Like most 24-year-olds, I had no clue what I was doing with my life, so I took that job because I didn’t have many other options or clarity.
Plus, I needed and wanted health care benefits to get myself into therapy.
It was my first “grownup job,” and every day, I wore compact heels and dark pantsuits, sat under fluorescent lights in my cubicle, drank coffee out of styrofoam cups with Splenda, and joined throngs of people (also in black suits and compact heels) on the Metro every morning and night, commuting to and from my home, a dark basement apartment on Capitol Hill.
I was miserable.
It was the start of my relational trauma recovery journey, which a confluence of events had triggered during my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan, so the misery was, in part, due to a decompensation I was having due to memories coming back and my defenses no longer working to keep the intolerable feelings at bay.
But that time was also a chapter in my journey where I, quite frankly, felt like a Stranger in a Strange Land.
DC didn’t fit me.
And I didn’t fit DC.
I was out of place, and my soul knew it, but my brain couldn’t articulate it.
What do I mean?
Well, what I know now is that I’m a jeans and nice blouse, ballet flats kind of woman.
A clinician and entrepreneur who detests commutes and gets instant headaches under fluorescent lights and is utterly drained and irritated by “open office spaces.”
I’m immune to small talk and surface-level corporate niceties, and I think styrofoam is horrid.
I’d rather discuss trauma, grief, anger, abuse, resilience, recovery, and thriving with frank, real talk about the messiness of life.
And I’d rather drink my coffee from a Mason jar or my cherished Peloton coffee mug.
So I was doing good work in therapy in 2006 – my first real stint of it – to stabilize my trauma symptoms and steady my life, but no matter how much work I did in there, I was soul sick (no, this isn’t a clinical term, but it is, I think, an appropriate term for when we feel hopeless, helpless, and dejected).
Something felt very wrong (and it wasn’t just the unprocessed trauma flooding back).
I was a round peg in a square hole back in DC.
The literal environment didn’t suit who I was at my core (and DC isn’t to blame – DC is great in its own way! – it just wasn’t my place.)
It was at this time that, after a series of magical and synchronistic events, I got introduced to and visited Esalen and then made the massive decision to quit my corporate job, let go of my apartment and sell most of my possessions, and move out West to Big Sur, California with a one-way plane ticket, $16,000 in savings and no plan.
(Oh, the things we do when we’re 25 before kids and mortgages!)
I had no plan other than to pay attention to what felt better on the inside and what place in the world, and what way of being seemed to suit me better.
I was searching for a life that felt better.
And it was the first time in my life that I made a massive, structural change that contributed enormously to my happiness, well-being, and relational trauma recovery journey.
It was the first experience where I radically changed my external environment to support my inner environment versus attempting to “just try and be happy” in an ill-fitting environment.
And it really, really helped.
16 years later, I’m still in California, and, in that time, I’ve made other structural changes to support my healing and well-being, working consciously and with tons of effort, bravery, and sometimes big investments of money, to change my external environment to support myself more and more.
And, of course, I’ve continued to do my internal environmental work – committing to rigorous, long-term relational therapy and working with my own EMDR-Certified therapist, attending couples counseling with my husband, journaling, working with mentors, practicing (admittedly often imperfectly) what I preach in terms of the internal skill development, self-reflection, and growth work required in relational trauma recovery journeys, and more.
And all of it has added up to a life that, today, feels much more congruent, integrated, and supportive than it did in 2007.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about my journey and the big, bold structural changes I’ve made more in light of watching some loved ones wrestle with the possibility/dilemma of making big structural changes in their own lives and the stories they tell themselves about what they “get to do” in pursuit of happiness.
Watching and witnessing them, I’m reminded that, very often, many of us think that we have to “white knuckle it out” in situations that don’t feel good, imagining that if we only did the right kind of and the right amount of “internal work,” we’d feel better, happier, more grateful, less miserable, less hopeless, etc.
And yet, on the other hand, I acknowledge that many more of us think that the only answer to happiness is changing the external (a new partner, a new house, a new city, a new job, a new wardrobe, bangs, etc).
Change those things, and – presto! – we’ll be instantly happy.
But somewhere between these two extremes – staying in ill-fitting situations and only doing the internal work or only changing the external to impact the internal – lies what I truly believe is the moderate change zone where the unsung benefits of structural changes live.
