E has this demonstration she first did with me a few years ago. She holds her hands up, palms facing me, and I hold mine up to meet hers. She pushes on my hands, saying, “My way!” I’m supposed to push back and say, “No, my way!”
When we first tried this, I laughed because it felt awkward and uncomfortable, both literally and in what it was supposed to convey symbolically: my ability to push back against someone, to assert my own will (clearly not a strength of mine). I very quickly let my hands all down, so E “won”; it went her way.
We’ve talked about this exercise at various times since then. It’s come up when E has urged me to “be fierce” in defense of myself or in pursuit of something I want. I’ve struggled with it. I’m a “nice” person. I don’t know where the line is between appropriately fierce and abusive. The people I know in my life who pushed to get their own way mostly fell into the abusive camp.
And yet, within the safety of my relationship with E, little by little I’ve started to learn to push back, to ask to have things “my way.” It’s easier, of course, with her because she encourages me to do this. She welcomes it when I ask her for things–for example, several times I have asked her to slow down. Sometimes when she gets excited about some idea we’re discussing, she just starts talking and talking, making connections, jumping ahead, suggesting things I might want to try. Meanwhile, I’m still trying to take in the idea we just talked about. For a long time, I’d let her do that and just think, “I guess I’m slow; I don’t get it.” Now I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t matter if I am “slow” or not. It’s my therapy, and it’s okay to ask to process things at a pace that allows me to take them in at a deep level. And E accepts and even encourages that.
But two weeks ago marked the most dramatic instance ever of my asking for “my way.” I’d been feeling so frustrated, for months really. I felt E and I weren’t connecting deeply and she wasn’t hearing the ways I wanted I to work on my fear of abandonment and all the times that insecure attachment pops up for me. I started to wonder–maybe she doesn’t want to do that work. She never talks about developmental or complex trauma. She doesn’t focus on attachment. It’s not her framework, which makes sense, because it really grew as a field quite a bit after she completed her studies. So maybe I can’t do this work with her. Should I go to a new therapist? But how will I ever develop the depth of trust and the knowledge of my history that E has?
This was something I have been thinking about all the time, but afraid to talk about. What if I brought it up, and she thought I was accusing her of not being a good therapist? What if she said, “Right, I don’t do that,” and shut me down? Or sent me to someone else? What if it made everything worse?
But at the same time, every session felt a bit unsatisfactory because the focus wasn’t where I felt it needed to be. So finally, I wrote her a letter. I decided to take it my session and read it to her, rather than email it to her ahead of time, as I’ve done with difficult things in the past. This would give me the chance to monitor her reaction as I read. I could stop, or I could ask questions, or I could change what I said, if I felt she wasn’t reacting well.
So there I am in my session, fidgety as we make our initial small talk. She asks if I know what I want to talk about today, and I pull the letter out of my purse. But it still takes me a couple of minutes of hesitation and throat-clearing before I can read it aloud:
I expect you’ll ask me today, what do I want to work on? I don’t know how to start on this topic. I’m not sure where to begin. But usually, I like to tell a story by starting in a place where we have a common understanding and then from there lead you, step by step, to my current thinking. That’s what I’ll try to do here.
The common understanding: You have done so much to help me come to terms with some painful events from my past. The shift is almost unbelievable. When I think about Creepy Neighbor or my dad’s friend who invaded my bedroom or Greg, I can feel indignant or resentful or whatever, depending on the day. But what I absolutely do not feel any longer is the crushing shame that literally used to make me sick. For years I thought that was impossible.
(It’s true that there is still some shame attached to my experience with Stephen, but it’s shrunk down from something suffocating to something I can talk back to, something I can live with.)
I could not have made this change without you. Furthermore, the change has improved my quality of life immeasurably. I think you know this.
Getting out from under all that shame was a huge therapy goal, and a success we can both feel proud of.
I pause to look up at her and say, “I remember one day I was sitting over there,” I point to the other side of the room, by the gas fireplace, “and we talked about how sticky that shame was, like a fine spiderweb that clung to my skin and wouldn’t peel off. But that’s really changed.”
“I’m so happy about that,” she says.
I read on,
I think once we hit that accomplishment sometime last summer, our personal views of what comes next have diverged significantly.
My sense is that from your perspective, I am pretty much done. It was months ago (July, actually) that you came into a therapy session and told me that you thought I was doing well but not acting like a well person, probably because I was reluctant to let go of our relationship. You said it would be a good idea for us to start talking and preparing for a shift in our relationship.
That’s not how I see it. I feel I still want to work on attachment issues, on my fear of abandonment. This fear, as I see it, is a big reason I have accepted poor treatment or abusive situations. It has kept me from defending my point of view or even allowing myself to have a point of view. It has, at times, taken precedence over any goals of staying safe or following my beliefs or being honest with people I care about. It’s also a place where I continue to be triggered and to struggle to have compassion for myself.
