Hakomi Principles Applied to A Center for Unhoused Families
Our Approach at First Place Family Center
After having successful Hakomi practices for 15 years, Diana & I felt like we’d reached a plateau and that it was time to take the skills we’d developed and see if we could apply them in a different context.
Over time, we shut down our practice and eventually ended up as Co-Directors of First Place Family Center, a day center for families with children who were unhoused or at risk of becoming so.
One thing that set First Place Family Center apart from many programs is that we had developed an approach and vision that was based on our understanding of the Hakomi principles and Loving Presence.
We taught our approach to staff and handed out copies of the following document to every community member who visited the Center. We sought to realize our vision in every interaction we had with the families we served and with the community at large.
A secondary benefit was that our clarity regarding our approach set us apart from traditional services and resulted in significant support from donors and, near the end of our tenure, brought in a one-million-dollar donation.
The following is a copy of my Keynote Address at the Annual Meeting of the Oregon Association
for the Education of Young Children, held on April 21, 2012 in Eugene, Oregon. Their theme was "It Takes a Community."
Beyond Judgment: Creating a Transformative Environment
By William Wise
I’m both pleased and humbled at being invited to speak with you today. I want to make it clear up-front that I’m NOT an expert, but only a student anxious to share some of what we’ve learned over the last several years at First Place Family Center.
In trying to pick a topic for today, I felt overwhelmed by all the problems facing families and children. The economy, politics, rampant poverty, our educational system, cuts in funding for services, child abuse, and all the other challenges facing those of us working to improve the lives and futures of children.
It’s certainly true that “We Need A Community” if we’re going to be able to provide the support, guidance, nurturance, and protection needed to raise children to be whole and productive adults.
I must admit that I’m amazed to see that communities large and small, as reflected in our current political dialogue, are stepping back from supporting programs and systems that ensure that the basic needs for food, shelter, education, and medical care for children and families are adequately met.
We’re all here because we care about the wellbeing of children.
If the larger community doesn’t support the kinds of work we do, I believe it’s because they don’t understand the need and the long-term impact of failing to properly care for all children.
If we want to mobilize the support of the community, we have a lot of educating to do. The prevalent attitude in America is that poor folks are to blame for being poor. The myth says that anyone who works hard enough can have it all.
Therefore, poor people must be lazy or stupid or drug addicts.
This is in spite of the current situation where solidly middle-class people are unable to find work. I’ve seen letters to the editor in the newspaper where people argue that they are worthy of receiving help, unlike those other lazy folks who just live off the system.
Something has to change. The place we have the most leverage is with ourselves. How we talk. How we think. How we act. These are our main tools in bringing about change.
I believe that it really is true that we have to be “the change we want to see in the world.”
I’ve decided to use my time here with you to talk about our work as individuals and our day-to-day interactions with families and children.
To put all this in context, I’d like to tell you a little about First Place Family Center and the path that brought me there.
I started my career in Human Services working in a number of agencies, including a welfare office in East Los Angeles during the First Watts Riots.
More recently, before going to work for St. Vincent de Paul, my wife, Diana, and I spent 15 plus years as private practice counselors in Eugene and we co-owned a personal growth seminar company.
I started my career at the local St. Vinnie’s working with folks who were living in vehicles on the streets.
For the last seven & a half years, I’ve been the Director of their First Place Family Center. A year after I started as Director, Diana came on-board. Supervising your spouse isn’t usually allowed. I was able to hire her when the person who held the position ran cursing out of the building and never returned. At least I know that she won’t quit.
My intention as Director of First Place was to find ways to apply what we’d learned about human transformation while in private practice to the setting of a family shelter.
We’d had a lot of success with people who could afford a $2,000 seminar or weekly individual therapy sessions.
I searched the Internet looking for someone applying the knowledge and skills developed in the context of individual therapy and personal growth for people in a shelter, many of who had spent their life struggling with poverty.
If they’re out there, I wasn’t able to find them.
There’s a saying in business:
“If no one’s providing a particular product or service, there may be a good reason.”
Well, “fools rush in…”
What I hope to share today is some of what we’ve learned on our fool’s journey.
