Holding Hope: Working with Clients to Access Possibilities in the Face of Depression, Despair or Loss


Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.

  - Emily Dickinson


At this time of year, with its dark nights, so many reach for hope. Many come away empty-handed...

Whether it’s to reach past depression, to grab a child who is slipping away into drugs or truancy, to grasp a parent losing the fight to illness or aging, to reach for one’s partner across a growing chasm marked by bitterness and resentment, it is a basic human need to seek out hope.

Regardless of your political leanings, the appeal of the campaign of hope run by Obama in his 2008 race was so successful precisely because it spoke to this basic yearning and capacity. He said: "hope is not blind optimism. It's not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It's not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it."

In some ways I liken hope to the dreams that new parents hold as they cradle their newborn child, while envisioning that child’s first step, drawing, middle school concert, varsity start, high school graduation, and so on. There is nothing in that newborn's body offering a glimmer of these future feats other than the parents' vision and commitment to supporting the child's growth in the direction of these future milestones. 

I view one of my central functions in working with individuals, parents and couples as holding hope. That is, I work to maintain an outlook in which I identify a client’s strengths and resilience, where I glimpse the potential of light even while joining them in their cavern of darkness. Hope is the act of holding onto possibility. This includes believing in the possibility of change, the possibility of having some influence to affect outcome, the possibility that what you think and feel and do make a difference, even when this difference is barely perceptible.

When I sit with my clients who struggle with loneliness, bitterness toward their partner or with their parents or maybe even with their children, deep depression or paralyzing fear, self-loathing or shame, I aim to reflect back to them not only acceptance but encouragement and a deep commitment to the principle of change.  A psychotherapeutic model known as IFS (Internal Family Systems) holds a view that people function optimally when they access certain inherent qualities – the 8 C’s . These are clarity, compassion, courage, calmness, curiosity, connectedness, creativity and calmness.

So this season, if the lights from the Christmas tree, the Chanukah menorah, the Kwanza kinara fail to raise your sprits, here are some things for you to try:

- First, acknowledge, be with and accept your pain or fear or sadness. Cultivating compassion for these heavy emotions and the thoughts that accompany them is one way to bring in a little light. Being mindful in general, by attending to senses and sensations, is also a means of accessing healing experiences as the present moment may offer small joys, say through a rich melody the warmth of the sun’s rays on your skin,

- Visualize a future that you long for. Use imagery to evoke the outcome you desire, evoke a picture of you surrounded by caring friends and then notice the sensations and emotions evoked. This exercise in itself creates new neural pathways, a key ingredient of change.

- Try some exercise borrowed from the new science of happiness.  Use your senses to connect to a sound, sight, smell, taste or touch that offers you a sense of comfort or pleasure. Rick Hanson, Phd.D., says that "The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones." To counter this negativity bias of our neurological wiring, savoring positive moments or nourishing the things that nourish you becomes all the more important. 

- Or notice and make a note of the positive things that you do every day. If even this is challenging, consider taking the VIA Institute on Character’s survey (http://www.viacharacter.org/www/)to help you identify your strengths. Even if you are having difficulty detecting your abilities and gifts, they are present and this survey may help you identifying them. Once you can name a strength, find an active way of applying them each day. 

Here's wishing that this year you will find that little light of yours...

Meeting up with Shame

‘You can find shame in every house, burning in an ashtray, hanging framed upon a wall, covering a bed. But nobody notices it any more.”
- Salman Rushdie


 It’s rare for me to receive a call from a potential client asking to work on his or her shame. Yet shame, that basic feeling of inadequacy, of either not being good enough or simply not being enough, is a primary emotion often lurking in the shadows of all our lives.  Shame is closely linked to poor self-esteem, self-criticism and even some self-destructive habits but is distinct from all of them. It is such a painful and challenging feeling that many people, especially those who have received little empathy and support early in life, will go to great lengths to avoid experiencing it. Some people try to outrun shame by becoming workaholics or perfectionists. Others numb it with alcohol, drugs and other addictive habits or distractions.  

The sensations and postures associated with shame are distinct. Whereas the experience of guilt connects to a sense of “I have done something wrong,” shame is an earlier developmental experience of being wrong as in “I am wrong/unworthy/unlovable to even stronger feelings of “I am horrid.”  Shame is tied to attachment needs; it evokes the possibility of losing connection to the loved one who provides safety and security.  The physical signals – head down, avoidance of eye contact, chest caving in, and shrinking down/trying to hide – are social cues of submission. The sensation associated with pain ranges from discomfort to actual pain.

Don’t expect to rid yourself of guilt and shame. Both are universal emotions and psychobiological states and, when they develop in a caring environment, they motivate us to adapt to familial and societal expectations. This is not necessarily a problem.  One child benefits from learning she cannot yell out in the library or pull her sister’s hair.  An older child discovers the social consequences of copying off his classmate’s answer sheet or eating an entire gallon of ice cream that dad was saving for tonight’s company.

It is only when shame arises frequently, overly intensely and in the absence of caring adults that the experience of it grows intolerable. That’s when people go to great lengths to avoid feeling shame. Unfortunately, too many parents rely on shame as part of their discipline arsenal, failing to understand the potential harm they are inflicting. What makes shame so painful is the lack of contact with a supportive person.  In the throws of shame, people feel alone or, worse yet, experience others as threatening, harmful or rejecting. 

Shame emerges during the second year of life when the child experiences a parent’s displeasure and becomes very still in response. Most caring parents will respond to the child’s distress with a caring response such as a hug or words of reassurance, thereby repairing the momentary break in the child-parent connection. But for children whose parents do not respond in this supportive way, shame quickly becomes associated with the overwhelming fear of loss of love or or danger/risk of incurring a parent’s anger.

