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EDUCATIONAL RESOURCES – ARTICLES
In Praise of Being Stuck
Peter H. Coster, PhD
People come to psychotherapy for many reasons, with a variety of hopes and expectations as well as anxieties and apprehensions. A precipitating life event, the end of a relationship, a change in career are just some of the external situations in a persons life that can bring them into therapy. Internally, there may be feelings of confusion, fear, anxiety and depression. Over the years as a psychotherapist I have heard people speak of one single experience that is common to all the problems we associate with the work of therapy. That is the experience of being stuck.  

Feeling stuck, blocked or just not moving in our lives is a universal human experience. Part of life’s journey, it seems, is to experience times when we are stagnant and we do not know why or what to do about it. Sometimes, it may be a simple matter that is resolved by sleeping on the problem, listening to our favorite music, or taking a long walk in the woods. But this is not what I mean by being stuck. What do we do when we find ourselves up to our necks in quicksand, when we are a dark pt and feel scared, when we trip and fall and it hurts? What do we do when we have exhausted all known resources trying to get ourselves unglued, free of our tormenting thoughts, the fears that keep us awake at night? What then?

To begin, we must be clear about one thing. The issue is not to ask what to do, or how to avoid getting stuck, but what does it mean to us when we are stuck? When our life is not moving, when we stumble over and over and we see that we are stuck, how do we relate to this experience of feeling stuck? Looking at it this way is where psychotherapy can become a spiritual practice.

There is a story about an inquisitive guest who, while visiting a monastery, asked one of the monks what did monks do all day? The response was direct and simple. “What we do replied the monk, is fall down and get up. Then we fall down again and we get up again.”

Now it seems to me that this goes directly to the heart of the matter about being stuck. It is expected, even normal and human to fall down, to stumble and to continue struggling over the same issues again and again. To get up does not imply to not fall again. What is implied in the monk’s response is an acceptance of the falling down experience. This acceptance is another name for self-compassion. Without self-compassion the experience of being stuck only worsens as we struggle and blame ourselves with accusatory, judgmental and condemning statements about our condition.

I recall a statement made by one of my supervisors while still in graduate school and training to become a psychotherapist. He said, “A large part of peoples problem come form the way they go about thinking about their problems.” I realized the power of his statement as it applied to my own life.

I began to see that there was another level, so to speak, separate from the problem itself. How I thought about, felt about, and most importantly the meaning I was assigning to my problems was this other level. This was a brilliant insight and the beginning of my becoming unstuck. Just being able to see that my thoughts about the situation mattered as much, or perhaps even more than the matter itself empowered me to consider that change might indeed be possible. In fact, it caused me to realize that my thoughts may be the only thing I could change if I wanted to.

The Power of Disidentification

Insight may not be enough to produce change however. Psychologists from different schools of thought argue this point. It is said that insight is not what produces change, but is the result of change. Isn’t this like the old discussion of the chicken and the egg? Which comes first, insight then change, or change then insight? Or is there a way that they occur simultaneously? Perhaps insight and change are just two side of the same coin? Consider for a moment what it is to have an insight.

To have an insight into a problem means to be able to see into and see through whatever is obstructing ones’ view. We must be able to step back far enough to have a different perspective on a given situation. Another word for this distance is space. Space, and here I mean inner space, is what is needed in order for insight to occur. This inner space is what is lacking when we are feeling stuck.

The word “stuck” as used in this context is very interesting. We are stuck to the problem in such a way that no space lies in between the problem and us. This is why we cannot see our way through the issue because we are too close to it. We are stuck to it. To become more of an observer of one’s self means cultivating the inner space that permits a distance between the observer and what is being observed. To dis-identify means that I am not the problem. I am separate from the problem or situation.

If this sounds rather circular, in a way it is. Insight is not possible without some measure of disidenfication, and disidentification resulting in inner space is not possible if there is not distance between observer and what is being observed. When the logic gets pushed to the end point we might ask ourselves why we are not stuck most of the time since the laws of cause and effect begin to break down. But this is how it should be. The first truth we must come to when we are stuck is that we cannot (with our rational mind) become unstuck. It is a very liberating experience to see this truth. We are helpless in our “stuckness” and this is essential if we are to experience real change.

Hitting Bottom

To explore these concepts further, I would like to utilize the addiction model and the stages of the recovery process. I have found this model particularly useful and I think it helps provide an understanding of what being stuck is all about.

When I was active in my own addiction it was for me an experience of being stuck. Nothing was changing in my life. I was repeating old scenarios that would lead to the same feelings and the same behaviors time and time again. All addictions are about unhealthy attachments. Being attached to something or someone in an unhealthy way is to be stuck to something or someone. Like the song says, “ I am stuck on you.”

