For We Are Here, Happy New Year!

This post is authored by Jessica Chinnadurai. Jessica is a recently-licensed attorney who graduated from the University of Missouri School of Law in 2018. Her hope is to increase transparency around mental health issues in the legal profession, and to spread light to those fighting battles no one can see. You can connect with Jessica on LinkedIn.

It’s hard to believe that I wrote my first article for COLAP Café almost a full year ago, in January of 2020. As was the case then, I find myself reflecting on the possibilities of a new year ahead. Of course, given the circumstances of this year, those possibilities seem even more exciting than usual!

My post last January discussed the practice of integration and how to use the word “and” to acknowledge seemingly conflicting emotions that exist within us at the same time. Uncertainty and hopefulness. Anger and compassion. Grief and joy. I failed to mention at the time that this is a strategy I learned in therapy. In another year of therapy, I’ve discovered that a similar idea lies behind what’s known as “wise mind” in psychology.

Imagine a Venn diagram, where one circle is your emotional mind and the other circle is your rational mind. In the middle, where the circles overlap, we find a balance of the two minds. In this state, the goal is to recognize our emotions and validate or respect our feelings, while also responding to them logically. It’s not easy, but it’s a strategy I try to incorporate into my daily experiences. If I’m upset by a situation at work, I allow myself to embrace whatever emotions come up while maintaining a sense of professionalism. Sometimes this includes typing out an email with what I wish I could say before deleting it or rephrasing my thoughts more diplomatically. As you can imagine, this is much harder in my personal life. When I’m upset by a friend’s behavior, sometimes I have to allow myself a few days to sit with my feelings. The time in between the “triggering” moment and before my response – that pause – allows for a more rational approach. It helps me acknowledge my own sadness or anger while also remembering how much I value my friend and how each of us may be struggling in different ways right now.

Earlier this year, I was worried that I wouldn’t get to practice this technique in-person, which would cause my growth to slow down or come to a screeching halt. Surprisingly, quite the opposite has happened. In fact, connecting virtually with people has allowed for more regular and purposeful check-ins. Also, most of us are aware of the increased risk of miscommunication via electronic means, so I’ve witnessed and participated in a collective slowing down. Without body language and other in-person cues to look to, for example, we tend to fully listen to others and wait for them to finish speaking before we unmute and offer our thoughts or ask questions.

In January, I wrote, “We rarely see coming or plan the moments when our perspective or circumstance changes for us in the way we’ve always hoped or wanted. . . .” I see how that remains true generally, with the unexpected arrival of the pandemic shifting many of our perspectives toward healing and connection. But as for me, personally, even if I didn’t foresee an introduction to my “wise mind,” that was a predictable – perhaps even planned – outcome of therapy.

At its most basic level, therapy creates a space where I can make sense of the inexplicable. I’ve often heard complaints that therapists don’t provide direct answers, and though that may be true to some degree, there is still some comfort in understanding. Similar to how there is power in knowledge. During a recent episode of “Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard,” one of my favorite podcasts, Dax and his guest discussed how they sympathize with individuals who are undiagnosed in terms of mental illnesses, personality disorders, depression, or addiction. They agreed that although it can be scary to get a specific diagnosis, there is an indescribable sense of relief that accompanies the feeling of finally knowing. In other words, it’s far scarier to continue ignoring or avoiding certain parts of ourself and letting them control our life in destructive ways.  

I know what it feels like to be there – lost in a world of feeling like there’s something “wrong” with me or different about me but not wanting to face the truth. My therapist likened it to flailing around in water, reaching out for anything or anyone to stay afloat. This resonated with me because for so long, it did feel as if I was drowning in a sea of self-criticism and misunderstanding. Although therapy didn’t come with a specific diagnosis for me, it provided – and continues to provide – explanations for why I am the way that I am, why I think what I think and feel what I feel, as well as the levels at which I do so. Aspects of my personality that I previously considered to be flaws are now viewed with a more compassionate lens. Before therapy, I had no idea how to befriend myself. I struggled immensely with loss and healing unresolved trauma. I was too comfortable staying in my world of suffering, thinking “no one understands me,” and believing my differences made it futile to try and connect with others. Now, my “wise mind” continues to learn how to recognize my feelings and validate my experiences while rationally remembering that I need other people. We all do.   

In academia, the new year is often the half-way point between semesters, whereas summer is the end of the year. I was thinking about this as I admired a beautiful new journal a close friend gave me for my birthday a few months ago (pictured below). As I opened her gift, I excitedly told her that I was nearing the end of my current journal, and it’s true – I will likely fill the last page on the last day of 2020. After I’m done appreciating this poetic timing, it’ll be important for me to keep in mind that my new journal doesn’t have to represent a completely new chapter. Just as the new year is only a part of the academic year, there’s still more learning ahead. New challenges may arise, along with new questions for my therapist. Or, the same issues that have come up for me the past few years may resurface and provide more clarity or teach me additional lessons. And all of that is okay. Because that’s what therapy is for; on the mental health journey, it’s where I can continue building the confidence that I can handle whatever the future holds.   

I wish each of you reading this a very fulfilling 2021. “What the new year brings to you will depend a great deal on what you bring to the new year.”

The back of the journal explains that the cover reproduces a nineteenth-century gold-tooled binding of a volume of poems by Dante Gabriel Rosetti, who wrote, “Bless love and hope, true soul; for we are here.”

Note: If you’re looking for additional nuggets of wisdom or reasons to start therapy in 2021, check out this list of “5 Golden Pieces Of Advice People Got From Their Therapists This Year.” 

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