Maybe We Belong Here

“How is this real life?”

I asked myself this question every day last week, while attending the Glen Workshop, which is self-described as “equal parts creative workshop, arts festival, and spiritual retreat.” My question emerged from a mixture of feeling awestruck and unworthy.


photo by Image Journal

It’s a feeling any of us might get if we happen to rub shoulders with our role models in real life, finding ourselves, say, at any kind of conference, class, or meeting with people we admire but can’t come to consider ourselves “on par” with. It’s a feeling clinical psychologists have called “impostor syndrome,” an experience “marked by an inability to internalize … accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud.'”

When I’ve arrived at gatherings like the Glen, I’ve sometimes gone to bed on Day One thinking and praying and asking Google about impostor syndrome. And I’ve never found a solution. Until now.

Last week, at the Glen, I started learning to humanize my heroes. (Maybe I started learning to humanize all people — but that’s a story for another day.)

In my Spiritual Writing workshop, for instance, I sat next to some published authors I had previously only seen — or “seen” — on Facebook and Twitter. To be clear, the class included writers of varying experience levels. But certainly a few had published books and at first I struggled to bring these people down from the invisible pedestal on which I had placed them.

In this setting, thanks be to God (and to the Glen), it seemed we were all essentially equals. They other writers offered feedback on my writing and I offered feedback on theirs. They didn’t draw attention to the fact that they had book deals and definitely didn’t draw attention to the fact that I didn’t. On the contrary, they looked into my eyes and my words, and they saw vision and voice that they somehow blessedly believed in — sometimes more than me. They laughed and cried and drank countless cups of coffee and crafted countless drafts until reaching their point of publication. Our teacher, Kaya Oakes, a writing instructor at UC-Berkeley and author of at least 4 books, told us very frankly about her stage fright one day, knowing that she would be giving a reading and Q&A that evening to a large audience. We all nodded in understanding, being the writers and mostly-introverts that we were.

Outside of class too, in the cafeteria and poetry readings and evening worship services, I sat among “artists, writers, musicians, art appreciators, and spiritual wayfarers of all stripes,” as the Glen Workshop website puts it, all of whom sought similar kinds of sweet dreams and spoke of similar kinds of struggles and breathed the same Santa Fe air. One afternoon, an author and aspiring minister (like myself) prayed for me — like laid a hand on my shoulder and invited the Lord into our lives and our work kind of praying for me. Later, I prayed for her and have continued to. On the last day, poets Malcolm Guite and Luci Shaw anointed our hands to go and build beauty in the world. Because we can’t do it on our own; we need the seeking and the speaking, the praying and the anointing.

Fear and faith, doubt and do-it-anyway — these are paradoxes that apparently we are all familiar with.

When I spoke with another young lady at the Glen about impostor syndrome, she immediately said: “You too? I thought that was just me!” We talked and shared our sense that “I don’t deserve to be here” and eventually she said this:

“If we’re here, maybe we belong here.”

I think sometimes that’s true. If we get to thinking “I don’t deserve to be here,” wherever that “here” may be, maybe we should take a deep breath, sink our feet into the ground on which we stand, see the good-and-bad humanness of the people (even the initially intimidating people) around us, see some good-and-bad humanness in our own selves, and say this: “I’m here. An admissions committee decided I could be here or an employer hired me or God called me or whatever the case may be. But I’m here. So, maybe I belong here.”

I am not just an impostor with a syndrome. I’m a seeker with a spirit that is at once so scared and so strong. And so are you, friend. So are you. Maybe we belong.

When Fears = Dreams

Since 2011, the non-profit organization To Write Love On Her Arms has been encouraging individuals to identify our fears and dreams. “All of us have fears and dreams,” says a video put out by the organization, “and perhaps the two are not so far apart. Perhaps they’re at the center of who we are.”

Perhaps the two are not so far apart.

Sometimes, I’ve been thinking recently, the two are even the same. The campaign is called Fears vs. Dreams, as if the two are distinct entities playing a tug-of-war with one another. But what happens when fears = dreams?

Fear: leaving home. Dream: leaving home.

Fear: publishing a book. Dream: publishing a book.

Fear: getting married. Dream: getting married.

And on and on.

Why would we be afraid of a dream? Maybe because of the work involved to obtain the dream. Maybe because of the change involved to obtain the dream — quitting a job, finding a job, packing, unpacking, saying those last tearful goodbyes, saying those first awkward hellos. Maybe because of the risk of pursuing the dream, only to fail and embarrass ourselves. Maybe because of some kind of impostor syndrome, wherein we don’t think we deserve our dreams. (How many times have we heard or said things like “he’s too good for me” or “I’ll never get in to that school”? Impostor syndrome in action.)

