When Healing Happens Outside of Therapy
“It’s really important for me to be well dressed.”
She said this with some defiance, looking at me as if to tell her this was wrong, or vain.
Instead, I asked, “Tell me more. What’s important to you about being well dressed?”
She looked at me skeptically, took a deep breath, uncrossed and crossed her legs, then told me her story.
It was never just about the clothes.
The woman sitting across from me in my office continued with her story and why it was so important for her to be well-dressed.
She proceeded to tell me more about how, when she was little, her family had barely any money and they shopped from the dime store in the rural area where she lived.
She dressed in hand-me-downs, ill-fitting cheap clothes, and none of it flattered her adolescent body and the extra weight she carried back then.
At lunch, in the middle school cafeteria, she was made fun of by the “cool girls” who sarcastically baited her by saying things like, “Nice jeans! Where’d you get those? The donation bin?”
She moved through her teenage years feeling ugly, poor and like she never quite fit in.
Certainly not with the “cool girls.”
She was obsessed with trying to understand what the “right” clothes were for each social occasion, feeling like she was always just a little bit off from what others’ apparently effortlessly wore, and while she couldn’t afford them until later, she dreamed of having a wardrobe of nice clothes. The right clothes.
Years passed, degrees and professional accomplishments accrued, and now this woman was in her mid-30’s, commanding a six-figure salary in a major urban area, and she could buy those clothes she once daydreamed of.
Her closet was now filled with $150 jeans, $200 cashmere sweaters, Italian leather loafers, demi-fine jewelry and all the items that once felt impossible to obtain. Impossible to once envision her body and life in.
She had capsule wardrobes for every season.
Gear and occasion-specific clothing for things like skiing in Tahoe, or hiking Mt. Tam or a weekend in Palm Springs.
She could pull the “right” items from her closet whenever she wanted to fit in with the upper-middle-class female friend crowd she now ran with. The proverbial middle-aged “cool girls.”
She mentioned it took 30 minutes to decide what to wear to my offices since she didn’t know what a good therapy outfit would be.
“You probably think I’m vain. My family does.”
She again looked at me defiantly, daring me to challenge her about her clothes.
“On the contrary,” I said, “I think that it’s very wise and self-supporting of you to care so much about your clothes given what you told me about your story. It sounds like you creatively organized your life and gave yourself a reparative experience.”
Creatively reorganizing your life is healing.
Healing does not always happen in the therapy room.
Nor does someone’s healing work always happen consciously.
In the case of this young woman who was so invested in having “the right clothes,” it was clear to me that she had reactively reorganized her life to provide herself with a reparative experience, with a healing experience.
The young girl who never fit in, who felt like an outsider and had shame about her appearance growing up, put effort into cultivating a wardrobe that was socially unimpeachable.
A wardrobe that allowed her to “pass” and fit in and feel better about herself with her peers.
She worked hard for her salary, and she used that salary to give herself the very thing she wanted so much when she was younger: the felt sense of belonging. Of fitting in. Of not being “other.”
Wearing nice clothes was, for her, a healing intervention.
So, far from being banal, or vain or superfluous, her care about her clothing was a self-supporting act.
A creative reorganization of her life which, while not necessarily conscious, nonetheless gave her a healing experience at some level.
In this way, it wasn’t “just about the clothes.” It’s about what not having had the right clothes symbolized for her when she was young, and what having the “right clothes” is giving her now.
In my decade of clinical work, I’ve seen so many wonderful and creative examples of clients who (usually unconsciously) creatively reorganized their lives as adults to give themselves healing experiences:
- Moving to a bucolic small town with zero crime rates.
- Signing up for martial arts training and working to pack on muscle to feel more empowered and embodied.
- Retiring to a small community and volunteering at the co-op and animal shelter to have connection.
- Purchasing a home with a garden and decorating it in a fantastical, magical way to evoke fun and playfulness.
- Becoming self-employed and financially savvy to feel in control.
And these are just some of the examples I’ve seen where my clients have reorganized their lives — logistically, financially, practically, tangibly — to give themselves the very thing they longed for growing up in adverse early environments.
Healing happens in the therapy room, of course, but it can also happen in the creative ways we reorganize our lives to support our unmet desires.
Inquiries for you.
I truly, firmly believe that we humans are “hardwired for healing” — that our natural inclination is to move towards the direction of growth, of healing, of self-support.
I also believe that most of us, if we come from adverse early beginnings, have made movements towards the creative reorganization of our lives (consciously or unconsciously).
So to help make this more obvious for you and to invite you to think further about what creatively organizing your life to support your healing might look like, I want to invite you to peruse the prompts below:
- What deeply rooted need was missing for you when you were young? Acceptance, safety, belonging, love, power, protection?
- How might you have already cultivated a creative experience of healing for yourself around this? How have you already reorganized your life to give yourself this thing you long for?
- And how might you do more of this? Even more consciously, more tangibly?
- Or is there something else you can recognize from today’s essay and prompts that you recognize is still an unmet need? How might you make movements towards meeting that need?
And then, if you’re willing, please share your responses to the prompts in the comments.
And, until next time, please take such good care of yourself.