I was naïve. There’s a big difference between my previous clients and most of the folks who come to First Place.
My former clients had enough success in their lives to afford weekly appointments and at least some belief that change was possible and worth working for.
The folks who come to First Place are seeking help with the most basic needs; food and somewhere to cook it, shelter, a place to go to the bathroom, take a shower, and do the laundry.
Making significant life changes isn’t on their short list to things to do.
The only requirement for receiving services from First Place is that they have a child under the age of 18 in their care.
Each year we help over 700 families with a total of 1,000-1,200 children.
Most of the folks coming to First Place are from an Hourly Working Class background. A smaller number come from Multi-Generational Poverty and just a few who are Middle Class and having difficulties due to a crisis of one kind or another.
Of course, many of the families who come to First Place are facing all the usual barriers to success, including lack of education & marketable skills, literacy problems, the bad economy, lack of affordable child care, and a lack of resources in general.
What soon became apparent was that the biggest barriers were often internal.
A lifetime of living on the edge, repeated failures and struggles had taken a toll.
Many have a “low horizon” as to what’s possible for them to have and achieve.
It’s easy to fall into a sense of hopelessness and a belief that “something’s wrong with me” and “My life will never be any better.”
The presenting self can range from an apathetic “There’s nothing I can do, I’m helpless. I give up.” to a retreat into defensiveness and Narcissistic self-protection.
Past experiences with other shelters cause some folks to arrive at our door ready to do battle, in a belief no one will willingly help them.
One of the biggest differences between poverty in America and poverty in a third-world country is that there is a consensus in this country that, if your not financially successful, it’s your own fault.
Dr. Donna Beegle, an authority on helping people move out of poverty, points out that we have a “Deficit Model” that causes people living in poverty to internalize society’s views and blame themselves for their poverty, ignoring the societal & cultural barriers that contribute to their situation.
The self-blame is even stronger if you’re the dad.
Men who can’t support their family are often paralyzed with shame and guilt.
After a year just getting our footing, we were forced to go back to the basics of creating a therapeutic environment and relationship, and the principles learned during our previous years.
At this point, our work at First Place was based on four things:
Our own life experiences, and forays into therapy and personal growth, both as practitioners and recipients. I had my own experience of Situational Poverty in the 70s when my former spouse, two young kids and I lived in Los Angeles in an old pickup camper.
Our training in a form of a body-oriented insight therapy called Hakomi.
It’s a system based on principles of what facilitates deep personal change.
My experience with Hakomi includes, at one time or another, that of a student, certified practitioner, teacher of the method, and client.
The Hakomi principle that we fall back on most is:
Organicity: People are organisms, not machines needing to be fixed.
D.H. Lawrence put it this way:
I am not a mechanism, an assembly of various sections.
And it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly, that I am ill.
I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self
and the wounds to the soul take a long, long time, only time can help
and patience, and a certain difficult repentance …
The wonderful thing about organisms is that they are potentially self-healing!
A good example of organicity is the way we treat a cut finger.
If the cut’s superficial, we may just wash it off and go about our business.
If it’s a little worse, we’d wash it, put on antibiotic ointment and a band aid.
If it’s really deep, we might go to the doctor who would clean, stitch, and bandage the wound.
None of these actions heal the cut. The body heals itself from inside out.
All we can do is to create an environment that promotes healing.
In other words, one of the important aspects of organisms is that they’re capable of reorganizing at higher levels of functioning when provided with the proper environment.
It’s our job to create that environment.
The third pillar is Family Systems Theory as developed by Dr. Murray Bowen. I especially appreciate the inclusive scope of his understanding and work.
And finally, in the last four years, the teachings of Dr. Donna Beegle regarding the Culture of Poverty, and how to be more effective working with individuals and families who are living in multi-generational poverty.
Back to my story…
One of our first tasks was to change our language. Language affects how we think about and view the world.
There are so many phrases used in human services that allowed us to separate from the folks who came to the Center.
For example: “Case Management:” people aren’t “cases” and we’re lucky if we can manage ourselves.
So calling ourselves “Case Managers” didn’t work. We struggled over what to call that particular staff position until we gave up and asked the families what we should call what we do. They bestowed the title: “Family Resource Coordinator.”
