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The Middle Ground

Overcoming Bulimia Is Possible

The making of a therapist.

Posted Dec 09, 2015

iStock/Used with Permission
Source: iStock/Used with Permission

Contributing guest section (in italics below) by Rebecca Sokoll, LMSW

Like everyone else, therapists—on a personal level—experience difficulty in resolving conflict, coming to satisfactory understandings with their parents and family, dealing with grief, overcoming despair, and changing destructive behavioral patterns.

Learning to become a therapist requires the acquisition of many subtle skill-sets; as well as many techniques, tips and theories that enhance success in therapeutic work. Very little of this learning can be acquired through rote or drill which, by the way, is still the predominant method for burning information into memory according to much of the research on higher education in America.1 The idea that this kind of learning would enable a therapist to do her job, of course, is ludicrous. Because such domains as heart, spirit, identity, self, and connection to others do not translate into short-answer questions that can be learned on auto-pilot. The subject matter as well as our approach to acquiring it both emphasize awareness of the process in which these areas are embedded. Collecting disconnected facts, identifying bits of isolated truths is the antithesis of relational exploration. The therapist, among other things, fosters a learning process in which perspective on what is being learned is constantly being appreciated. 

Mindfulness is the opposite of living on auto-pilot; and the essence of most therapy involves cultivating mindfulness. The knowledge learned in therapy can be used for problem solving; yet, it goes deeper than problem solving. It goes to the consolidation of what it means to be a person who can problem solve; it goes to the creation or repair of a core self from which the means to problem solve can emerge. Psychotherapy—though not every type—speaks to the client’s ability to become someone who can generate creative solutions to difficult problems in living. It comprises domains that are not limited to thought and feeling, but hinge on being.

Aside from academically-oriented training, therapists undergo their own therapy in order to learn, first-hand, how the therapeutic process feels, what therapy can do, how it can help; and, in some respects, its limitations. Along with formal therapy, therapists-in-training utilize their own life experiences to inform themselves about the nature of emotional growth. Each therapist’s path to competency is idiosyncratic. The learning includes spontaneous realizations and creative discovery. Such lessons cannot be precisely schematized. They cannot be shaped into a linear progression. This means that doing therapy and training therapists must take into account the dynamic quality of experience, and the three-dimensional nature of communication. Communication takes into account not only the issue at hand but the history of whatever issue is at hand. It also paves the way to breakthroughs in communication going forward as it reveals to partners—as they communicate—that understandings build connection, that love itself depends on being able to feel understood and have one’s expressions be received, acknowledged and appreciated.

How can a therapist help others confront feelings of helplessness, fear, anxiety, self-doubt and many other emotions and challenges if they have not confronted these feelings and explored them within themselves?  

As an aside, these are not the standards by which we measure larger-than-life heroes. These are the standards necessary for success in transitioning through the life-cycle. Confronting challenges, living up to responsibilities, realizing the potential for growth to the fullest extent possible—these are the standards that keep us vital and healthy. In our own way, in our own minds, we each have an enormous journey through the internal and external terrains that comprise our life’s challenges. We each must, whether we wish it to be so or not, struggle to realize our destinies. This is as true for clients as for therapists. This is the story of Every Person.

A therapist who has not had transformative experiences in their own therapeutic work is going to be hard pressed to convey confidence in the power of the therapeutic process to clients. And such confidence is important. Without it, the hope on which the client needs to rely—hope for meaning in the therapeutic process itself—can lack resonance and feel shaky. With this support, a client’s embrace of the conditions of everyday life can be understood as containing hope; an acceptance that what is can be good enough for building a life with meaning.   

A contemporary therapist must be an instructor in emotional literacy. And as Freud postulated over one hundred years ago, all emotion is founded in the body-sense: the process by which clients identify, evaluate and articulate their emotional states.

Rebecca Sokoll, LMSW, today’s guest blog contributor, describes hard won insight into how her learning enabled her to overcome a severe eating disorder. This enabled her to confront destructive behavior patterns and reclaim awareness of her connection to her body. She writes:

I spent years suffering from bulimia, an eating disorder often marked by a lack of presence to the physical experience of the body in the moment.  For example, once during my recovery treatment, when I was still having episodes of bingeing and purging, I learned to connect a bulimic episode to the triggering event of feeling thirsty and denying myself a drink.  In the moment of having the feeling and denying it’s value, I simultaneously transferred the event to a subconscious state, so that it became an imperceptible blip like a tic that had to be located and carefully extracted in that week’s therapy session.  At the very beginning of my therapeutic recovery process, I was unable to identify feelings or emotions as belonging to me at all, and such a blip was impossible for me to identify.  I had learned to deny my feelings about almost everything in a way that was so well hidden from me.  I literally had no access point through which to locate my day-to-day needs, opinions, emotions, indeed my internal sense of self and self-worth.

In my reaching out for recovery I found a well-attuned therapist. I, unwittingly, became severed from my family of origin at 20 years old, a less-than-ideal way to make the changes needed in how I was living, but I do believe, in retrospect, that it facilitated my recovery.  Finding my own strength came first, and later I was to return and face the family system from within which my eating disorder had somehow grown.  Two years after my first experiences of freedom from the symptoms of bingeing/purging as well as food/body obsessing, I found an experimental theatre ensemble called Theatre Group Dzieci, in NYC.  It had been started a few years prior and was still run by Matt Mitler, a performer, director, and dedicated student of esoteric disciplines, who guided me through the process of locating myself through a work with mindfulness.  This resonated with me.  As a person who had a detailed but superficial connection to my body, mindfulness made sense.  After a couple of years I began to work as an assistant director with Matt, continuing my work as a student in the group.  I also worked with and learned much from Yvonne Brecht, a Feldenkrais body worker who assisted my self-development.  My ability to access my emotions through body awareness was developing.  As members of this ensemble, we nurtured each other’s strengths.  We sometimes confronted one another’s defenses as well.  Through these techniques, we facilitated interactive workshops with the public, including psychiatric populations and spiritual groups.  We guided others through their own process of developing self-awareness through the use of verbal and non-verbal exercises.  We empowered workshop participants to take initiative in the exploration of their feelings and bodily sensations. 

I spent 13 years working with Theatre Group Dzieci, during which time I completed my formal social work education as well as gave birth to my two sons.  The practice of tuning into my body was one that extended to daily activities, interacting with my children, peers, and colleagues, and as I developed my ability to tune in to my physical self on a deepening level, I started to find more accessible points of connection to my emotions.  This experience involved my taking the point of disconnection between my feelings and physical body, and developing it explicitly to help connect my fragmented self; to learn to feel whole.

I find Ms. Sokoll’s reclamation of her felt-sense of aliveness to be poignant, inspiring and courageous. I'd love to hear your comments or questions about this piece. ----

1Brown, Peter et al, Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Bellknap Press, 2014)

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