Renovations of the Soul
by Fatima Mirza PHD, MSW
“I think we should give Fatima an office.”
My ears perked up when I heard my colleague suggest this.
“My own office??” I thought, “Wow, that would be so nice.”
I stayed silent as the conversation progressed and the group settled on the empty office in our McLean location. My mind spun with possibilities of what I could do with that space. Excitement, anxiety, wonder, but most of all it just felt right. My heart soared even further when I heard that I would have a healthy budget to get what I needed, but if you know me, the bargain hunter, obsessive researcher, the one whose taste is often well over ANY budget, I was going to need to make every penny stretch.
What I didn’t know was that this space was going to be a meditation on patience and a glorification of the bounty and the plan of God. I also didn’t realize that the process of getting the office set up was going to teach me a series of lessons about my line of work — therapy.
Lesson 1: We have what we need — if we’re brave enough to ask
This conversation about “getting Fatima an office” surfaced in March, solidified in April, and through a series of events seemed to fall apart in May.
I had my paint, some supplies, a rug, a desk, and no idea how to proceed.
I’d never painted a room before. I felt alone. I also felt something familiar — being unsure of how to ask for help. My familiar internal dialogue about others being too busy and not wanting to be a burden on anyone else kicked up. I’ve heard countless clients come in and echo the same sentiments. So I had to take my own advice and take a deep breath, calm the voices, and set my intention. “Please, Lord, I want to set this up, and I want it to be a place where many people feel welcome and find healing.”
Wow, is it tough to ask, but as I sat there praying a name entered my mind of a family friend that I could reach out to. In him I found someone with the energy and excitement (and most importantly the know-how) to take my vision and explain exactly how we could get there. My husband also jumped in, wholeheartedly, even though this kind of thing is so not his thing. I was reminded about fellowship, community, and the bounty that is right in front of me — the bounty that can often go unnoticed if we don’t stop and pay attention to it.
Lesson 2: Prep work — it’s tedious, but essential
I think if I’d known how much prep work it took to paint, it would have been even harder to ask for help. “It’s a smallish space, 12×15 feet, it shouldn’t take that long” I thought, “a weekend, maybe two?” Then I started learning about what the prep would take, and the hours turned into days. It was in this process that I started thinking this is exactly like therapy.
You see, a client comes in and says I just need to __(fill-in the blank)__ and we start by figuring out what the plan is. We set goals; we talk about their vision for themselves. There’s a lot of intention setting. Usually before we can get started, we need to do some prep work.
Maybe a client has never spent time looking at his/her feelings and doesn’t have a vocabulary for them. Maybe a client finds their anxiety spikes so high when they start dealing with whatever the issue at hand is that we need to back up and help them set up ways to move forward safely. Sometimes a client has spent years, maybe decades, avoiding feelings and “getting through” life and those are hard habits to try to shift. So before we can dive deeper, we have to make sure that we’ve built the skills and developed the relationship between us so that it’s safe for a client to explore tougher topics.
Lesson 3: Feelings live in your body
So finally the prep work was done and I’m painting a room for the first time. I’m using a roller on the ceiling; what a strange feeling. I have to find the right pressure, the right amount of paint on the roller, not take on too large a section at once, overlap when the paint is still wet – and on and on. In essence, I have to get into my hands, arms, shoulders, and back. I can’t do this with my brain alone. I need my body to get the “feel of it”.
Often that’s true for my clients as well; we have to get into our bodies because, after all, that’s where the feelings live. We can’t float through life with our minds alone. Moving through life means doing so with our whole selves. We were given a mind and a heart and a body for a reason; they all have a part to play in this story.
Lesson 4: Choose when to go deeper
“So are we pulling up these carpets?” our friend asks me.
We’d had a few conversations leading up to this moment. We had peeked under the carpet to figure out whether there was a finished wood floor there. We wondered what condition it was in and had talked about how the room would look so much better with a wood floor. Now. Now it was time to make a decision.
“Let’s pull it up” I said as my heart skipped a beat and my stomach turned with anxiety. “What will we find under there?” I thought to myself.
Yes, what will we find under there….. that is the fear many people have expressed when they start to look at something they’ve worked really hard to avoid their whole lives. Even if we’ve spent plenty of time to survey the situation to determine what might be under there, and whether it’s a good idea to pull up the proverbial rug that we keep sweeping things under — when a client knows they have to “go there” it doesn’t make the anxiety or fear go away. But courage is, in the words of Brené Brown, being afraid and doing it anyway.
Lesson 5: Expect the unexpected
Before we moved forward with pulling up the carpet we needed to finish a few more things. So we started working on the electrical upgrades to the room. The outlets went pretty smoothly. We were rocking and rolling. Then our friend pulled out the light fixture.
“There are too many wires here.”
The next hour or so was a series of tests to figure out what all those wires were about. I won’t sugarcoat it — there were sparks and a burned out light switch.
“Good thing we planned to change that switch anyway,” our friend said.
I half smiled, but wasn’t feeling very reassured. When we all decided unanimously that it was time to call an electrician, I started to breathe a little easier. Even though I have been an avid Home and Garden Television (HGTV) viewer for many years and conceptually knew that things always come up during a renovation, the uncertainty of how it would all turn out was really hard to sit with in the moment.
