Written by Dr. Shawnee Brew
We are in the time of year where the veil is thinnest, there are more hours of darkness in a day than light, and most of us feel that we are bathed in shadow. Shadow work is a contentious term amongst psychologists, depending on your theoretical orientation, often leading people to think of the more “woo woo” work of the early 20th century. For me, the Village Witch of Grounded Therapy, Shadow Work is merely an invitation to sit with the parts of ourselves we’d rather keep tucked into the corner of the deepest, darkest part of our minds. I often see this show up in my office as grief, avoidance, pain, trauma, and the hurts we may have caused others. And after many years I have come to believe that shining light into these corners is some of the most important and powerful work we will ever do.
Grief in particular has been on my mind of late, because in many ways, it’s the thing I’ve walked most closely with my entire life. Starting at a young age, I knew loss in innumerable ways. From losing extended family, to grandparents, and then in early adulthood, two of my best friends. As such, I haven’t had much of a choice but to befriend grief and figure out how to welcome her with open arms. I first felt grief as a very tiny person, I was five years old watching my dad lean over the kitchen counter, body wracked with sobs as the call that my Aunt Betty had crossed over came through. Years later my family would recount that even as a small child I was bustling around her wake making sure everyone knew that it was going to be okay. My pre-memory self somehow knew that dying was not the end, that grief was merely another thing to pass through our bodies, and that death was something we would meet every day in small ways and therefore could not be feared. However, this is not the dominant narrative on grief, instead we are encouraged to repress at all costs, to make sure that the enormity of our grief is never known or shared. We are led to believe that our pain does not deserve to take up space. I am here to say, with my whole entire heart, you not only deserve to take up space, you have to. Because, as Lama Rod Owens shares in his book Love and Rage, “if you don’t get to the heartbreak, you don’t get to the healing.”
Earlier this year a friend suggested Melissa Febos’s Girlhood, ( Please read content warnings before reading any of the books mentioned hereafter) which is a master class in prose and vulnerability. Febos writes (in my mind) of grief, “the true telling of our stories often requires the annihilation of other stories, the ones we build and carry through our lives because it is easier to preserve some mysteries. We don’t need the truth to survive, and sometimes our survival depends on its denial.” I have such mixed feelings about this line. In many ways, yes, if we are traumatized, often the only thing we know is to put it away, the only safe thing to do is to put it under lock and key. However, as we have moved through the Scorpio-Taurus eclipse axis this year, it has demanded us to reckon with the fact that we do need the truth to survive, and that in fact, unearthing our truth is the only way to set ourselves free. So while I agree that sometimes our immediate survival depends on being able to push it down, I don’t believe that any true healing occurs without exhuming the past and laying it out on the examination table to be autopsied, dissected, and eventually put back together again.
Any of us that have invested in the work of unearthing have learned that simply because we put it away, doesn’t mean it disappears. And in many cases, our hurt will find a way to be felt. You may never be able to unbreak your heart, but there are avenues to healing available. I believe in the healing power of naming. We cannot heal what we cannot name. Mimi Zhu shares in her book Be Not Afraid of Love, “I am not shaming myself for my coping mechanisms. I am naming them because it has taken me so long to become aware of them. This naming is honoring the unknowing that I had at the time, and how I was so unaware of the ways that I was surviving.” We live in a society that is so fearful of emotion, especially of seemingly catastrophic emotions like grief whose entire existence demands to be felt. So we are taught from so young to hide those parts of ourselves, to learn to tuck them away into the tiny crevices of our minds, unknowingly letting them decay in the corners until someone eventually hands us the tools to excavate that rot. I hope this essay hands you some tools. Zhu goes on to say of grief:
The Western world is obsessed with binaries, splitting joy and sadness into enemies. Life and death are classified as direct opposites too. Human beings have long understood the ecstasies of happiness and the heaviness of sorrow. Joy never ceases to be beautiful, while grief never seems to get easier. Binaries create fragmentations and opposing forces, and do not regard joy, sadness, life, and death as intrinsic to the wholeness and balance of being. While sorrow and death are difficult and scary experiences, instead of being taught how to feel and navigate them, we fear them so much that we strive to completely avoid them. It is not surprising that in the Anthropocene, human beings are obsessed with inventing technologies to achieve immunity to both sadness and death.
