of I went to a therapist for the first time when I was twenty-four, in a concerted effort to re-orient myself after ending my first significant relationship. Of course, this surface topic was the tip of the iceberg, covering other family-of-origin issues, uncertainties about life purpose as I began my early career in politics, assessing new and old friendships, and the complex identity formation of young adulthood. Greg was a good first therapist. But he was definitely not my last.
Deep self-reflection wasn’t something that was encouraged in my upbringing. There was both chronic suppression of emotions as well as ever-present conflict, which created a constant feeling of anxiety as I became more observant of the constellation of relationships around me. So, without really knowing its therapeutic purpose, I became a voracious journaler at age five. A heavy plastic crate contains it all, roughly one journal per year, making it the heaviest box in my basement storage. I rarely revisit old journals, but I know they will serve a purpose someday, if only as a healthy reference point when my daughters become teenagers or when my memory begins to fade in old age.
So when I sat in Greg’s office for that first therapy visit, it didn’t seem strange or uncomfortable to externally process my emotions, since I’d been writing them down for nearly two decades. What was awkward, though, was the feeling that he somehow had all the answers, with his framed credentials on the wall, and the set of hand-held water games in the window sill, as if mindlessly pressing the buttons would draw neat and tidy solutions to the surface.
This kind of western, male-centered psycho-analysis was not my cup-of tea, because even in my early twenties, I knew that there was a deeper wisdom, both within myself and part of a larger spiritual dimension, that I longed to connect to. Not some condescending presence, who arrogantly kicked up his legs on top of his desk during my last visit, as we discussed brands of hiking boots as I prepared to leave for Peru, as if to say, "Yep, we're done here."
My next form of one-on-one therapy came a few years later in the form of spiritual direction. I didn’t understand what it meant either, other than it wasn’t covered by health insurance. My pastor at the time recommended her to me as he himself had begun seeing a spiritual director, a common practice within Catholicism but only just emerging within the highly cognitive “thinking” tradition of Presbyterianism.
I’m not in the practice of defending Catholicism, but spiritual direction seemed intriguing. Not to be confused with the elusive and often harmful confessional, spiritual direction removes the power from the practitioner and places it in an in-between space, a third chair.
I began meeting with a friendly middle-aged woman in the comfort of her living room, paying in the form of apple and pumpkin pies as we entered autumn. We didn’t talk about Jesus, because my spirituality has never been about Jesus - maybe that’s why it’s been so easy to walk away from ordained ministry. Instead, Sandra introduced me to family systems theory and this idea of the third chair, both of which have unequivocally strengthened my ability to navigate life.
So, the third chair. For some people it’s God, for others, a higher consciousness - which are basically the same thing in my book. What I like about the third chair is it takes the emphasis away from the omniscient therapist and breaks down much of the power differentials evident in traditional western therapy. The invisible chair, however, is not indicative of anything pretend. It’s not some imaginary friend. And while a Christian perspective might call it the “inner Christ,” I am no longer interested in claiming that voice as anything other than our own still voice of knowing.
I think it’s especially important for women to claim that voice as ours. It’s not some external deity placing sacred wisdom within us, to make our emotional realities more manageable, more rational, more male. The embodied nature of the divine, within us, is a distinctly female perspective of spirituality, which has been snuffed out by the disembodied agenda of western religion. Therefore, in my understanding of the third chair of spiritual direction, it is your own voice, released from ingrained messages of imposed personhood parsed out through history, family and society. It is our true, authentic, self-as-whole, voice.
I’ve had four spiritual directors, one before seminary, one during, and two during my first solo pastorate. All women. All roughly my mother’s age, which was at times helpful, and at other times, not. In each case, though, I felt somewhat restrained. Perhaps it was my own perceptions of the spiritual direction experience as needing to be, well, spiritual, thereby compelling me to speak in hushed tones, and rather apologetically, now that I really think about it. Did I feel the need to imbue the meetings with more prayerfulness, thinking that would somehow make my concerns more holy? Would I be more able to weather every-day human stressors and deeper questions of purpose by simply taking long, controlled, audible breaths? That’s not why I sought out spiritual direction, but I somehow adopted these practices of restricting my own voice when it was the very voice I was seeking to find.
