Therapist Dr. Jennifer Chrisman's Advice on Breakups, Vulnerability + Motherhood



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Dr. Jennifer Chrisman is a psychotherapist based in Hermosa Beach, California, where she helps bring mindfulness practices to her patients. She writes for Tiny Buddha and Mind Body Green.

HER FIRST HEARTBREAK
"My first real heartbreak was when my dad committed suicide, just before I turned ten. That was my first introduction to the fragility of relationships, and the devastation and disappointment that happens when someone can’t show up for you the way you’d expect them to. This set into motion a belief system that I see in myself and so many other women: we often personalize someone else’s behavior as a reflection of our lovability, and we do it as children and into adulthood. For me, it was such a poignant moment in learning that his actions had nothing to do with my lovability. Unfortunately, it took many years to understand this and instead I spent most of my young life personalizing his actions - I wasn’t good enough, pretty enough, smart enough - this was a mentality that stuck around and really prevented me from being able to have a typical, adolescent, twenty-something experience. I was so convinced that I was unlovable. That if I did love someone, they would leave me. Any time there was any possibility of anything happening with someone, I would shut it down so fast."

HOW SHE COPED
"I zipped myself up very neatly and put up a wall of perfectionism. I was very intuitive emotionally, and smart, and I could read people easily. I knew who I needed to be to get through, so I became that person. I made a declaration at a young age that I would never follow the path of my parents, and I did everything I could to be sure of that. I wasn’t a straight A student or the hardest worker, but there was this drive in me to succeed. The problem was that it was totally based in insecurity, in this need to overcompensate for how small I really felt. A lot of success and amazing things have come to be because of that part of my resilience, but at the same time, it’s been very difficult for me in terms of actually learning how to connect with people."

WORTH THE WORK
"Of course, I would want to instill the message at a younger age that I was lovable, that the people in my life who weren’t able to show up for me were really limited; that they were human beings in their own right, going through things that had nothing to do with me. That I didn’t need to take things personally. That their actions were not a reflection of my lovability. But it’s hard to imagine where I would be today if I hadn’t had to work so hard to find that on my own. There’s something to be said about finding that resilience in yourself. We don’t often hear about it because there’s so much focus on post traumatic stress, but the other side of it is post traumatic growth. We’re forced to go inside ourselves and find resources we didn’t know existed. I’ve done that for myself, and I think it’s allowed me to find an authentic confidence, as opposed to the pseudo-confidence of accomplishing things and never believing that I was worthy. I’ve fought for myself and come so far from where I started, and I can be authentically proud of that."

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HER MOST RECENT BREAKUP
"I was in a friendship with someone who brought out all of this neediness in me. My entire sense of self became invested in this person. Throughout my life I had been so cautious with people, only letting in a select few, and only those that allowed me to maintain my secure distance. For whatever reason, this particular relationship brought out the exact opposite in me in a way I’d never seen in myself before. I was so dependent on this person’s attention and approval. It was just a really unhealthy relationship. It got to a point where it was so toxic, and they were the one who “broke up” with me, but it was more of an emotional cut-off that happened because we were still connected in a professional role that required us to see each other. I was devastated. I spent a year trying to win the affection back, and it was a very low point in my life. Because of the circumstances, we were still around each other and this person wouldn’t even acknowledge me. It brought out the youngest parts of me. I just wanted to be loved, and this person was not having anything to do with me. I tried and tried. It was such a confusing time: there I was, a married, professional woman who’d just had a baby and was going through a heartbreak like I’d never experienced. It forced me to have to look at myself differently; to see how lost I was. I felt like I literally had no sense of self."

THE AHA MOMENT
"I once had an important issue and needed to talk about it with them, and they were like, 'Jenn, when are you going to realize I don’t care? I. Do. Not. Care.' It was a moment where I felt so small. I was holding on, clinging so tightly, so afraid to let go, so afraid to be on my own. I didn’t want to leave the friendship, but it was like another part of me took over, knowing that I needed to. I had read a memoir around that time called I Love You and I’m Leaving You Anyway, which was such a life changing book for me. She describes how she had to do kung fu with her mind. It really resonated with me that I had to make an effort. I had to actually practice changing the way I saw myself in the world and adopting new belief systems. I had to find what I was looking for within me, rather than outside of myself. Practices like mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and pilates helped me learn how to make contact with myself in a new and different way. I learned Buddhist principles that helped me come to terms with the fact that I have no control over another person: I can say and do all the right things, and they’re going to feel about me however they’re going to feel about me."

