“This is something that came to hone you, not harm you.”
This was my therapist, Brian’s, assessment as I told him a piece of news in my life that terrified me, and I clung tight to these words during the darkest hours of my life. At 3 a.m., when my monkey mind was at its worst, I’d wrap these words around me like a life vest and float to the surface to keep myself from drowning in my multitude of fears.
This is one of the many pearls of Brian’s wisdom I’ve had the privilege to gather over the past 12 years that I’ve been seeing him off and on. I’ve disclosed my deepest, darkest secrets to him, and he’s never once let me down. The dutiful student that I am, I take copious notes during our sessions so I can go back and read them when I really need them, which is just about every day.
I call Brian the "Great Reframer." He gives me reasons, explanations, and ways of seeing and being that have enriched my life and my creative work in ways I never thought possible. This isn’t making-lemonade-out-of-lemons advice; it’s learning to be grateful for the lemons exactly as they are, recognizing their inherent value, and being grateful for their presence in my life.
Artists, and writers in particular, have to manage a lot of lemons: rejections, closed doors, feedback, and hefty criticism from every direction. As soon as we put our work out into the world, we wince and hide our faces behind our hands, peeking through our fingers as if we’re watching a horror movie.
But what if we could reframe all of this? What if we Brian-ize the worst things about being a writer, and the worst things about life? Could that make us better, and dare I say it, happier in our work and in our lives?
Here are some of Brian’s greatest hits:
It takes courage to ask for help.
At my first session with Brian, I made it abundantly clear that I knew everything about therapy. My father was a therapist, and I knew all of their tricks. The only reason I was there was because a friend of mine, who was also his patient, insisted I go to therapy to get through my apartment building fire trauma. I went to see Brian to just placate my friend.
Then I proceeded to tell Brian many of the other things in my life that I’d survived and that I was quite well adjusted without his help, thank you very much.
“Can I say something?” he asked after an hour.
“First, I’m not afraid of you. And second, I think I can help if you want to be helped.”
I was furious at him for even thinking I needed help, much less thinking he could help me. I picked up my bag, walked to the door of his office in a huff, and paused. There was a little voice that rose up in me, and said, “What have you got to lose?”
As it turned out, I was in the process of losing everything, including my sanity. I was falling into madness, and I desperately needed help. I had just been so disappointed so many times in my life that when I did ask for help, and was denied it, I learned to not need anyone for anything.
And though that self-reliance had protected me for many years, it was also slowly killing me from the inside out. I opened the door to his office, and quietly said, “I’ll see you next week.” And for three years, without fail, I went to see him every week. In that moment at the door, my healing began. Brian wouldn’t let me down as long as I had the courage to show up, for him and for myself.
You get what you settle for.
How many times have writers been told we’re settling if we take a copywriting job, or do anything except aspire to write Hollywood blockbusters and make millions of dollars?
Dream big or don’t dream at all, right? Everything else is just settling.
If that’s the record in your head, please let me stop the spin for just a second. Brian helped me to see that there’s nothing wrong with settling, as long as we’re settling for something we actually want. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with dreaming big; I whole-heartedly endorse it and recommend it. There’s also nothing wrong with small dreams and goals, if that’s what brings us joy.
Happiness is a uniquely personal thing and no one can tell you what will make you happy. That’s up to you—and only you. Settle for what makes you happy, and ignore what other people tell you that you should want.
Everything happens for you.
This is a tough one to embrace, at least it is for me.
As of late, we live in a world where many things, a lot of them terrible, happen to us. Since we’re all fortunate enough to be here today, what if we could see that everything that happens to us also happens for us? Even the worst circumstances hold some teaching for us, some lesson that will make us better humans.
Our job—our only job—is to make the circumstances of our lives meaningful. I’ve found that meaning by taking what hurts and turning it into art. I’m sure many of you can relate.
My inner skeptic fought this idea for many years until I really decided to see if everything that happened to me had that silver lining if I was brave enough to search for it. Turns out that we often find what we’re looking for, and if we can’t find that silver lining, we can make it. My favorite silver linings set the stage for my writing.
