Use COAL to Empower Yourself!

By: John White -Clinical Director, Taj Treatment Center

I deal with empowerment every day, even when not at work. But work especially puts me face to face with people struggling with it: “Is it too late for me?”, “Am I too messed up?”, “Have I done too many drugs?”, “Am I too poor?” “Have I hurt too many people, especially my family?”, “How can I change if I feel so dead inside?”, “How do I learn to cope if all I’ve ever been taught is how to be abused?”

This is a story of one of those people, a 19-year-old Black man.

One day I was sitting in my office and one of my clients walked in to ask if he could have a little time.

“Of course,” I said, “come on in.”

“John, I have something to show you.”

“Sure,” I said. His voice and body language told me how afraid he was. I could hear the hesitation in his voice and see that he held his body as if he was preparing for the worst.

“Can we go on to Google?”

“Yeah, no problem.” We sat together by the computer. He input his name into the search field and within moments, there was his name and his picture, a police mug shot. He was looking out at the camera, with an expression on his face that I can only describe as “lost”, but you’d have to see the picture for yourself to understand that that one word did not tell the whole story. There was pain there, too — hurt, guilt, shame, fear — all of it. He watched me as I looked at the picture, then at him, as if waiting for judgement.

It turns out that his question to me was: “Is this who I really am?”

So we talked about it. When he came into treatment, his father had called the police on him because, while under the influence, he had gone on a rampage with a knife while trying to break into his father’s house. That was the last in a series of events that had led to the picture on Google, to his family’s rejection, his anger, his distrust, his lack of faith in himself — and ultimately that led to us.

He talked about all of it, but only one-on-one, never in group. Group was hard for him, especially when people talked about and felt real emotions. When that happened, he would get up abruptly and angrily leave the group. He told me later that he would go into the bathroom, splash water on his face, and look at himself in the mirror. That was how he coped at the time. After such groups, he would apologize for leaving; my answer was, “I appreciate you wanting to apologize, but you don’t owe me an apology, you were doing exactly whaat you needed to do.”

So he learned to trust. A few weeks into treatment, he realized that he no longer had to be on guard. His anger still baffled him, but he came to understand that there was a reason for it, that it didn’t define him as a person, just as his family‘s reaction to his behavior didn’t define him as a person.

But his question remained: Was he still that person on Google?

The answer was clearly: “NO!” All you had to do was look at him. As we talked, his body language changed; you could see him relax, and you could almost hear him breathe a sigh of relief. It’s as if he wanted to believe it himself, but he needed to hear it from someone else he trusted.

He has now completed an apprenticeship and is working full-time. I asked him about this blog. He said, “Yeah, if it can help somebody else, that’s cool.”

So what are the lessons here?

First, it’s never too late. No matter what, no matter how long it’s been, no matter what others might be saying — and especially what you might be saying to yourself. Don’t fool yourself with the belief that it’s too late!

Second, notice the moment when you’ve made the decision that things need to change. Sometimes the need to make the decision is obvious; other times, it might be harder to spot, but you might notice it, for example, when talking to a close friend or someone else you trust.

Third, change takes patient, persistent work. If you’ve ever untied a really tight knot, you know how slow it is at first, and you may even need to take breaks and come back to it, but slowly you get the knot untied, and the looser the knot gets, the easier it gets.

Fourth, respect your own pace. Some days may be slower, others faster, but the important thing is to never stop and keep taking action.

Fifth, don’t wait for something or someone outside of yourself to change, you be the change that you want to see in others.

Finally, use COAL as you do the work of change. That is, be CURIOUS about yourself and the things that you’ll find within. You might feel fear about what you’ll find, but you’ll likely also discover strengths that you forgot were there. Sincere curiosity will make it easier for you to be OPEN to what you find and to ACCEPT what you find. You may not approve of it, but acceptance will not only give you greater peace, it’ll also give you the freedom to make the changes you want. Finally, show LOVE towards yourself. Take good care of yourself and stop being so judgmental with yourself. As human beings we all have things to work on, but harsh thoughts about ourselves don’t help as much as people think they do.

One last comment: The concept of “COAL” comes from Dr. Daniel Siegal in his book, The Developing Mind (third edition). Also, another book by Dr. Siegal that I recommend is Brainstorm: The Power and the Purpose of the Teenage Brain.

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