The following interview was conducted by Shields Bialasik in September 2013 and is reprinted with permission from the original Locals Guide article.
Shields Bialasik: I have a deep admiration for individuals in our community who gently support those in need; Individuals who sense the deep emotions and barriers in our lives, all the while quietly reminding us that change is possible. Bringing an extensive background in both personal and couples counseling, Jennifer Downs is one of these compassionate souls. For the past 33 years, Jennifer has studied the science behind how people change. She understands what motivations come into play and how individuals gain the strength and confidence to work through difficult situations. Jennifer integrates her knowledge, astute listening skills, and transformative techniques into her counseling practice.
I met with Jennifer to learn more about her work and service to our community.
Will you please tell us a little bit about your background and how you first came to Ashland?
Looking back, I would say my commitment to helping others expand their potential and live a full life was inspired by my work as a special education teacher. The love and courage the children showed made me passionate about the importance of finding worth and value in life, regardless of one’s circumstances. I embarked on an in-depth exploration studying with the most innovative educators learning how to integrate the mind, body, and spirit to be able to have a more deeply fulfilling life. I felt passionate about sharing what I learned and developed classes at the University of Colorado in Boulder on educating the whole person, on communication, relationships and healthy families. Although I love teaching, I also wanted to be able to take what I had learned to a deeper, more personal level. I went back to school, got a degree in counseling and began working with couples, families and individuals in a private practice setting. In addition to my work, I was happily married and had a beautiful young son. I would come to Ashland to visit my good friends, and when my son went to college in San Francisco, 10 years ago, I moved here . I feel so grateful to be able to live in this magical , gorgeous place and to be doing what I love; supporting people in finding deep worth and value in their lives.
As a licensed counselor you offer a variety of different services. Can you give a brief overview of the services you provide?
I have a deep respect for the courage it takes for people to come to the realization that they don’t want to continue as they’ve been and be willing to reach out for support.
In my private practice in Ashland, I work with both couples and individuals to help them make the changes they want. I offer two groups: Rebuilding After Your Relationship Ends and Women in Transition. I enjoy facilitating workshops and speaking to groups and organizations on various topics such as “Keeping Love Alive.”
I am curious to learn more about the support you offer to individuals who might be experiencing grief due to the end of a relationship.
In addition offering individual support, I facilitate a group entitled Rebuilding When Your Relationship Ends. It is a very powerfully healing, 8 week support group based on the book by Bruce Fisher of the same title. I love leading this group because this is a time when people often feel so alone and overwhelmed, and reaching out to be with others who are going through the same thing can be healing. Sometimes people want to fill this emptiness by getting into another relationship right away. You’ve heard of rebound relationships! They seldom work and just compound the pain and confusion. The group is a safe place to take advantage of a time when there is window of opportunity to discover parts of yourself and an inner resiliency you may not have known you had. As one group participant said, “I had no idea how powerful the grief and loss of going through a divorce can be and how debilitating it is trying to put your life back together again. This group safely guided me though my journey of healing and insight.”
Can you identify some feelings and emotions that come up under times of grief, loss and suffering?
I will speak specifically to the grief and loss of a loved one due to separation and divorce, however it can apply to any loss. Although it is painful to lose a loved one under any circumstances, divorce or separation brings with it multiple losses. At this time we often feel disoriented, depressed, lonely, and confused; as if we don’t really know who we are any more. We were married and now we’re single, we had a circle of friends and family that may now have taken sides and are no longer a support. We had a home that they may have to give up. The fantasy of always being a family is ripped away. The task now is learning how to survive without the support or companionship of a partner. We may feel like we have lost our best friend, or feel angry and betrayed. That’s a lot, and the last thing we need is to tell ourselves we shouldn’t be feeling these things. Grief takes as long as it takes! It is so important to have support for your feelings during this overwhelming time.
All throughout your professional life you have had a great curiosity for understanding how people gain motivation. Can you please say more about this?