I love this paragraph because I think it highlights perfectly what we must do in order to face our grief, we have to learn to love her. In all the times I have faced my grief, it has been through the practice of nostalgia. A kind, yet painful reminder of what it is that I have lost. I remember my grandmother through her favorite songs, and favorite soup. I remember my best friend Nick through our favorite hockey team, and a tattoo I wear with love. I remember my smaller self through pop culture and the tiny altars I created before I had the language to name them as such. We must attend to our sorrow with equal parts joy and remembrance. This is a much larger task than it appears on the surface, because in order to touch that joy and remembrance, we have to face the enormity of that which we have lost. Every time I eat my grandmother’s favorite soup, it’s with the knowing that I will never do so with her again, that she will never do so again. The pain that enters my ribcage every time I go to pick up my phone to text Nick about The Sharks game and remember that he’s no longer here to tell. However, I also believe that the memory of those we’ve lost lives on in these acts of love. That somewhere, not so far away on the other side of the veil, those we love sit with us at the table, they are next to us on the couch. If we are brave enough to hold the dialectic of grief and love in the same breath, we are able to contact something truly beautiful.
I have said in many ways, a hundred times over, that I have lived and died a thousand times (and I’m only 32). To me, there are small deaths every day. Every time we don’t stand up for ourselves, or hide the words we yearn to say for fear of being ostracized, even the fresh cut flowers on my altar are tiny deaths. But I’ve also lived a thousand lives through stories, rainstorms, and the love of people who chose to see me in my entirety. What this all is really to say is that death is simply rebirth, a chance to start over. Febos puts it beautifully when she says, “they say that to love someone else, you have to love yourself first. It is not true. Being loved, the relentless care of my family, my lovers, my friends, has sewn me back together...I am shocked and so relieved to find that I am still soft inside.” What speaks to me here is that no matter how badly our many deaths hurt, the myriad ways in which we convince ourselves we simply won’t make it to the next breath, there is always something there to cauterize the wounds and to help relocate ourselves, an epitaph from beyond to remind us that there are no true endings. So I hope, dear one, that you are able to find this. Be it through therapy, the welcome call of the ocean, or the hug of a loved one. You too deserve to find that soft inside, relentless in its truth, a north star back home.
In love, grief, and solidarity,
Written by Dr. Eli Reding.
Since becoming a therapist in 2012, I have consistently struggled to replicate in my personal life what I preach in my professional life. While we go through lots of training on how to help others and how to recognize our own limitations as therapists, the lessons of self-care preached in graduate school are often trite, vague, and incomplete. I think the main reason for this is not a lack of importance but rather an acknowledgement that the care needs of each and every one of us is so individualized and unique to personal context that global statements about what is “good self-care” can rarely be made.
This piece is not meant to focus on the fact that your therapists are falling apart. Instead, I want to elucidate the fact that we are complex people who both struggle through our own personal work and help you through your own emotional work which we may see in a different, more nuanced fashion. I have struggled with mental health from a young age, with my first depressive symptoms emerging in middle school and my ADHD (diagnosed much later in college) already raging strong. I think I was a difficult child and even if I wasn’t, I very much envisioned myself as such. That perspective of the gifted and talented individual who could produce phenomenal work at times and who internally was plagued with doubt, low self-esteem, and frustration at a lack of consistency, has never really left my thoughts. Instead, it has emerged as a variable self-perception, of a crumbling person in one breath and a towering example of personal and professional achievement in the next. The contrast batters my sense of self like waves, robbing me of a safe self-image to proceed from.
