I ran across campus, dashing between buildings, trying to dodge the downpour that had suddenly burst from the clouds. By the time I got to my car, I was completely drenched. I sat in the driver’s seat looking around at the puddles on the seats. The canvas top of my old convertible had been left down.
More distressing than the unexpected car wash was my upcoming appointment with a client at the counseling center. This was part of my doctoral training in psychology. And in that moment, I felt like a failure. I wasn’t being professional. I wouldn’t be a good therapist. Primarily because I looked like a mess.
I considered cancelling the appointment. I calculated the possibility of driving home, changing my wet clothes, drying my hair, reapplying my make-up, and driving all the way back. But there simply wasn’t enough time. So I stressed for the next thirty minutes. I paced up and down the hallways, talking to anyone would listen to my worries. I tried to dry my hair and clothes with the hand-dryer in the public restroom. I sought out consultation from my professors about what to do.
It’s funny to remember how utterly distressed I was at that time about wrinkled clothes, naturally dried hair, and no make-up. For many years now, I haven’t owned a hairdryer, clothes iron, or any cosmetics. But this is now and that was then.
So I decided my best strategy was to say nothing to my client about what had happened. I decided to welcome her as usual and focus on our session. I was shocked and relieved when Tamara (not her real name) entered the office and didn’t even seem to notice how disheveled I looked.
At some point in the session, Tamara leaned over in her chair, cradling her face in her hands, sobbing. She was finding her way through the pain and grief around past trauma and significant losses in her life. I sat quietly with her as she cried.
After awhile, she sat up in her chair and spread her fingers open like a fan across her face. I could see her eyes peering out at me. “It’s really good to see you looking like that,” she said. We both smiled.
At the end of the session, Tamara stood very close in front of me. In a motherly way, she gently straightened my collar as if to help me get put back together. It was a simple loving act. Then she reached out and hugged me.
The first time I met Tamara, she’d walked into the office and stretched her arm straight out toward me to keep distance between us. “Don’t hug me,” she’d said. I sensed she’d had enough of ritualized hugs and unwanted physical contact.
So when she stepped up close and gave me a hug on that rainy day, I felt the beauty of the trust that had grown in our connection. By embracing me I felt she was learning to embrace herself too, to feel more acceptance for the aspects of herself and her life that she tended to judge or reject or try to keep at bay.
Tamara clearly let me know it was more comfortable and safe to connect when I wasn’t trying so hard to appear a certain way, pushing a facade in the space between us. What I feared was unprofessional was actually more genuine. Honestly, I’m not sure who received more healing that day. She offered me a powerful teaching which resonated much more deeply than what I’d learned by reading books, sitting through lectures, and writing research papers. Tamara’s words and actions gave me a gift that has stayed with me for decades, still making me smile.
So give it a try – loving yourself, just as you are. Accepting each other, just as we are. Embracing all life, just as it is. Who knows what healing gifts will unfold and continue to touch lives for many years to come.