“Client.” This isn’t a business relationship. We now just talk about “the families.”
Our biggest change in how we speak took place when we were introduced to Person-first Language.
How many here are familiar with Person-first Language?
The key here is that, when we refer to someone’s situation or condition, we always start with “Person” or “Family” or “Man” or “Woman” or something similar.
(Note: There are some situations where Identity -first language is preferred.)
I sometimes find it difficult to remember to do this but it’s worth the trouble because our language does affect the way we think about others.
What image comes to mind when you hear the phrase, “Homeless guy on the street-corner?” How would it differ if I said, “A person who has nowhere to sleep tonight?”
Instead of “Addict” we are more accurate when we talk about a “Person who is addicted to drugs.” Same for “Alcoholic.”
Instead of “Inmate” how about “A person who is locked up, probably for good reasons.”
What about: “A schizophrenic” vs. “A person with schizophrenia?”
Even saying “She’s a diabetic” instead of “She has diabetes” reduces a complex person to one aspect of their life. It isn’t who she is!
In all these examples we’re talking about a person who has a condition.
Your Condition or Situation, is NOT Who You Are!
People are more than their condition or their circumstances!
Again, our language affects how we view someone and the feelings we have about them.
And it also affects how others view the people with whom we work.
Another example of the power of language is that we speak of our families as “being in transition” not “homeless.”
Their lack of a place to live is only a small part of them. It’s not who they are.
When we made this change in language, our families were excited.
They actually felt better about themselves and their situation.
They said things like “I’m not homeless, I’m just in transition!”
“I had a place to live before and will have one again.”
Person-first language also has an impact on our friends, families and the community.
People are more likely to vote for a levy that helps folks who “have no place to lay their head at night” than they are for “the homeless.”
The biggest challenges for us at First Place came from our own response to people’s choices.
We were amazed at the choices some of the families made, especially when it had a negative impact on their kids.
It soon became clear that our automatic negative judgments just deepened people’s own sense of failure and defensiveness, even if we “kept it to ourselves.”
The problem is that we can’t just decide not to have negative judgments.
It’s not an act of willpower.
We needed to change how we saw the families.
In this next section, I’ll be talking about some of the discoveries about what makes psychotherapy effective. Please translate this for yourself to apply it whatever you do in your work to bring about change in people’s behavior.
Dr. Michael Mahoney, in his book, "Human Change Processes: The Scientific Foundations of Psychotherapy", reports that studies seeking to find out why one person goes to therapy and has major life changes while someone else seems to have little success have revealed the following:
"the largest variation in therapy is accounted for by preexisting client factors, such as motivation....
Therapist personal factors account for the second largest proportion of change, with technique variables coming in a distant third.”
In fact, several major research projects have shown that…
“the therapeutic impact attributable to the psychotherapist was eight times greater than that associated with the treatment techniques.”
He goes on to say: “It is the quality of our relationships with other humans that most powerfully influences the quality of lives and the pace and direction of the developments within them."
What’s it about us that makes who we are eight times more impactful than any treatment techniques?
What’s the key ingredient? Mahoney calls it personhood.
In other words, the overwhelming factor in whether or not a person experiences significant personal change is their level of motivation to change.
The Next most important is who the therapist is as a person.
Least and definitely last are all the techniques, training, type of therapy,
and all the rest.
In "A General Theory of Love", psychiatrists Lewis, Amini, and Lannon agree on the importance of the therapist as the key factor in the therapeutic relationship: “the person of the therapist is the converting catalyst, not his order or credo… the agent of change is who he is.”
Chogyam Trungpa put it this way:
The basic task of helping professionals… is to become full human beings, and to inspire full human beingness in others who feel starved about their lives.
Perhaps a key aspect of why our “personhood” is eight times more important than our techniques is found in the concept of rapport.
As important as words are, people also communicate through body language, tension levels, and many other ways that usually operate beneath our conscious awareness. Feedback loops can be established that either cause us to feel safe and welcome or cause us to be on guard.
How does this apply to our work with families and children?
People know how we feel about them.
They may not know they know but they feel it “in their gut.”