In the absence of a stable self-image, my teenage and early twenties self never imagined personal, financial, and emotional stability. I viewed myself as chronically ill, functional on the outside but rotting from within with the knowledge that eventually the façade would give way. Recently, I have begun to consider a different perspective, that the crumbling and the façade are equally valid. When I am functional and in the moment, being present and celebrating myself is as important as engaging in the automatic negativity that plagues me when my symptoms become too much and overwhelm me for weeks or months on end. It is important to note that these changes and realizations have not emerged within epiphanies but rather behavioral changes that I struggle chronically to maintain. Sleep difficulties, motivation to start tasks, and keeping up with administrative tasks are concerns that continue to crop up and are only managed with great difficulty. However, for the first time in my life, they are being consistently managed. My depressive episodes last days or a few weeks rather than months at a time. My anxieties can be challenged internally, and I am able to force myself to start the grind of putting the pieces of myself back together.
“Eli give us advice! Tell us how to accomplish this!” you may be thinking. The truth is, I don’t have any, not in the way you’re asking for. I do not recommend some magic formula of eating this much, sleeping this many hours, working in this way, or exercising so many times per week. Because honestly, the numbers don’t matter as much as the willingness to engage in your livelihood and moving towards change. Instead, I offer a different perspective. Maybe the rotting is necessary to create the dark fertile soil that provides opportunities for growth. Maybe the struggle is constantly a struggle and never becomes easier. But maybe if you sit in these realities, parts of you change and become more resilient. And this change comes not in the form of a therapeutic flash of insight but a slow insidious growth, as silent and as powerful as the rot was before.
Being human is difficult. All of us struggle with things, both internal and external. But the struggling is part of what being human is. The struggle along with moments of joy, sorrow, rage, fear, contentment, and surprise. Do not rob yourself of the experience in the movement towards perfection. Best is an empty, unachievable concept that only serves to tear apart any sense of self-satisfaction that you have built for yourself. Rather than best, maybe it is ok to step away from perfect and move towards an incremental, almost imperceptible amount of growth and stability, particularly if all you’ve ever known is a sense of falling apart.
My final words will be brief. It is okay if you think you do not have progress, change, or growth within you. You can stay in the muck and be where you are as long as you need. Revel in your grief or trauma or illness if it subsumes your entire perspective. But if you look for it, I imagine you just might see a little bit of positive change, a bit of resilience or strength, existing within the miasma of daily life. Because in being alive, there is always some part of us that is growing and not rotting as that is the very nature of life itself.
This piece was written last year by Dr. Eli Reding. In honor of Indigenous People's day, we decided to release it on the Grounded Therapy Blog.
November is Indigenous Heritage Month and as a mixed Indigenous person, for a long time, I appreciated this celebration but largely felt it was not for me. When I was younger, I grew up in a White, wealthy suburb. Diversity was not celebrated, and most times was not even accessible. I have memories of going to pow-wow or eating Auntie Brenda’s fry bread (who was technically not even blood related to me but who loves me as her own blood, classic). These moments, however, felt like a vacation from the Whiteness that enveloped me elsewhere in my life. These experiences were vibrant and powerful, but I also felt like an outsider, a visitor to a place that I did not necessarily belong. As I grew, I continued to engage in primarily White institutions, valuing education and discipline as indicators of success. My Indigenous identity became a quirk, something I would speak on if directly asked but for the most part was ignored, both by me and others around me.
My NDN self is so different than my mother’s or my grandfather’s. For one, I am not tribally enrolled due to lacking blood quantum. For those of you who do not know, “blood quantum” is a measure of how much “Indian blood” you have. It is often used as an entrance criterion to membership. The Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians requires ¼ blood quantum and mine falls just around a sixth. This felt, and continues to feel, that I am often not Indigenous enough to claim this heritage. Recently I have heard the term Pretendian being thrown around on Indigenous Twitter and I fear it resonates too clearly for me. Is my exploration of my Native identity merely a desire to escape my Whiteness, which seems to choke out any form of identity other than itself?