That’s what it often feels like when we are knee deep in doing the hard work of therapy. I often sit with clients through the anxiety of the uncomfortable realization, walk with them through challenging terrain, and help hold the hope when clients feel like the process is too long, too hard, or that they might not make it to the other end.
Lesson 6: Transform what you’ve got
Our efforts stalled due to the light fixture mystery, we decided to work on a furniture project. You remember that budget I mentioned? Well the only way I could figure that I could avoid blowing my budget was to find a way to reduce the cost of some of the furniture pieces I wanted for the space. After brainstorming and spending way too much time online researching options, I had an idea but it hinged on a critical element.
That’s how I found myself at our local farmer’s market. I walked up to the apple vendor feigning confidence and feeling internally very self-conscious. “Hi… do you sell your wooden crates?” A few minutes later, I had secured 10 crates — and for MUCH less than I would have purchased them elsewhere. I picked them up the following week and headed over to our friend’s house. We worked together to fashion them into a shelf, an end table, and a rolling coffee table. They weren’t perfect, but they were exactly what I wanted for the space.
Creativity and a little bit of courage helped me out in figuring out my budget crisis, and are often our best friends in therapy. Often we can transform what we’ve got into something that we need.
Lesson 7: Our experiences change us
That light fixture hung there taunting us when we came in the following week to pull up the carpets. The moment of truth. They came up easily and the wood underneath was in pretty great shape. We all heaved, well maybe I just heaved, a BIG sigh of relief.
But then came the staples.
Our friend worked on installing the quarter round — which I now know is the name of that little rounded strip at the bottom of the baseboards — while I worked on the staples. I always knew that when carpet gets installed that the foam padding under the carpet is held down by industrial strength staples. However, it hadn’t quite dawned on me how many of those little guys were under there — and that we’d have to remove them one by one … by hand.
I got started at one end of the room, and s-l-o-w-l-y worked on pulling them up. With way too much time to think I began to notice how each staple was different – some were in deep, others had barely punctured the surface. Some staples had grabbed onto large chunks of foam and prying them away required first slowly working the foam away from the staple so I could get a better look at it, let alone grab ahold of it.
I spent time figuring out which ones would be easy to deal with and which ones might take a little more work. Sometimes I thought, “oh this one will be an easy one” but the reality was much different. I experimented with different strategies, worried that I would damage the surrounding wood, and felt my hands get increasingly sore over the day. I wondered when I would be done because it felt like it was taking forever. And it wasn’t just in my head — I was still working on those staples when the electrician came and finally installed the light fixture.
Again the power of the metaphor struck me. These staples represented, to me, the pains we’ve endured. Pulling them was choosing to deal with them. Each experience has impacted us differently, and each leaves its mark. We won’t be “back to normal” but our new normal can be beautiful. As we get more experience with it, the task moves a bit faster. Yet, we can’t move too fast or wrench them out because that will damage us. So we need to be kind to ourselves and allow ourselves to work out each one using the best strategy for that staple.
Lesson 8: It’s okay to take breaks
When I shouted “I GOT YA!” as I pulled up a staple, I knew it was time for a break…. I was taking the process a little too personally.
As I sat there staring at how far we’d come and looking at how far we had to go (especially with those STAPLES) I realized this break gave me a lot of perspective….
In essence we were doing the real “reno” now… we were in the thick of it. But the prep was critical for allowing us to get here, and this work that I was doing right now was hard, painstaking and necessary.
Stopping and looking around, getting perspective, is essential both in renovations and in therapy. We will never appreciate how far we’ve come, nor how important the work that we’ve already completed was unless we stop and take a look at the big picture.
I had lost track of how many days we had been working on the renovation at this point, but I knew that getting on my hands and knees and scrubbing every inch of that wood floor after it was (finally) staple free was one of the most satisfying feelings that I’ve experienced.
We set up some of the furniture to see what the office would look like when it was all together. WOW… just having that vision of where it could get to fueled my fire to finish. Little touch ups and design elements remained. “I’ve got this!”
That balance, to me, is critical…
Enough looking behind to appreciate how far I’ve come,
Enough looking forward to motivate continuing to work, and
Enough living in the present so that I can absorb the way the wood glows a little brighter as it’s cleaned and to get excited about how the various parts of the room started to come together
As the summer days started to cool off, and September rolled in. I was “done enough” with the room to start meeting with clients in my new space (ok yes, only 2 out of the three windows have drapes).
What an experience to walk in and see the transformation; I was grateful it turned out as well as it did. I felt a mix of pride and joy welling up inside me and took a deep breath. Beaming, I looked at my husband, “We did this.”
That sentence is powerful..
WE did this
We DID this
We did THIS
It’s true…. it’s done
“You know, you are never done” my husband reminded me.
“Yes, but this part is.”
We shared a smile.
Kind of like the end of a session, or when I’m closing with a client who has put in the hard work they came to do. There’s a knowing smile, a celebration of the work that went into the closing of this chapter and the excitement of beginning of a new one.
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