If people don’t feel safe and respected they guard themselves, pull back and become defended. If I’m experiencing a negative feeling or judgment about someone, they’ll pick it up, usually on an unconscious level. Their automatic reaction is resistance.
ASK: Anyone here ever sensed resistance from someone with whom you were working?
What experience were you having and how might that resonate with the other person?
And what was your response to their resistance?
In therapy, much attention is sometimes focused on “overcoming resistance.”
What if the main way to “overcome resistance” has to do with the quality of our “personhood” and its effect on the person sitting in front of us?
Let me list some of the aspects of “personhood” that impacts our work.
• The ability to be fully present with another person instead of thinking about what we’re going to say or do next.
• To be curious about their world and what lies behind their “problem” behaviors.
• To not assume that we know the best outcome for them.
• Ultimately, we need to overcome our need for someone to have a particular outcome.
We just do our work as well as we can, recognizing that we’re not in control.
Here’s the challenging one:
To stay out of negative judgments about who a person is.
Of course, we’ll have our professional judgments about specific behaviors and their impact on their children. That doesn’t have to translate into an assumption regarding who they are at the core, or what might be possible for them.
Dr. Donna Beegle tells us: “If you judge someone, you can’t help them.”
Now, we can’t just decide not to be in judgment. It’s not that simple.
And, remember, we can’t fake it. The only one we’ll fool is our self.
I want to talk about a couple of ways to transcend negative judgments about people:
First, we can understand the Context in which a person lives.
Second, we can update our understanding of human functioning, especially around the concept of personal behavior and responsibility.
Let’s start with Cultural Context.
Here are some common judgments people may have when working with people who are living in poverty:
If they’re so poor, why are they smoking cigarettes?
Nicotine improves sensory gating in the brain – helps with stress management
Have you notice that many people who are homeless have big dogs?
They provide Warmth, Companionship, Protection
Have you noticed that poor folks often have bad teeth?
When Donna Beegle asks groups why they think this is so,
what do you think is the most common reason she hears?
“Meth.” Or “They just don’t care enough.”
The main cause is Poverty, and programs that pull rather than repair teeth.
And what about that big TV in their living room when you make a home visit?
TV is Soporific. It dulls the pain.
TV also helps people to connect with their group at work or school
Here’s one from our previous work at First Place.
We had helped a family become stably housed. Several months later, the father came in and announced that they were going to be evicted for non-payment of rent. When we asked “what happened?” he told us that they’d sent their rent money to his sister who was in crisis in California. My internal response was “how stupid! (slap forehead) Now they’re going to end up homeless again.
In retrospect, I didn’t understand the context in which the family lived.
I lacked “Cultural Competency.”
Most of our folks at First Place are living in the Culture of Poverty to one degree or another.
When working as a counselor, it became clear that the reason most people came for help was that they had developed a strategy for dealing with the behaviors and dysfunctions of their family of origin that left their sense of self at least somewhat intact.
In other words, their own personal “Survival Strategies.”
Our name for indirect methods used to get needs met is “Survival Strategies.”
During the time we had our preschool, I found it interesting that I could see some of the survival strategies that I saw in adults already visible in the kids. The natural response would be to see if we could replace the strategy with something more appropriate.
For example, earlier this week we had a 2-year-old boy who wanted his stuffed animal. His mother was holding it and when he asked for it, she ignored him. He asked again, same result. Then he started crying and that got her attention. She eventually gave him the toy. I don’t have to tell you what he was learning from this.
Later in our playgroup, he wanted something off a shelf and started to cry. The volunteer, who’d observed the previous interaction, gave him the toy and told him “here at the Playgroup, you can use your words.”
One of the things we’ve learned is that we shouldn’t try to stop behaviors that work at home unless we can first get the parent to change. Instead, we work to help the kids learn that they can get their needs met more directly in some places, if not in others.
Working at First Place I ran smack into the reality of Cultural Survival Strategies.
The interesting thing about survival strategies, be they individual or cultural, is that they work pretty well within the context in which they were developed.
It’s usually clear that the person wouldn’t have done as well in getting their basic needs met without it. In fact, the development of a personal survival strategy by a child is an amazing creative act!
