Walking with Eggshells
I am consistently struck by the leap of faith—the courage—it takes to be a client working on healing from trauma. My clients reveal things to me that are precious, raw, sometimes spoken in my office for the first time after a lifetime of silence. That part of working with clients feels like an honor to me, and I live in an ongoing question about the best way to be with it.
One day last week, as I was packing up my things to go home from the office, I got a flood of memories from my high school health class. During one week every spring, each student in health class received an egg—really, an intact eggshell with the inside carefully blown out. We had to take care of the eggs for a week to give us an idea of the responsibility it is to care for a child. An imperfect analogy, at best, but I still remember how differently I walked that week. My normal, vertical, on-the-toes bounciness that I had back then was replaced with a steady heel-to-toe glide. I tried to move like a boat through water, imagining that an egg would not break if it fell into liquid.
To further protect my egg, I cut an egg carton apart, put my egg in a single cardboard compartment, and put that compartment in a cotton-lined, wooden recipe box that latched. I thought I had aced the assignment (no cracks, right?) until I got marked down for possibly suffocating my symbolic child. The variety of contraptions other students made to transport their eggs ranged from scary to ingenious. Some had carry handles, some had air holes, some eggs sprouted legs, feet and googly eyes. Our classrooms that week looked like the aftermath of an Easter celebration gone horribly wrong.
So last week, the picture of all those eggs inside their carrying cases flashed through my mind. Everything that I was holding from my day of working with clients–the details, the matter-of-fact facts, the sensations and feelings that weren’t my own–organized themselves into the egg carriers in my head. I actually stood there for a minute and tried to imagine how I would get every last one home safely. I thought, if I laced the carriers with handles through my fingers, I could take a lot of them at once. That would mean only two trips to the car. Or I could just carry them out, one at a time, and find places for them in the back seat…
When I realized my brain was working this through, I chuckled to myself, but I also took notice. I imagined myself pulling up to what I was hoping would be a boisterous dinner that evening with friends with all that precious cargo in the back seat. I imagined spending the rest of the day, maybe the rest of the week, walking not on, but with eggshells.
Most days, I am successful at being permeable. I can allow other people’s energy, their stories, to impact me and then move through me, like water moving through water. This way of being with other people’s stories, with their energy, feels most right to me. I can hold on to the details I need and let the rest pass through me, on to a higher good. But some days, I feel less like water and more like sand. Instead of moving through me, energy flies at me like a fleet of paper airplanes, and at the end of the day, the airplanes are stuck, nose-first, in my sand-filled self. It takes a lot of energy to hangar all those planes.
So, what do you do at the end of a long day when you are faced with a surplus (of eggs or paper airplanes–insert your analogy here) that does not belong to you? Last week, I just stopped. I lay down on my back in the office and just stopped. All of my usual rituals hadn’t worked that day. Not washing my hands after every client, watching the water flow through my fingers and down the drain and saying “I am letting this energy pass through so it can be held by the goodness of the Universe.” Not burning the sage, and not opening the windows, letting the wind scrub the air clean. None of those things had worked.
In the stillness that followed, what got to surface was my own humanity. In my work, I am a human being sitting in a room with other human beings, hearing their stories and helping to hold the parts that take more than one person to hold. And on that particular day, my heart broke a little, hearing what I heard. I couldn’t pass the energy on to the “goodness of the Universe,” because my trust in the Universe got a little shaken that day. I could have found the roadside attraction off Route 66 in New Mexico that boasts “the world’s biggest sage bundle,” and lighting that into a bonfire wouldn’t have been enough cleansing power.
What was enough was to lie there and let myself feel the impact of what I heard. The story that got its paper nose stuck in my sand heart that day needed more time to move through me than it took me to wash my hands. I let myself remember that I was human, and I let myself grieve for the story I heard, for my client who had been carrying it alone for decades, for all the little cracks in the Universe caused by careless humans, and for all the suffocated stories that died at the hands of the humans who were trying to protect them. I let my own sobs surface, wave after wave until my whole self felt like water again—all the sand washed away, leaving liquid moving through liquid. I was permeable again.
When you work with humans, you inevitably work with trauma. When you work with trauma, you inevitably get your heart broken. The worst thing you can do when that happens is to pretend that you are not impacted. The worst thing you can do is believe so much in your own capacity to work with people that you forget to be impacted. Not letting ourselves be impacted is actually dehumanizing, not only to us but to our clients.
We all have our list of what it means to be a “good practitioner.” That list often includes the ways to best take care of ourselves, to not get “peripherally traumatized.” Be careful of letting those lists read like mandates, or testaments to your capacity as a practitioner. Sometimes the best thing you can do to take care of yourself, and your clients, is to let your capacity reach its limit and then feel whatever is underneath. Then you are embodying exactly what you are working with your clients to do. That is the best way I know to honor the courage my clients have to walk into my office every week and face themselves.