Let’s call this stage zero in the recovery process. The chief characteristic of stage zero is denial. To be in denial is to be in a state in which insight is impossible. Stage zero is marked by the lack of inner space. There is no distance. There can be no change. So denial is the absence of insight. Recovery can start when a person begins to come out of their denial. This may happen by the admission that they have a problem and that they are powerless over that problem. In effect, admitting that the problem has them, that they are stuck, that they are not in control, this is insight. Very often this comes about only after many years of painful suffering, both psychological and physical. One finally hits bottom. However it happens, the result is movement. A small amount of inner space is created and the process of change in set in motion. Whether it is the first, second or third stages in the recovery process, the dynamic remain the same. Awareness results in seeing that change is possible.

Another way of thinking about this is to look at what happens when I stop struggling, fighting and resisting my feelings of being stuck and accept where I am. I say, “OK I am stuck and being stuck is OK.” Admitting I have a problem results in acceptance of myself in the problem. It is rather paradoxical because it goes against my rational, logical way of thinking.

When I feeling stuck I want to try something, anything to get myself free. I convince myself that there must be something I can do, something more I should do. By hanging on to this way of thinking, I remain stuck. Perhaps this is the very core of what being stuck means. In my everyday and ordinary life all types of ideas, concepts and images, which I take to be real, control me. And more to the point, I believe that these images are the real me. I truly think I am in control and have the ability to figure my way out of this mess if I only try harder.

We have moved into the realm of paradox and we must exercise some caution. As soon as I deny or affirm a statement such as those above, the opposite may also be just as true. The real issue is not to try and figure out the paradox of being stuck, but how to live with it. By living within the tension of paradox I am moved, at times, to a place beyond the opposing forces struggling within me. Yet, I am never completely beyond paradox, which is another paradox altogether.

So what does feeling stuck in my life have to do with all of this? Being stuck, feeling that I am at an impasse, may be life’s way of helping us move into paradox so that I can learn how to live more comfortable and freely with paradox. I believe that our being able to embrace the paradoxes that life presents us is the way we experience the depth and the mystery of life.

My struggle with being stuck may lead me to give up struggling, find acceptance and experience surrender. When I can accept where I am, that I am stuck and when I can embrace what that means to me, that I am not the person I thought I was or had to be; in charge and in control, something in me has to let go and die. Perhaps what has to die is my deeply held belief that if I don’t do something, then nothing will happen. And If I am afraid of nothing happening, afraid of falling down into the void, then I will resist and hold on. But what if nothingness is simply the state upon which everything, including all of creation rests? By allowing my experience of being stuck to simply be what it is without trying to change it, I find that I am being led to greater depth and to the realm beyond opposites and opposition. The experience of being stuck is not then something to be rid of or be ashamed of, but welcomed, embraced and celebrated. When we are stuck, it is a sign that life supports us. The universe is leading us into becoming more real. So let us praise being stuck.

Pyschospirituality is Care of Soul:A call to us to be whole
An observation by Eleanor Lew
 

The taoist poet Chuang-tzu told a story about a dream he had of a butterfly. When he awoke, he was not sure if he wasn’t the butterfly who had been dreaming of Chuang-tzu. The poet philosopher clearly understood that our perception of reality may not be reality at all. A pre-butterfly caterpillar, crawling along the forest floor, may see only the leaves that it feeds on. Once it emerges from the cocoon, a butterfly, perhaps a beautiful monarch, is able to fly great distances, over trees and forests and view a world and universe of infinite largeness it could not possibly have imagined as a caterpillar.

And so it is with human beings. There’s an energy that stirs in all of us that calls us to be who we really are. It summons us to be whole, to be more conscious, to become the architect of our own destiny and fulfill the unique purpose of our being. This energy is what I call “soul.”

Soul had no meaning for me until late in my life. I had lived a life of adventure and glamour around the world. In spite of having lived and worked in Europe and the Far East, and holding, by society’s standards, prestigious jobs, I was miserable on the inside. My unhappiness eventually revealed itself as physical symptoms, such as stress, high blood pressure and internal (psychic) pain. My doctor couldn’t give me any answer, but he did prescribed a basic book on meditation instead of medication. Meditation helped me to transform my life.

In meditation, I heard the inner voice of my “soul” speaking for the first time. It said I had lived a life that reflected not my own dream but my parents’. That I had sacrificed my own Self (that part of me that demands wholeness and authenticity) in pursuit of my parents’ and society’s values, like money and prestige. In relationships, I had tried to care for the needs of others but not my own. I came to the realization that no amount of security, comfort, predictability, or financial safety would fill the sense of emptiness on the inside. Nor would security shield me from feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, disorientation, boredom, depression, or disappointment with myself and others. I had to break old patterns of thinking and behaving or risk being dead on the inside.