In my private practice, my clients had survived well enough to be able to pay for my help, have jobs and families, and often do pretty well in their world.
The problem was that their context had changed and their beliefs about self and the world had not.
And this discrepancy between the past and present was limiting their choices and creating much unnecessary suffering.
It works the same way with Cultural Survival Strategies.
The problem is that the strategies that help someone Survive while living in poverty also make it hard to get out of poverty.
In the example I gave about the family who sent their rent money to his sister, it was only after I learned more about the Culture of Poverty that I understood what a terrible dilemma they were in.
In poverty, if you don’t have things or the things that you do have get taken away, then all you really have that you can hold on to is people, your family and friends.
If they were to say “No” to his sister, the family would be upset, they would feel guilty, and they would experience some degree of alienation from that which is most important to them.
If they sent the money, their family would end up homeless again.
There’s no “right” answer. The best we could do, if given the chance, would be to help make the decision conscious rather than automatic.
In poverty, if you have something extra at the moment, you share it with others. Since you know you’ll be without again soon, you count on others to share with you. It’s a moral issue.
If you have room on your couch and someone you know is homeless, of course you take them in. After all, people took you in when you were homeless in the past. And since you know you’ll end up homeless again sometime down the road, you count on someone doing the same for you again.
The problem comes if you’re living in most rental housing. You’ll both be homeless when the landlord finds out that someone who’s not on the lease is living with you.
For more on the Culture of Poverty, I recommend the work of Dr. Donna Beegle. Look her up on Google. She lives in Portland, Oregon and her work’s easily accessible.
As we learn about the context of people’s lives, it’s easier for us to move from judgment to understanding.
People’s behavior makes sense when you understand their world.
In the early 70s, I was the only Children’s Protective Services Work in Grays Harbor County Washington, which includes the Quinalt Reservation.
This was by far the most difficult job I’ve ever had!
I had an experience that changed the way I see everything.
I wrote it up for the Register-Guard a few years ago and I want to read it to you now.
“I was sitting in a small living room dominated by a large overstuffed chair.
The chair was occupied by the father of the family and he was not happy to see me.
I was there to investigate a complaint of physical abuse against his three-year-old son. The complaint noted a large bruise on the boy’s back that didn’t seem likely to have been the result of an accident.
The dad told me that the boy was supposed to be carrying firewood into the house and stacking it, that he was too slow, and in his anger, he threw a piece at the boy and hit him on the back. He went on to say that it was the way his dad treated him and that it had made a man of him.
In the middle of the father’s diatribe, his little boy walked over to him and held up his arms, a request to be held, comforted, and loved. Focused on what he was saying to me, he automatically reached down and began to lift up his son.
In the middle of this action, something happened that I’ll never forget. For a split second, the father’s face was contorted with agony. Instantly, he threw the child to the floor, cursed, and shouted “Can’t you see I’m talking with this man!” I looked down at the child and saw the exact same expression on the child’s face I’d seen on the father. I don’t remember much about the rest of the visit. I had just witnessed the ancient process of passing the pain down through the generations.
I’m convinced that, had the father embraced the child at that moment, his own pain from his father would have overwhelmed him. Instead, he reacted and passed it on to his son. I felt the weight of a great wave of pain passing down through the generations. It was clear that it was not personal, not really about the father or the son. It was just “the pain.”
One impact it had on me was to be the catalyst for forgiving my father for the abuse he passed on to my mother and me. The more I learned about his childhood, the more I understood that he had passed on to me less than he himself had received.
The choice faces us each day. When the pain arises within us, we can either stop and feel it or pass it along. In a very real way, we, like Christ, are called to bear in our own bodies the suffering of the generations. It ‘s an act of love.”
Twenty years later I woke up one morning and wrote this…
The Pain of The Sons
The x-ray reveals the badly healed bones of the child, broken by the hard hands of an angry father. Looking at my x-rays, lost memories stir, bringing a tear for the child I once was.
That child, hidden deep under layers of stone, looks back with mercy on my father’s hidden child, who lived with rage and shame from his too hard father and the mother who brought them disgrace before the world.
How sad that the pain passes from hurt child to hurt child down the long corridor of the generations.
