Today we’d like to introduce you to Abigail Sassano.
Hi Abigail, so excited to have you on the platform. So before we get into questions about your work-life, maybe you can bring our readers up to speed on your story and how you got to where you are today?
I’ve always been someone who is comfortable with emotional expression, both in myself and others. It made me happy to see how people relax and smile with relief when they have the chance to talk about what is on their minds, and what is bothering them. Born in Connecticut, my family moved to Arizona when I was 13 years old.
After graduating from high school, I went to Arizona State University and got my Master’s degree in Social Work in 2003. Because of my discomfort with and fear of the topic, I did my thesis on classifying sex offenders for the purpose of treatment.
After graduating, I went to work at a local community mental health center. My first job was to complete the intake evaluations for people who were seeking therapy. The purposes of the evaluation were to diagnose any mental health condition(s) that might be present, enroll the person in the Medicaid-funded mental health system, and create a treatment plan that the assigned therapist could use to conduct treatment.
Being new in the field, I wanted to prove myself, so I didn’t say no to any intakes that were scheduled with me. The most intakes I did in one day were 13. I went home exhausted that day.
Many days, actually, I went home and cried, felt angry, and helpless. I felt overwhelmed by the amount of suffering that people were experiencing. Most of the time, people came in ready to talk about something that they had never told anyone before. It took an enormous amount of energy to give these stories the undivided attention, deep listening, and compassion that the people telling them deserved.
I wanted to match the courage they showed with a corresponding amount of commitment, and I hope that I did. After conducting intake evaluations for a while, I got a promotion to a full-time therapist, and I got my own caseload. As I listened to more stories, my nervous system grew stronger. I discovered that compassion is like a muscle. The more I used it, the easier it was to access and sustain it, and it protected both me and the people that I was speaking with.
Patterns began to emerge. People received differing diagnoses, depending on what symptoms they reported. The cause of these symptoms, however, could be traced back to relationship failure: abuse, disconnection, betrayal, misunderstanding, and disconnection. While I certainly don’t want to generalize that this is the case for everyone, it was certainly the overwhelming trend.
Approaching emotional pain from this perspective also proved to be more effective in resolving it and providing relief to people. About 10 years into my career, I learned about the ACES Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which confirmed what I was seeing and hearing.
Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Part of the reason why I became interested in becoming a therapist was that I went through therapy as a teenager. I really admired the counselors I worked with, and I appreciated the way that they helped me. Through this process, I discovered something simple, yet powerful. I’m capable of avoiding my emotions, and I’m also capable of feeling them.
When I avoid my emotions, it’s because my nervous system is overwhelmed, and I’ve gone into survival mode. The emotions I don’t feel in the moment manifest at a later time, in an unexpected way that I have absolutely no control over. When I feel my emotions, and listen to the message they have for me, they stop, until the next wave comes. I’m grateful that I got this head start on healing, and I attribute a lot of my success to this.
In 2014, however, my world turned upside down. My dad passed away from cancer, and my mom and I were not on speaking terms. I didn’t know how to process what had happened, and things got worse from there. A relationship that was important to me ended, and I experienced some unfair attacks by colleagues.
I took a pay cut and ended up having to sell my house. I’m very grateful to the people that were there for me during this process, letting me know that they believed in my ability to figure things out.
In 2021, things started to turn around for me. My crash course in grief, trust, expectations, relationship dynamics, and repair paid off. I learned how to defend myself, how to communicate better, and how to trust myself more fully. My mom and I started having the difficult conversations we needed to have. Then a new romantic relationship started unexpectedly.
I used what I learned from the mistakes I made in my past relationships, and now I’m happier than I’ve ever been.
Great, so let’s talk business. Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
The H.E.A.R.T. The program stands for Healthy Emotionally, and Responsibly Together, and it focuses on building and repairing trust. There are three main ways that we accomplish that:
Neutralizing Coercion- Coercion means forcing people to do things they don’t want to do. Our society heavily relies upon coercion to accomplish tasks and get needs met. If enough leverage can be applied, and enough pain produced, the short-term outcome can be achieved (getting the person to perform the desired action). It’s not effective in the long run because people learn to dodge coercive tactics.
It also has an enormous cost because trust has been violated, which damages people’s emotional and physical health. (If you’re interested in learning more about this, the ACES study might be helpful.) Our instincts cause us to react to coercion in ways that sustain it, either by submitting or retaliating.
This leads to a feeling of resignation- “That’s the way it’s always been, and that’s the way it’s always going to be.” For people that are willing to invest energy, focus, and courage into this process, it is possible to remain present in the face of intimidation and to hold one’s ground in an effective way.
Intentional Vulnerability- In our society, vulnerability is viewed as a weakness. This creates a lot of problems for us, as revealing our pain, fears, desires, and needs to another person is the only way to form lasting emotional connections. Intentional vulnerability doesn’t mean revealing everything about yourself to everyone all the time. It means developing the discernment to reveal relevant information about yourself at specific points in the development of a relationship.
Corrective Experiences- Human needs for safety, connection, community, and purpose are universal. The way that each of us wants to have those needs fulfilled is unique to each person. Because of the world we live in, none of us have gotten everything that we needed throughout the entire course of our lives. It doesn’t have to be this way, however, because we have the power to get our needs met in a way that is sustainable.
The skills that are necessary to learn, practice, and master are: Identifying our unique needs and desires, asking for what we need, looking for and recognizing opportunities to receive what we need, and perhaps the hardest part, letting the good things in.
Is there something surprising that you feel even people who know you might not know about?
I’m at my strongest when I’m crying and shaking.
- $100/one-hour session.
- Email: ASassano@theheartprogram.live
- Website: www.theheartprogram.live