For years in therapy, if I felt hurt or misunderstood in a session, I pretended I didn’t. I pretended to E, of course, because I couldn’t let her know what a selfish, irrational, overly sensitive and bad-tempered baby her client was; that would be too embarrassing! I realize now thought that I often pretended to myself as well. I told myself I’m not really upset, or it’s no big deal, or I shouldn’t be silly.
Well, those were the old days. Those were the days I was polite and accommodating and swallowed my sadness, hurt or dissatisfaction. Not any more!
I write it as though I’m now a brat throwing temper tantrums in therapy, and to be fair, that’s not the case. But even though I’m still (reasonably) well behaved, it is different. These days, when the moody, frightened, needy, or angry very young inner child in me awakens, I pay attention to her, and I let E see her too.
What kinds of exchanges bring out my raging inner child? If I were to make a quick list, it would start of course with any time E leaves or in unavailable. I’d have to throw in times she slides away from responding with empathy and instead starts to talk at me from a place of philosophical existentialism (“ultimately we are all alone”–ugh). Any time she even hints that she thinks I should be getting close to being done with therapy, or be done with processing some particular trauma that, in my mind at least, still looms large. Even little things like starting a session late or mistakes in bookkeeping can really awaken all the fears and furies (She doesn’t care! I don’t matter! She’s important to me, but I’m nothing to her! )
For one of these reasons or another I’m not even remembering just now, I can sometimes feel my inner child wake up and stamp her feet. I don’t like that! It’s not fair! And recently, I notice a change. I no longer have the instinctive reaction to ignore that worked-up little girl, or to bury her or to pretend I don’t hear her. Instead, I feel myself turning toward her to ask, what’s going on, little one? I try to talk to her the way, in my best moments, I responded to my own children when they were little, and the way I believe children in general deserve to be treated.
It’s taken such a long, long time to truly believe in my heart that it’s okay for that little one to exist. It’s okay for a middle-aged woman to have (some) emotional reactions like a toddler. It’s okay to feel those emotions. It’s not necessarily okay to act on them (as in kicking my feet against the furniture or trashing E’s office). But it’s absolutely okay to fear abandonment. It’s complete okay to feel rage when it seems like my therapist is not seeing me. I don’t have to be ashamed or hate myself for having those feelings; I don’t have to beat them back with a stick.
Instead, I can take a few moments to notice and acknowledge those emotions. I can allow them to be there. I can even act as the advocate for the distressed child. I can tell E, “Ooh, ouch, my very young self heard that as rejection,” or “I think a younger version of myself needs to know you didn’t do [x] on purpose…” Okay, to be honest, it still feels a bit awkward. But it doesn’t feel like I am breaking open my rib cage and exposing my heart, the way it did the first time I tried it.
It also works so much better than some of the things I used to do. For example, it used to be if I felt hurt (like when E mis-remembered something about an assault I experienced years ago), I would try to bury it. But I wasn’t always successful, so instead I’d end up checking out, pulling away, turning cold to E. Then she would wonder what was going on, and some of her ways of trying to re-engage me wouldn’t work, or they’d even make me more angry or upset. Go directly to rupture. Do not pass Go; do not collect $200.
I also used to go home sometimes and burn myself. It was a punishment, I think, for wanting something (to be seen, to be cared for) that I believed I didn’t really deserve. It also served as a (temporary) release of built-up tension. But it never really made the distress go away.
I can see now that it’s so much more productive to let the feeling exist and to express it. “Shit, that really touches on my old abandonment fear.” That’s something E can hear and can address. In fact, when we met last week, the week after I’d opened up about my rush of attachment anxiety, she gave me a very sweet card she’d written, specifically addressed to the Little One. It was sweet and reassuring. It told me she’d come back from her vacation, as she always had, and furthermore listed some specific things she’d noticed about my adult wise-woman self that made me capable of providing good care to the Little One. She expressed her commitment to continuing to work with me, to helping my adult self become ever more skillful at tending to these pressing internal needs. It felt really validating to read those messages.
Therapy is not like real life, of course. I can’t expect my colleagues or friends or even my very understanding husband to write cards to the Little One. It’s not appropriate in every setting to say, “I experienced some early developmental traumas, and what you said just triggered some of the related emotions, so would you please pause and reassure me?” (I have to laugh just imagine saying that on a Zoom call for work.)
But what I’m finding, little by little, is that I have a growing capacity to notice when some version of my inner child is struggling, and I can help her myself. Maybe that help is simply, I see you, and I see your distress. I’ll carry it with my to therapy on Wednesday. Until then, do you want to sleep hugging the pillow? Or maybe I can write in my journal, offering some reassurance. Or perhaps I can plan a phone date with one of my sisters each week during E’s upcoming vacation; with my sisters, I usually feel seen and understood. I can recognize that a lot of the distress is fear of being invisible, unimportant, and unlovable. I can find ways to reassure myself that yes, the fear is real and painful, but the truth is I am not invisible, unimportant, or unlovable.
I guess what I ultimately want to say today is that I used to think something was terribly wrong when I felt these young, irrational terrors or rages. I was afraid of them. I tried not to see them, or rejected them, hid them, avoided them. But that never helped me feel better. Increasingly now, I notice them, and I pay attention to them. I don’t judge them or beat them back. I try to meet the emotion with the kindness I would want to give to others, as much as I can. What a difference; what a relief.
This, I think, is real self-care. Bubble baths, massages, and time to read a book–those things are sweet luxuries, of course. But you can do those while hating yourself, which mean you don’t necessarily feel better afterwards. But taking time to notice and attend to all your emotions, even the juvenile, unreasonable or embarrassing ones–that, for me at least, is transformative and deeply healing.