How I Help People Who Are Hesitant to Share as a Mental Health Practitioner
I chant to a monkey.
No really, I do. I chant to a monkey.
There was a time in my life where I never would have put this out there in public, especially as a young professional afraid of being labeled as too fringe or hippy-dippy. The time is now to out myself: every night for the last year I’ve chanted a 16th century hymn from the Hindu tradition called the Hanuman Chalisa.
As a monkey, Hanuman is seen as a bridge between the wisdom of the animal world and the human world. As a symbol for breath, he is the bridge that unifies feminine energy and masculine consciousness. Many devotees of Lord Hanuman engage in this chant as a daily practice; it would be similar to those with great devotions to St. Francis singing any version of a Prayer of St. Francis hymn daily. And I’ve been known to sing to him too. Plus I pray an Our Father and Hail Mary every morning — in Croatian (my family’s ancestral language) — do Japa meditation (prayer beads), practice yoga in various ways, read from my 12-step meditation books and pray some of those prayers. Those are just my daily practices! On any given week I may also consult with my Ayurvedic clinician, see my expressive arts therapist and spiritual director over Skype, or saunter up to Buffalo for some of my own EMDR therapy. And then there’s the penchant I have for receiving bodywork and energy work… shall I go on?
There is an important reason I am going here, letting the “weirdness” of my daily and other regular practices shine out so directly. These practices help me stay mentally healthy, especially in being able to navigate the judgment and cruelty of the world at large.
In the last several years, and with increasing frequency lately, many friends, students and folks I mentor have shared with me their concerns about being perceived as “too weird.” Whether it’s a feeling of self-consciousness about their cleaning regimens, their spiritual practices or having ways of seeing the world that may clash with the mainstream, people can viciously judge themselves based on the fear of how others will respond. In a recent conversation about weirdness and perception, I blurted out the “I chant to a monkey” response. I’ve found this phrase to be such an empowering anthem I now use it when clients, students and folks I train come to me with a hesitancy to share, fearing how I will perceive them. “I chant to a monkey… try me.”
For many of us who have survived the trenches of academia or currently hold a professional license as a clinician, the fear of being persecuted for our weirdness or differentness has merit. I and many others in the Dancing Mindfulness community could fill a whole book of horror stories documenting how professors and other colleagues have treated us for taking an interest in Eastern meditation, embodied practices and anything outside of the talk therapy, medical model norm. In essence, we are the “weird ones” for going back and reclaiming the merits of ancient healing systems and endeavoring to make them work for modern clients, students, and practitioners. Not creative, not integrative… weird.
The professional standards committee of my state’s licensure board has challenged me as an educator three times for offering programs in the area of dance, mindfulness, expressive arts therapy and yoga. Of course, I’ve been able to support their merit, with literature, of offering such programs for clinicians who will pass the valuable learning on to clients who are desperately needing more than what the field has been giving them. Yet every time I presented before the committees, I had to address the issues coming up for me about them labeling me as too weird or flaky. Like many of us, my wounding around weird goes back to family of origin baggage and getting bullied by peers in elementary school for being the oddball. Of course, the board challenges made me angry and even sad at first.
Then I learned to embrace the challenge to calmly show them there is another way to exist as a professional in our field. This involved a great deal of time and effort cleaning out and healing my old stuff and drawing inspiration from the monkey I chant to, Hanuman — be a bridge. Don’t be afraid to be yourself, especially with others who get your weirdness. If someone you work with or interact with in life needs to see an example of weird as healthy and functional, show it. Yet when working with the mainstream of any given field, a good deal of translation may be required. This is always possible when you are not ashamed of who you really are and know how your weirdness (and all the oddities and rituals that may come with it) helps you live and hopefully even thrive in this world.
In working with my latest expressive arts student to have the weirdness conversation with me, some wisdom from the Croatian language struck me like a bolt of lightning. The Croatian word for weird or strange (čudan) and the Croatian word for miracle (čudo) come from the same root. Both imply something supernatural or out of the ordinary. Yet we can think of a miracle as being a gift and weirdness as being a curse. What if we started to view them as one in the same?
Would more of us feel comfortable coming out as weird or more widely acknowledge that we all do some pretty weird things? Can I learn to embrace my weirdness for what it is — a miraculous gift helping me to see the world in a way that we need to smash existing paradigms and bring about some deep healing?
Whenever someone I mentor professionally expresses fear about being perceived as too weird, I take pride in telling them they are not alone and that there are others of us who feel similarly. One time I referred to the Dancing Mindfulness community as the island of misfit therapists, and that’s a descriptor I use proudly to this day. Connect with the other “weirdos“ out there, and before long you may even learn to see yourself as a trailblazer who is in an amazing position to liberate others from the confines of judgment and condemnation in which they find themselves.
If you can be proud of your weirdness as a professional of any kind, imagine how inspirational you can be to the people you serve. If more of us learned to embrace the weirdness we are in our daily lives, regardless of what we do or where we live, that would truly be miraculous, and it will take such a miracle to heal the world.
I chant to a monkey… what of it?
Photo via contributor