Sample Scholarship Essay: Leaning into the Hard Places Growing into the Future by Lynn Redenbach, RPN, MA, RCC – Antioch University.

One of the most important principles informing my adult life has been: leaning into the hard places. Manifesting in both the inner complexities of my lived experience, as well as my explorations in the outer landscape, this principle has lent a richness to my time on this planet. This theme has provided an ongoing refinement of discovery, inviting me to be present to this life of mine as it is happening, rather than how I might wish it to be. This means that I practice the art of acceptance no matter how things present, embracing the accompanying lessons which are often, surprisingly, just what I need to stretch and grow as a human being. This has not only enriched me personally, but brought a humility to my work as a clinician in the mental health field. Similar to the people I am privileged to work with, I have noticed how my own suffering increases when I either fight ‘what is’ or try to escape what needs to be faced. Leaning into some of the harder experiences in my life generally hasn’t been appealing and often I found myself resisting reality, trying to mould it into something I find more palatable. Add to this, the anxious tendency of my nervous system which consistently invites avoidance, usually encouraging the flight, fight, or freeze instinct over regulated engagement. Thus, it has taken me years to learn to respond to life’s more difficult challenges with openness and curiosity, rather than resistance or avoidance.

The First Leaning: Reflection and the Relational-Self

I didn’t recognize this journey as leaning into hard places as a young adult when I first encountered the gift of reflective practice. This introduction occurred over three decades ago when I was assigned the task of doing a self-reflective essay during my psychiatric nursing training. As young students we were urged to consider the importance of engaging in our own Page  2 psychological growth in order to provide competent healthcare. Our teacher suggested that if we didn’t our unexamined lives would impact the people we worked with. I must say this was the first time I had encountered this process having grown up in a family where ‘navel gazing’ was held suspect. However, this assignment proved powerful in my young life as I began to discover my own interiority. It was the first time I asked myself questions about how I related to myself and others. Thoughts, feelings and ways of behaving I hadn’t even considered before became clearer with this curious, observant approach. This practice of reflecting has followed me through my career, a process supported by new research asserting the necessity of internal attunement as a necessary companion to growth (Siegel, 2010).

Second Leaning: The Personal is Professional

As promised by my teacher, the acknowledgement of my own fragilities and strengths has facilitated an open and curious space between my ‘clinician-self’ and the people I work with. In fact it has brought me into greater connection rather than the distance so often typical in clinician- client relationships. At times I feel this fluid relationally-centered stance at odds with prevailing policies and practices within healthcare which frame professionalism in objective, separate-self terms. In perceiving clients as other, experts become remote and distant leaving the people in their care to feel disconnected. In contrast, research shows time and again that relationships are key in shaping our development and life-long wellbeing (Badenoch, 2008). Care givers, no matter what their role, whether they be physicians, psychiatrists, nurses or psychotherapists, must heed the call to bring greater attunement and kindness to their relationships with clients. In fact, Dr. Stephen Porges (2011) has discovered that when we are distressed we first seek out relationships for comfort and regulation. However, if these are unavailable, or insufficient, our systems move into a fight, flight, or freeze response, and our bodies become ready to do battle, flee, or are immobilized. This is important knowledge for those of us working in the healthcare system, as well as the policy makers, because people enter systems of care in various states of distress and vulnerability. Adding to this are the many interventions employed to help, which can be very stressful. Therefore, how people are received when they receive treatment in healthcare settings will either exacerbate this stress response, or help to bring their systems into greater states of regulation.

The Third Leaning: Into the Field

Since the beginning of my career, my passionate interest has been to find a way to influence the system of care towards greater attention to the clinician-client relationship. This extends the leaning into hard places invitation to my colleagues as this consideration requires presence to self, relationship and the people entrusted to our care. It means that as professionals we must track our own internal processes and recognize the influence these can have, moment by moment on our relationships. In the latter years of my career, I have encouraged this through education as well as leadership roles on regional and provincial committees in the province where I live. As well this commitment to relational practice has proven to be another leaning into the hard place experience as often I find myself standing alone, in the company of professionals as well as a whole system of care that don’t share my view. There, I find policies and practices which are imposed on people in the name of helping, but instead interfere with relational practice. For example this is seen in the mental health field where psychological treatments are often prescribed for ‘disorders’ rather than shaped by the person and his/her unique experience. Rather, a relationally-informed approach would hold the person’s subjectivity and the clinician-client relationship central in planning and shaping how evidence-based practices are utilized. Despite pressures in the mental health field to adhere to objectifying practices, I remain dedicated to practice from a relational ethic.

Much of my current thinking on this has been influenced by Interpersonal Neurobiology, an interdisciplinary field which draws upon complexity theory and neuroscience in the study of human development. What this fascinating field points out time and again is that our relational experiences shape the neural firing patterns and eventual structures of our brain and nervous system (Siegel, 2012). This of course impacts every corner of our functioning including memory, emotion, thought and behavior. Thus, science is confirming that our relationships from the personal to larger social and organizational contexts shape our biology.

Leaning Into the Future

In keeping with my commitment, I wish to push my personal and professional learning further by seeking how change occurs in organizations (complex systems) and explore how I might play a role in the evolution of the healthcare system towards greater relational practice. Rather than capitulating to the way things are and ‘just doing my job’, I wish to lean in to another hard place and become a part of the solution. Although challenging, I recognize that systemic change occurs when courageous people refuse to give up and remain committed to finding a better way. Further, I am inspired to take action whenever I witness the negative impact that non-relationally based systems have on those who seek help. Thus, I have decided to pursue a doctorate which will support my goals. At this time, I am so very happy to have been accepted into the PhD program in organizational Leadership and Change (Healthcare Concentration) at Antioch University. I chose Antioch because of the underlying philosophy and excellent quality of education. I completed my undergraduate education at the Seattle campus and it remains a highlight experience of my adult life. The focus of this degree is absolutely consistent with the aforementioned goals I have for my future. I hope to utilize my learning to pursue leadership within the organization where I work as well as explore teaching and writing opportunities. As I take these next steps, I also realize that this will be another leaning into the hard place experience. Antioch requires students reflect deeply as they move through the degree process, leading to learning that is transformative. It is my hope that I will then bring this forth into the seamless intersection of my life and work.

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