Gurus in Life Preservers

Maybe it’s this long New England winter, and the recent reminder of warmth that is making me long for summer and a swim in a lake. But my mind keeps going back to the lake at a camp where I taught swimming lessons. And mostly I want to tell you about four girls who have been my gurus for the past couple of weeks. It was a wonderful summer for so many reasons, but nearly thirty years later, I hang on to the lessons that those girls taught me about courage and trust and perseverance.

I had one group of African-American teenage girls from inner city Newark who had never been swimming before. And certainly never swam in a lake (“EEEEW there are fish in there! They are going to bite me!”) They stated from the outset that they were NEVER going to go in. But swim lessons were basically mandatory, so they had to come to the lake anyway, so the four of them humored me and came to the lake, but refused to wear suits and refused to get in.

So I called their bluff and I brought down a giant mixing bowl from the kitchen, filled it with lake water. We had our lesson on the dock so they could learn to blow bubbles and do the rhythmic breathing required of the crawl stroke right there in the mixing bowl. They thought it was hilarious and played along. Then they practiced just dangling their legs in. When it was agreed that they could get in the water, they said they weren’t getting in the water unless they could do something. And that was, they each got two life preservers, and put both of them on. And two kickboards. And for the next couple of days they just stood in the water, brave enough to stand waist deep, wearing their life preservers and holding their kickboards. They didn’t care what they looked like. They didn’t care that they were the only ones with that much equipment at the waterfront. They just did what they needed to do. It was slow and incremental over the two weeks that they were there. Being brave enough to dunk their whole body in. Brave enough to pick their feet off the ground. And brave enough, eventually, to take the life preservers off and try swimming. And they did it. All of them passed the Red Cross Beginner’s test that session.

I have never forgotten this because I am still in awe about how brave they were to try something that they were so frightened of, and how smart they were to ask for what would allow them to feel safe enough to try. I have never forgotten their willingness to learn something that was so difficult for them and to keep at it. To be willing to be a beginner at something that all of their peers could already do. To decide that learning was more important than saving face.  And their genius at knowing themselves well enough and listening to themselves about their own incremental steps.

Maya Angelou used to say that we are never alone. That wherever we go and whatever we do we can bring others with us. We can bring ancestors, teachers, loved ones with us. Of my many inner teachers and gurus I pull on, these girls hold a particularly revered spot. I pull on them whenever I need compassion for myself or someone else who is up against a big fear. Up against something they wish they could do, but can’t. Something everyone else seems to do, but you can’t. They are the perfect visual reminder of what it takes to bravely overcome your fears—you get interested in taking on the challenge, you start as small as you possibly can, you oversupport yourself, and you stay with it day in and day out.

And this wisdom from them is especially useful when you are learning to dive in to emotions you find frightening. Almost everyone has an emotion that is more difficult for them than the others and if you have experienced trauma, the emotions can feel louder and more extreme. They can have an all-or-nothing quality not unlike how my camper girls saw the lake water: either I am safe on the dock or I will drown in the water. There is no middle ground.

The lake and swimming in it are intertwined. The girls were afraid of the lake and they hadn’t learned to swim. And I could say the same about my experience. My emotion and the way I protect myself from my emotions are also intertwined. It’s a big lake of emotion and I am still learning how to swim in them.

The key to stretching your capacity with difficult emotions is to do exactly what those girls did: Find the smallest possible increment to feel it. And stay with that until you are ready to move on.

What I have found helpful is the sheer repetition of talking about it: Sometimes even just saying the same sentence again. Even if it feels silly. Even if it is the emotional equivalent of blowing bubbles in a big bowl. Or sometimes if it gets to be too much. Stopping the conversation. Getting out of the water for a moment. And then dangling my feet in the water, heading back in to the conversation slowly. This practice of feeling something, pulling away from it, and heading back to it helps you reestablish a sense of control again.

Keeping those girls in mind helped me see what I needed to do. These past couple of weeks I have struggled with disappointment—an emotion I detest. I had the mistaken notion that ‘good disappointment’ looked like “Oh well.” As in, “Oh well, it didn’t work out.” But, in fact, this isn’t good disappointment, it’s indifference. This isn’t swimming with the emotion. This is staying on shore. What I needed to do was figure out what my life preservers were and stand knee deep in the emotion. Not drown in it. But just stand in it. Bravely. Knowing I had what I needed to be safe. And having the hope one day of freely splashing around.

