Healing with the Whole Self

Updated: Jan 30, 2021

A friend of mind once told me there are three types of people: those who create light, those who reflect light, and those who absorb light. Has your friend told you that too? I suspect I am not the only person to have heard this metaphor.

The idea is that some people move others with their joy, energy, creativity and charisma. They create light. Other people are moved and inspired by the energy of the light bringers, and they reflect the light of that energy back into the world. The third category of people are primarily miserable. They are the energy vampires and drainbows of the world. They take energy and give nothing in return. Who’s going to admit to being a light absorber? Yuck.

I suspect that the truth is that while many of us lean strongly in one direction or another, we are a combination of all three qualities. Not even the most miserable person on the planet doesn’t have a flicker of light within them. As noted above, it’s easy to take an evaluative approach and to view light-creation as the best of the three and light-absorption as the worst. As a therapist however, I strive to reflect and nurture the light within others rather than shine my own light on them.


The problem with being a light-bringing therapist is that once your light is withdrawn, once your time is at an end—where does that leave the person on the receiving end? My goal is to leave people stronger, more resilient and more empowered than they were before. They cannot do so unless they find and kindle their own light.

This is why in my book Finding Your Way, A Facilitator’s Guide to the Building Hopes and Dreams Program I discuss intentional invisibility and neutrality as aspects of a good therapist. To wit, “A facilitator should blend in to the group, and be as nondescript as possible. The more attention the facilitator draws to their self, the more distracting and less therapeutic their presence will be.” P.35. I go further to advise therapists: “Dress in drab, solid colors, and avoid flashy, trendy, or ostentatiously displays of clothing that accentuate and draw attention to yourself.” A good therapist is one who is quickly forgotten, though their influence is felt. Like a rain drop in a pond, the droplet hits the surface, makes ripples that expand outward, but the droplet itself is instantly absorbed and it is immediately indistinguishable from the rest of the water.

Intentional invisibility is also a method of equalizing the potentially unequal power dynamic between therapist and client and fostering an attitude of humility on the part of the therapist. In Finding Your Way, A Guide to Building Hopes and Dreams, in the chapter titled You Don’t Need a Guru, Do You? I note the deleterious effects of dividing ourselves into leaders and followers, and how these divisions—be they overt or covert—prevent us from finding the only correct answers to life’s dilemmas: our own. The notion of finding simple, easy answers through following a strong personality can be very seductive, but it often compounds our problems in the long run, and creates even more distance between ourselves and what we thought we were seeking. There are times and places we need teachers, mentors, and guides to assist us in finding our way forward but they should be at times and places of our own choosing, not someone else’s. Total invisibility may be an unrealistic goal, but it can be an ideal, a lodestar that guides us when we are uncertain of whether or not our behavior or presence is therapeutic.

Who You Are VS What You Do

In addition to many roles I’ve had both as an occupational therapist and other careers in the mental health field, my favorite job was that of therapist working in the high-security Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity (NGRI) program designing and running therapy groups at Western State Hospital.

I developed and used earlier editions of Finding Your Way, A Guide to Building Hopes and Dreams in my Building hopes and dreams Group NGRI program in order to teach the process of building hope, meaning and purpose to people as a skill set. I was quite proud of the hard work I did to create and deliver what I hoped were meaningful, strengths-based activities to patients—many of whom had spent years, sometimes decades, institutionalized because of crimes they had committed. Not everyone was a fan of my work. A patient in one of my groups took his copy of the book (I had copies printed for each person in the group) and marked every typo and grammatical error. After dropping out of the group on the second day, he sent me the book back via interoffice mail along with a lengthy letter describing how stupid and immature I was, and how my book and group was an insult to his intelligence.

I’ll get back to that anecdote and describe my reaction in a moment…

There have been times that I’ve come to groups with five different activities prepared, all of which I was sure would be enjoyed by participants and have therapeutic benefit only to be staring at a sea of blank faces. There have been other times when I thought I would attempt a new activity as an experiment, expecting that it would not be well-received, only to find participants wanting to do it again the next day. There were occasions I’ve led groups and given 100%, only to be told by group members that I was an idiot or to have people quit the group. Other times, I’ve done very little, been thanked profusely and told I was a great therapist.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that the emotional reactions people display and their mood states are completely divorced from cause and effect with regard to my efforts as a therapist.

I’ve seen this first hand with therapists I have mentored as well, with therapists who work hard to present engaging material using sound methodology backed by scientifically vetted theoretical constructs. They work their selves into a lather, but nothing is going right. Everything they do is met with stony silence—or worse, resistance. The good therapist responds by changing course, the bad, with dictatorial authoritarianism (“I know what’s best!”).

Either way, in our desire to help others, we sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture. Which is this: Who we are is more important than what we do. When I say “who we are,” I mean “who we are” as therapists, the face, presence and energy we present and project. As an occupational therapist in particular, there is enormous professional pressure to always “do.” If we aren’t presenting an activity, deploying materials, using tools, engaging all the senses—we’re not really being therapeutic. This is the unstated assumption.

The Value of Stillness

We are accustomed to thinking that the skill of occupational therapy lies with what we know and what we can do. When we think of the cognitive skills of the profession in relation to this in terms of assessment or activity analysis, these are are basically just sophisticated methods of figuring out what to do next. Even our thinking skills revolve around doing. Or so we’ve been primarily been led to believe.

But there is another, deeper, more fundamental set of skills that transcends any one discipline and permeates through all the helping professions, including occupational therapy. It’s the most important skill of all: learning how to read people, and learning how to be therapeutic with your presence as opposed to your actions. In essence, therapeutic not-doing.

