Locals Guide Interview 2015

The fol­low­ing inter­view was con­duct­ed by Shields Bialasik in 2015 and is reprint­ed with per­mis­sion from the orig­i­nal Locals Guide arti­cle.

Shields Bialasik: For over 25 years, Licensed Professional Counselor Jennifer Downs has worked to sup­port cou­ples and indi­vid­u­als in achiev­ing pos­i­tive, last­ing change. She helps clients become aware of self-protective bar­ri­ers, cre­ate more inti­ma­cy, find pur­pose, devel­op con­nec­tions, heal from rela­tion­ship loss, and main­tain long-term lov­ing rela­tion­ships. As clients gain deep­er aware­ness about them­selves, they are empow­ered to active­ly choose the types of expe­ri­ences they wish to have. Jennifer strong­ly believes change is pos­si­ble, and she works skill­ful­ly and atten­tive­ly to address the root cause of her clients’ issues. A WinterSpring Advisory Board mem­ber, Jennifer often works with indi­vid­u­als expe­ri­enc­ing grief and loss in her pri­vate practice.

Hi Jennifer. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. In our last interview, you were focused on the topic of grief and loss in connection with relationship. Please catch us up on your work today.

Since we last spoke, I have become more con­scious of what real­ly mat­ters to peo­ple. We desire close­ness, warmth, inti­ma­cy, and a sense of belong­ing. It seems these expe­ri­ences are often the most dif­fi­cult to achieve. They require becom­ing aware of and let­ting go of self-protective pat­terns and behaviors.

I had an epiphany in which I felt what it would have been like to live my life from a place of feel­ing safe, secure, and pro­tect­ed from the inside. The jux­ta­po­si­tion of that feel­ing with my actu­al expe­ri­ence was astound­ing. I real­ized how dif­fer­ent my life would have been if I’d car­ried that knowl­edge inside all along. I rec­og­nized all the behav­iors I had prac­ticed to try and get that feel­ing from oth­ers since it was miss­ing inside me. During this moment of self-reflection, it felt like an incred­i­ble loss to have gone through life with­out that inner strength. Along with that real­iza­tion came a rush of com­pas­sion for myself and so many of us who lack that feel­ing on the inside and strug­gle to find it through­out our lives. I guess you could call it the human con­di­tion, and you could call what I expe­ri­enced in that moment the grace of com­pas­sion. I now have a deep­er self-understanding and sense of self-acceptance.

I also have a renewed com­mit­ment to help­ing peo­ple dis­cov­er the pat­terns and beliefs keep­ing them from being inti­mate, expe­ri­enc­ing a sense of belong­ing, relax­ing inside, and being more com­fort­able in the world. When peo­ple con­nect with what is real­ly going on inside from a non­judg­men­tal place, there is a greater capac­i­ty to expe­ri­ence warmth and deep­er con­nec­tion with oth­ers. It’s what every­one wants, but it requires giv­ing up self-protective behav­iors that pre­vi­ous­ly served us but can now keep us from inti­ma­cy. Together, we embark on that dis­cov­ery and letting-go process, work­ing gen­tly while hon­or­ing the self.

Often it is rela­tion­ships that make peo­ple real­ize they need to take a deep­er look at them­selves. I have heard “I was doing fine until I got in this rela­tion­ship.” I get calls from peo­ple who have end­ed a rela­tion­ship and are expe­ri­enc­ing mul­ti­ple loss­es as a result. They may feel not only the grief and loss of their for­mer part­ner but also of a way of life, an iden­ti­ty of being mar­ried or part­nered, and pos­si­bly a home, being part of a fam­i­ly, or see­ing their chil­dren on a reg­u­lar basis. The big ques­tion to resolve is, “Who am I now?” We work togeth­er to build the inner resources nec­es­sary to grieve the loss­es and move on with more aware­ness about their role in the relationship’s end as well as what it takes to have a lov­ing rela­tion­ship both with them­selves and others.

You have mentioned the topic of secure vs. insecure attachment first occurring in early life. How does this shape and create opportunity throughout an individual’s life?

Light Rays Shining from AboveWhen we are young, if we have par­ents who hold us, give us love, attend to our needs and feel­ings, and let us know we are impor­tant and want­ed, we feel secure and pro­tect­ed. The world feels like a safe and trust­wor­thy place. We car­ry that inside and oper­ate as if this were true. We relate to peo­ple as peo­ple rather than as objects to help us feel more secure. We are lucky.