Who will stand and say, “This is enough!” Who will bear the pain of countless generations, refusing to pass it on, a little christ struggling with the sins of the fathers?
I’d like to tell you about the key concept that informs our work at First Place Family Center.
It sounds simple but it’s really pretty radical.
And whether or not it’s “true” in any ultimate sense, it works for us most of the time.
We believe that:
Everyone always does the best they’re able all the time, based on their beliefs about themselves and their beliefs about the rest of the world.”
(Factor in a little bit of biochemistry and neurology.)
Everyone always does the best they ‘re able all the time, based on their beliefs about themselves and their beliefs about the rest of the world.
Everyone! All the time!
Let me personalize it…
You have always done the best you were able all the time, based on your beliefs about yourself and your beliefs about the rest of the world.
Notice your reaction…
If you can’t accept it for yourself, how will you ever believe it for someone else?
Note that I said “the best they are able” not “the best they know to do”
People may not always be able to do what they know is best.
There’s a level of stress that will result in symptoms of one kind or another in anyone.
We might imagine a person who has been clean and sober for 30 years.
Say, as fate would have it, in the same week he lost his job of 20 years, his wife left him, found out he had cancer, and his dog had to be put to sleep.
Job had nothing on this guy!
Although he might be well aware of the results of drinking again, his symptom would likely be to fall back on the behavior that buffered him in the past and “fall off the wagon.” I contend that NOT taking that drink was not a live option for him at that moment.
Here’s an Important Disclaimer:
Sometimes “their best” is not good enough for a particular situation.
Sometimes the best a person can do isn’t good enough to
Keep their job; or
Raise their own children; or Stay out of jail.
Still, I don’t believe anyone mess up on purpose.
No one starts life hoping to end up addicted, homeless, and eventually imprisoned.
No one gets “off the hook” because of this. This belief doesn’t change the fact that behaviors have consequences. It does impact the way we relate to others.
At First Place, we attempt to put this into action by seeking to recognize something in the person with whom we’re working that we can admire, especially on a feeling level. Then we carry that feeling into our interactions with them.
It can make a big difference in the success or failure of our interactions.
It helps people to feel safe and welcome.
People don’t experience real change when they feel like they’re being judged.
So… We’re asking staff at First Place to practice making a conscious use of self;
to be aware of what is going on inside when relating to one of the families.
Sometimes we do well, sometimes less well.
It’s a “practice” like, say, Zen is a practice.
Sometimes someone comes along for whom none of us can find that spot in ourselves. Exploring this can be part of our staff meetings.
Tell the story of “Bob.”
We had a couple with a pre-adolescent daughter come into First Place. His survival strategy was Narcissistic, in the sense of dealing with the “Narcissistic wound” to his sense of self. He couldn’t take advice because he had to be in control, had to know everything. It made him hard to be around.
It also hurt his family. We had them set up with Connections Transitional Housing. It would give them two years of safety and support. During the final interview, he as asked what he expected to earn when he got a job. His answer, $25 per hour, disqualified them. I doubt he’d ever made much more than minimum wage. Now, more than two years later, he’s still unemployed.
None of us on staff felt comfortable around him. We spent nearly two hours during one of our staffings trying to find something that we could feel good about when we worked with “Bob.”
Finally, Diana said “He really cares for his daughter.” There was immediate recognition that that was true. The whole feeling in the room changed. We could all feel it. Now we could work with “Bob” – all we needed to do was to touch on that recognition before we approached him. And he could sense it so we were more able to effectively support him and his family.
Later during the staffing, someone became aware how much “Bob” reminded them of their abusive uncle.
It’s only half a joke that First Place is a personal growth seminar disguised as a job.
The challenge is to remain true to what we believe about people.
To be more accurate mirrors for them.
The side benefit of working with this kind of self-awareness is that it also changes and empowers us.
Let’s take a side-trip to explore the nature and power of these beliefs.
Rodolfo Llinás, one of the worlds leading neuroscientists, tells us in his fascinating book i of the vortex: From Neurons to Self that:
The brain is a virtual reality machine.
Consider that the waking state is a dreamlike state (in the same sense that dreaming is a wakelike state) guided and shaped by the senses, whereas regular dreaming does not involve the senses at all.
