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The ‘Heart’ in Heart Matters Psychology

Hello all and welcome to my first blog for Heart Matters Psychology.

In this first blog, much like a first session with a psychologist, I hope to give you a clear flavour of who I am, and what Heart Matters Psychology is about.  You may have perhaps read other psychologists’ blogs before, and as I hope you’ll see in this post, I aim to offer something maybe a little different; this is an invitation for you to open up and look closely at what’s inside (an invitation psychologists make to clients every day), and in acknowledgement of the courage required in that act, today I’ll go first.

Since working with my first client in 2003, I have been honoured, moved, haunted, disturbed, transformed and utterly inspired by those many thousands of conversations over the past decade.  These conversations with people, who often come to counselling in their most vulnerable state, have left the deepest imprints on my being that I can imagine.  And, I wouldn’t have it any other way, because each of those conversations has afforded me a glimpse into what it means to be human, in all its majesty and ugliness and complexity and contradiction and might.  Those many thousands of conversations have been a precious gift to me, and I wish to honour those sacred conversations by offering you these blogs as reflections on what has moved, heartened and shaped me most over the years, as an individual.

Today’s blog is about one of the most profound human experiences I have come across: sorrow.

As can be said for most of us, my life has certainly at times been touched by great sorrow; the kind that presses into your chest and makes it difficult to breathe.  Sorrow, that deep sadness that follows a meaningful loss, is an unmistakable ache that doesn’t so easily respond to reassurance, optimism, distraction, placation or achievement.  It is a heavy feeling that forces even the most frenzied of us to slow down and pay attention.  In my work I have sat with countless people’s sorrow, and a decade of bearing witness to this most intimate and vulnerable of human experiences has only served to convince me further that sorrow is not a bad thing.  Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran had it right when he said:

“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”

We have almost all been touched by sorrow; it is part of what it is to be human, to be real.  And as Gibran’s poem suggests, it has the potential to deepen us as people, to enrich our character.  Of course, in my work I have also seen first-hand how sorrow can leave people calloused and hardened rather than strengthened and tender: the perpetrator of sexual abuse who was himself sexually abused; the seemingly unfeeling partner that was once attentive and thoughtful before the final betrayal; the bully so desperate to use the schoolyard to offset just how small she feels at home.

Sometimes these people’s humanity has become contorted just by virtue of the severity of their suffering.  But, in my experience, oftentimes the depth and tenderness of a person’s character is as much a testament to how they have responded to their sorrows in life.  It’s a worthwhile question for all of us to ask ourselves: has the way I’ve responded to my difficulties helped expand and open me up as a person?  Has it served to make me less flexible, more withdrawn?  Do I like who I have become as a result of my challenges?

If you’re uncomfortable with the answers some of those questions lead you to, the good news is that this stuff is rarely set in stone, and with conscious effort, self-compassion, awareness and/or help, we can use our sorrows to facilitate what I call our ‘unfolding’.  Sorrow is a deeply private, difficult and painful experience, yes, but it does not have to be one that robs us of our humanity.

© Jacques Rizk, 2013