Holding Vulnerability and Possibility

I spent some time today with this young fern.  This is one of many creatures emerging this time of year that seems to hold both vulnerability and possibility.  These tiny fern fronds, only 5 inches or so tall, look so tender.  The stems are still curled inwards, as are the leaves themselves.  A delicate white fuzz covers the stem (which undoubtedly serves a useful purpose for the fern, although I have no idea what it is.)  In this moment of the fern’s life, I see  protectiveness and also bravery.  It’s no easy thing to emerge into this big, busy world as a tiny, green (literally and figuratively) creature.  (I fully acknowledge I am casting human experience on a plant being for the purposes of my own understanding.  I do appreciate this fern has a life experience all its own that likely does not at all align with this metaphor!)

In any case, using my human eyes and experience to look deeply at this young and vulnerable fern, this moment feels like a crossroads.  If the conditions aren’t right or if a passing animal decides baby fern for lunch sounds good, growth will be impacted significantly.  A disruption now may slow, detour, or fundamentally change the character of the mature plant.  This fern may cease growing at all, and instead become part of the fertile forest floor to support growth in other organisms.

Or not.  It could be that good weather and soil conditions hold, animals and insects stay away, and these tender young fronds eventually emerge into broad, leathery, dark green, thigh high clumps of Christmas fern.  If this happens, it is likely that the foliage will retain its color for an entire year, even through the snow and ice of a Maine winter.  At the base of these young, light green fronds, mixed with some dry brown leaves, you can see the deep green leaves that grew last year.  They are, at this moment, the most vibrant part of the forest floor, even after all this time and exposure.

What does all of this have to do with therapy?

Therapy often comes to a moment like this, when the next steps could go either way.  We start to nurture and grow some part of ourselves that may have always been there but couldn’t come out.  Or some part of ourselves that is all together new.  Or maybe we’re working on bringing parts together and growing our whole selves all at once in a new way.  It’s beautiful and hopeful and exciting…and not only that.  It also can be so damn vulnerable and scary and exhausting.  When we start to get a glimpse of what’s possible with ourselves, with our lives, it’s amazing and terrifying, hopeful and helpless, all at once. It can feel so new and tender and small that we don’t always trust that it can become something vibrant and strong and enduring.  We may not yet believe enough in ourselves and/or the world around us to support continued growth.  Or maybe part of growing means having to acknowledge more fully all that prevented that growth before now.  That can really, really hurt.

Of course, when you’re the young fern on this precipice, it’s really hard to name all this complexity.  It’s just scary and overwhelming and time to run in the other direction.  Which is why I’ve sometimes seen people drift away from therapy when we get to this moment.  (I’ve also been the person who drifts away in this moment–I get it!)

So how do I keep growing when it’s so *?%x##** hard sometimes?

A few ideas.

  • It is okay to slow down.  Growth is not a race.  We can slow down, reinforce our foundation, and feel stronger before we keep unfurling and extending our leaves into the world.
  • Look at your whole experience.  Our brains are wired to notice threat and discomfort, and skim right over the good stuff.  Can you notice what is positive about your growth experience?  What feels nourishing, hopeful, and possible?  Can connecting with that more often help sustain you in the fearful moments?
  • See if you can identify what you’re most afraid of.  Fear can take up a lot more space when we can’t see or name it.  Think of a child afraid of ‘the dark’–there’s infinite space in that phrase for fear to take up residence!  Try to narrow it down.  What is the specific fear/s connected to this growth and change?  Psychotherapist and meditation teacher Tara Brach has a lovely practice to help us identify and support uncomfortable emotions.
  • If you have a therapist, talk with them about it.  Therapists are so far from perfect or omniscient.  We look out for this very struggle, but we can miss it. Tell us.  We can help, if we know.  It’s nothing to be ashamed of.  Most likely, we’ve all been there ourselves.

What if it’s too hard and I stop?  Am I hopeless?

Absolutely not!  Even if this young fern doesn’t grow to maturity this season, it is still part of a vital life cycle.  It may decay into the earth to support growth for next season’s fern.  It may nourish an animal and then become part of the earth again on the other end.  This growth is never wasted, not in the fern and not in you.  It happened, it matters, it has an impact.  Your growth now, even if you feel like you have to walk away in this moment, is part of you forever.  And someday, somewhere, you will pick up this thread again.  This young fern is lovely just as it is.  Maybe today is the day to keep unfurling, or maybe it will be next season.  Either way, vulnerability and possibility are a beautiful, brave, and powerful combination.