What do we do when fears = dreams? How do we push past the fears to get to the dreams? I’m preaching to the choir here, dreaming up things that could maybe possibly help me push past some of my fears to get to my dreams.

Acknowledge the fear. Because maybe — probably — the dream will take work, change, and risk. Maybe you don’t exactly deserve your dreams. That doesn’t make you an impostor. That makes you a character in the story of your life, complete with fears and dreams as all good characters are. As author Donald Miller describes in Storyline, a good story is about “a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.” There’s desire. And there’s conflict. Sit with those realities; know that they’re real and you’re not alone in experiencing them.

Acknowledge the dream. Sit with the dream too, more often even than you sit with the fear; know that it’s real too. So real that you can picture it. In fact, go ahead and picture it. Picture yourself walking across a stage to receive a diploma, walking down an aisle to get married, seeing your work in bookstores or galleries or malls. Having some long nights and disagreements and discouragements along the way but, ultimately, not really minding because, ultimately, this is your dream and you know it. Picture, as poet e.e. cummings once wrote, “five hopes for any fear.”

Start living into the dream in manageable ways. Interview people further along on your dream path than you are, visit a dream place, discuss a dream plan with loved ones, practice doing work that you dream of even if it’s a hobby or internship or volunteer gig. Such steps remind me of the psychology professor who once explained exposure therapy to my Psych 101 class by showing us a video of a woman who feared spiders so much that she couldn’t bring herself to go camping with her son. The impending campout was both a fear and a dream. To get from fear to dream, in the video, the woman was incrementally presented with a cartoonish picture of a spider, then a realistic picture of a spider, then a rubber toy spider, then eventually a real live (hopefully harmless) spider — all while practicing deep breathing and picturing her sweet little son. With practice, the physically steadying breaths and mentally steadying images got her through.

Finally? Go. Face your spider. Your fear. Your dream.

Your story. It may be a story of fears that won’t leave you alone and dreams that won’t leave you alone. So how about this? Don’t leave them alone either.

Acknowledge the fear. Acknowledge the dream. And live. Live right into your dreaded dream until it’s so close you can taste it, and you can sense the bitter fears giving way to sweet dreams.

the necessity of Sadness

Like many movie-goers, I recently spent 94 minutes of my Fourth of July weekend watching Inside Out, the story of 11-year-old Riley’s move from small-town Minnesota to San Francisco — as told by her emotions.

The narrator and primary protagonist is Joy, who introduces viewers to Disgust, Fear, Anger, and my favorite — Sadness.

In one poignant scene mid-movie, Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong, whom some of the emotions have befriended, watches as his treasured imaginary rocket ship is shoveled out to the dump. Joy and Sadness react in distinctly different ways.

Joy, with characteristic gusto, tries to fix the problem (“Hey, it’s going From Inside Out movie 2be OK! We can fix this!”) and distract Bing Bong from the problem (“Hey, who’s ticklish, huh? Here comes the tickle monster!”). But, Bing Bong doesn’t budge.

Sadness, with uncharacteristic initiative, slowly sits down next to Bing Bong and says, “I’m sorry that they took your rocket. They took something that you loved.” Sadness reflects what Bing Bong is really feeling, giving him permission to feel it and express it too. Indeed, he starts to speak. Then tell stories. Then cry. Then brush himself off and get up. (Isn’t that rather like how grieving goes? Isn’t that a miniature model of healthy grieving compressed into one minute of a Pixar movie?)

It’s the first time that we see Sadness as something — a significant something, at that — more than a buzzkill in the background. Joy expresses this surprise:

Joy: “How did you do that?”

Sadness: “Oh, I don’t know. He was sad, so I listened to what…”

It’s quick. It gets cut off by continued dialogue.

But press pause: “He was sad, so I listened…”

There’s so much more that could be said about Sadness. But to avoid spoiler alerts, suffice it to say: We need Sadness. We need her calm presence; her absolute empathy; her reflections and affirmations; her listening ear.

But we don’t think we need Sadness. We’d prefer to skip to Joy. We’d prefer to “conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know” — to quote another popular Disney movie. (No offense to “Let It Go.”)

So it’s a beautiful thing, I think, to see a children and family film communicate the necessity of Sadness.

Maybe this message could mean fewer parents telling children that “big kids don’t cry.”

Fewer teenagers (and adults, because let’s be real) hiding in their bedrooms or cars or offices late into the night, refusing to let their Sadness slip out into society.

Fewer awkward silences. More empathetic silences. The kind that says, “Wow. That’s hard. I can’t even imagine. But I’m here.”

More people embracing Sadness.

