Embracing symbols of change
There’s a saying among therapists. We ask the question: What is the opposite of love? Everyone responds “hate” immediately, thinking, that’s a stupid question; everyone knows the answer to that question. It’s a trick question, because the answer is not hate. The answer is indifference. The research bears this out. Kids who are physically and emotionally abused have some kind of attention coming their way. If, however, you are completely indifferent to a child, as if they do not exist, these children fare far worse than their abused counterparts. I am not condoning abuse. Both of these parenting styles are horrible, and both get terrible results. It does seem that those who are ignored do worse.
My client is a miracle, because she overcame a life of indifference. She had no idea the that the rituals she recently had performed were related to our work, because she had done the rituals before we met. Her unconscious took her by the hand and prepared her for this work.
My client would not have been open to following her intuition had she not been experienced with her inner self. She is a writer who avidly kept a journal. Journaling about her life, her loves, her emotional reality—these inner reflections were as much a part of her life as eating and sleeping. When hidden aspects of the psyche’s reality begin to manifest, there is a powerful upheaval of energy that moves the transformative process forward. Transformation is rarely easy. Usually it’s more like a crucifixion.
Psychotherapists are privileged to witness these creative moments as we provide a safe space for our clients to create and experience these moments.
The act of a haircut comes up occasionally as a powerful ritual component in the process of change. The popular makeover shows that cut the long and overgrown hair of men and women, creating an entirely new look, often bring these people to tears. It’s not the haircut and clothes; it’s the symbolic power of change.
My bright and creative client is a gifted writer. She spent her entire life trying to get her father’s attention without success. She came to therapy in an attempt to come to terms with the state of this relationship. She wrote about beginning the process of therapy and how she unknowingly began to make our therapeutic encounter sacred by using two rituals with symbolic power. She wrote the following passage after she understood the meaning of her behaviors. She went through the rituals without knowing why exactly she was doing what she was doing. This excerpt is a reflection back. She has permitted me to share her thoughts.
Freshly enlisted soldiers have all their hair cut off as a rite of passage into the role of protector. Buddhist monks often shave their heads before entering a monastery to erase any vanity. The day I cut my hair I stood balanced on a precipice between these two roles of warrior and spiritual pupil. “You sure you wanna do this?” the stylist asked me as I returned to her after the shampoo. I ran my hands through my wet hair, starting at the scalp and moving downward through the ten or twelve inches of my beautiful keystone. It was now golden brown from the summer sun, fragrant with the salon’s apple shampoo.
I looked at myself in the mirror, my hair framing my face, and thought about how it moved with me when I danced and how ex-boyfriends used to bury their noses in it before falling asleep, but there was a difference between who I was and who I needed to be. My eyes wandered to the magazine clipping I brought in — a picture of a Winona Ryder lookalike with short, cropped hair.
“Yes, please, I want it like the picture.” I sat down and closed my eyes and tried not to wince as I heard the metallic scrape of the scissors opening and closing. After a few minutes, I opened my eyes. The other patrons were looking on with expressions of shock and curiosity as clumps of my silken tresses fell to the floor. The scissors moved mercilessly around my head. I thought of Henry Miller saying that freedom comes from cutting yourself free from the past, and suddenly I was afraid I was cutting too much and if that woman cut one more strand of hair, I would lift out of the chair and float away. I squeezed my eyes shut against my mirror image.
When it was over I thanked the stylist with downcast eyes and slipped out of the chair. I paid and watched her sweep mounds of my hair into a dustbin and then carry it back to the salon, out of my sight. I bit my lip, said a quick prayer and left the salon, trying to make myself invisible.
This young woman had created a powerful ritual for beginning the process of therapy. She had no plan; she followed her intuition, and, in so doing, she stumbled upon a transforming ritual—two acts that unknowingly were preparing her for battle. She allowed the ego and her vanity to become less powerful and her inner reality to become more powerful by honoring its voice. The ordinary act of getting a haircut provided extraordinary results.
As a writer, this young woman regularly journaled and enjoyed solitude, so that piece of the process was already in place. She also informed me that around the time she cut her hair, she got a tattoo of a Korean dragon, which she explained protected warriors during battle. Initially, she did not understand why she had chosen this tattoo, nor was she exactly clear about why she cut her hair. I had never seen her with long hair. Her first session with me was after the haircut. She told me about these acts after a few therapy sessions, and we explored and understood them. The excerpt you just read was written months after the actual event had occurred.
I asked her one simple question: What is the first thing that happens when a newly enlisted soldier arrives for training at boot camp? What do you think was the first thing that happened to your dad when he arrived that first day at boot camp in the ’60s? When she figured it out, it was as if she had just received a jolt of electricity. She looked at me and said, “They get their hair cut. The soldiers all get their hair cut before they go to war.”
After some reflection, we discovered that she was preparing herself for battle. Therapy was the battleground and her father her opponent. One year later, after her hair had grown back somewhat and her treatment with me had been complete, she emerged victoriously. This young female warrior was not going to have it any other way.
Her actions, although not planned or understood by her at the outset, were powerful rituals that marked the journey of her holy war, which she had been fighting her entire life. This was her moment to put it to rest, and she did.
I recently read an article about Emma Gonzalez and her haircut. It reminded me of the client I had years ago whose story I just shared. I have learned over the years as a psychologist that when someone changes a hairstyle that they have had for a decade or two, something is going to happen. I do not have any research to back this up, I have just noticed it.
Emma’s story got my attention because it started with her hair. Emma sounds like a force to be reckoned with, and apparently, when she wants something, she makes her case. The article implied that you’d better have a good reason to deny her request. She had to get permission to shave her head from her parents. Remember, she is just a young teen.
She put a plan in motion to convince her parents. She prepared a ten-slide PowerPoint presentation to plead her case for being permitted to shave her head.
PowerPoint Frame One: Saves on shampoo.
Hmm, I think I know a kid like this. (Unfortunately, the article did not share more than frame one, but you get the idea. She was getting her way.)
In September, she cut her hair and began to sport her new signature buzz cut. She thought she was cutting her hair for more comfort in the Florida heat (and to save on shampoo, of course). In reality, her soul or psyche, if you prefer, set a ritual into action, preparing her for war, much like the young Marines my former client discussed. Yes, soldiers get their heads shaved as an initiation into warrior-hood. Like the song says, “God’s Plan,” not Emma’s. She had no idea that she was creating an iconic image for her generation. “We call BS” is this generation’s rallying cry. Her image will never disappear from our history any more than Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” image on that Mall, or John F. Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you” speech. Her speech is perfectly unapologetic, an “enough is enough” message or the most powerful silence ever proclaimed across the world. All delivered by a self-proclaimed bisexual Cuban American female. This kid captures everything that is wonderfully rich, diverse and beautiful about America that our leaders are trying to destroy.
There could not be a more remarkable hero in this story than Emma Gonzalez. And like all heroes, they are unlikely and reluctant heroes. All those thoughts and prayers our politicians have been sending out the last decades have finally been answered. Those prayers gave rise to a 5-foot-2 dynamo who herself is probably surprised by the heroism that she possessed. A heroism that exploded across the world to save the lives of children, because no adult would.
Yeah, when I see a dramatic haircut or tattoo, I have learned that something wonderful or something terrible is going to happen. But something is going to happen.
Most people who come to see me are in great distress. They want help. I smile internally, because I know they are special—chosen. They received the invitation to change. They have had enough. They will change, and they will thus change the world. Sometimes in small ways, sometimes in big ways. Yes, they received an invitation. Not everyone gets invited. No, some people keep the same hairstyle for 70 years.