No, I’m not talking about THOSE bad words, the ones we say when we mislay our keys again or stub our toe or get a nasty email from our ex.
Today I’m talking about the kind of words that come loaded with meaning from our past, the words that we almost don’t realize trigger us, until they do. I bring this up because E and I tripped up over one of those words in therapy this past week.
Here’s the setting: I’m seated on the floor of E’s office–so is she–and we’re coloring in our mandalas, as we have been doing, twice a week, for the past year or so. I’m telling her about Sunday’s yoga class.
“We were paying special attention to our hips and low backs in the sun salutation. Then we brought out the foam rollers and worked on the quadratus lumborum,” I tell her, so proud that even a little bit of the anatomy I’m studying for yoga is starting to stick, “And not surprisingly, it kind of hurt. And then I found, all of a sudden, that I encounter an image and urge to kill myself. It seems so crazy to come out of the blue like that. I’d been feeling good in the yoga class, building a positive energy from the sun salutations, and then in moments, I’m thinking I should die.”
Perhaps I don’t use exactly those words or explain it exactly that way, because E doesn’t understand it quite like I meant it, I don’t think. She seems to think that something in yoga class had triggered an angry younger part of me–maybe that I struggled with a pose others could do, that I was comparing myself too much, something like that. Her focus jumps directly to the way that part of me talked to me.
“I wonder,” she says, “if it isn’t time for you to get strict with that part of yourself. Maybe you need to tell her that she can’t talk to you like that. Maybe you can say, ‘I’m here and willing to listen to what you need, but I won’t tolerate that kind of language.’ You know, the way we sometimes need to get strict with our kids.”
I can feel something tighten around my throat right away, though I’m not sure why.
To E, the part threatening to extinguish my life is like a raging child whose bad behavior needs to be contained, even though we aren’t going to reject the child. She tells me about some work she did before or during grad school, when she was a social worker at a school for severely traumatized children. They used to have outbursts sometimes, where they might throw objects or attack someone. Part of her job would be to throw her arms around that child and immobilize him, talking calmly and softly until he stopped struggling. Then she’d ask if he was ready to be released, and if so, she’d let him free. If he started up again, they’d repeat until he released that he couldn’t continue with that behavior.
“Maybe you can envision your own personal social worker,” she suggests. “You can add her to the cast of characters in your internal household.”
I smile, and we talk about what the social worker might be like. But part of me has retreated from our conversation, from the room.
It’s almost the end of the session before I start to realize what it is. I have to close my eyes for a minute, because the emotions come up so strongly.
“That word,” I tell her. “Strict. It feels so harsh to me. You know who in my life has been strict? My step-father was always strict. Strict means judgment. Strict means punishment. Strict means you are in trouble, young lady; I don’t like your behavior one bit. And don’t you look at me like that.”
It’s just a word, right? No big deal. But all my life–okay, ever since I was 14 and my mom married Leo–“strict” has been a word associated with Leo. And although my mother continues to claim that Leo loves me and my siblings, the four of us have never seen any evidence to that effect. He always had ten thousand rules but not a single kind word.
You could say the same about my ex-husband actually. Growing up with Leo, is it any wonder I would marry a harsh, judgmental man with a bad temper and control issues? Is it any surprise that I have probably been a little on the overly soft side with my own children?
E gets it right away when I start talking about this, and she moves away from “strict” and toward talk of “loving structure” and “healthy boundaries.” Still, I end up needing a phone call with her two days later to check in.
“Are we okay?” I ask.
“Are we okay?” she echoes. “Well, from my point of view, we are great. You are doing challenging, fabulous work. But is there something that doesn’t feel okay to you?”
And I end up telling her that I couldn’t help hearing an implied judgment in that word, strict. Is she thinking I wasn’t working hard enough? Perhaps she thinks I need more self-discipline? Does she hate my behavior, or everything about me, the way it seemed my step-father always did?
I mean, honestly, for the most part I do know she doesn’t judge me like that. But there’s a young girl inside me who isn’t sure. It could be the 14-year-old who, only a month into her mother’s new marriage, was shocked at how mean her step-father spoke to her. That girl wants to know she isn’t judged as worthless.
Thankfully, E is willing to give me that reassurance, again.
Strict, ugh, yuck, I hate that word. I’ve relegated it now to my own personal bad word list.