Crossing the Threshold: My Journey Through Contraction and Expansion
Written by Dr. Stacey Schell
A few months ago, during my meditation practice, I experienced something that felt like I was hovering in between two spaces. An undefined space before me, and a more familiar one behind. It was such an uncomfortable feeling that I opened my eyes. Crossing thresholds have never been an easy or comfortable task for me.
What is a Psychological Threshold?
Psychological thresholds have been described in different ways. My conceptualization of the term stems from Carl Jung's work. Jung believed that life stories include a "threshold experience." This is a point where our story changes direction, and we begin along the path to self-realization. It is an initiation of sorts, marking the entrance to a new phase of existence.
Walking this path requires bringing what is unconscious into our conscious awareness.
It also demands a synthesis of opposing forces on either side of the threshold. Jung related this to alchemy: the transformation of base metals into gold (Jung, 1953).
Crossing the Threshold: A Personal Journey
My first experience with contraction came at a young age. I felt everything intensely as a child and picked up on the emotions of others. Sensing that the adults in my family were overwhelmed, I learned to suppress my own emotions.
In adolescence, my emotions became more intense, and I found that suppression no longer worked. I began to engage in a lot of destructive behaviors to cope. At the same time, however, I began to notice that others seemed to feel safe opening up to about their own difficulties, even as I desperately avoided facing my own. One night, a friend suggested that I should become a psychologist. As I thought it over the next day, I felt a sense of rightness for the first time in my life.
When I started university, the first powerpoint slide I saw during a lecture displayed the low acceptance rates for graduate programs in psychology, and in that moment, I concluded that I would have to aim for perfection in my studies. I quickly returned to my old ways of suppression and over-control.
Things only intensified when I was eventually accepted into graduate school. The field of psychology is currently very focused on research, logic, and facts. I too became very focused on these things. There was also a heavy work-load and an emphasis on grades, research publications, and awards. I consistently achieved these things, but any feelings of contentment were fleeting.
A part of me was aware during those years that what I was doing was not working.
I rarely took a break, and there were many opposing forces at play for me during that time, each one extreme. Some of these were: over-control, a strong belief in the necessity of measurement and observation, rigid focus on logic, insistence on perfection in my diet, appearance, and achievements, and what was often outright refusal to accept support from others. I felt a constant sense of emptiness, could sense utter chaos somewhere deep inside myself and did not feel connected to anyone in a meaningful way. But I kept that voice quiet and continued to work toward the final thing I thought would save me.
In 2014, I landed upon a threshold. It was not a gentle landing.
I was finally a registered psychologist. I loved my work and was good at it, but quickly realized that I still felt empty and disconnected.
I will never forget the feelings of depression and a sense of disillusionment that I felt during this period of time. I can recall feeling like I had been lied to, beckoned along this path by false promises of happiness at the end of it. The way I had been defining happiness had been ripped away, and I was left feeling completely adrift at sea. It was the first time and only time I have ever questioned the meaning of my own existence. And I was angry for a few months, both at the world for having been so dishonest with me, and with myself for having believed it. It was a deeply painful time, and yet when I look back at it now, I can see how absolutely necessary it was. From all of that destruction, something new began to grow - I finally started expanding.
Crossing a threshold into expansion has not been easy or comfortable for me. Here are some of the specific things that have been a part of my journey for the last few years:
I found a skilled therapist who helped me process painful emotions from childhood. Therapy also helped me to bring other things forward into consciousness
I accepted that I am an emotionally sensitive human and started to let myself feel things. I learned to be more vulnerable and to allow others to comfort and care for me
I gave up numbing out. I stopped watching television, drinking alcohol and shopping for things I don’t need, along with a few other things. I have dabbled with these things again on occasion, but am always quickly reminded that, at least for me, they move me back toward suppression and contraction
I found ways to create meaning outside of work. I started spending time in nature, journaling, reading, writing and learning new things
I took a long break from dating at first, while I focused on becoming more whole. These days, although I go on dates, I am protecting the relationship space for the right type of relationship -- one that will be a vehicle for further expansion. I used to lose myself in my partners, and I never want that to happen again
I started meditating, at first a few times a week, eventually every day. I found that my most significant insights happened there. I became interested in spirituality and all sorts of things we cannot see or measure. I am early on in this particular part of my journey but am beginning to make sense of what my own beliefs might be
I allowed a shift in meaning about my identity as a psychologist. I once thought I was becoming an "expert," but that is no longer the case. I see myself as someone who can create space for others to heal. I also have the ability to sit with suffering and to move toward, rather than away from it. Those things seem to have little to do with my training or degrees
I have come to think of wholeness as a process, rather than a destination.
This is largely to keep my tendency for perfectionism at bay. I also believe that there is some final state of wholeness we can reach, although I am not sure yet how to define that for myself.
What I do know is that I have been turning my base metals into gold, as Jung described. I have synthesized many opposing forces and dropped some boundaries. Overcontrol was balanced with surrender, measurement with faith in what cannot be observed, logic with intuition, perfectionism with flexibility and self-compassion, and the refusal to accept support with the willingness to be vulnerable and accept help. I am certain there are many more of these tasks on the path ahead.
How to Tell You are Crossing the Threshold
The experience of crossing a threshold is a personal one. And, it might involve some of the following:
Feelings of discomfort or tension
Diffuse or unstable sense of self
Self-doubt and feelings of fear or shame
A shift in what feels valuable or important
Underneath the discomfort, a ripple of pleasant feelings such as excitement, joy or a sense of rightness
How to Support Crossing the Threshold
There is no prescribed way for a person to go about this, but here are some things I have found to be helpful:
Noticing that you have arrived at a threshold or the turning point in your journey
Turning inward through meditation, therapy, journaling, and time alone
Talking with trusted others
Learning about new topics/integrating things that speak to you into conscious awareness
Surrendering to whatever process is unfolding
Supporting others as they journey across their own thresholds is a valuable role we can play. Ways we can do this might include:
Gifting them with gentle yet radical honesty
Offering time and support while respecting their need for alone time and privacy
Witnessing, honoring, and celebrating their transformation as it unfolds
Sharing your own experiences with crossing the threshold
Providing a safe and validating relationship as a space for them to cultivate conscious awareness
Reminding them to trust themselves and that they alone can know the right way forward
More Thresholds to Cross
I have gone back into that in-between space in my meditation practice many times now. Each time, I can stay there a little longer, and I can feel myself moving closer to something. There is a threshold there for me to cross, and I expect there will be many others as my journey continues to unfold. I have no idea what they will be, but I keep in mind the words of Rumi: "As you start to walk on the way, the way appears."
Dr. Stacey Schell currently resides in Toronto, Canada where she has been practicing as a clinical psychologist since 2014, working with children, adolescents, and young adults. Stacey’s passion for working with youth stems from her own difficulties during adolescence and a belief that conscious awareness is something that can begin to be cultivated at a young age. Stacey shares her knowledge and personal experiences in an attempt to increase access to information for those who cannot access traditional therapy and to help normalize the difficult and painful parts of the human experience. You can find her on Instagram @heartsatthehelm.