Thus began my journey for “meaning.” I discovered psychology and learned to my surprise that psyche is the Greek word for soul. Nowadays soul is a little-used word and yet is the very heart of words like psychology, psychiatry, psychopathology, psychopharmacology, and psychotherapy (care of the soul).

Care of the soul. When I heard this definition of psychotherapy, I intuitively knew what I had been suffering from — I had been neglecting my soul. Since that time of beginning consciousness, I have learned that if we choose to ignore soul, then outward manifestations of an unlived live might include symptoms like denial, depression, boredom, loneliness, co-dependency, addiction, abuse of self and others, and broken relationships.

What I have learned from my clients is that they come to therapy with symptoms — but what they are really looking for is soul. In therapy, it is the point at which they realize they are finally in touch with and communicating with their soul/essential being/spirit that true healing begins. It is a turning point when clients recognize, among other things,

Ö they have more choices than they thought possible
Ö how archaic family-of-origin messages interfere with relationships and personal and workplace decision-making
Ö how our “false self”, i.e., old patterns of thought and behavior, get in the way of our becoming who we really are
Ö how relationships with significant others are harmed by expectations that the other will fulfill all our needs, and when our needs are not satisfied, we blame, judge, and criticize to communicate our unhappiness.

When soul calls us to transform and awake from our slumber, we may find that we need to distance ourselves from friends, family and coworkers, or they may distance themselves from us. A compassionate therapist can provide the support and understanding we need.

“Psychospirituality” takes into its meaning “psychotherapy” and “spirituality” and recognizes that the whole is greater than the sum of all of our parts. In contrast to other therapies that focus on symptoms and dysfunctionalities, psychospirituality aims to care for the soul. It views symptoms as a message from soul that we are ready and capable of transformation, to be someone larger than we thought — the butterfly released from the cocoon. By caring for soul, psychospirituality guides us into our aliveness, of living life in congruence with the uniqueness of who we really are, a life lived from alignment of mind, heart, body and spirit reflecting wholeness of being.

Supervision as Mentoring 

Those of us who practice psychotherapy are at home in the world of para dox and contradiction. As therapists we immerse ourselves in the life of the soul with its many conflicts: those interior forces which pull and push us in multiple directions at once and mark the terrain we traverse daily with our clients. Accompanying others on their journey toward healing and integration as they search for personal meaning is what we do in the art of “soul making.” You can call this process individuation; I prefer to calI- it creativity.

Winnicott describes the creative act in psychotherapy as the “spontaneous gesture” and was audacious enough to call the experience of genuine and authentic connection between client and therapist an act of play. It “is an image that I have come to love in the work that I do. If one of our aims in our work as therapists is the recovery of spontaneous play, an expression of the child’s earliest experience of her creative genius, then what is it we do as supervisors in our work with our supervisees? What vision guides the way in which we approach this important relationship?

In this article, I offer a few remarks about supervision as primarily a mentoring relationship between the supervisor and the supervisee. What distinguishes mentoring from other approaches has to do more with Perspective, emphasis and attention. If being a “mid-wife for the soul” is descriptive of what we do as psychotherapists assisting in the birth of the client’s potential and true self, then a supervisor’s role is one of being a mid-wife for the supervisee by teaching, coaching, modeling and encouraging the supervisee as she labors to birth the “therapist pist” within.

The supervisor, according to Jungian analyst Lionel Corbett, helps facilitate the realization of the supervisee’s potential, her Uniqueness and personal choice, the living out of her dream to become a helping professional in a manner that reflects her gifts, temperament and spiritual values.’ Once the supervisee finds her own voice and trusts her own instincts and inner authority, she can begin to question, challenge and push “the boundaries” of the profession. Once she is able to stand on/her own two feet and embrace the responsibility that comes with rightful ownership of the profession the supervisor ceases to be a transitional figure.

Within the mentorship model the supervisee is seen as a junior colleague and a professional in the making. This collegial attitude helps evoke a reality that transcends the transference dynamics that are colored by parental projections and subjection to authority figures that will at times enter into this relationship. This transcendent reality, a co-creation between supervisor and supervisee is a creative space that opens to the transpersonal field and the Mentor Archetype. While containing elements of parental guidance and peer relationship, the mentor archetype embodies an authority best described as sapiential; a word that simply means wisdom.2