This feel­ing of safe­ty begins in the womb. A while back, there was a pic­ture on the cov­er of TIME mag­a­zine with an accom­pa­ny­ing sto­ry about the effects of the mother’s emo­tion­al state and bio­chem­istry on the fetus. The baby can sense being loved, want­ed, and sung to as well as when their par­ents speak in soft, lov­ing voic­es. The fetus can even feel if the moth­er is dis­tressed while preg­nant, the preg­nan­cy is unwant­ed, there are rela­tion­ship stress­es between the cou­ple, or the father is absent while the moth­er is strug­gling to car­ry and raise this baby on her own. If such issues are present when the baby is born and the baby isn’t treat­ed as pre­cious, the child fails to devel­op a sol­id sense of self. If the par­ents are drug or alco­hol abusers or even if, like many par­ents, they are overex­tend­ed and stressed, they can send destruc­tive mes­sages to their chil­dren by not mak­ing them a priority.

You enjoy working with and assisting young parents. Please say more about that.

Because I know how impor­tant the mes­sages we give our chil­dren are — both ver­bal and through our mod­el­ing — I love help­ing par­ents become more aware of how to help their chil­dren devel­op a secure base from which to expe­ri­ence life. Almost all par­ents want to raise their chil­dren to feel loved and secure in the world. Most of them want their kids’ expe­ri­ence of grow­ing up to be dif­fer­ent from their own. There is a lot of con­scious­ness now about being there for chil­dren and putting them first. This is a won­der­ful and nec­es­sary focus. It is also dif­fi­cult for work­ing par­ents. Honestly, every fam­i­ly expe­ri­ences stress­es while try­ing to bal­ance their lives. Often they can’t give their chil­dren the pres­ence and atten­tion they would like to pro­vide. Blended fam­i­lies present their own prob­lems. I help par­ents find bal­ance in their lives and ways to take care of them­selves. If par­ents do their own emo­tion­al work on unhealed parts of them­selves, they have more aware­ness of how these issues impact their chil­dren. Before I became preg­nant, I naive­ly thought I should wait until I was com­plete­ly “healed” so I wouldn’t pass on any inse­cu­ri­ties to my child. If I’d heed­ed that idea, I would have wait­ed for­ev­er. Having my son was the best thing I ever did, and he is just fine — in spite of me.

How does this early dynamic shape and create the ways individuals approach life, and what impact does it have on relationships?

When we have that safe feel­ing inside, we pos­sess more con­fi­dence in our choic­es, feel less anx­i­ety because of that basic trust, and can be more present with oth­ers. We may also be less judg­men­tal of our­selves and oth­ers. We can cope with life on its own terms rather than hav­ing to con­trol it to help us feel secure.

If we don’t have that feel­ing inside, we devel­op strate­gies for deal­ing with our unmet needs. Children find ways to adapt to a home envi­ron­ment that doesn’t feel safe or lov­ing. We also devel­op beliefs about our­selves such as, “I’m not impor­tant,” “I’m not wor­thy of love,” “There’s some­thing wrong with me,” and “I’m dam­aged goods.” So many peo­ple car­ry sub­con­scious core beliefs that play out in our rela­tion­ships. We may set up life sit­u­a­tions to con­firm these hid­den beliefs and then won­der why we keep pick­ing the same kind of person.

We think we need some­one to be hap­py or fill these needs, and they become objects to sat­is­fy this. We devel­op behav­iors to gain approval and win over oth­ers, includ­ing being smart, sexy, attrac­tive, wealthy, or pleas­ing. There is noth­ing inher­ent­ly wrong with these attrib­ut­es unless we are over­ly attached or iden­ti­fy them with our sense of self-worth. If we use them as a sur­vival strat­e­gy, it becomes exhaust­ing, stress­ful, and anxiety-producing. At some point, we real­ize we can’t or don’t want to live that way anymore.

How does this all translate into the relationship realm? How do people create and become objects to fill their need for a secure attachment, and what ways will this play out?