Why Do I Write About Mental Health and Spirituality?

Usually, when people ask what I blog about, I say “mental health and spirituality.” So, after writing a series of posts (here, here, and here) heavy on the “spirituality” half of that duo, I can’t help but wonder: What does spirituality have to do with mental health? 

In college psychology classes, I was introduced to the bio-psychosocial model of health, which looks something like this:

In this model, currently the prevailing view in health and mental health professions, wellness and illness are understood to stem from biological, psychological, and social factors — all of which affect one another.

Where does spirituality come in? Typically, it’s considered a synonym of, or even more likely a subcategory of, “social support.” The idea is that spiritual people tend to gather for services, classes, etc. Religious leaders visit the sick and refer people in crisis to professional counselors. Thus, spirituality can be a source of social support.

That’s true. But, for many people — myself included — spirituality affects more than just my social life. In fact, our faith should affect who we are when we’re alone even more than when we’re with other people.

So, while the model above is true, I think an even  more true model is the increasingly utilized bio-psychosocial-spiritual model:

How I’m doing spiritually affects how I’m doing physically, mentally, and socially. For instance, prayer, Scripture reading, and general moment-to-moment awareness of God can help me have the peace to fall asleep, focus to concentrate, or courage to enter new social situations.

Likewise, how I’m doing physically, mentally, and socially affects how I’m doing spiritually. If I’m sick, depressed, or lonely, I might not feel like I have the words to pray or the energy to go to church.

Jesus said that the greatest commandment is this: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27).

He might have invented the bio-psychosocial-spiritual model right then and there! (Sort of kidding.)

Jesus calls his followers to love and service that is not just spiritual but physical, mental, and social. Over the years, health and mental health professionals have gradually come to view wellness as not just physical but mental, social, and spiritual. So, no one in pursuit of Christlikeness can be all about the spirit…and no one in pursuit of wellness can be all about the body. We are to be about the business of heart, soul, strength, and mind.

Therapeutic Writing

As I said in “Back in the Blogosphere,” I need to write. The process and result of writing are helpful — therapeutic even.

I’ve experienced this phenomenon throughout life while studying creative and expository writing, as well helping teach it to adolescents for a couple summers. I’ve experienced it recently while blogging. And, recently I got to study it by giving a presentation to my Psychology of Shame seminar about the potentially therapeutic nature of writing and writing classes. (It was a fun presentation. Yep, I’m a nerd.)

My presentation was based on a chapter called “Unmasking Shame” from English professor Jeffrey Berman’s Risky Writing: Self-Disclosure and Self-Transformation in the Classroom. So, for today’s Psychology Saturday, I’m just going to post an outline of “Unmasking Shame,” which I found to be a useful tool for teachers and students of writing.  

  • Berman gives the example of a student named “Nick” (a pseudonym), who wrote a piece about being sexually abused by his uncle when he was younger, including in the piece a long letter detailing what he would say to that uncle if he were to write to him. The chapter goes on to unfold how Nick felt about writing the piece and sharing it with his professor and class. Berman assesses: “Nick’s writings dramatize the unmasking of shame — expressing the inexpressible. The process of writing leads to nothing less than the reclaiming of the self.”
  • What effect did writing about his past have on Nick?
    • It helped him figure out his own thoughts.
    • It helped him feel understood by others.
    • It helped him build self-confidence
      • Perhaps distinct from talk therapy and akin to art therapy, writing builds self-confidence because it allows the writer to not only share his story but also share his story in a way that creates something new and might benefit others — like making something good out of something bad, making beauty out of ashes.
  • How did the professor manage a class on personal writing? (He’s not a trained therapist, after all; he’s a trained English professor.)
    • Assign topics in an increasingly personal manner. (Example: Start with requiring a story about travel or nature, and work up to ones about death or sexuality.)
    • Assign topics with options. (Example: When writing about death, students can write about the death of a loved one…or a pet, a plant, or a celebrity.)
    • Be careful about making comments on papers.
      • Include comments about grammar, structure, etc. (That might feel like sticking commas in someone’s diary, but it is an assigned paper after all, and correcting commas gives dignity to the assigned paper and its writer.)
      • Include comments about content. 
        • FIRST encouraging comments (Example: “This was brave. Thank you for sharing.”) 
        • THEN questions/concern if necessary (Example: “Is this currently occurring in your life? If so, you might consider [fill-in-the-resource]…”) 
    • Be careful about making comments in class.
      • Have the class read a piece (perhaps anonymously if the author wants)
      • Instruct the class to “take a minute to think about it” (to avoid visceral reactions)
      • Engage the class in a “critique sandwich” (constructive praise, then constructive criticism, then one last summarizing praise)