What I know about motivation is that it is always driven by love and desire or by fear. People often feel like they can’t change because they feel trapped or powerless. Often it is because they are really looking for something external in their environment to be different that they can’t control. They feel trapped and from that perspective, they are. Change often occurs when people are so beaten down that they can’t take it any more. They realize they are unhappy or unfulfilled, or their partner will leave them if they don’t. They feel ashamed that they can’t make the change they want by themselves. They don’t know that they can because they have never had an experience of being with someone who could help them do so. They finally admit they can’t do it alone and reach out for help. Some people are in touch with their passion and have developed the internal resources and self-confidence that motivates them to make the changes they want out of love and desire. Artists who are expressing themselves through their art are a good example. Change coming from this place is often more exciting and less stressful. I enjoy supporting people in recognizing what they really want in life.
While you were living in Boulder, Colorado, you taught a series of classes which worked in conjunction with your own private practice work. Can you please say more about this?
This is an example of being motivated by passion. As a special education teacher, I sought out and became inspired by people who were doing innovative things in education around learning experiences that spoke to the mind, body and spirit; people like Rudolph Steiner and others. I was so excited about understanding different ways that people learn, what motivates people to want to learn and how we can use more of our brain, that I knew I had to share this with teachers. Through a series of what I felt were amazing and surprising events, I began teaching at the University of Colorado Education Department as an adjunct instructor and did so for 20 years. Doing so was at first so outside of my concept of who I thought I was and my capabilities, it was an experience of how I could change that self- limiting belief inside myself. It was very empowering. That encouraged me to go back to school at age 40 and get a degree in counseling, another passion. I found the concepts I was teaching also applied to a deeper understanding of how people change, which I applied to my private practice.
I can see that you have a great passion for seeing people change. Why are you able to see people change when others are not or when people might not be able to imagine it for themselves?
Having experienced some really important internal shifts myself in releasing some deep-seated, self ‑limiting beliefs, I knew the freedom and empowerment that came with that and I wanted to support others in doing so. I knew first-hand that it is difficult to change fast-held beliefs about one’s self, one’s ability to change, and of being the person you really want to be. As a result, I see myself as being able to hold that image for others of what their life can be until they can do it for themselves.
One client told me, “You led me down a path toward healing with your guidance and deep compassion and by holding for me a strong vision of where I wanted to go.”
It’s very exciting, really.
Can you say more about when people don’t feel like they have the capacity to change?
When people really don’t feel like they have the capacity to change they feel depressed, powerless and like a victim of circumstances beyond their control. Most often they have learned this as children growing up in families where they didn’t get the love and encouragement they needed to learn how to believe in themselves. Change infers stepping out into unfamiliar ground. Some people would rather live with what is familiar than step into unfamiliar territory. One person said, “I coped well through life but it was not until I healed past wounds that I felt I lived fully.” I believe that people ask for help and support because they are ready and really do want to change and that somewhere inside us we have that capacity. I help people explore what they are really wanting and what is realistic.
How do we begin to identify the things we can change in our lives versus the things we can’t?
I really love the Serenity Prayer that addresses being able to change the things you can and accept the things you can’t and the wisdom to know the difference between the two. Some things we can change and some we need to learn to accept. Our patterns and beliefs were set in place often as adaptive strategies developed in childhood to help us cope with a non-supportive family environment. These neural pathways have been in place for a long time. To let go of these first requires the recognition that they are not working now and the courage to find out who you are without them. Even though we may want to change, we still can’t seem to do it. Part of the process is discovering and working with the beliefs and the parts of ourselves that are holding us back from making the desired changes. We then begin to develop new ways of seeing ourselves, creating new pathways in our brain that lead to a different way of being.
You enjoy it when your clients are motivated to change. Why, and what happens?