What do I mean by this?
Put plainly, I think that, in some cases, the right kind of deliberate external change can radically impact our sense of well-being, our emotional health, and our physical health.
And making these changes in concert with doing whatever internal work we may need is exactly what some of our relational trauma recovery journeys require.
And I want this to be okay.
I want it to be okay to imagine that certain structural changes are beneficial if not necessary and not just an “easy out button” or “cop out choices,” prompting us to avoid our own internal work.
Let’s make this real and practical for a moment through another example, a made up vignette that’s a composite of many clients I’ve worked with over the years.
Imagine a 30-something man was working with me in therapy and had been my client for a year.
He had arrived at therapy with me utterly miserable, anxious, and depressed.
In the course of working together over the last twelve months, we had explored every single possible cognitive-behavioral tool to challenge his cognitive distortions, every single emotional regulation tool his deep unhappiness and despair needed to stabilize, and we had implemented behavioral changes in all other aspects of his life to support his boundaries, confidence, and biopsychosocial markers.
But, after all of this work, he was still miserable because, at the end of the day, he had the soul and spirit of a gentle artist who longed to live a simple life in some small rural wooded town but was stuck working 80 hours a week as a corporate litigator in the heart of downtown San Francisco, surrounded by a forest of tall buildings.
An environment that genuinely was incongruent with his soul and spirit.
In this case, with this man, all the mindset work in the world might not compensate for the fact that this person, to be truly well and integrated, might ultimately need to quit his job and leave city life.
He might need to make a deliberate structural change to change his career, change his environment, and change his way of living.
Now, this might be a conflated example, but hopefully, you can see the point I’m trying to make here: that in certain circumstances, external changes – structural changes – are indeed what we need in order to be well.
And making those changes doesn’t mean we “gave up” or “failed” or are “taking the easy way out.”
Indeed, in my experience, the decision to make a big structural change in our life is sometimes the very hardest kind of personal work we can do.
Look, as a trauma therapist, I’m an ardent believer in the need to do our psychological re-foundationing work, to be an internal adventurer and archaeologist of our past, a mender of the cracks in our proverbial foundations, but I’m also a believer in using our power, agency, and efficacy to adjust our external environment – as much as we can – so that the outside supports the inner.
And I want to normalize this external work and make it okay to consider that sometimes, on our relational trauma recovery journeys, it’s not more inner work that’s needed.
It’s actually outer work that’s required.
So let’s be curious about this together.
What are some examples of structural changes you (and anyone else) might consider to support yourself and your journey?
More examples of structural changes:
- Moving to an environment that suits you better.
- Living in a housing arrangement that suits you better.
- Working in a field/pursuing a career that matches more of who you truly are vs. what the world expects of you.
- Returning to school to get a foothold in a long-term career field you want to age into.
- Changing your outward self-express expression (hair, wardrobe, body decoration) to match more of how you feel on the inside.
- Partnering with and architecting your partnership structure in a way that feels congruent with your preferences vs. those of society.
- Removing people from your life who fail to respect your personhood, honor your dignity, appreciate your boundaries, and who generally can’t be counted upon to be functional presences.
- Hiring the right professionals. (I’ve written about this before, but I will pay my team of professionals (therapist, attorneys, CPA, financial planner, and bookkeeper) their premium fees and never buy a sushi dinner because their support and presence in my life radically improves it.)
- Doing the hard work to change your financial circumstances so that you have an emergency fund, defensive insurance in place, and all the appropriate planning choices made to help you sleep better at night.
- And more.
So tell me:
Have you fallen prey to the belief that external changes are “cheating” when it comes to personal growth work?
Have you personally made structural changes that have radically improved your quality of life on your relational trauma recovery journey? What did that look like?
Are there any other structural changes you may be called to make now that would radically improve your quality of life and increase your well-being?
If you feel inclined to share, please leave a comment on this blog.
I’d certainly love to hear from you, and our community of 30,000 monthly website visitors might benefit from your wisdom and share, too.
Remember: there are many unsung benefits to making structural changes on our healing journeys. Please give yourself permission to consider this for yourself.
And if you would like to work with me as your therapist to deeply explore what this might look like for you, please reach out. I’m currently accepting a few new clients into my therapy practice, and I would be truly honored to support you.
And until next time, take such good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.