When I work with individual clients, I aim to create with them a setting in which they can bring forward aspects of their self that have had to be pushed away, or even denied. Shame is one of the key aspects to come forward as clients learn about its origins. But this is not an intellectual exercise. In therapy, you learn to feel the related sensations without becoming overwhelmed.  Over time, you learn to relate to these sensations with less dread and judgment and the experience of shame itself loses its intensity.

In working with couples in my office, a husband, for example, may fear that only scorn or anger or perhaps indifference is going to be reflected back when he risks glancing at his wife’s face, so avoidance and withdrawal become the safer option.  His wife may view him as rejecting or unloving when in reality he is protecting himself.  When a husband is then encouraged to look up from this much more familiar place of withdrawal to receive warmth, caring and concern the anticipation of shame is challenged and, with enough repetition, undone.

So how can you work outside of therapy on starting to heal the shame-filled part of yourself?

- First, approach it with curiosity and compassion. It is often judgment about shameful feelings that make shame seemingly unbearable.

- Second, see if you can find a trusting friend or relative with whom to share this aspect of yourself. Being met with acceptance and understanding is profoundly healing. Because shame is so tied to wanting to stay hidden in the shadows, the experience of revealing yourself challenges shame at its source. Because unhealthy shame arose in the past when a significant other (parent/lover/teacher/etc…) failed to offer repair and support, receiving this caring response in the present is also healing. If you cannot think of a safe and supportive person in your life with whom to share this aspect of yourself, consider evoking a favorite deceased grandmother, a universal spiritual presence such as the Dalai Lama, or a figure from fiction.

- Third, offer yourself some comfort. This can range from putting your hand on your heart to taking some deep breaths to offering yourself words of comfort.

- Fourth, play with movement. That is, move very slowly and incrementally between the posture of shame (head down, eyes averted, chest collapsed) and the posture of pride (head up, eyes focused, chest and shoulders lifted.) Do this a couple of times then pause and notice your experience.

- Finally, naming the emotion of shame and its accompanying sensations having a narrative for your experience can help with mastering the experience. Instead of being in the grips of shame, a wise and mindful part of you can hold it. 

Facing the Dragon: Helping Your Child Cope with Fear

In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, there is an interview with a young boy and his father that has gone viral.  Part of the appeal, I believe, is the father’s capacity to respond to his son’s fear in an age-appropriate, genuine and so attuned to the child’s needs. For those who have not seen the video, after reading this post, I encourage you to watch it: Parisian father and son.

I am often asked by parents how much information to share with their child when it comes to upsetting or frightening news, be it earthquakes, tornadoes or terrorism on the wider world stage, or medical diagnoses, death, divorce and other dramas playing out within the confines of the family home.  Parents and even parenting experts can vary widely on this topic with some wanting to protect children at all costs and others erring too much on a perceived need to have their kids “toughen up.”

It is a biological and psychological imperative for parents to want to guard their children from harm, including shielding them from painful or scary news. But we do children a disservice when they sense that the grownups around them are distracted, anxious, sad or fearful yet are offering no explanation or understanding.

So what do you share? How do you share? How much do you share? The father depicted in this video provides a wonderful model for navigating these challenging waters. First, he crouches down to the ground and envelops his son, offering the protection and security of his own body. He listens closely to his son’s evident fear and concern about “the mean people” and does not deny or minimize his son’s concerns. In fact, he not only acknowledges the existence of “mean people,” he also adds that these threatening people exist throughout the world. He then goes on to offer his son concrete examples (not abstract reassurances or platitudes which, at this child’s stage of development, would hold no meaning) of how families and communities can respond to threat by pointing to the flowers that line some of the sites where Parisians were gunned down.  The boy expands upon his father’s offering by pointing out the candles and asking if these too are a type of protection. When his father responds in an attuned way, the boy looks again to the flowers and candles, visibly relaxes, and smiles. When asked by the interviewer how he is doing, he says he is feeling better.

When my clients seek parenting guidance for working with their children’ fears, I often encourage them to share basic information. For example, dad might begin the conversation by telling 8-year-old Joni that mom, who is losing the battle to cancer, is in the hospital and close to dying. Or mom and dad might tell 4-year-old Dan that they are going to have to find somewhere new to live because their home burned down. The next and perhaps most critical part of the conversation is to invite questions and then to watch, listen and, when needed, offer physical comfort.

If the child has questions, they should be answered in as clear and simple a manner as possible. More questions? Keep answering. No questions suggests that either your child is satisfied with the provided explanation or is only able to take in a little bit of the information for now. Parents should also provide opportunities to return to the difficult conversation at a later time. In order to reply with clarity and compassion, parents first needs to be grounded in their own truth about the situation and be calm, present and receptive. 

Children should not and, in fact, cannot be protected from danger or the fear danger evokes. We are wired to detect and respond to threat from the earliest age, but children, just like adults, do better when they face it in the context of a safe and loving relationship. For instance, a 2008 study found that participants perceived the steepness of a hill to be greater when they looked at it alone versus when they stood alongside a friend.  A 2006 study found reduced activity in regions of the brain associated with pain and with alarm when women undergoing a brain MRI held their husband’s hand, compared to a control group.

It is when parents offer support and guidance and stand with their child to face into their fears that children grow. Within the attuned and safe containment provided by responsive parents, children learn to tolerate the discomfort that accompany fearful sensations, ride the wave of these unpleasant feelings, and then return to sources of strength and comfort, often adding a new capacity to respond to the source of threat with new coping skills.