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He said, “Now Tear It Up.” But I Couldn’t.


“On the slips of paper in front of you, I’d like for you to write down your top five priorities. Think of the most important things in your life, and write one on each slip of paper.”

Peter and I were in the second half of a two-day marriage workshop this past weekend when the counselor asked us to do this activity.  He is a gifted communicator and crazy skilled in wisdom, theory, and practice. He’s the one you want in your corner if you’re in the process of creating a brand new marriage.

I’m kind of a conference junkie. I’m an auditory learner, I love great speakers, a reason to use some of my favorite pens, and an excuse to sit next to Pete for two solid days. Plus, we could give ourselves two gold stars for investing in the clinical side of loving well even before we legally wear each other’s names. Sign me up.

On my slips of paper, I wrote down Peter, Tucker, Tyler, Writing, and Homemaking.

(Sidenote: This is where I mention that Homemaking and Housekeeping are not the same thing. Dishes, laundry, and vacuuming fit nowhere on my list of priorities, but I do prioritize things like laughing together, creating memories, and establishing a firm foundation where my children can grow as well as a safe harbor they can come back to. In my mind, this is homemaking. This is my priority.)

“Trish, you’re writing a lot on your slips of paper,” our counselor said as he strolled past our table.

“I’m supporting each one with bullet points.” He thought I was listing all five priorities on one slip of paper only because he didn’t know that I am an obsessive expert at following directions regarding paper-and-pen tasks. I would have also included a thesis statement if time allowed, but I was willing to let this one go in lieu of the actual exercise. Because I am flexible and reasonable.

Once all five couples had finished listing each of our five priorities, he gave us the next direction. “Now, we are going to do an exercise to give you some perspective on loss. Turn all the pages over so they are face down. Choose one randomly.”

Then he said, “Now, tear it up.”

A metaphor for loss. A simulation of something – or someone – deeply important to me being taken away, against my will or control.

No, thank you. I’ve experienced more than a simulation exercise. I know what happens. I know this all too well. No. No, thank you.

The room went cold. My ears started ringing. I gripped the table. I felt my breath stop. And I felt a door slam inside me. The familiar sound of my heart closing shut. Tight.

Peter knows me well, and he’s become quite familiar with the signs of panic closing in on his bride. He put his arm around my rigid frame and pulled me close to him.

Our counselor looked to me. He said, “You can do this, Tricia.”

I shook my head almost imperceptibly, a nonverbal plea. Please don’t ask me to.

He changed his mind. “You can step out of the room if you need to.”

Even before Peter could help or join me, I ran out of the room like I was running away from a monster. I raced down the hallway until I found a closed corner, a solid wall, a tight spot to ground myself and find my breath. Nobody could find me. Nobody could take from me. I would stay here.

And I did. I stayed there until I could breathe again, until logic returned, and until I realized I had run away from the very one I was afraid of losing: Peter.

That’s when I decided I could go back. I needed him, and he didn’t know where I was. That’s the hard thing about panic: it isolates you from the very ones who can help you.

I came back to Peter. He gave me his hands and his voice, the very things I needed most. He said, over and over, “It’s okay, sweetheart. It’s an exercise. It isn’t real. It’s an exercise. It isn’t real. I’m right here. Can you look at me? Do you see me? I’m right here, honey. I’m right here.”

I gave him all five of my papers. Just please hold these. I know you’re not in charge, I know you can’t protect me from everything in the world, but as long as we’re living in a representational metaphor, let’s pretend you can. Hold these, please. Keep my world safe.IMG_2020

I wasn’t the only one who had a hard time with this exercise. The woman sitting at the table behind me wouldn’t relinquish a single one of her pieces, not at random or otherwise. We had five slips of paper; she had already told us she’s a single mom of five. I can tell you exactly what she wrote on her five pieces, but mother to mother, I knew there wasn’t a chance in hell she was even going to metaphorically pretend to give up a single one of them.

The point of the exercise, as I later learned with Peter when I was willing to settle down and listen, wasn’t actually to invoke terror of loss. It was to identify the things most important to you, to realize they could be taken away at a moment’s notice. To realize that you have the power to destroy the things—people, values, and priorities—in your life by your own tearing destruction if you don’t fight fairly and operate with respect. The goal was then to hopefully conclude that you’ll leave the workshop and choose to enjoy them while you have them, while they are yours.

I know this implicitly. I’ve learned this ad nauseam. I couldn’t do it one more time. Not even metaphorically.

Tricia Lott Williford

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  1. As an early career psychologist: this is a great reminder to be extremely careful about where we ask people to go with us. While therapy often involves (of course) facing painful thoughts and realities, we as the counselors have an ethical responsibility to not push people too far. I guess it’s easier seen in hindsight, but this sounds like a VERY potentially trauma-triggering activity and I’m not surprised that you and the other woman both had these reactions. I’m so sorry that happened… and I’m wondering what the counselor’s reaction was afterwards, and if he fully realized the consequences of leading you into that.

  2. From a woman who has watched her husband die, to another who has suffered the same, your anguish was very real to me. I’ve been to lots of conferences, participated in dozens of exercises, but never one so gut wrenching.

  3. There is a hymn called”Draw Me Nearer” one verse says ” take the dearest thing to me, if that’s how it must be” ! Nope, wouldn’t sing it! Couldn’t sing it! Left the room refusing to sing it! My dear friend Sonny followed me out and said. “God can take the dearest person or thing to you and you can’t stop it! He doesn’t want your permission, He wants you to sayI will trust You if it happens! Thanks Tricia for you honesty and helping us know ” That Life Goes On!

  4. I needed to see this for someone else today, thanks!

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