Part-Two of an interview with Jeanene Mall, Licensed Clinical Marriage & Family Therapist, reflecting on original painting entitled “Repose”
Rosemary: The swans in this painting, and animals in general, seem so calm, whereas humans aren’t. Why is that?
Jeannie: We supposedly have the higher brain and yet many things we don’t do as well. We don’t discharge trauma as naturally for example, for whatever reason. It’s an interesting thing for sure.
Rosemary: And we all have developmental trauma, but why do some people explore their inner selves, self-examine, and others refuse over decades and decades?
Jeannie: Perhaps this is one of God’s mysteries, and only He in His wisdom, knows the answer. We are all unique, fearfully and wonderfully made, and we all have a story. But I’d like to offer some ideas and observations.
As a therapist, I believe change is possible, and perhaps generally occurring at some level. Nature models change for us, and it’s a natural, constant process. The seasons change. Each season could metaphorically illustrate for us seasons of our lives. For example, there is barrenness and what looks like death in the winter, but transformation and new life in the Spring. The barrenness is necessary for new growth. Hope! Nature helps us understand change as a process that is continually occurring.
However, keep in mind that we humans tend to resist change, especially if it is difficult. We keep busy in our society and busyness can cover up the need for change. Perhaps that is why older people seek therapy. Perhaps as they become less busy, they recognize the problems and needs that could have been present for years.
Maybe we don’t see the need to change. Perhaps unconscious fear is present. Emotional awareness or maturity is necessary, because it takes awareness to really be able to feel and be present to what’s going on. Most of us would like to avoid pain.
When change does occur, there are a couple types, levels, if you will.
For example, if we turn the thermostat up or down in our home, we notice and feel the temperature change. There is a change. But, a deeper change would come if we install a whole new heating and air-conditioning system. Instead of simply turning something up or down, the whole system is different. That deeper change takes a lot of courage. It’s a really difficult thing, and so I respect those who begin, and stay in that process.
On one hand, I think we may decide to change because we perceive that the cost of staying the way we are is now higher than the cost of changing. Perhaps our spouse tells us to get help or leave, or there’s some other kind of crisis. In other words, distressful situations can produce an environment of change.
I personally believe that there are proactive ways to change. To me, change is a spiritual process. For example, people who engage in naturally meditative states (which, by the way, are right brain states), such as prayer, meditation, art, music, mindfulness, silence, to a name a few, are participating in an environment of change. I have observed this. The change takes a while, as all worthwhile things do. We should keep growing, learning, and changing until we die. And by the way, when someone older comes to see me, dismayed that the problems are still there, I frame it as a gift and a new opportunity to heal. I believe God is desiring a new level of healing for them and will be fully present in their process. Ultimately, we must remember that we were created to have choice and live in freedom. A person can choose to change, or not.
The book “The Road Less Travelled” talked about how we are such a pain avoidant society. His idea is that when we are unwilling to lean into and feel some of the pain, and learn to tolerate it, we build layers around ourselves, and it’s the layers then that may cause us to seek therapy.
Rosemary: Speaking of the road less travelled, I am taking a group class called “The Journey Begins” which takes a deeper look into our experiences of woundedness, brokenness, recovery and redemption. What I’m learning is that with shame, we grow layers and layers of contempt, and I see how it just builds walls and walls and walls, and my question would be…there are so many walls, it comes to the point where love goes out the window and relationship is severed because all the person is emoting is blame at other people. And finally, and without God’s intervention, that relationship may not be reconciled. And I’m wondering how a person can ultimately sit in their pain long enough to realize something has to change. In other words, if a person is reactionary and defensive all the time and blaming and demeaning others, how does one break through the defensiveness and the contempt they have for others? If they’ve devalued everybody around them, except for maybe a handful that they need, can they ever value them again?
Jeannie: I believe that fear is underneath all this defensiveness and reactivity. I also believe that shame is fear-based. Shame tells us we are bad. Shame will tell us to hide, yet the antidote to shame is to come out of hiding. So if we feel we need to hide, lest we be exposed, that could certainly lead to defensiveness. Therapists seeing couples often introduce the ‘negative cycle’, or fear dance. Seeing and breaking down this cycle, along with identifying their feelings when in the cycle, can help the couple become aware of the implicit memories that are being triggered in their relationship. I find that implicit memories seem to be triggered most often in intimate relationships; perhaps marriage and parenting relationships.
Rosemary: So that mate becomes threatening. So when you’re triggered…I think of it a projecting onto others…they become the threat.
Jeannie: Yes. There is such a thing as projection. Once the negative cycle is recognized for what it is, and the couple begins to understand what early wounds contributes to it, they can start to move away from it and towards each other in a softer way.
Rosemary: Now how does an I–It become an I–Thou?
Jeannie: I think the first step is awareness of the concept, and a desire to change. Next, to try to purposefully slow down and see each person we meet as a valuable person with a story. We all get to moving fast and it’s easy to just not notice somebody. It may be difficult to see someone as I-thou that is different from us and we might automatically judge that person. Trying to be curious can be helpful here. And, we can use good, polite, patient manners! Sometimes, and this grieves me, we might be polite and charming to the outside world but treat our family members as I-It. It’s easy to do in our familiar relationships. It’s very impactful on children, who notice this, and often develop the belief that they are not important or valued.
Rosemary: How is an I-It different from a narcissist?