NDN can be shaped by so many factors: on rez/off rez, language, spirituality/religion, community participation, and family identity. Each of these has impacted me in unique ways and made me feel more or less Indigenous depending on context. An important term in cultural identity work is “identity salience” which specifically refers to the amount an individual cultural identity stands out and attracts attention, both internally and externally. As an individual with multiple minority identities (neurodivergent, Queer, Indigenous), the salience of each of these rises and falls depending on the environments I find myself in. However, my NDN self is the only identity that isn’t global as I am also majority White. This is why I have actively chosen to identify myself on social media and professionally as White/Indigenous, not to dismiss my Native identity but rather to recognize my privilege of appearing White and easily engaging in White spaces. For the most part, I get to choose whether or not I present as Native due to skin privilege.
What then does oppression look like to the mixed-race person, the one who gets to be assumed white due to the lightness of their skin? Due to exploration of my Queer identity, I have a word for this “White passing.” Most people if they do not know me, and even sometimes those who do, do not see me as Native. This means that during the summer, as my skin darkens, I get questions of “where are you from.” I get calls of “hey, papi” for people who confuse me for Latinx. I get to hear co-workers say things like “Let’s have a pow wow,” and “What’s your spirit animal?” Often, it is easier to sit in my silence than correct a stranger, or harder yet, a friend. But each time I do this I tacitly endorse that my Nativeness is not sacred, that those beliefs systems do not have value to me. Even contemplating how often I do this for something as simple as personal ease makes me nauseous.
My Indigenous identity is also something that varies in salience in non-White spaces. In my family, I have cousins who are significantly more Native, both by blood and cultural upbringing. To be Indigenous next to family feels appropriative, even next to my own mother. Here is a strong woman who is visibly Native, who helped advocate for her culture and who actively displays her ethnic power in her field. She lives her NDN heritage through consuming Native art, through her enrollment in the tribe, through her connection to her father, through giving back to Indigenous causes, and in so many other ways I cannot be aware of.
My identity seems nascent to hers. I spent some time working on reservation in graduate school, completing a practicum on the White Earth Nation Reservation. In working there, I was immediately recognized as Native. The Native women at the front desk kept me up to date on reservation gossip, the other mental health professionals on staff shared stories about their identities and asked me for mine. I was seen as part of the fabric of Nativeness in an inalienable way. I was invited to participate in ceremonies and Native events. I resided once a week in the tribal casino and occasionally was in events in the community. For the first time, I did not feel like a stranger to my own identity. I was validated for who I was as a Native and for where I was in that process. I did not feel like a Pretendian anymore.
I first started to actively think about my Native identity in graduate school. I had the great fortune of studying under an advisor who was mixed race herself, Latinx and White. For the first time, I had someone who actively told me it was alright to explore a part of myself, not matter how small. We had conversations about the systemic attempt to eliminate Indigenous people and that in some ways, disavowing my NDN part was internalized colonialism. In those years, I learned terms that described ways I had felt from childhood. I began to see myself as intersectional for the first time: Queer, cisgender, Native, White, Lutheran, Agnostic, wealthy, suburban, male, mentally ill, chronically ill, and neurodivergent (I could go on but I stray). I felt discomfort in not knowing who I was and feeling like I would never be enough of any of these things and at the same time struggled with being too much of them at times. To this day, I cannot escape this constant feeling of identity anxiety, of moving from one to another and having trouble recognizing what is fully me. Nowhere is this more true than my racial identity where I have a great deal of pride but also constantly suffer from an internalized imposter syndrome.
As a professional psychologist, I possess a significant amount of privilege. In many ways, I did not feel qualified to write this account due to that intense position of privilege, that my voice is not as valuable as others who might speak on this topic. But this is my story and is who I am, for better or for worse. I’m just as human as the rest of the world. I will continue to explore all of my identities but for this month, my Nativeness is at the forefront of my mind. It can be uncomfortable to explore yourself when you often feel like not enough but for those of you still reading, I want to extend an invitation to you to try. Find the thing inside yourself that you are hiding from, that makes you ask the questions that you do not have answers to, that you may never have answers to. For me, this month, this year, this life; I am both White and Indigenous. Its frequently easier to live in black and white but for this month I’d invite you to explore your other colors, your reds and yellows too.
Written by Amy Bonds
All of the clinicians will be contributing to the blog!