Supervision advances along a developmental path in a fashion similar to psychotherapy. The beginning therapist has needs that are different from a more advanced intern. The supervisor’s role in this respect changes with the growth and development of the supervisee’s skills, knowledge, sensitivity and maturity. The heart of supervision within a mentorship model is the increased attention to the supervisee’s feelings, reactions; thoughts and fantasies that emerge within the supervisee as a result of his or her relationship to the client and the entire clinical matrix. In supervision, the selective attention given to the material which presents itself during any session is determined by many factors. We listen for the way in which the client’s story impacts and affects our supervisee, as we, ourselves, allow this material to have an impact on us. To help the supervisee become aware of his counter transference and how to use his counter transference as an integral aspect of the healing relationship is, in my view, the very heart of supervision. What dynamics may be at work maintaining the status quo with a particular client? What may be hindering the establishment of empathy and is contributing to an impasse in the therapeutic relationship? What is preventing the work from going deeper? Exploring these questions together in supervision is a collaborative endeavor between the supervisor and supervisee. The focus of attention in this model is on the learning that takes place when the supervisee discovers for himself how his reactions, responses and “gut” instincts coalesce to bring forth his own “spontaneous gesture” in a creative fashion that fits experientially with the theoretical paradigm that governs the way he thinks psychotherapeutically.

While there is a place for teaching, for advice, for admonition and confrontation in supervision, the supervisee grows most when he receives from the mentoring relationship the knowledge necessary (read wisdom) to advance. This experiential knowledge aligns with the supervisee’s own deep creative self coming forward through his voice and his being.

As a supervisor, my task is to hold .the tension between content and process in a way that facilitates the supervisee’s learning through inquiry and internal exploration. In doing this work, I am fueled by curiosity. I want to know how my supervisee arrived at a particular conclusion. Why did she make this intervention and why now? What was the rationale behind making this intervention? What alternatives might have been entertained but were rejected? What was the feeling she was having at the time and how did she interpret that feeling? This type of open and empathic questioning that is specific and focused deepens one’s process and evokes at time levels of vulnerability in the supervisee that requires a trusting and non-judgmental relationship with the supervisor. While supervision is not psychotherapy, good supervision is always, or should be therapeutic, in my view. I find it helpful to welcome and allow. the supervisee’s vulnerability ability in supervisory sessions without it turning into psychotherapy. Being able to be with oneself in a compassionate non-judgmental way facilitates becoming more present with ourselves and with those we are trying to help. Supervision as mentoring is about teaching the supervisee how to be more present.

There are techniques, if we can call them that, which I have found helpful in my work as a supervisor. Let me briefly describe one that I have found particularly useful with less experienced therapists. I call it “thinking and speaking outside the frame.” Oftentimes, beginning therapists have very good instincts, but are reluctant to trust them let alone speak about them. They are having feelings (counteruansference reactions) which they believe are forbidden, non-therapeutic or not helpful because of a certain type of training they have received, or simply misunderstanding the nature of the therapeutic relationship. Their own family of origin often plays a part. I try to get them to expand, to break free of whatever is restricting them from being more spontaneous.

I invite them to role play with me and to stop trying to be a “therapist” for a moment by inviting them to speak their mind as fully and completely as possible. Their uncensored responses may be strong, confrontational or angry. It may include feelings of hurt, disappointment or sadness. Whatever the response, it is usually refreshingly honest and authentic.

The work we do together is to address the self Judgments which may accompany the expression of such feelings. Once their feelings can be acknowledged and there is the suspension of judgment, there is more clarity and objectivity. I then ask them to reflect on how these feelings may contain important information about their client. In what way does their counter transference contain important diagnostic clues which will help in their assessment of the client’s psychological makeup, traumatic history, and transference relationship with them as a therapist? Working in this way we identify and work with the “projective identification” in order to deepen the empathic connection and facilitate the therapeutic process.

Once the supervisee becomes more empathic with the wounded part of himself/herself through objective understanding, he/she sees and understands his/her client’s wounded ness and defenses in a new way, which deepens the empathic alliance and facilitates the therapeutic process.

There are many aspects and dimensions to the mentoring relationship that cannot be covered in such a brief article. Let me conclude, if I may, on a personal note. My love for doing supervision runs deep, perhaps deeper than my passion and interest in psychotherapy. As a psychotherapist, the work involves uncovering and working through the many layers of the false self that have been developed as a result of early environmental failures and trauma. The work is highly rewarding. As a supervisor, the focus shifts to the way in which the emerging true self of the therapist finds his/her creativity and the presence of being in the world and sharing that self with others through healing relationship. The work is at times joyful.

Peter H Coster PhD, MDiv., is a licensed marriage and family therapist. He is the Clinical Director for the Center for Psychotherapy, Spirituality and Creativity, and adjunct faculty member at John E Kennedy University CA. He has been in private practice since 1989 and has offices in North Berkeley, San Raphael and Sonoma. Peter is a CAMFT Certified Supervisor. He can be contacted at phcoster@sbcglobal.net

REFERENCES
Lionel Corbett, “Supervision and the Mentor Archetype,” in Jungian Perspectives on Clinical Supervision. Edited by Paul Kugler,. Daimon, Switzerland, 1995, (pp.62-63). 2ibid. pp. 61-62.