On Being a Solar Powered Person in a Gas Powered World

Sometimes self-criticism can be motivating, providing the energy and resolve to pursue changes in ourselves so that we can become the person we intend to be.  Sometimes self-criticism just adds weight to the things we feel badly about already.  Often we judge ourselves too harshly, blinded to our own strengths by our own sense of inadequacy and coming up with completely false narratives about ourselves in the process.  We can be our own worst critics and fail to see how valuable we are and how important our own processes are when they don’t look like what everyone else is doing.

I have a dear friend and colleague whom I met through professional channels.  She attained her license shortly after I did and we became fast friends.  I always admired her many skills, her enthusiasm, and her drive to learn more.  When we met, I was busy raising my two daughters and completely invested in parenting in a very hands on way.  Though my priorities were at home, I maintained a very small private practice which I enjoyed immensely.  While I was busy at home, my dear friend pursued the various new evidence-based methodologies that started bursting onto the scene.  I stayed on the sidelines watching with admiration but with very little drive to dive into the fray.

All the new pathways to mental health and well-being required an investment in time and money before one could ethically or expertly practice them.  I wasn’t sure where I would even put my limited resources given my goal to become an expert in working with adolescents and their families.  Which methodologies would work best for that developmental stage?  Which wouldn’t? While cogitating on a direction to take, I continued my work while my colleagues pursued certifications in CBT, EFT, EMDR, AEDP, MBSR, DBT, and the rest of the alphabet soup in the world of psychology.

Over the years I never became accustomed to  watching my friends and colleagues zip by in the acronym lane.  It made me feel restless.  I did know myself well enough to trust my instincts and my ability to speed up once I found a direction that felt really right to me.  I was confident in my ability to do good work with my clients but worried I lacked ambition, business skills, and the specialization to be competitive with these faster drivers.

I also saw colleagues become specialists in doing work I had already been doing (and doing well, I believe) in my practice.  One example of that is finding out there was a network of great professionals in my county who worked with parents who had lost babies or struggled with postpartum depression, issues I had worked with successfully several times over the years and enjoyed.  This speciality may have existed outside my knowledge while I was working with it as a generalist, but in recent years I’ve become aware of the explosion of great professionals who had developed this area as a niche practice.  Once again, as a generalist, I sometimes felt it meant I was “not enough”, despite my successes.  Ironically, when I mentioned that I was still interested in doing this work to my referring physician, he told me he now sent perinatal loss therapy work to another local therapist, completely forgetting that he had sent her to me when she lost her baby years before.

Being so focused on that sense of being “less than” by comparison to so many friends and colleagues, I had completely devalued my own path and my long-term efforts to be the best therapist and supervisor I could be.  I had placed more importance and credibility on keeping up with what my colleagues were doing than I had on my own consistent and very quiet pursuits in learning everything I could about teens from neurological, academic, physical, sociological, and familial perspectives.  I had completely discounted my years-long fascination with neuroplasticity which then dove-tailed into my interest and education in mindfulness based practices and interventions – useful with any age group. Everything I learned I applied with my clients and in my own life.  Yet it was still hard for me to feel I measured up.  These pursuits seemed small and slow and quiet and  not enough.

Last year I had the extreme good fortune to meet an amazing person, Ryan Rigoli.  He is a business consultant who approaches his clients from a spiritual angle.  I was intrigued and working with him felt right to me.  In our first 30 minutes of consultation he completely changed my perspective.  He listened intently to my lament about feeling like I couldn’t keep up, that I didn’t even know where I would find the energy to try to keep up, and that I had no idea in which direction I should be running to stay in the race.  He then picked up my jar of tiny tumbled stones and told me that there were as many directions to run as there were stones in that jar and I could try to chase as many of them as possible but that would never work for me.  I was, he announced, solar powered but in the company of many gas powered friends.  I was frustrating myself by trying to be something I never could be. And all the energy I put toward feeling like I SHOULD be different was preventing me from going in my own true direction in my own way.

What Ryan did in that moment was give me permission to stop comparing myself to others.  He encouraged me to look at what I had accomplished over the almost 30 years I’ve worked as a licensed therapist.  He wanted me to consider who I had helped and how I had done that and assured me that I had certainly helped many people over that period of time.  He wanted me to learn to value my own slow but steady pace on my own sacred journey.  I felt like I could finally take myself off a hook I hadn’t been aware I’d hung myself on in the first place.  I feel very lucky to have found Ryan in my life when I did.  If you’re curious, I recommend you check out his website: https://www.ryanrigoli.com.

With this renewed perspective, I began to realize how much our society expects and values ambition, drive, entrepreneurship, and busy-ness. If you don’t have these character traits, it’s easy to feel you fall short of expectations.  I also began seeing how this played out in the lives of my clients who, like me, would feel they weren’t enough and therefore felt anxious or depressed and just plain wrong.  Just as Ryan gave me permission to be solar powered, I began to suggest to some of my clients that they could also see themselves that way and, if that fit, accept that about themselves.  I encouraged them to see where their paths might take them if they stopped trying so hard to be as they thought others expected them to be.  We began looking for ways of letting go of their idealized but unrealized mindset and see where the energy and focus they were blocking with that mindset might be used for a more authentic purpose.

One young lady I’ve worked with suffered from very low self esteem, depression, and a general sense of annoyance at her parents who, she felt, expected her to go into her own business after graduating from grad school.  Most of the adults in her life gave her similar feedback, encouraging her to branch out on her own because she was so good at what she did, so talented and skillful! What this woman had trouble articulating was her lack of interest in following the path others wanted to lay out for her.  She thought she should want what they wanted for her and felt uncomfortable and pressured when people talked to her about her future as though it was decided.  In our work together, she came to accept herself as wanting to be an employee of someone else’s company for now while she took her time deciding her own path.  She realized she probably would never have the drive to create her own business and she learned that she could still be a valued employee who contributed in positive ways.  She enjoyed working with a team of others promoting a business for which she didn’t bear the brunt of responsibility.  She separated her vocation from her avocation and found a way to be engaged and enthusiastic in both.  Once she had permission to stay out of the fast line, she cheerfully drove at her own speed and in her own direction.

I continue to be grateful to Ryan for this lesson and use it whenever I begin to feel like I’m not enough.  In fact, I’ve figured out a direction for myself that feels authentic and important.  I’m heading into further training to add a new specialty to my practice and I can feel myself shift into a higher gear and head one lane over.   It still doesn’t look anything like what my colleagues and friends are doing but I’m certain that it’s the right path for me.  Stay tuned.

If you’re feeling like you’re not enough, please come talk to me.  I’m happy to help you figure out a direction that works for you and a pace that feels comfortable.  The messages we get from others can be powerful, whether their expectations work for us or not.  Let’s get you living your most authentic life at a speed that feels right to you.

About Margaret Perlstein, MFT

Margaret has been a licensed therapist in private practice since 1992. In this high tech world we live in now, Margaret’s heart and focus are in the connections she creates with clients, face to face. She specializes in work with teenagers struggling with the stressors unique to their age group in these times, adults trying to turn the tables on debilitating anxiety or depression, couples striving to improve their communication and strengthen their marriage, or people grieving the loss of loved ones.

Working together with her clients, they search for the right path for their individual needs and ways to help them heal from their particular hurts. When it’s the right thing for them, they may bring in other important figures in their lives in order to enhance those relationships and develop a more robust support system outside the therapy room.

At all times, the goal is to guide clients toward a happier, more balanced way of living in the world and in their connections to others while also increasing resiliency to the bumps and bruises of life. Learn more or schedule an appointment with Margaret at www.margaretperlsteinmft.com