Just my reaction to your suggestion that we might not need to meet as often, and that we can slowly shift to a different relationship, underscores my conviction that this is what we need to work on. I know, rationally, what you are saying. But that is not what I feel. I feel you might be saying that you want to be done with me, that you think I shouldn’t need therapy anymore, that I should be dealing better on my own. Or maybe you are bored or me, or tired of my going in emotional circles. Or that, as deep as your generosity and patience run, I have worn them out.
This feeling hits all my fears and insecurities. It makes me think I am asking for too much. No one wants to hear my experience because it is exhausting / unreasonable / boring / ridiculous / demanding. I don’t deserve what I am asking for. People get sick of me.
These feelings only grew when you told me in early January that you weren’t happy with all the texting. It wasn’t working for you; it wasn’t good for you. Again, my rational self completely understands this. And yet, it has saddened me more than I can describe to you. Since then, every single day I have thought, “She used to like the texting. More than once when we checked in on the texting, she told me that it was a pleasure, she liked it. It’s not a burden, she said. But that’s not true anymore. I have harmed her. I have burnt her out.”
I know as my withdrawal symptoms worsened last month, you have said I could reach to you. You have kindly told me I could ignore the boundaries we set. You gave me permission to text when I was in Scandinavia, and in fact, I used that sometimes. But every single time I have texted or emailed with you since January 9, I have hesitated and doubted myself or scolded myself for bothering you.
This is not a comfortable or stable place for me. I vacillate between longing for you and feeling angry with you, even as my wiser self sees the irrationality of it all. This is not something rational, cognitive strategies are going to fix. It’s at the level of crazy deep emotions.
It is terrifying to share this letter with you. One of the things I most fear and try to avoid is a rupture in our relationship. But if I’m honest, the relationship is already ruptured. It’s just a rupture beneath the surface that I am now dragging into the light of day. It’s a rupture that has been troubling me for a while, but I’ve been pretending it hasn’t.
I’m also very afraid of hurting you. The truth is, I love you. I admire and respect you. I feel immense gratitude for your commitment and care.
E breaks in, “I feel love for you, too” which warms me and gives me confidence as I continue to read.
Despite my fear, I’m sharing this anyway, because this is where I need to go next. I need to explore my ability to feel safe in intimate relationships. I need to learn about healing early attachment wounds. I need to learn more about how developmental trauma shapes the choices I make in my life, and more importantly, whether I can change that.
I don’t know a lot about complex trauma and healing attachment. I just know that when I do read about it, in blogs or articles or books, it feels like it speaks to my pain.
Can you help me with this? Do you want to? I mean, do you really want to? You don’t need to answer that right away; you can think about it. It will pain me, of course, if you say no. I don’t want you to say no, but I would rather that than go on like this, feeling we don’t really hold a shared vision of what I’m working on.
And if you say yes, what would that look like to work on this together?
This is my answer to “what do I want to work on?”
With love and trepidation,
Well, I can tell you this: all that trepidation was wasted emotion. E is, actually, thrilled with this letter. She is warm and almost enthusiastically more accepting. She loves that I am asking us to do therapy “my way.”
“Yes,” she says. “Yes, I want to work on this with you. I don’t have to think about it; I can just tell you that right now. I’ll admit, I don’t have a deep expertise in developmental trauma. Of course I’ve read about it, but it wasn’t part of my training. I don’t know if I have everything to offer that some other therapists do.”
“Still, I think I am the right person to work with you on this, because of our long history with each other, because of our relationship. Also, while there is some new stuff in a lot of the newer trauma research, a lot of it is not so different from the training I do have. I think we can work on this together, and I’m very happy to go there with you.”
Then she launches into some ideas about what that might look like, what things she things could be helpful, talking fast and somewhat excitedly.
After a bit, I hold my hand up, “Um, I know that you often process things by talking fast, which is fine. But just know that I’m not taking any of this in. I’m still processing the fact that I just read you this letter.”
She laughs and slows down. “Of course! Of course you are. And what does it mean to you, that you read me this letter?”
I think about that. “I guess it means that I trust you more than I doubt you. It means I’m getting better at knowing what I need and putting it into words…” and some other things which I can no longer remember.
Some of the rest of the session remains a blur, I suppose because the emotions of relief and satisfaction override my attention to detail. I know she says something about liking to work with me because I was willing to go deep and do intense emotional work. She assures me, “We will figure out the texting thing.”
I can’t remember the rest. But I do know that just having read that letter already calmed down so much of my irrational obsessing about our relationship. Telling her what I felt I needed, and having that met with warmth and compassion has left me with a feeling of calm that I still carry with me ten days later.
CREDIT: Photo by Rommel Davila on Unsplash