I love my therapist. It’s taken a long time, but she’s helped me move a long way on the road from self-loathing to self-acceptance. She’s helped me shed a lot of deeply-held shame.
Beyond loving her out of appreciation for her skill and support, though, I love her also in the way a child loves her mother, in a longing way, in a I-look-to-her-for-comfort way, in a won’t-you-repair-my-attachment wound way. That’s all pretty messy and complicated.
And then, just to add an extra layer of complexity, there are the times when she just doesn’t seem to get me at all, times when she is so wildly off-base that I wonder, what the hell is she talking about?!? Lately we’ve had a lot more of those times.
Example 1: Last Wednesday, in our session I tried to talk openly about the pain I felt just thinking about reducing my time with her. I wasn’t asking for anything, or blaming her for something. I just said it felt like such a loss, and I feared I would never find another person to be so safe with, where I could be fully honest about my feelings.
There just seems to be something that happens when I talk about my longing for her, my attachment to her and its connection to my fear of eternal loneliness. I sense she’s not fully comfortable with it. And she goes up in her head and gets very theoretical on me and/or starts telling me I might as well get used to it. That’s just the way life is, she tells me. We come into life alone and leave it alone. Everyone leaves us. Even if they don’t intend to, they die and leave us that way.
She’s talked like that before, and that’s bad enough. But then on Wednesday she just kept on going, telling me that my husband would probably die before me, since he’s older and he’s a man. And it might be good for me to think about that more and start preparing myself.
What?!? E, my dear, important, wise, caring E, how is this helpful? I’m expressing sadness and fear, and you are telling me that I should expect more sadness and loneliness. Are there no words of caring or comfort you can offer? Or even just the validation of saying, I can see this is really hard for you.
Argh, it’s been gnawing at me ever since. I know she doesn’t mean it cruelly, but I can’t understand how she doesn’t see that this makes everything seem worse. It feels particularly galling to me because we have been having conversations for three years about how unhelpful her existentialism feels to me when my attachment wound is aching. It dates all the way back to our first real rupture, in July 2016.
So today, I go into my session determined to talk about this. I will say, each time she doesn’t meet me in a meaningful way, I am learning to address it a bit sooner. Along the way, I may even be getting better at figuring out what it is that I do need, instead of a bunch of talk about how my husband will die and I’ll be left to grow old on my own.
After we talk a little about a few other things, I say pretty much what I wrote here. I tell her that I sense her discomfort when I talk about attachment pain in my relationship to her. I say I notice that she tends then to go up in her head. I say I understand now that she finds a strength and independence in existentialism, in thinking about how she can stand on her own. I say this neutrally, no judgment. That is how she thinks about it, and it is okay to think about it that way.
But it isn’t helpful to me, I tell her. I can agree, when I’m calm and being analytical, that the things she says are not wrong. But when I’m triggered, this kind of talk only increases my anxiety and despair. I tell her it would help if she could remember that when I’m triggered, I’m not functioning in my frontal lobe, but rather in my primitive reptilian brain (which is screaming danger! fear! hide! run!). I ask if she might offer some words of comfort and soothing. Or alternatively, she could just help me come back into my body and breath. That doesn’t fix everything, but it does keep my mind from running ahead in unhelpful ways. It helps me see, at least, that I am safe enough in the present moment, even if I’m sad or fearful.
She hears me. She says, Of course, that makes perfect sense. We add to a stack of cards we have made together listing things we can draw on when we seem to misunderstand one another. I say, I hope I haven’t hurt your feelings. She tells me, It’s a little uncomfortable for me to realize I didn’t get it right, but I applaud your willingness and ability to ask for what you need.
Bravo. Success, right?
Feeling soothed, I move on and take out a calendar I have printed out. It lists all my appointments with her over the next three months, as well as her vacation and mine. I start to talk about what it might look like to reduce sessions. Maybe we should do it right after my vacation?
She counters that maybe we should wait and make the decision right after my vacation, and for now, just leave things as they are. There’s no rush. But what am I thinking about doing eventually? Would I come once a week and also come to group every two weeks?
Here comes Example 2.
I say, I’m not sure, but I really like having two session in a week, because it allows me to go deeper. I can open up something difficult or shameful or frightening on Monday; I can take a risk in my relationship with her, for example. And then I know I can see her again on Wednesday to continue it or close it or repair it after a couple of days to think about it more. It helps to not have to hold it for a long time. I tell her, I’ve been thinking it might even be useful to have group one week, with no individual therapy, and the next week to meet twice so there is the space and time to do the deeper work. I tell her that this year it has always been the weeks that I have seen her twice that I feel we have accomplished something that moves me forward.
But you need to get used to holding it yourself, she counters. That is the whole point of it. You need to learn to hold your distress by yourself and tolerate it and manage it. So it’s better if there is more time in between sessions.
She keeps talking, on and on, but really repeated versions of the same thing. I need to be more independent of her. I need to manage my own emotions. As I listen, I grow quieter and feel increasingly flattened. Whatever satisfaction I felt about the conversation we’d just had evaporates. And then it is time to go.
I feel crummy leaving. I feel distant and misunderstood and alone. As I walk down the steps from her office, I ask myself, what just went wrong? And then I realize: she thinks she knows better than I do what I need. I know that I benefit from having two sessions in a week, a few days apart. I am willing to reduce my total time with her, but I would like to consider keeping a structure that has worked well for me. I have not experienced my old stuckness at all in the time we’ve had this structure.
It’s okay if she tells me no, she doesn’t want to do two sessions a week every other week. It’s okay if she says that messes with her professional schedule too much. She has a right to her own preferences in her practice. But it’s not okay for her to tell me that she knows better than me what I need. The whole effing point of all this therapy has been for me to come to identify and then speak up for my own needs. When I do that, who is she to tell me that’s not what I need?
Maybe I’m being excessively touchy. Maybe I’m like the teenager who picks fights with her mom as part of her growing to be her own separate person. But damn, it feels to me like she’s just wildly off base.
I still love her, though.