The thing is you don’t have to swim perfectly to have a sense of accomplishment. The whole experience gives you pieces of that feeling. Every day those girls came to the waterfront—they tried something new, and they laughed, and they met a part of themselves they hadn’t met before. This is really what it is all about. You become bigger each time you meet a new part of yourself. You don’t make the difficult emotion smaller. You make yourself bigger. You meet parts of yourself you haven’t met before.  The lake didn’t change. The girls did. I didn’t master disappointment this week. But I ventured into deeper water than I had before without going under. I met parts of myself I hadn’t met before. And so what if I am still holding a kickboard as I stand in the water. It means I am closer to swimming than I was before.

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2018


The Courage to Be New

There’s nothing in a caterpillar that tells you that it’s going to be a butterfly.
— R. Buckminster Fuller

When I was writing my book two years ago I asked my friends for advice on how to begin a project and one favorite piece of advice I got from my friend Cheryl was to ‘have the courage to be new.’  This was especially good advice at the time because the project itself wasn’t new at all. I had been working on the book for five years. So when I took some time out to work on it in earnest it would have been easy to stay entrenched in the vision I had, rather than being open to what might emerge.

The courage to be new is like all good advice. You forget it. And then you need to be reminded again. And again. And so I am reminding myself (and you too) this New Year’s Day: Have the courage to be new.

This is also, like all good advice, easier said than done. Which is funny because we do all sorts of things to try and be new--- we try to make change, or we actually make change. We buy new clothes, we seek out new relationships, new jobs, new roles, new experiences. And then we freak out when things feel different.

Old habits don’t just feel familiar, they feel like solidity. They feel like the very thing you can count on. Old habits are the laws of nature that you know. And when you have the courage to be new, often it can feel like you are living in a world with new laws of nature. You can feel wobbly, you can feel uncertain. It can feel like you now live in a world that you can’t predict. In fact, it might be a litmus test of your courage to be new: if you know exactly what is going to happen next, you are probably doing the old habit, probably not in a new place.

How do you have the courage to be new? How do you even head into the ‘new?’ How can you learn to tolerate wings when all you knew were legs?

I think the first step is actually quite simple. It is to remember to have the courage to be new. To remember that ‘new’ is part of the growth process, part of the healing process. Then you need to look out for it—notice when you feel off, feel wobbly, feel uncertain—and then protect space around that. Our ‘new’ needs space and time to get more settled. Our ‘new’ needs to be repeated over and over until it no longer feels new. Our ‘new’ needs to be acknowledged and honored because in order for you to experience new, you had to be brave enough to give up the old habit, give up the old protections. You had to be brave enough to let go of all you knew, and let the new thing grow in you.

And take time to really enjoy it too. When you have the courage to be new, you get moments of surprise, of the unknown. You can catch yourself off guard which can be really, really fun. Most of you have heard of a gratitude journal. As you heal and grow, try tracking the things that feel new. The moments of surprise. Your sudden smiles when something happened you weren’t expecting. Be bold, be brave, be new.

Wishing you a Happy New Year 2018!

Trauma and Holidays: On Giving and Receiving

When I was a psychology intern, one of the psychiatrists on the unit used to describe the problems of most of the inpatients as a “closesness-distance” problem. They couldn’t find the right distance from people—people were either too close or they were too far away. This dilemma always reminded me of animals who had been treated badly—the cat wanted to get close to you, but when you tried to pat it,  it would run away.

Trauma almost always creates a closeness-distance problem, especially repeated trauma. Surviving trauma requires creating protections—and many of these protections are about keeping others out. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t the longing for closeness—or the longing for connection. But the protections that were in place for so long meant that you lost the practice of connecting. Lost the practice of letting people close—letting in the love from others.

I am thinking about this because the holidays are upon us. It is the end of Hanukah and Christmas is approaching. It is the season of giving. And it is also the season of receiving. And where trauma creates a closeness-distance problem, it also usually creates a giving-receiving problem.

Giving and receiving are really the actions of closeness-distance. In mundane terms, giving and receiving can be merely acts of communication or acts of everyday care. And for people who have experienced trauma I have noticed something important: they often can give, but they can’t receive. They can reach beyond their walls, but their walls don’t let anything in. It’s not plain stubbornness, or even deliberate protection: it is a sheer lack of practice. It is a lack of neural pathways. It is a lack of brain receptors for the good, for the positive, for the kind.