We enact this skill whenever we acknowledge that someone we’re working with is feeling overwhelmed, is not ready to absorb more information or activity, or simply would benefit from intentional silence and/or temporary abstinence from activity. Not-doing (stillness) also includes active listening, reflecting, validation. In Finding Your Way, A Guide to Building Hopes and Dreams in the chapter titled Simple Pleasures, I discuss how, “Being flooded with artificial stimuli at all times is taxing on our systems…electronic devices (and their contents) manipulate and tax your attention, and place you in a zombie-like state of passivity…” P.89. Thanks to smartphones, smartwatches, laptops and TV’s, it is rare to find a single moment from the second we wake to the second our head hits the pillow at night when our attention is not being constantly bombarded with input.

Under these circumstances, even too much therapeutic activity can be taxing, but we are so acclimated to the background noise of pop-up ads, radio, TV, texts, instant messaging and facebook that even stillness and silence can be overstimulating. I discovered this when I experimented with silence in a group I was facilitating. At the end of each session, I shut the lights off and we sat for five minutes in silence. In a secure facility with nursing stations, security guards, cameras, alarms, and PA systems, it was virtually impossible to achieve stillness. Even turning off the lights could not dampen the ambient light coming in from outside. What I discovered was that group participants were profoundly uncomfortable at first; there was much nervous giggling, weight shifting in chairs, sighing. People were so used to filling the space with something that they could not risk leaving it empty even for a moment or two. I was uncomfortable too! Eventually though, we got used to it, and by the end of the group, some participants even began to look forward to it.

If patients or clients have a hard time with stillness, therapists have a much worse time with it. Like I mentioned earlier, we are trained to fill every moment with content. It took me years to build the skill of waiting 30 seconds or more for a response from people with problems with cognitive processing difficulties, but I came to realize that I was having a monologue with them unless I gave them the space they needed to share their thoughts with me and to respond to mine. Regardless of normal or abnormal cognition, we need to allow time to be, time to reflect not just later, but in the moment. In radio they talk about the horror of having “dead air,” i.e. empty space when no one is talking. My worst nightmare as a therapist for a long time was being in front of a group of people (or individually) and watching them stare at me in silence while I had nothing to say—or I just kept talking without any response. Silence was to be feared. Silence meant people were not engaged, that I was boring, the material or the activity I had was sub-par.

What I learned (but what can be hard to accept in the moment) is that silence can mean the opposite, that participants are so thoughtfully engaged they aren’t speaking. It can mean people have taken highly sedating medications. It can mean someone didn’t get enough sleep last night. It can also mean you’re boring. But…what if? It can mean anything.

Reading and Responding

What helped me manage (I never fully lost) my stage fright and performance anxiety as a group therapist, was shifting focus from “me” to them. In essence, who cares what people may or may not think? It’s impossible to know for sure anyway. I told myself to lean into the fear, to present a neutral affect, both to project a professional, calm demeanor on the surface and also to tame the beast of anxiety within while retaining focus where it needs to be: the group. Mood states are transient anyway. The most fun aspect of group therapy is its sheer unpredictability. It doesn’t matter how well you know the group members or the material or yourself. The group dynamic and energy changes with every single session. It’s like the Wild West. You never know what’s going to happen until you walk in that door on the day of each session.

To effectively operate in such an environment, one has to first and foremost be able to read the energy of the group, and secondly, go with its flow—whether or not the flow takes you in the direction you had planned on heading before you walked in the door. As soon as I placed the energy of the group above my therapeutic agenda, ironically, the groups I ran became far more therapeutic. Those groups sometimes included silence, sometimes laughter, sometimes unexpected acceptance of activities I expected rejection of, and rejection of activities that I was sure participants would find engaging. Sometimes those groups involved people quitting and returning.

So what happened with the person who wrote less-than-flattering comments all over my book, called me an idiot and quit the Building Hopes and Dreams Group? I sought him out on the ward. I thanked him for giving my work so much of his careful time and attention and told him he was welcome to come back to the group when and if he wanted to return. Beyond that I said nothing. He apologized for his remarks but said he would not be returning to the group. …He was back in group the next week.

The concept of hope can feel dangerous for people in institutional settings. Having hopes and dreams entails the possibility of failing to fulfill them. For many people, it feels safer to never try at all rather than to risk trying and failing. Being in my group entailed an element of emotional risk-taking and required trust. I lauded his bravery for coming back but I never begrudged his exit, whatever his motives and methods. I correctly read him as being not ready. I saw it and respected it. And for that reason alone, he decided he was ready.

By learning to honor stillness, by striving for invisibility, and by reading, reflecting and compassionately responding to other people we can be a healing presence. This is what I mean why healing with the whole self. We can use the knowledge of theory and method as limited tools that do not replace our hearts and minds, our experience, observation skills, and compassion. We can “do” plenty without doing much. Ironically, the more we do, the less we accomplish. Sometimes we need mentors, teachers, and guides, but it should be at times and places of our choosing. We can lead by helping people learn to find their own answers—or to sit with the discomfort of paradox and ambiguity just as we must learn to sit with our own. We can laugh at ourselves. And really, if we forget to do that, we’re in trouble, because we risk becoming a drainbow if we don’t, and the last thing the world needs is one more drainbow.

Ponder & Wonder:

(From Finding Your Way, A Guide To Building Hopes and Dreams, Simple Pleasures p.91)

Why do you think some people might be terrified of silence?

What are some of your simple pleasures?

What things do you enjoy remembering and thinking about?

What things do you enjoy feeling and why do you enjoy feeling them?

Engage & Do:


, Simple Pleasures p.92)

Practice not filling every space with words or thoughts. Just be, and allow yourself to observe what’s going on around you.


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