Molly Ahern speaks with her hands, using deft, nimble gestures that suit her petite frame. A licensed counselor, we talk about her practice (stillnessandsoul.com), her history with therapy, and how what she’s learned is imperative to the human experience. I tell her story here, in her own words.
When I was in grad school, I needed to see a counselor, but I didn’t want to see someone who would use a method that I’d recognize from my studies. I found this woman who practices ACT – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. It’s a mindfulness therapy, and I believe in it so much that I now use it in my own practice. That said, I’ll admit that at first, I thought mindfulness was BS. I resented sitting with my eyes closed, breathing slowly. I really thought it was a waste of time, but I badly needed help, and as a first-born child, I’m a good performer who really likes getting an A, so I surrendered to the practice and somewhere along the line, I started to hear my own soul. By getting really quiet, and by turning my attention inward, I started to get in touch with this thing that I had completely forgotten. I had gotten so good at being aware of everyone around me, I had forgotten to be aware of myself.
I had such a difficult time learning to hear and respond to my own soul. There’s something about being a first-born child. First-borns perform. Everything you do is being watched and responded to, and so you make sense of the world based on the response you’re getting, which is an external locus of control. The result of that is you’re disconnected from yourself. At a certain time in my life, I didn’t even know what I liked. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my day, much less with my life or my career! I had no answers, because I had lived my life based on everybody else. Learning that, taking control of that, getting put back together, and slowly learning to pay attention to my center and how this or that makes me feel. I started to ask myself, “What am I drawn to? What am I repulsed by? What feels nurturing or depleting to me?”
We’re not our thoughts, we have thoughts. We can think about our thinking. We’re not our emotions, we have emotions. They roll in, they roll out. Think about it this way: the self is like the sky. The weather is our thoughts and emotions – like I said, they roll in, they roll out. But when you can sit with the “sky” part of yourself to observe, “Oh, I notice that I’m thinking this,” or “Oh, I’m feeling such and such a way,” that’s where paradigm shifts occur. That’s where I experienced a true shift – being aware of the things I think and feel, observing them for what they are. That’s what I try to help my clients achieve.
I want to hold a space that allows people to truly be their whole self – vulnerable, raw, messy – and love them for being that person, so that they can experience what it’s like to be accepted for their true self. I’m convinced that the deepest human needs are to be loved and to belong. And not for our performance or the personas that we wear, either.
That idea first took root with my mentor. I was doing an internship at the Fort, and the first time that I met him, I walked into the office and we had talked for no more than five minutes when he looked at me and said, “I’ve checked you out. I like you.” It was disarming because I felt it was true. He didn’t see me as a mom, as a wife, a student, or this or that. He saw me. I really felt seen for the first time, and for just being a human being. That was so healing. He’s seen me at my messiest, my highs and lows, and he’s always the same. He loves me unconditionally. I feel like I belong and that I can be my whole self, which really put me back together. So I experienced that power of being loved and belonging, and then had that confirmed by the work of Brene Brown and others who are proving empirically that love and belonging are our highest human needs.
The thing we’re most scared of is being rejected for who we are, right? That’s why we put the masks and personas on in the first place. Research shows us that emotionally safe relationships are what is healing – on a central nervous system level, too. There’s research that shows that when you’re in a safe relationship and have an open, honest, and intimate exchange, that it calms your central nervous system. Isn’t that fascinating? Our culture is so independent – “I can do this on my own, I’ve got this.” But the truth is the exact opposite of that. We’re dependent upon other human beings way more than we’d like to admit, and certainly more than we’re comfortable with.
It’s easy to hide. It’s tempting to withdraw, especially when you feel like you might be rejected for who you are. But doing that separates you from what you really need, which is to form meaningful, safe connections with people who see you and know you for who you really are.
Cyle Talley thinks that it doesn’t get much better than Durango in June. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org