It is why if you love someone who has experienced trauma, they never seem to hold on to the good things that you say or do. You tell them you love them, you tell them the good you see in them, you do kind things for them. And when they are upset they say that no one loves them. It is as if they don’t remember anything you said or did. And this can be horribly frustrating for everyone.

It’s not that they didn’t hear you when you said it. It is that it didn’t stick. They couldn’t feel it, and it couldn’t register as a real memory. This is why the work of healing from trauma is so important—so you can get to a place of taking things in. And it is why it takes a long time. Because you are, literally, rebuilding a brain.

So I think it is really important at the holidays to acknowledge how hard it can be to receive. Because receiving a gift is risking closeness. It is the hurt cat risking being patted. But if receiving is to be healing then you have to slow down and breathe and take in the kindness as much as you can. And you don’t have to start with gifts. Start with anything people give you: a smile—breathe, take in the smile and smile back. Or hello, or Happy Holidays, or Merry Christmas! Each time someone gives you the gift of any kindness—acknowledge the gift, breathe and take it in like a long drink of water. Drink it way, way into your roots like a tree that has lived through a drought. Because it has. The thing about healing is there isn’t a state of hurt and then a state of healed. Healing is about creating a constant state of mending.

And if you are someone for whom the whole receiving thing is too scary or too overwhelming—then practice with giving. Giving can begin to help you build your closeness-distance muscles. But you need to work on feeling the feelings that go with giving for you. Say something kind—breathe and feel the kindness you are giving. Do something kind and take in the feelings of the action. The practice of giving can prepare you to eventually work on the  practice of receiving.

Understanding the impact of trauma on giving and receiving can give you a way to understand some of the stress that can come up at the holidays. It can help you be more compassionate with yourself or your loved one who has experienced trauma. it can help you slow down and actually begin to heal through the holidays, rather than protect yourself from them. You can use the moments that the stress flare up as a way to help yourself check in and say, “What’s happening right now for me? Too Close? Too Far Away? Difficulty Giving? Difficulty Receiving?” These questions can give you a way to talk with yourself differently and ways to coach yourself differently. The questions, and the answers to them may also give you language to talk with your loved ones about the holidays and the more mundane days of giving and receiving.

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2015



Be the light you wish to see...

There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it
— Edith Wharton

The season of lights. The festival of light. How light gives us hope in darkness! All it takes is one lit candle to change the feel of loss into hope, of dark into light. Just one candle can make all the difference.

As someone who was not raised Jewish, I have often wished that the Hanukkah story had become more secularized—so that we all could have borrowed the faith and devotion and hope from the story of the oil and light lasting the eight days. There is such power in them: faith and devotion and hope.

And somehow no matter how big the occasion or small the occasion, candlelight transforms it into something more powerful, more hopeful, more connected to the history of all people who have had faith and hope. This fall I watched a young friend turn 8 and blow out candles on her cake and you would all recognize the look of anticipation and joy before she blew them out—that look is universal. Her face lit with candlelight.

And here at the holidays—shrouded in lights, after an autumn filled with so much darkness, the question is: can we bring our own light? Can we spark the light in others? Can we connect to the light that inspires us? If we are feeling dark, we can light one, simple, single candle within us?

I think that we always think too big when it comes to faith and devotion and hope. I think we think grand, and we need to think in terms of one single candle. One light that can, and often does, like the oil, last much longer than you can imagine.

You can use any light within you to light the candles around you. You can use the love of anything that brings you joy: your relationships, your work, your pets—whatever warms your heart. And then you can bring that light to another and warm their heart. I have so many memories of people who I didn’t know, who smiled at me as I came out of a building, or into work, and they changed my day. They made me feel seen, and loved, and “okay” on days that I didn’t feel that way. They took their light, and lit my candle. In such small increments you can bring light: to the people near you, to the person waiting in line with you, to the cashier, to the toll taker on the Jersey turnpike. Wherever. Light a candle. Bring your warmth.

Edith Wharton said that there are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it—so if this is a year that you can’t seem to light your own candles or anyone else’s—then do what you can to reflect any light you see. Just take in what you can, reflect what you can and reconnect with your light. We all have those years—when the best we can do is reflect.

This time of year can be so busy, and come with so much expectation. There can be moments of such longing, for people, for times past, for expectation unfulfilled—as well as real feelings of sacrifice and hardship and loss. You can’t fix it or fill it or change it—not all at once, if at all. But you can bring some light to it. You can bring your light to it. And the world will be warmer. And more hopeful. 

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2016