Wild GeeseI can tell you a sto­ry about a client of mine. I call this “look­ing for love in all the wrong places.” She was in a long-term rela­tion­ship but always felt slight­ly inse­cure in it, afraid her part­ner would leave and that he didn’t love her that much. He nev­er want­ed to get mar­ried, and she felt that indi­cat­ed he wasn’t com­mit­ted. She was dis­sat­is­fied with the rela­tion­ship and crit­i­cal of him. At one point in ther­a­py, she tapped into an expe­ri­ence of nev­er hav­ing felt safe and secure and how deeply she felt that way even as a child. Rather than judg­ing her­self, she was able to feel deep warmth and car­ing for that child. She real­ized all her rela­tion­ships had been about try­ing to feel secure. Not only did that not hap­pen to her sat­is­fac­tion (how could it, real­ly?), but she would pick men who played right into her feel­ings of inse­cu­ri­ty. Her resent­ment grew when the cur­rent boyfriend didn’t love her in the way she thought she need­ed, and she would then leave to find a man she thought would. It’s such a clas­sic sto­ry. She was able to see her pat­tern clear­ly and make a dif­fer­ent choice. She told her part­ner she real­ized she was the one with one foot out of the rela­tion­ship, not him and was com­mit­ted to doing it dif­fer­ent­ly. He was relieved and said he’d sensed some­thing like this all along but had been made out to be the bad guy. After this exchange, he felt safer in the rela­tion­ship and began being more lov­ing toward her. In an unprece­dent­ed act, he bought her flow­ers. True sto­ry. Change is pos­si­ble when you’re will­ing to look inside instead of hold­ing onto blame and resentment.

Please talk about anger, blame, and resentment in regard to relationship. Why does it occur, and how can individuals experience change?

There are a num­ber of rea­sons why this occurs. In the pre­vi­ous exam­ple, you can see how my client became resent­ful and began blam­ing because her part­ner didn’t meet her needs in the way she want­ed. When she looked deep­er into her­self, she saw clear­ly what was real­ly going on and stopped mak­ing him the object of her dissatisfaction.

We all come into a rela­tion­ship with a set of what may be unspo­ken hopes, dreams, and expec­ta­tions. Many peo­ple enter into mar­riage before real­ly know­ing what the oth­er is like when they are sick or stressed, and whether they can live with how the oth­er deals with these things. We don’t know the whole per­son. When we see this oth­er side, it can be huge­ly dis­ap­point­ing. We might become angry and blam­ing. These feel­ings can devel­op into con­tempt and a lack of respect, which John Gottman says is tox­ic in a rela­tion­ship. Creating a sense of safe­ty to address this sit­u­a­tion is essential.

Besides more deeply understanding themselves, what can partners do together to create safety and build more intimacy and love in a relationship?

Creating a lov­ing rela­tion­ship must be learned unless you are one of the lucky ones who grew up with a mod­el of effec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion and reg­u­lar expres­sions of love and car­ing. People want inti­ma­cy, close­ness, and warmth but are still hold­ing onto their neg­a­tive core beliefs about them­selves, crit­i­cal self-talk, and self-protective behav­iors. To cul­ti­vate lov­ing rela­tion­ships with oth­ers, you must first dive deep­er into a more com­pas­sion­ate, accept­ing rela­tion­ship with your­self. You have to choose inti­ma­cy over self-protection in a lov­ing and care­ful way. Choosing love ver­sus being right or safe requires vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. See if your rela­tion­ship feels safe enough to be vul­ner­a­ble; if not, take steps to cre­ate more safe­ty first. We do a lot of work in ther­a­py around cre­at­ing more emo­tion­al safe­ty in the rela­tion­ship so this can happen.

Partners often feel unloved and unim­por­tant to each oth­er. I hear peo­ple say, “I feel like I’m at the bot­tom of the list,” or “I don’t feel heard or under­stood.” What is required is a desire to under­stand the other’s thoughts and feelings.

A love­ly ques­tion to ask your part­ner is, “What is one thing I could do dif­fer­ent­ly that would help you feel more loved by me?” Listen, then share what that would be for you. Listening with the intent to under­stand builds trust and intimacy.

We talk about “fair fight­ing” guide­lines, which help cre­ate safe­ty and enable dis­cus­sion of dif­fi­cult issues. My favorite ques­tion and one I encour­age cou­ples to begin with is, “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be or hap­py?

