News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

The multitudes we all contain

One of my first patients was a pastor. He was esteemed and well-respected — a pillar in the community. I was a newbie in the small town where his roots ran deep. He was a man of conviction and compassion. He spoke with authority. And he was also sometimes hopeless — and desperate.

At 26 years old, I sat at my desk sporting my newly printed diploma. I was trying my best to hide my imposter syndrome. Still shaky in my confidence, I kept questioning how could a man who has guided so many, seek out any sort of guidance from me? He was a master at portraying steadiness and reassurance for his patrons. He held tight to concepts of duty and responsibility. In a small town, he felt there was little room for any misstep or deviation.

Despite being surrounded by people who revered him, he shared with me that he often felt alone...and scared. While I stumbled through coping skills and strategies, I learned that my best intervention was to simply hold space for his complexity and provide a brief respite from the rigidity of his self-imposed and societally reinforced standards. 

Over the years in my practice, I have come to have a deep appreciation for the multitudes we all contain. The pastor and so many others in their courage to be vulnerable, unknowingly also gave me permission to better accept my own depth and sometimes messy complexity. Feelings and thoughts that may seem contradictory can all exist simultaneously. Grief and gratitude, courage and fear, joy and pain, hope and despair. The ability to hold multiple realities and straddle paradox might be one of the greatest measures of resilience.  

Life can be a bit performative. Like a play, we all take on different roles. The character descriptions will likely differ depending on if we are at work, home, social settings, or alone. This is completely human and to an extent, shows cognitive flexibility and healthy adaptation.

Some roles we have mastered. We know the lines front and back. We have become intimately familiar with certain characters. Others, we would prefer to remain out of the spotlight or silenced altogether. The cast of characters can be diverse. Some may be protective, some ambitious, some ashamed, some stubborn, some silly, and some hopeful.

At times, we might allow other people or societal expectations to take the director’s seat and choose the cast despite our unspoken resistance. If we have faced trauma or dysfunction, we might favor a cast who seemingly offers protection by seeking control while we might sideline child-like characters who crave lightness and adventure. When faced with a decision, multiple characters may want a seat at the table — at times contradicting one another generating inner conflict. We might have a character begging to take center stage, but fears of judgment or shame keep the muzzle tight. 

As with most entrepreneurs, I have a strong identification with my professional cast of characters. Defined by productivity, steadiness, responsibility, and a fair amount of rebellion to the mainstream, this industrious cast has a tendency to crowd the stage and can be hesitant to share the spotlight. I call on these characters in times of life’s turbulence, and yet they have been known to create some undue stress themselves.

They are supposed to take a bow around 6 p.m. Monday-Friday and enjoy a mini sabbatical through the weekend. Lighthearted characters have had to bargain with them at times, finally convincing them that rest, and playfulness, are also necessary ingredients for success. Characters offering grace have also had to remind them that success is, in itself, a construct up for interpretation.  

Sometimes we find ourselves acting in a play we never signed up for. When tragedy strikes, we often default to self-preservation. The protective cast of characters takes center stage. For some of us, this cast of protectors might convince us that the best way to self-preserve is to sideline emotion. We might launch into attempts of control and order, retreat to our work, numb or detach, or dive into martyrdom taking care of everyone else but ourselves. While these characters have likely served important roles in our past, the safety they seek in the present can be a guise for self-sabotage. 

Ultimately, we must remember that none of us are made to be one-dimensional. By remembering that we are by nature, multi-dimensional, we can grant ourselves and those around us more grace. We can remember that everyone has struggles and shadows. We can appreciate nuance and acknowledge complexity.

We can know that sometimes those most skilled at portraying a brave face can sometimes be facing the greatest battles. Hold space for your own multitudes and in doing so, hold space for the multitudes of others. 


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