just feels good to be around. What is it that makes a person "feel good to be around"?

I would suggest that a big piece of what I am seeking comes from the experience of "exchange." In the last blog posting we looked at the notion of exchange, our direct experience of someone else, based on our inter-connectedness. Mostly we looked at how we pick up on others' emotions, especially challenging ones. Good therapists can stay present when they experience painful exchange with their clients. If we can't stay present in that way, our clients soon realize that they're not being met, and they leave to look for a therapist who can show up and really be with them.

That's not the whole story about exchange though. It's not just that we pick up on what our clients feel. Our clients also exchange with us. What we are feeling is available in the exchange that the client feels. Just as we don't always recognize the source of feelings as exchange, our clients also don't realize that they're "catching" how we feel. How we work with our own experience affects the atmosphere of the relationship we have with another person-whether we are acting as a therapist or not. Let's look at an example.

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Carol came in to see me a few months ago. As she began to tell me about herself, I noticed that my body was trembling a bit and that my chest was feeling tight. My shoulders were raised a bit toward my ears. I realized that I was feeling anxious and that perhaps this was exchange with Carol. I knew that it could also have nothing to do with Carol. At that point, it didn't really matter what the source of my anxiety was. However it got there, it was my experience now and my responsibility to respond to it.

At that point, I didn't say anything about what I was feeling, but I began to bring mindfulness and maitri (see the posting from March 13, 2010) to my experience. That is, I didn't try to change it or make it go away. I didn't try to calm myself down; I just let my experience be what it was as I also continued to listen to Carole describe the reasons she had come into therapy. Mostly, she wanted to work with issues of anxiety that she had experienced for most of her life.

As I continued to bring attentive awareness to the details of my body and mind, along with a friendly attitude toward what I found, I felt more spacious and open to the anxiety itself.

After awhile, Carol said that she was beginning to calm down now. She didn't feel less shaky particularly, but she was becoming more relaxed with feeling that way. In the same way that I had been picking up on her anxiety, she was picking up on my willingness to be with my own discomfort. Put simply, exchange goes both ways.

If I had reacted to the feelings of anxiety I felt (whether they arose from exchange or not) by becoming busy trying to get rid of them, that sense of struggle, the sense that these feelings were not to be tolerated, would have become available in the exchange, too.

We can't fake how we feel. We feel how we feel, and it becomes available in the exchange with each other. It could easily have occur that even though I think I could be present with some feeling of discomfort, I might not be able to do it. I might get caught up in it just as I do sometimes in my life or on the meditation cushion. That's unavoidable; it's human.

Whenever I can, though, I bring mindfulness and maitri to whatever my experience is, and that is what I can offer to my clients. It's one of the main reasons that I practice meditation on a regular basis. It is my training ground for staying present with attentiveness and warmth with all kinds of experiences. Then, I am more able to do that with my clients, as well.

I have noticed that sometimes the first experience that clients have of maitri is what they experience through exchange with their therapists. If I truly can recognize the brilliant sanity of my clients, they may begin to pick up on it too. I had one client tell me years ago something I've never forgotten. He told me that from the beginning of our work together he could tell that I didn't think he was hopeless. I didn't say to him, "You're not hopeless," but he could sense it just being with me. The truth was that I wasn't hopeless about him at all. I found him to be a decent and brave man from the start, and he could feel it without my saying anything.

You might find it illuminating to notice how you feel with specific people. How does this affect who you choose to spend your time with? How does it affect who you choose to see for therapy or even for a cup of tea?

 

 

Karen Kissel Wegela, Ph.D., is a professor at Naropa University and the author of The Courage to Be Present.

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