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  • Writer's pictureHelen Dempsey-Henofer

Works in Process

about stuckness, shame, and self-compassion

Hey Hey Hey Fellow Human,

This is just going to be a vulnerable from me-to-you note about my life. My hope is that you'll get some value from it, but I'm honestly a bit nervous about saying what's true for me. I'll touch on that in a bit.


You may have noticed, or maybe not, there haven't been letters coming from me for a while. I've been in something of a stuck place for months. If I were an investigator (I imagine one of those Sherlock Holmes style mysteries) there might be a red string between a photo of my stuckness and the overturning of Roe vs Wade; these two things having begun around the same time. I tend to be sensitive to context and bodily autonomy is a sticking point: choice connecting to wellbeing. If you are also sensitive to context, I extend you oodles of compassion. These are challenging times.

While I'm context sensitive, I also want to get involved in issues that matter, which is darn difficult when I'm struggling with being a person. Here's where shame comes up.

There's shame attached to the belief that no matter what I should keep at it.

Part of this may be related to attaching my value as a person to performance. Is there a lot that's dysfunctional about this? Absolutely. It's also a thought that's there, in the blueprint of my psychitecture (I cannot take credit for this fun word, it comes from systems designer Ryan Bush's book, Designing the Mind).

In my last letter to you, I talked about feedback loops. The internal conversation between my parts: the part that is deflated and immobilized by deep sadness and the part that says WTF is wrong with you? Onward! is its own loop and that shame, those inner bullying thoughts reinforces my deflated part feeling everything is impossible.

I worry about talking too soon about what helps, because the bullying part is eager for a way out: a way to be different than I am. Yet, in wanting this to be helpful to you, here's what interrupts the loop: it's kindness. It's not the bully wearing a mask of kindness, trying to get out of the slump faster. Sadness can sniff out a manipulation and is not buying it.

To illustrate this, imagine there are two teachers. You've struggled on a test. The first teacher says to you, "Get your shit together. If you can't do better than this, you'll never make anything of yourself. Now do it over." The second says to you, "I see this was challenging. Let's look it over to see what you need support with. I believe in you and am here when you need me." The second teacher often gets better results - not by trying to control the outcome, but by making space with gentleness. When you can acknowledge the bully and introduce kindness, it interrupts the feedback loop.

Did I jump out of bed once I tried treating myself with compassion? Nope. Part of compassion was allowing myself to wallow; to feel defeated and be sad, but allowing this - not trying to push through it or eliminate it - introduces some kindness. It says, "I'm here when you're ready."

Reading a letter isn't therapy. If you're in Virginia and looking for a therapist, visit the website to schedule a free consultation. While not a substitution for the individual care of mental health treatment, what the letter does is it puts therapy concepts into writing so that they can be accessed more widely. If you know someone who'd benefit, forward this on to them. There are two ways to sign up, a consent checkbox for new clients in intake, or easy-peasy from the website... available for anyone.


I'd mentioned at the beginning of this letter, feeling a bit nervous in talking about my experience. Part of that, like my inner bully, is old wiring in my psyche. It relates to messages I got in school about therapists being "blank slates" and fear of judgment; that others have those messages rattling around too.

The truth is that my job is to hold space for my clients (and in session that's my focus), but I'm also a human and hiding my humanness is unhelpful in being with you in this shared experience of existing which frankly, sometimes sucks.

A final thought that is helpful to me, we are not "works in progress," as this somehow detracts from us being whole complete beings just as we are. We are people in process, experiencing life in all its minutia and enormity. Acknowledging that, I extend us both kindness and invite you to practice being gentle with you.

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