People often do what is called “mind read­ing,” inter­pret­ing the other’s behav­iors in a way that says some­thing per­son­al about them, usu­al­ly in a way that makes them feel unloved. This inter­pre­ta­tion is often untrue. In cou­ples ther­a­py, I some­times have each per­son take a turn at being the part­ner, imag­in­ing how the oth­er feels to under­stand them more deeply. Amazing insights have come from this exer­cise. When one woman tapped into her husband’s expe­ri­ence instead of focus­ing on her own hurt and anger over how her hus­band was “not avail­able,” she saw how her crit­i­cal behav­iors hurt him and how he react­ed by back­ing away. She became deeply moti­vat­ed to look at what her crit­i­cism was about and share her hurt feel­ings rather than attack­ing her hus­band. He felt relieved, appre­cia­tive that she under­stood his feel­ings. He wel­comed her new approach and planned to do the same himself.

A cou­ple I recent­ly worked with says, “Jennifer pro­vid­ed us with very help­ful insights, com­mu­ni­ca­tion tools, a calm and wel­com­ing atmos­phere, body heal­ing strate­gies, and inter­nal ori­en­ta­tions from which to oper­ate. She was both chal­leng­ing and empa­thet­ic, and we’re most grate­ful to her for sav­ing us from our worse selves and putting us on a new path to a hope­ful and hap­py future” (L. & B., Ashland).

Stress and anxiety are also deeply addressed by your work.

When we are under stress, over­whelmed, and anx­ious, we are not our best selves. Stress affects us phys­i­o­log­i­cal­ly as well as impact­ing our rela­tion­ships. We often become short, crit­i­cal, and eas­i­ly frus­trat­ed with our part­ner, cowork­ers, chil­dren, par­ents, and our­selves. We need to do some­thing about this! The caus­es are often com­plex and chal­leng­ing to address. If it were easy to change these ways of being, most of us would.

To effect change, you need to be will­ing to make a com­mit­ment to your­self. Recognize that you are impor­tant enough to take time out of your busy day to man­age the exter­nal and inter­nal stress­es in your life, calm your ner­vous sys­tem, and be curi­ous about what is dri­ving this way of being. There are many resources avail­able online (e.g., the cell phone app Breathe2relax) and our com­mu­ni­ty (e.g., yoga class­es and many oth­er cen­ter­ing dis­ci­plines). Make time to walk, lis­ten, and focus your atten­tion on what’s around you. Stop check­ing email for two min­utes and take some deep breaths while notic­ing what you are think­ing and feel­ing. Although it is not the cure, becom­ing more present is a step toward man­ag­ing stress and anx­i­ety. Doing the deep­er work of explor­ing what’s dri­ving these feel­ings in con­junc­tion with prac­tic­ing bal­ance in your life cre­ates more aware­ness and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of change.

Letting go of self-criticism and finding relationship with oneself is of vital importance. Please say more.

Feeling inse­cure is com­mon. So are self-criticism and judg­ing one­self. They’re ram­pant! I encour­age cou­ples to be kind to each oth­er, but it is so much eas­i­er to do when we are kind to our­selves. Moving from crit­i­cal self-talk to self-acceptance takes under­stand­ing, moti­va­tion, and prac­tice. Self-acceptance and being kind to our­selves lessen anx­i­ety and cre­ate greater peace of mind. These prac­tices change every­thing. Exploring and expe­ri­enc­ing our core beliefs and the root of the self-talk with kind­ness and com­pas­sion is pro­found­ly heal­ing. Noticing the pain caused by the sto­ries you tell your­self and the thoughts you enter­tain is a good first step. Tune into how your body and mind feel when you reframe your inner dia­logue into more encour­ag­ing and sup­port­ive mes­sages. What is the most sup­port­ive mes­sage that would be in align­ment with your wish to be healthy? Imagine a loved one who has your well-being at heart telling you how he or she sees you.

What are some of the gifts of coming to resolution with oneself?

Sun Streaming into ForestFor starters, it helps us cope with depres­sion, wor­ry, and anx­i­ety. We are more relaxed inter­nal­ly. It calms our ner­vous sys­tem and helps us respond with­out reac­tiv­i­ty. When we stop the neg­a­tive sto­ry we are telling about our­selves and our life and start being kind to our­selves and oth­ers, we cre­ate space for grat­i­tude and a sense of calm. When we begin to notice with­out judg­ment what’s going on inter­nal­ly, there is a kind of accep­tance and curios­i­ty that hap­pens. When I accept those aspects of myself I typ­i­cal­ly judge, I feel much more con­nect­ed to and ful­ly present with others.

How do you help people recognize and work through these issues?