I always assess a client’s readiness. When someone comes in who knows that change is what they want more than anything, the (sometimes hard) work begins and often magic happens. I call it that because it isn’t just about techniques and tools, but about the readiness to change and relationship between us. It is like any other relationship that has the capacity for healing, there needs to be mutual respect, trust, and openness to have that happen. One client shared her experience this way: ”I can’t begin to express the changes I feel. Jennifer’s intuition, wisdom, and compassion are helping me find a part of me I didn’t know was there: My core.” I feel honored to explore that journey of healing with another person.
Talk about the qualities you offer as a person to those you counsel.
I have clients say to me, “I want to be able to believe that I’m a good person and worthy of a good relationship.” Or, “I look in the mirror and never see an attractive person,” or, “I can’t accept compliments.” I hear that often and have a lot of compassion for that way of holding oneself, but it isn’t at all what I see, sitting across from them. People have told me that they feel very safe and comfortable talking with me, sharing things they have never shared with anyone. I respect the courage and trust it takes to let someone see parts of themselves, that even they don’t want to admit these things. I feel like I can repay this trust by being fully present with them without judgment. One couple shared, “We didn’t know if we would be able to continue our relationship together. Jennifer’s clarity and focus helped us cut to the core of the problem, share things we hadn’t said before, and renew our relationship.”
What does a typical session look like and how long do you work with people?
Generally, couples or individuals will come in for 1- or 1½-hour sessions.
I like to see couples together, but often I will have a session with each one individually.
Sometimes people will just want tools to be able to communicate better, but more often, I like to get the root of the difficulty so it doesn’t reoccur. I encourage couples to deeply listen to and understand their partner’s needs and points of view. Often with couples or individuals we will explore where the unwanted patterns originated and provide a safe environment for people to be able to connect with deeper feelings, needs and beliefs. A client shared, “With compassion and honesty, Jennifer has helped me examine some very difficult personal issues. She gave me not only things to think about between sessions but also things to do when I was living real life that help me achieve my goals.” The number of sessions is determined by myself and my clients working together. They have a good sense of when the shift that they are looking for has happened.
You are on the board of WinterSpring.
I feel privileged to be on the board of The WinterSpring Center, a non-profit organization in Ashland, because it is the only organization in the community that helps people be with and move through grief and loss. They provide education to the community and bereavement groups for people going through various kinds of loss. They also have a children’s program and a school-based teen program run by trained volunteers. You can visit their web site at: WinterSpring.org.
Often times you run across some beliefs that prevent change from occurring. Can you share a few examples with us and your thoughts?
Beliefs run our lives and unless they are recognized and called out to be examined as to whether or not they are true, they will continue to play out. A good example that I hear often is, “There are no good men/women in Ashland.” Well, guess what? If that’s what someone believes, that’s what they expect and that’s what they will experience. It’s so interesting that I hear that from both men and women about the opposite gender. Being aware of that belief and being willing to question it opens up possibilities of finding someone. Many of our beliefs are very deep-seated, such as the belief of being “damaged goods.” Uncovering and examining a core belief is an important part of the change process. People feel a sense of freedom when they are able to release them.
Jennifer, how can someone take the next step forward in learning more about what you do or setting up a session with you?
I know that it is a difficult step for people to admit that they can’t make the changes they want on their own and to reach out for help. The counseling relationship is important and I sometimes give people a complimentary ½ hour consultation to make sure they feel comfortable working together. Sometimes people know they want to work together and just want to get started. Please give me a call at 541 – 488-4872, or visit my website at jenniferdowns.net and send me an email.
Finally, any last thoughts or comments for our audience?
Mostly, I just love what I do. I am fascinated by the myriad of ways that we play out this life and it is so wonderful to watch someone shift their perception of themselves, their partner and their lives; a shift that can change everything. As one client said in a moment of insight, “There’s a mountain I keep trying to climb to find love. Why do I keep climbing the mountain when I’m already there?” Yes. Exactly! It’s really very simple, but what it takes to come to that place is a fascinating journey.
Jennifer Downs Counseling