Nicholas Balaisis is one of my oldest friends and a talented psychotherapist. However, his journey to becoming a psychotherapist took many turns.
Nick has pursued and succeeded at having a career as an academic, but he had his sights on a tenure track job which began to seem elusive. He did the arduous task of completing his Ph.D. and almost immediately was hired on contract to teach in Montreal. However, in the middle of that contract, his wife, in her first interview, landed a tenure track position at the University of Waterloo. They picked up and moved as a family for the third time in two years.
Nick continued to pursue his dreams, interviewing and teaching. Eventually, he found himself wondering if he should keep interviewing or follow his other passion: psychotherapy. This was not an easy decision and he found himself at somewhat of a crossroads.
Many of us find ourselves in similar situations. We end up in a place where we have to weigh all that we put into our dreams and pursuits and decide whether we can take the risk to go in a different direction. These are the in-between spaces in life where we don’t feel that we are on solid ground and there can be intense feelings of loss, grief, and confusion.
Nick certainly felt the acuteness of this prospect, investing further in his education and adding another career to his already full plate. Ultimately, he jumped off the cliff, dealt with some of the grief of potentially letting go of some ambitions, and went back to school to do another master’s degree.
However, this was not without significant deliberation. Through this experience, though, he learned the importance of holding the space and inherent tensions and not narrativizing the experience but allowing it to remain supple and alive.
Holding Space and Holding Tensions
We all feel a strong hunger for answers from time to time. Nick proposes a beautiful idea about how to complicate the ways that we see our experiences and the tendency to initially see them through a narrow lens. He suggests, instead, the development of the ability to refract our experiences, resist the tendency to narrativize them, and ask many questions to keep the flexibility of our perception alive.
Additionally, it is important to try and hold space around the pains we have experienced in life. We all carry wounds. They transform over time but they still remain within us. Whether they are buried deep below the surface or we are currently facing them, we all share a relationship to sensitive parts of our experience that only each of us as individuals can really touch within ourselves.
Work Outside of Therapy
Nick and I have both been passionate about psychology for decades. We have both benefited from the therapeutic space and have spent a lot of time investing in that process to consider the stuff of our lives. One of the questions that arises in the podcast is how to understand the relationship between the therapeutic space and how we are affected in our everyday lives.
Relationships in therapy can be hard for some people. This is a fundamental challenge as one of the reasons that we often struggle in life revolves around having had our basic sense of trust in the other severely damaged; this can make it difficult to engage in therapy or sustain a long-term relationship. Common signs of this can include hypervigilance, avoidance, attention deficits, and a general inability to settle.
The therapeutic process can be particularly effective in helping us to trust again and sometimes this kind of characterological change can be hard to come by in simply living our lives. In our everyday decisions and relationships, these fears can manifest in ways that reinforce our trauma.
However, there can be real power when doors are opened. That may happen through therapy relationships or a moment of grace in our life that allows the space to feel safe. We often just need someone who can reach in, not let us go, and help us believe and develop a fundamental love for ourselves.
The Connection Between the Mental and the Physical
Another important piece of this is the understanding that mental and physical are intertwined.
Often in therapy sessions, the therapist has something called a hovering attention, where part of the therapist is not exactly listening to what the patient is literally saying. Instead, they watch their skin, look under their eyes, and pay attention to their bodies. The body always tells a story and often is carrying something that is trying to find language.
Developing a curiosity about our bodies is a good start and a lifelong journey. We need to build what the American neurologist Dr. Stephen Porges calls interoception, the ability to recognize stimulus originating inside the body.
One of the ways to ease into this process is to continue to recognize the singularity of your experience. It’s like imagining that each of us is a different yet beautifully unique flower in the garden. We also each have specific instructions for how we need to be taken care of so we thrive. Dignity comes from recognizing the ways that we have developed our own unique manner of surviving.If you want to learn more about how to navigate transitions and crossroads, check out Episode 004: Lunch With A Therapist Live Podcast – Transitions, Crossroads, and The Power of Story.