So I’m the type who always does my homework. That means I go home from my most recent therapy session with the assignment of asking my 14-year-old self, “How does it feel to hear that I care about your experience, that I see you, that I want to provide you with the support you needed back then?” I wait a few days, thinking about this, and then decide to do assignment in writing.
I sit down at the kitchen table, brushing a few crumbs off onto the floor, and with no particular preparation, the 14-year-old just starts to write:
I’m not unappreciative, but honestly, there’s a sense of ‘too little, too late.’ I can’t help thinking, who might I have been if I’d had the proper support and care back then? What might I have done, had I not been cowed and silenced by shame? I am sad, and I am angry about what I have lost.
I once had big ideas, big goals. I feel I’ve made my life smaller since then. I made myself smaller so no one would notice me, my dirtiness and my shame. Now you come and tell me that these things were never mine to begin with. This means I could have reached further, risked more, accomplished more. I could have used my talents and energies in ways that actually meant something.
Don’t tell me it’s okay, we can do those things now. Fine, maybe that’s true, but don’t rush me away from my frustration and resentment and disappointment, all of which I have tried to ignore for decades. And don’t tell me, ‘oh, everyone finds as they age that they have abandoned their childhood dreams.’ This is not the same thing. I learned to hide and deny and reject who I am in a very fundamental way.
It’s good, I suppose, that you offer me healing now. It’s not that I reject the caring messages. I appreciate being seen.
AND at the same time, I claim my right to protest: why so late?! Was there no one who could see me, who was willing to see me sooner? No one who wanted to help? Why not? Didn’t I deserve that?
Sometimes I feel everyone ignored or overlooked or abandoned me. And that includes YOU. In fact, a huge reason that others didn’t or couldn’t help was your on-going pretense that nothing was wrong.
Look at you, even now you ask yourself, why am I in therapy for so long? Shouldn’t I be fine by now? Even now, you think, ‘it wasn’t really so bad.’ How am I supposed to believe that what you say is anything but a recitation back of the words that E has dictated to you?
It’s surprising what comes up when you open a door to something deep and allow it to spill out onto the paper.
I carry this communication with me to my next session with E, and I read it aloud to her.
“Wow,” E says, smiling a little, “she’s feisty, isn’t she?”
I guess she is. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with that, though.
“She’s angry and disappointed. You can provide an empathic response to that anger,” E tells me, reminding me for about the four millionth time that empathy always comes first.
E sits forward a bit. “It’s not enough to say, ‘Oh, I see you are angry.’ No, you need to say, ‘I see that you are PISSED!’ You need to show her that you get the intensity of that. You might need to do it out loud, to really show her your fierceness.”
E goes on, modeling for me what that might look like, emphatic, loud, “You can tell her, ‘You are so pissed off. And yeah, I own it. I see, you needed it a lot earlier. I get it. I missed what you needed. There are reasons for that, but you don’t need to know all the reasons. I can just say I am so sorry you were further injured by my lack of skillfulness.”
Of course there are reasons I didn’t care for her earlier: I never learned how. I was trained from the time I was quite little to give in, to accommodate. I didn’t learn to value myself. I didn’t know what boundaries were. But I get it; she doesn’t care about the reasons. She just cares that she didn’t get help.
E keeps going, “It’s important to acknowledge the loss and pain she feels from not having had an advocate. And you can tell her it will be different in the future. You can say, ‘I see that my silence has hurt you. I won’t be silent any longer. If I overlook something now, I invite you to yell. Get my attention. I have the skills now that I didn’t have before, and I’m ready to be your advocate.”
But as E keeps talking, with energy and excitement and hope, I get quieter and quieter. I am squirming inside. I wrap my arms around my legs, closing up.
I take a breath, and with effort, I tell her, “I know you are right. She needs those things. But in the face of her intensity, and yours, I feel myself folding up, collapsing inward. I want to pull away from it all. It’s too much.”
And I feel ashamed as I say that. Just look how weak I am.
E doesn’t think I need to pull away from it. Instead, she asks me to notice where I’m feeling this discomfort in my body. I can notice it; I don’t have to change it.
“Oh right,” I say. “that ‘just sit with it’ thing again.”
Okay, I can do that. Two years of a mindfulness practice has yielded that much, at least. I can feel the folding up, the discomfort, the urge to make myself small. I don’t like it, but I can sit with it.
“I don’t want to pull away from her again,” I say. “But how do I hold my own in the face of an intensity that makes me uncomfortable? I have never learned to do that. How do I keep from retreating?”
We talk about ways I might work in partnership with the teen. I can work with her. Together we can make a list of the losses she has suffered. I can ask her, how mad are you about this one, say on a scale of 1 to 10? This one is a 7? What does a 7 feel like in your body? This other one, you say it’s a 4? Only a 4, really? This way I can encourage her to express herself, and I’m on her side, witnessing it all, never asking her to hold back.
And so, I leave therapy with another homework assignment.
CREDIT: Photo by Emmanuel Bior on Unsplash