The nature of the brain and what it does makes the nervous system a very different type of entity from the rest of the universe.
It is, as stated repeatedly, a reality emulator….
Comforting or disturbing, the fact is that we are basically dreaming machines that construct virtual models of the real world. It is probably as much as we can do with only one and a half pounds of mass and a “dim” power consumption of 14 watts.
In other words, we are dreaming machines and our beliefs are reflected as who we’re dreaming ourselves to be and the nature of the world we inhabit.
And we respond to those beliefs in ways that make sense within the context of those beliefs. The zinger is that people then react to us in ways that tend to confirm the reality of those beliefs!
This modern scientific understanding helps me make sense out of the various Eastern practices that talk about “awakening” or “waking up from the dream.”
Perhaps the ratio between “wakefulness” and being in a “dream-like state” can change.
I have a step-son, Michael, who has schizoaffective disorder. He’s in his mid 40s and has mostly lived on the streets except when he’s been arrested or hospitalized.
It’s clear that the ratio between his “wakefulness” and his “dream-like state” is heavily weighted toward the dream. Still, his sometimes-bizarre behaviors make perfect sense in the context of his experience.
What I do know for sure is that the dream itself can change.
Our core beliefs about self and the world can be updated.
We can live in a more benevolent and satisfying world, experiencing much less “unnecessary suffering.”
This is certainly true for me and I’ve seen it happen for many of the folks I’ve known in my private practice.
This almost always happens because of relationships that help create a new experience of ourselves and the world in which we live.
Quoting Dr. James Comer
"No significant change takes place without significant relationship."
Our tag line at First Place is…
"Stabilizing and Empowering Families Through Real Relationships"
This brings me to the controversial subject of Self Disclosure in professional relationships. Donna Beegle has been talking about this for years.
She contends that many of the folks with whom we work see professionals as completely different from themselves. If people can’t identify with us in some way, we lack traction with them. What we say and do can be easily discounted.
I was pleased to see that the local Commission on Children & Families recently offered a workshop on Boundaries. The presenter cited current research that verifies that a moderate amount of self-disclosure greatly increases the effectiveness of our work with others. In fact, she urged people who were unable to self-disclose to find a way to do it or consider different career.
Coming back to earth, how does all this work in real life?
For starters, do a thought experiment with me…
Imagine that the following is true of you, your parents, and your grandparents
You’ve never known anyone personally who had a job that paid enough to pay the rent, utilities, and buy enough food in the same month.
You’ve never known anyone personally who benefitted from education.
You moved and changed schools at least twice a year.
You were made fun of at school because of your clothes & the way you talk
You grew up having to go hungry some of the time.
You don’t read well so you get most of your information by talking with friends and family.
Your family lived in a car and the police came and took it away along with all your belongings.
You have nothing left from your childhood, no pictures or mementoes.
Since it seems obvious you’ll never really have enough, you focus on the present moment since it makes no sense to plan for the future.
Everyone in school seems smarter and knows more than you do.
If you have anything extra, you share it with family and people you know.
Saving doesn’t make sense when someone you know is in need.
You’ve had to go without needed medical and dental care most of your life.
What do you think might be some of the beliefs about self & the world that would come out of the experiences I just listed?
Here are some of the beliefs about self & the world that people learn from living in poverty.
No one cares about me. There is something the matter with me. I will lose everything, again & again. I am alone. I don’t belong. I have nothing to offer. I’m not as smart as other people.
I have no control over my life. Luck is everything.
• These beliefs create a “low horizon” regarding what is possible
• They create a focus on immediate gratification since they don’t believe that Later will be Better.
Like I said earlier, people come into First Place and act in the context of their beliefs.
It’s not uncommon for someone to walk through the door ready for a fight.
Based on past experiences, they come in believing that their needs will not be met and that they’ll be treated with disrespect.
So there they are standing in front of us, angry and demanding, expecting to be rejected. It’s really hard not to confirm their expectations and put them in their place. After all, it’s the nature of our beliefs to be self-confirming.
But what if we can find a way to act out of our beliefs -- instead of responding to theirs? It’s not easy. We frequently come short.