My last spiritual director based her work in Jungian psychology, which sold me in an instant. We met for a year during my first pastorate, and I can’t remember anything of substance from our conversations, except a feeling. The feeling that that third chair was finally starting to get to speak. She didn’t force awkward stretches of long silence, as I had previously sat through with my eyes twitching open and counting backwards as if I was getting blood drawn. She also didn’t talk in a hushed voice herself, which was liberating, as I was quite literally done with whispering.
I’ve now seen the same therapist/spiritual director for six years, although I’ve known her for almost twice as long. Carol supervised my psychological evaluation in preparation for seminary, because unlike parishioners, pastors need to undergo intense screening to make sure they aren’t damaging to themselves or others by going into the ministry. My second pastorate was within driving distance from her new counseling practice and I immediately set up a reunion, knowing she had done her doctoral work in clergy burnout, something I was very interested in preventing in my own pastoral leadership.
Carol vacillates between the third chair philosophy of spiritual direction and the action-based approach of traditional western therapy. She also brings an embodied element, perhaps drawn from her mother’s Native American heritage, as well as a healthy dose of religious skepticism having been a clergy spouse. I don’t have to whisper. We don’t give up precious time to forced silence (although silence is embraced when it happens naturally). I don’t attempt to sit still, prayerfully with my hands folded on my lap. In fact, I tend to fidget around on the couch, rearranging pillows, regularly shifting my position, and moving my arms around like some choreographed dance. I’ve learned to no longer resist it. Something clearly needs to get out of me, and it’s not always words, but movement.
My own approach to women’s leadership and life coaching is based on what I’ve liked and disliked about psycho-therapy and spiritual direction over the past sixteen years. At its roots, my approach is the third chair. I do not have the answers. You do. I don’t know your life experience. You do. I do not have the unique skills and perspective to undergo the transitions that will take you through the next threshold of your life. You do.
I am not a psychologist. I’m not interested in presenting a typology of what you’re going through, or laying out a mental map of what’s really going on. I am here more as a guide, to enable you to access the inner truth of your own life story, recover your higher calling and purpose, and listen to your deepest authentic self.
My approach to leadership and life coaching is unapologetically women-centered. I like men. And most feminists do because we agree that gender expectations are harmful for everyone. But my work is with and for women. From a very early age, I felt a deep desire to develop loving and loyal relationships with women, which I know is based on my very close relationship with my mother during the formative years of my life. My life-long friendships are a testament to that women’s-centered approach to life. (You know who you are!)
And it has always been women that I have advocated for, from my early years of reproductive rights activism (which is needed now more than ever), to studying with female curanderas in southern Mexico, offering dance therapy with survivors of sexual abuse in Peru, singing together with my guitar in various apartment rooms at the women’s homeless shelter where I worked before seminary. And as a pastor, cherishing each and every post-sermon tearful hug from women who said “you were speaking directly to my heart,” every cup of tea on the village green or kitchen table, every hospital bed anointing as I caught a glimpse of an old framed picture of her in her youth. Both beautiful. Both completely and entirely her.
Women’s lives are complicated, they’ve always been. The roles we play, both those we embrace and those we’re expected to fill. The challenges we face, as we seek to balance career goals, the desire to be present in others’ lives, especially our children if we’ve chosen motherhood, and the boundaries we maintain in order to keep important people close and others at bay. We are stretched and when we seek to protect ourselves within these often-competing demands, we are often vilified, resented or rejected. I've experienced it. It hurts. But we cope.
And that’s where my work comes in. When we find ourselves merely coping. Overriding. Minimizing. Silencing. It is at this point that it’s time to open the escape hatch and find our voice again. Whether it is in our personal relationships, our professional spaces, our extended family or our chosen family, we are longing to reclaim who we are. And she is waiting, right there, sitting in that third chair.
Let’s go find her. Let’s ask her what she needs. And let’s listen. Really listen to her. Because she knows, she’s always known. And it’s finally time to trust her.
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