Every time I’m late, I take the perspective that I was saved from something terrible happening to me, had I been early or on time. (As a general rule, I try to always be early or on time, but hey, things happen!)
When I don’t get a job, I believe I’ve dodged a bullet. When a relationship doesn’t work out, I assume that’s because a better match is out in the world, patiently waiting for me to find them.
Maybe it’s delusional, but Brian explained to me that the beauty of this approach is that there isn’t a single piece of concrete evidence to say this delusion isn’t real. It’s real if we choose to believe it. And as writers, we’re in the business of making make-believe believable, so why not apply it to our lives, too?
While you’re here, learn.
A number of years ago, I was in a job that I really needed to keep. The economy was in shambles, I had over $100,000 in student loans, and I had one of the worst bosses of my career. I’d also just survived an apartment building fire, lost most of my belongings, and was battling a hideous case of PTSD. In short, I was a mess and so was my life.
That’s when I started seeing Brian. Rather than telling me I wasn’t stuck, he acknowledged just how stuck I was and that, for the time being, I would have to stay in my job. I didn’t really have any other options that would help me meet my basic needs. He also helped me see that even though I might be at this company for a bit, there had to be things to learn there that I would be able to use later.
I insisted he was wrong, and he just said, “we’ll see.”
And we did. And he was right, which was starting to really get on my nerves, in the best possible way.
There really is always something to learn, no matter how terrible the situation is. Finding it is the key to surviving it.
Feelings need to be felt to be exorcised.
About a year after I’d started seeing Brian, I felt like I was getting worse, not better. I was increasingly angry, sad, and anxious. At one session, I was recounting a very painful event in my life. Recounting is a nice way of saying it. I was yelling and crying. A lot.
“I hate coming here,” I finally said.
Brian looked at me with his kind eyes, and a face full of empathy, and softly said, “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
All my life, I thought if I showed my true feelings I was weak and incapable. The armor I’d built around me was pristine and impenetrable. It was also horribly lonely, and for a long time it helped me survive, but it had outlived its usefulness.
Brian taught me that there’s nothing weak about feeling all our feelings. That’s what feelings are for, and if we don’t feel them, we’ll never be free of them. And I wanted so much to be free. I wanted freedom from my trauma more than I wanted anything else.
The only way out was through, and so I trudged, kicking and screaming and crying, and Brian walked with me along every step of that path. I wasn’t easy but it was necessary.
Everything is about you, and everyone else, too.
If I had to sum up everything Brian’s taught me, I could boil it down to two words: systems thinking. He helped me see the oneness of the human experience. We all experience trauma. Though each of us has a particular flavor of trauma, our bodies have a common set of reactions to it.
When we go through trauma, and heal, we’re not only helping ourselves but we’re also given the opportunity to help others by sharing our stories.
As a writer, this idea helped me process my trauma and create something beautiful from it. I wrote my first novel because of my apartment building fire. That book made my fire mean something to me and to everyone who reads it.
I also realized that how I live my life and the art I create could be an example and an inspiration for others, the same way that the lives and art of those I admire does for me. This idea of oneness is an image I often use in my daily meditations. It’s eased my loneliness on a deep level.
Even though we may be at different places on the path, we’re all traveling together and we can help each other along.
Not everything, or everyone, is your work to do.
I used to spend a lot of my time on people who didn’t deserve it. I would get hung up on the smallest of grievances, and they would eat away at my psyche constantly. I didn’t realize it was okay to walk away from anything, or anyone, that wasn’t right for me.
Brian taught me it’s okay, and necessary, to move toward joy. And that also means moving away from things and people that diminish our joy.
Reframing has given me the tools to create what I need—hope, joy, and love.
So often what we want in life, and in our writing, is a reason. Why did this happen? Why didn’t that happen? Why am I hurting? Why isn’t anything working out for me? The reframe is always there, even if it’s not immediately apparent.
I’m lucky to have Brian guide me through the muck of life to find it, and I hope this handful of his reframes will help you as you make your way in the world as an artist. I’m rooting for you every step of the way.
*Feature Image: "Uncertain Time" by Cristina Bernazzani (Adobe)