SET FREE
"I was already licensed, had my doctorate, had been through intense training, had been in therapy and also doing therapy for years at that point, but inside I was still in such a dark place. For so many years I was in this space of feeling like a hypocrite. I was working with people and caring about and loving them, but not really believing change was possible because I was still in so much pain myself. And then this breakup happened, and it was my bottom, for sure. It forced me to get honest with myself about how I’d lived my life continually searching outside me for the answer; whether that was attention, the way I looked, weight loss, money, or accomplishments. And so I actually had to start practicing what I had been preaching. I really threw myself head first into re-learning everything that I thought I knew about myself and the world. For five years of my life, this person had played a huge part in my personal and professional development. But leaving was really when I think I found my strength. It was hard, but it set me free, losing the thing that I thought was so important. My life was so small back then. Now I have a thriving private practice with interns who I get to mentor and supervise. I have two babies now, my family, which I want to go home to and be a part of. I don’t know that I would have been able to show up as well for this life and these people if I hadn’t said goodbye."

VULNERABILITY IN MOTHERHOOD
"I’ve been with my husband for 13 years and we were friends for a few years before that. He was my one and only boyfriend and has been my best friend for most of my life. There is something to be said about friendship being the foundation for a relationship and the safety and security I’ve always felt as result of that. Throughout our relationship there were certainly moments where I thought I was being vulnerable and putting myself out there, but I really think it was my children and becoming a mom that made me experience what vulnerability in love actually is - the pain and beauty of it. I’m a different person now that my children have shown me what it actually means to love, and the pain that comes with loving someone and being able to show up in a relationship. I think across the board it’s made me a better, softer person, with more compassion for myself and the world. As cliche as it might sound, I sometimes feel as though I have an advantage: my kids make it so easy to believe in love and the purity of the human soul, even when they’re assholes, which they are sometimes. There’s something about seeing it, I just can’t question the goodness in people, in the world. It makes me want to be a part of that, despite the possibility that it might hurt."

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COMPASSION IN THERAPY
"Sometimes there can be an over-identification for someone’s heartbreak. You have to have really good boundaries to not take that on and bring it home with you. But mostly, when someone’s really in an authentic pain, there’s something very beautiful that happens. It’s a love, actually, that I feel for my clients. Often people talk about therapist burnout, and I get asked how I can sit and listen to people’s problems all day: people complain, or they don’t really want to change. But when someone comes in with so much pain, and it’s authentic, you can actually feel it. It’s such a privilege to be with them in that place. I have so much compassion in my heart for just how hard it is to be human sometimes. We’re so hard on ourselves and critical of our pain, so I try to help my clients experience love and acceptance as they move through their lives. Of course, we never want to see anyone hurting, so it’s natural to want to take away other people’s pain. But really being able to sit with someone in it is actually the most healing thing you can do."

BRINGING MINDFULNESS TO WOMEN
"For a while now I’ve been feeling like you can only go so far in private practice, and I have certainly capped out. There are only so many hours per week that one can see clients. So I’m working on building an online course bringing mindfulness to women. It’s what really changed my life and how I live my life."

EMOTIONAL SOBRIETY
"I do a lot of work on the idea of emotional sobriety. A lot of people think, oh, emotional sobriety, what does that mean? You stop having emotions? Well, no. It’s about relating to your emotions differently. It’s about knowing that I can have a feeling, and I don’t actually have to do anything about it. I can have a feeling of insecurity in my relationship and know that I don’t have to interrogate my partner, or read through their text messages. I can actually sit with the feeling and recognize that it’s going to pass eventually."

HER MANTRA: HAKUNA MATATA
"It’s about bringing playfulness to life, and really keeping things in perspective. We tend to take ourselves so seriously; going through life investing so much of ourselves in things that really don’t matter. Most of the time the things that work us up are really not a big deal when you think about it. I’ve always been a very serious person with this dark inner self, and that was my identity, the brooding, angsty teenager for so long. So hakuna matata really does sum up my approach to life these days."

Photographed by Ellen Huerta in Hermosa Beach.