I enjoy look­ing at the deep­er piece of why we feel crit­i­cal or blam­ing in the first place as well as why we so quick­ly go to a place of inter­pret­ing behav­iors as mean­ing we’re not loved in rela­tion­ships and in life. Sometimes we do this through guid­ed imagery, going back to an expe­ri­ence of when we felt this as a child. In this sce­nario, we can iden­ti­fy the mes­sages we received and the beliefs we formed as a result and can then con­nect with a part of our­selves we may have lost touch with so we can let those feel­ings go. This involves bring­ing con­scious aware­ness to these mes­sages and real­iz­ing the impact they have had on our lives while tap­ping into the resource­ful, trust­wor­thy, and lov­ing aspect of our­selves. The ther­a­py may be cog­ni­tive behav­ioral in nature, replac­ing self-defeating thoughts and behav­iors with those that are empow­er­ing. How we do this depends on the indi­vid­ual and involves hon­or­ing spir­i­tu­al or philo­soph­i­cal beliefs, learn­ing styles, and per­son­al goals.

One client writes of such an expe­ri­ence, “I can’t begin to express the changes I feel. Your intu­ition, wis­dom, and com­pas­sion are help­ing me find a part of me I didn’t know was there. My core. Thank you for this amaz­ing gift” (J., Eagle Point).

Your work is both for individuals and couples, but you recently offered a new group. Please tell us more.

Yes! This sum­mer I facil­i­tat­ed a group called Mindful Transitions, which is a psy­choe­d­u­ca­tion­al sup­port group for peo­ple in tran­si­tion who want to move for­ward in ways that sup­port more pres­ence and the abil­i­ty to cre­ate lov­ing rela­tion­ships. In the group, we looked at how our self-protective pat­terns devel­oped and how they keep us from being inti­mate and liv­ing with integri­ty. Mindfulness helped us explore these with accep­tance and kind­ness so we could step out of these pat­terns and make dif­fer­ent choic­es about how we relate to oth­ers and our­selves. We dis­cov­ered where inti­ma­cy starts and how to tru­ly con­nect. At one point dur­ing the group, we wrote self-compassion let­ters. It was not easy for every­one to prac­tice self-compassion, so we addressed that as well. It was a beau­ti­ful and insight­ful time togeth­er. I am offer­ing the group again this October.

One par­tic­i­pant says of the group, “It con­tributed to my con­stant aware­ness of how I am led astray from the present moment by my inces­sant thought pat­terns and habits and how hard it is to accept myself as I am. I felt a strong sense of mutu­al respect and car­ing from oth­ers in the group. Everyone seemed to have a strong desire to under­stand their lives at a deep­er lev­el and shared a rev­er­ence for life. Thank you, Jennifer, for cre­at­ing this won­der­ful expe­ri­ence” (Roger).

I love bring­ing peo­ple togeth­er for a com­mon pur­pose and self-exploration. The fol­low­ing sto­ry from Tara Brach beau­ti­ful­ly illus­trates the pos­si­bil­i­ty of anoth­er par­a­digm for being together.

In a vil­lage in Africa, if some­one vio­lates the rules, they call a gath­er­ing of all the mem­bers. They form a cir­cle with the per­son in the mid­dle. For sev­er­al days, every­one tells that per­son what is good about him or her. They tell sto­ries of the good, kind, gen­er­ous things the per­son has done dur­ing their life. When it is over, the cir­cle is bro­ken, and they cel­e­brate as the per­son is wel­comed again into the tribe.

Tara Brach writes, “Helping peo­ple remem­ber their good­ness is the great­est gift we can give to our­selves and each other.”

Jennifer, thanks for speaking with us today. Do you have any last thoughts you might like to share?

I love my work. It is very ful­fill­ing. I also know it isn’t my whole life. I estab­lish a sense of well-being by bal­anc­ing it with hik­ing, tak­ing walks, horse­back rid­ing, cook­ing healthy meals with my part­ner, Bruce, and spend­ing time with my 95-year-old dad and friends. Keeping these in bal­ance is what makes life mean­ing­ful for me and allows me to be more present, cen­tered, and less reac­tive when life brings inevitable changes. I have also decid­ed to be my own best friend.

Please vis­it my web­site at jenniferdowns.net. I wel­come hear­ing from you.

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Jennifer Downs Counseling

541.488.4872, jenniferdowns.net

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