But if we do, we create cognitive dissonance for them. It may throw them off balance. They may even escalate to try to prove themselves right.
Here’s two stories, one where we failed, another where we had some success.
“Rachael” continued to push the envelope. She came in making demands, stealing small items, and was perpetually in staff’s faces. She would come around, sidle up to me, and say “You’re a racist. I know you are.
Just say it – it’ll make you feel better to admit it.”
One inauspicious day I found myself standing in the middle of the Center waving my arms and shouting “I’m in charge here!!” It was captured on our video system.
I watched it several times. I really blew it. I acted just the way she expected.
So, we worked hard in our next staffing, reminding ourselves who we wanted to be in light of the situation. A few days later, she came up to me and whispered, “Everyone is being really nice to me. What’s wrong?”
In the end, she violated the Center’s rules to the point, by bringing a weapon into the building, that we had to exit her from services.
Months later, in another very similar scenario, “Bobbie” continued to confront us and, especially, Diana, whom she saw as an enemy.
One day, when she was especially upset, she asked for a meeting with Diana and staff. We all went to one of the upstairs offices for privacy. Diana wasn’t looking forward to the confrontation but worked to remain open and non-defensive.
Bobbie was standing and holding her baby facing forward. Diana was sitting down, facing her. Well, Bobbie blasted her while the baby screamed at full volume. It was an intense assault. Diana apologized for anything she might have done to offend and Bobbie bolted out of the office.
After the experience, Diana broke down and wept.
I’ve never seen her so impacted by someone’s energy.
A little later that day someone donated a number of beautiful, hand-made baby blankets. Diana took several to Bobbie and asked her if she wanted one.
This was certainly not what she expected.
The next day Bobbie returned and shared with Diana that she had been living in a domestic violence situation and asked for help getting free of it.
I don’t believe that she would have done that without the experience of being responded to with openness and respect instead of the response she expected.
Today, she’s almost unrecognizable from who she was when she walked through our door. She has a trusting relationship with Diana and the rest of the staff.
Her relations with others have also softened. We’ve become a safe harbor for her.
It’s not unusual for folks at the Center to come back and say things like
“First Place changes you” and “I came to First Place and I don’t know what happened but when I left, I was different.”
Part of what makes this kind of approach potentially life-changing is that it’s the nature of our Core Beliefs to be framed in absolutes: Always & Never.
“I always fail at what I do.” “No one wants to help me.”
What I learned in my counseling practice is that a single powerful event counter to a belief, experienced in a safe and supportive environment, can set in motion deep and lasting changes in who a person experiences themselves to be.
I want to end with an excerpt of an article that appeared in Mothering Magazine, Fall 1991 by Jean Liedloff, author of The Continuum Concept, the story of her experiences with Stone Age Indians deep in the South American Jungle.
It’s called Normal Neurotics Like Us.
I noticed something curious about normal, neurotic adults: what we were experiencing was not a variety of "problems" at all, but rather the very same difficulty.
Although the details and degrees of damage differed, the malady was the same. It manifested as a deep sense of being wrong -- of being not good enough, not lovable, disappointing, incompetent, insignificant, undeserving, inadequate, evil, bad, or in some other way not "right."
What's more, this feeling of wrongness had come about almost always through early interactions with parental authority figures. And it had evoked powerful unconscious beliefs that have informed our views of both self and self-in-relation-to-other.
Upon coming to this realization, I searched for words to describe how human beings would have to feel about themselves in order to live optimally, to feel at home in their own skins and represent themselves accurately to others.
I thought of the Yequana people, and arrived at the words worthy and welcome.
People need to feel worthy and welcome, not bent out of shape, angry, or apologetic about their existence.
At First Place, we strive to be warm & welcoming and to make it safe for people to “represent themselves accurately” without fear of being shamed or judged.
We’re still in process and still learning and growing. As hard as it is to actualize our beliefs in real life, we frequently have evidence that it creates the maximum opportunity for people to feel safe and welcome and to reevaluate their beliefs and choices. It makes coming to work an exciting adventure.
Thank you for letting me share our story. It’s my hope that some of you will have found something of interest and, perhaps, of use from our time here today.