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Clandestine Passions


This title sounds like a trashy romance novel, but it comes from a line of poetry I particularly love. Louise Gluck, in “Rainy Morning” (from the book “Meadowlands”): “We can all write about suffering/with our eyes closed. You should show people/more of yourself; show them your clandestine/passion for red meat.”

A passion for red meat. A love of depressing poetry. My friends’ 6-year-old is obsessed with rocks and minerals, he pores over them lovingly. I’ve noticed that someone in San Francisco knits tiny tube-like sweaters and puts them around bike racks. I had another client who loved to take upside-down photographs.

And all this puts me in mind of the magic of therapy too, the way the things about ourselves that we often want to hide, (thinking they are too raw or ugly or weird for anyone to bear) turn out to be the most profound material in therapy. Things that tell us who we really are and give us the gifts of flow and joy.

A client of mine years ago during his intake session mentioned that his Dad been glad to hear he was going to therapy, “He said, that’s great, son–maybe you can learn to tone it down a bit.” This client’s Dad had an idea that his son was too big of a personality, took up too much space, was too loud, maybe too needy. My client bought into this idea at the time and felt he was coming to therapy to learn to control (maybe eliminate?) his feelings.

We had a funny conversation then about what if his work turned out to be “turning it up to 11?” (an important reference every Spinal Tap fan will know). This became a shorthand term for some of the work we eventually did do together, to recognize and cultivate this man’s extraordinary, even heroic-level passion and zest for life. He went on to become a boxer, a very successful businessman, and a beautiful partner and father (who would probably look for ways to celebrate his kid’s uniqueness).

Years later I still think about that client pathologizing this part of himself that was really his superpower–he felt things deeply, he was full of excitement, but he felt ashamed of it.  I remember one day saying to him, “Plenty of people who come in here and sit where you are sitting are wanting help because they feel dead inside. They can’t find their feelings, they can’t connect with themselves or with other people. But you have come in full of life energy and full of feelings. You only have to admire this wonderful, alive person, as I do, and we can get to work on how you want to use your power.”

I think about this a lot as I help moms and parent-couples with parenting issues too. How does a good parent support the uniqueness of their child while still helping them learn to be ok in the world, to be able to connect and thrive, if they can? As autumn parent teacher conferences roll around this year, I am expecting to hear from my son’s teachers that he is a bit of a “daydreamer”. So is his mother. There’s a fine balance to maintain here–a profound balance–between supporting my kid to have the ability to focus and pay attention in school, and leaving space for a beautiful, imagination to be uncoerced. Some of the best ideas of my life have come from my spaced-out daydreams, and I want to make sure my kid has access to this source of fun and creativity, as well as the ability to learn things in school. Just naming it helps. Also supporting both. Figuring out how to communicate that school is important, and so is your imagination: so here is a journal and some new pens, here is an afternoon of nothing to do boredom, here is my attention for the funny ideas you want to tell me.

Doesn’t it seem that so many things in life are like this? The work is in sustaining a powerful, difficult paradox. I will feel deeply and also do the things I am afraid of.  

It reminds me of a zen koan Mark Epstein (“The Trauma of Everyday Life”) writes about: “Body exposed in the golden wind”. 

Body exposed in the golden wind.


Elizabeth Sullivan

Elizabeth Sullivan helps moms and couples repair and grow. We move you from feeling stuck or trapped to finding what's meaningful and poetic in everyday life. Elizabeth works in-person and online, and also offers parenting coaching packages for brief, solution-focussed therapy. She practices in San Francisco and is Co-Founder of Psyched in San Francisco and Editor of Psyched Magazine.

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