Jeannie: I do feel that a person struggling with narcissism could be more prone to treat others as an I-It. However, just because, for example, I treat the taxi driver as an I-It does not necessarily indicate narcissism. Someone with narcissistic tendencies, or the full disorder, typically will have difficulty self-observing and having genuine empathy for others. This could translate into I-It behavior.
Rosemary: When we take a look again at the painting “Repose”, we see the swans in an isolated, beautiful peaceful spot. And I realize I’ve never seen swans that are threatened. I’ve not seen where something happens…a dog that jumps in…I don’t know how they would react in a threatened way.
Jeannie: They would naturally go into fight-flight or freeze mode. We see examples in the animal kingdom. If the tiger is chasing the gazelle, and the gazelle thinks it is going to be caught, sometimes it will just drop and appear dead. It is in a state of shock and is totally shut down. It is in freeze state. There’s a two-fold protection here.
Number one: if it’s eaten at that point it won’t feel it. Number two: perhaps the tiger might drag him off to the lair first. If the tiger and his family delay the meal, the gazelle will start to tremble as his systems come back on line and as he naturally discharges the trauma, he may be able to escape.
The difference between the animal and the human world is that the animals are able to naturally discharge the trauma if they survive it. Humans don’t necessarily do that very well, so it can just continue to play out in their lives. Peter Levine’s book “Waking the Tiger, Healing Trauma” is a fascinating, helpful read that describes what happens to humans. Humans can get stuck in trauma, which can feel like they have one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brake. Trauma treatment more and more is emphasizing that the body holds the trauma. There are ways to release the trauma by working with the body.
Rosemary: It’s therapeutic to reflect on these pieces of artwork, not just for me, but for others.
Jeannie: It was such a joyful experience for me! It was calming and grounding to have a couple concepts come, in the context of the painting, and to be able to elaborate on them. Once the concepts were there, themes and ideas began to flow. I would not have had this opportunity had I not reflected on the painting. And you were right, it needed to be a painting that really spoke to me, and this one did. I pray that others will find what speaks to them and engage in a reflective, meditative experience with it. Or an active experience of something that speaks to them, such as drawing, music, crafts, etc.
The benefits of journaling are tremendous. Once we sit down and start to write, whether it be about their emotional state or something going on in our bodies, it’s so amazing what will flow. We simply need to give ourselves permission to do it! It is so therapeutic.
Rosemary: And one way to journal could be to look at a painting.
Jeannie: Yes, and just start writing our reflections. And the other thing I think we could do, and a great way to develop mindfulness, to look for extra details. As I looked at “Repose”, first I saw some greens, some whites, BUT, as I studied it and looked for extra detail, it was like discovering beautiful jewels. I noticed that there’s pinks in there and there’s some colors swirled together, and that one little swan has his beak tucked in more than the other. And then I saw different hues of the grasses and the beautiful colors of the trees. Details come alive so much more if we’ll take time. It’s very calming. One way to self-soothe, particularly if a person is visual, is mindfully just drink in a beautiful painting or a beautiful sunset. These are God’s good gifts for us. He gives us sunsets and sunrises. And we scurry around like little ants and often miss them. It sure must be fun to paint and bring all these scenes to life!
Rosemary: Painting is about healing for me. And this blog has been an exploration in how others can heal as well. It’s universal. We all need healing. We are just in different stages…no shame in that!
Jeannie. I love that you are taking the time to present this healing blog! I pray many will benefit. In “Repose”, it’s lovely we see the swans in their restful, natural state, not in a state of trauma with the dog jumping in, being threatened for their lives.
Rosemary: ….Even if it’s a nice Golden Retriever.
Jeannie: I wonder if ‘repose’ is beginning to be a lost concept in our society. I loved Steven Blair’s blog post about types of motion and how some keep us stuck, and some help us move towards healing. I hope those who read this post will go back and read it! But ‘repose’ – that’s a little bit harder concept to grasp than motion. I think some of us don’t even have a template, to understand rest and calm, and to know when we are present and grounded.
Rosemary: I suppose if we asked someone twenty or under what ‘repose’ meant, they probably wouldn’t get it.
Jeannie: Probably not. They’d ask Siri. They don’t have to know, they can ask Siri.
Rosemary: And Siri would say ‘do you want to know the time?’’
Jeannie: We should try asking her!! To be fair to the younger generation, we adults use Siri also. However, kids are being raised in a very different technological world. I am concerned about trends in our culture to communicate by electronic means rather than face to face. And think about those who are treated as an I-It on social media! There is so much cyber bullying. Too much screen time is not good for the brain, particularly for the very young. Parents should do some reading about this. There are some scary trends, for sure. Humans are wired for face-to-face connection. Children learn best when interacting with another person.
Rosemary: Instead of ‘repose’, there’s a lot of fear.
Jeannie: Yes, I agree, but there is hope. Time Magazine published an article in February 2014 on mindfulness and all its benefits. It’s a worthwhile read. I hope schools will begin to teach mindfulness, and parents can pursue resources on developing their children’s brain health. We can engage in the arts. Let’s remember the both/and concept – we can balance our rhythms. We can balance the effects of busyness and technology with silence, soulwork, etc. We can proactively grow ‘repose’ in our life! That is my hope and prayer for this blog post.
Jeanene (Jeannie) Mall
“Create space in your life”
Licensed Clinical Marriage & Family Therapist
Advanced Clinical Heart-centered Hypnotherapist
“Repose” available at www.BegleyArt.com