Lottie Hillard wrote an article called “The Shame of Needing” that could have been written about me. Fifteen years ago when I was in graduate school for counseling, I recall one of the advisors saying that my shame was gregarious. I carried an air of confidence, moving in relationships with classmates and clients with charm and ease that hid a deep fear of being exposed in my weakness or incompetency. My supervisor’s words triggered a neurophysiological response that made me want to crawl under a blanket and never come out. I didn’t realize that my self-protective strategy was even subtly apparent, let alone gregarious. I had been living with an inner critic that said, “Perform, buoy those around you, and don’t stop to feel the loneliness inside your soul.”
When I listen to that inner voice, I ignore my little girl who longs to know that there are bigger arms to catch me and offer a place of containment and safety.
That same year, my husband and I got married. We both came from significant trauma histories and had no idea how our attachment styles would collide to validate our biggest fears: that I was “too much” and that he would be engulfed by a woman’s needs. This setup catapulted us into a separation just one-and-a-half years into our marriage.
During that season, I occasionally slept at my best friend’s house to avoid the emptiness of my queen bed. One night I woke in the middle of the night feeling barraged by a sense of darkness, frightened by all that I was holding in my marriage. The feeling of deep deficiency was paralyzing, yet the idea of waking her up to ask for care felt like death. Like trying to move concrete blocks, I slowly and laboriously moved my body into her room. I paused when I saw her asleep next to her husband.
The very act of waking her felt like it could be the end of me. The powers of darkness did not want me to tap her shoulder that night; however, when I did so, I knew that something metaphysical was happening. I don’t remember what she said, but I remember her gentle, kind voice, her tears, and her strong arms that held me as I wept and expelled debilitating fear through deep groans. I remember her prophetic voice, which gave me a sense of imagination for a time when the pain wouldn’t be so intense.
Jana Pressley, a trauma researcher and therapist, says that “every maladaptive coping strategy is adaptive in its original environment.” Growing up, I needed to keep weakness, childlikeness, or any type of fragility hidden, or it would have meant danger and destruction for me. That night at my friend’s house was like the first sledding run after a thick, heavy, wet snow. The sled didn’t move with ease, but it allowed the start of a new neural pathway.
Since then, I have come a long way. This month I am taking a four-week sabbatical from the work of mental health counseling. This is the first break I have taken in fifteen years. While I felt some hesitation in sharing this with my clients, I was also aware of the growth that has occurred in me since I began working in this profession.
This month I want to find ways to let my body lead me. My hope is to ask it each morning what it desires. “Do you want light? Movement? Sleep? A hot bath? Connection with a friend? To get lost in a good story?” I have resisted any formal plans to tackle, pushing back against the familiar voice that tells me I must produce to justify my existence. When the voice of my inner critic emerges, I will gently remind it that I have places now, including my marriage and my close friendships, where I am deeply loved, not for how I perform but just for being me.
If there is one thing I’ve learned from working as a counselor for the last fifteen years, it’s that real change is slow, involving one choice at a time, one shift at a time, one neuron at a time. As I look ahead to this year, I am choosing not to make any major resolutions but instead to keep an imagination for what it looks like for my childlike, awkward, and insecure parts to come out from behind the leg of my competent adult self, a place where they have felt safely tucked away. By noticing this little brown-eyed girl, I hope to live more embodied and to become more fully me.
Rachel Blackston loves all things beautiful…rich conversations over a hot cup of lemon ginger tea, watching her three little girls twirl around in tutus, and Florida sunrises on her morning walks. She resides in Orlando with her lanky, marathon running husband and her precious daughters, priceless gifts after several years of infertility. Rachel and her husband Michael cofounded Redeemer Counseling. As a therapist, Rachel considers it an honor to walk with women in their stories of harm, beauty, and redemption.