Locals Guide Interview 2013

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.”

Solitary Tree Against Striking Sunset Sky

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?

Walking Through Forest Illuminated by Sun RaysHaving 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?

Hazy Mountain SunriseI 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.

Learn More

Jennifer Downs Counseling

541.488.4872, jenniferdowns.net

Interview conducted by Shields Bialasik, Founder & CEO of LocalsGuide LLC, 541.482.4713