Unsatisfying Session & Too Many Feelings

The universe doesn’t want me to get too proud of myself for identifying and speaking up for what I need in my therapy group. Only a few hours after I posted yesterday about feeling “empowered,” I had a crummy individual session with E that left me feeling… well, left me trying not to feel anything.

I think the origin of the session’s crumminess started before I even arrived, when I got caught behind a bus and some road construction and traffic didn’t move for 10 minutes. Normally, it’s only about a 12-minute drive from my home to E’s office, where we meet on the deck in the back garden these days. I watched the minutes tick by on the dashboard clock and grew increasingly agitated. I hate being late for anything. I rarely am. When group used to meet in person, I was inevitably the first person there. In ten years of seeing E, I can only remember being late for one other appointment. I cope with my dread of being late by usually being a bit early.

“It’s okay,” I tried to tell myself in the car. “We’ll be fine even if we start the session a bit late.” But that reassurance didn’t work. So I tried a little self-compassion. I put placed my hand over my sternum and told myself, “It’s really hard on you to be late, isn’t it? It stresses you out a lot, more than is probably necessary, but that’s the way it is. You’re feeling bad about this.” This actually helped for a few minutes.

Then I gave up waiting behind the bus and took a detour. Annoyingly, it led me to another construction zone. Now I could see I was really growing late. I had to make a lot of effort not to speed when I finally got past the additional road work. When right after that, I arrived at a backed-up intersection, all my self-compassion went straight out the window. I just wanted to hit or scratch myself.

Why is that? Why do I feel this impulse to punish myself in some way for something that’s not even my fault?

Finally, I arrived at the garden behind E’s office, a little out of breath, cortisol pumping in my veins.

“Hi,” E said, smiling, “It’s very unusual for you to be late.”

“Uh huh,” I said, nearly snarling. I wasn’t mad at her (not yet anyway), but all my cells were oozing anger at the world in general.

I couldn’t settle for a while, so I just asked her to tell me about a workshop she had run for other therapists last weekend. I pulled out the page in the coloring book I had been working on last week and selected the markers I’d use. I knew this was wasting yet more of my precious one hour per week with her, but on the other hand, I wasn’t in any mood to jump straight into my stuff.

At last I calmed down (more or less), and we settled into what I’d planned to talk about for the day. Last week, we had been talking about how I could build the strength of my inner wisdom, my wise woman part. I had been thinking that the more I built her skills, the more my other parts might feel able to trust her. Maybe some of my defensive parts (Doubt, in particular) could stand down if they felt that the wise woman part could take care of me.

We’d agreed I would revisit a self-assessment E shared with me over a year ago. It has a list of maybe 60 or 70 items, things that your primary caretaker would ideally teach you or do for you. You rate, first, how well your caretaker did this for you, on a scale of 1 to 5. Then you go through the list again and rate how well you now do these things for yourself. E and I had thought this might help me pinpoint areas I could target to develop further.

For example, some items began, “When I was growing up, my caregiver…”

  • offered proper nutrition and tasty food.
  • encouraged me to exercise regularly.
  • provided medical care when needed.
  • worked through her/his own losses and pain.
  • accepted my feelings, both positive and negative.
  • was trustworthy and reliable.
  • taught me ways to express feelings positively.
  • encouraged me to speak my truth.

There were many other items, but you get the idea.

“The thing is,” I told E, “when I went through it again, and I saw all the things I didn’t get from my mother, I felt really sad.”

Sad, in general, is an emotion I have not allowed myself to feel. I think I’ve mentioned before that I can count on one hand the number of times I have cried in the past 20 years, and three of them have been when my dogs died.

“I love my mom,” I went on. “I’m grateful for the things she did give me. But I’m sad about these many things she didn’t offer me. She didn’t protect me from predators. She didn’t encourage me to notice and own my feelings or speak up for myself. She never cultivated in me the sense that I belonged to a community or had a meaningful place in the world. I know she couldn’t give me those things. She doesn’t have them herself, and she still lives in a state of denial about, well, so much. But I just think about all the suffering I have experienced because I didn’t have those things. I think of how my life might have been different if I’d had those things, and it feels really sad.”

And this is where everything went kind of wrong in the session.

I’m finding that it’s hard for me to remember what exactly was said. I might have this all wrong. I might think I’m telling you what happened, but maybe I’m distorting the truth. Let’s just say this is what it felt like to me.

E looked at me rather severely. Or at least seriously.

“What?” I asked. “Do you think I should just leave it? Am I wallowing? Should I just say, fine, I missed all that, but at least I’m doing better now?”

She shrugged (probably not really, but again, it felt to me like she didn’t give it a lot of importance). “I don’t know. Is this something you need to spend time on?”

Well, yes, actually. That’s why I brought it up, I thought. But since she is asking me, is she indicating that she thinks it is not something I should spend time on?

“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess so…”

“Okay, if you need to spend time on it, what does the sad part need from you? Just acknowledgement? Or something more?”

What, wait, am I supposed to come up for a solution to my sadness? Right now, just like that?

I don’t know why this line of questioning threw me off so much. Maybe I was still not fully recovered from being late to the session. Confused, I just started concentrating on the flowers I was coloring in, magenta and a dark pink.

“What is it? Something has shifted for you, I think.” E said. “Or are you just focused on your coloring?”

In my head, I was thinking something like, Why are you asking me all these questions? Why are you focused on what I am supposed to do, or not do, about the sadness? Why won’t you just give me some of the empathy you say is what we always need to start with? Why can’t you say, of course you feel sad about what you missed and how that harmed you? Do you think I shouldn’t feel sad?

Only later did I really it think it through and realize how much I still let myself be guided by what I think her reaction is. I was checking to see if she would give me permission to be sad. If she wouldn’t give me permission (which in my interpretation, she did not), then I concluded I should button it up and quit focusing on the negative all the time, for heaven’s sake.

So on the one hand, I had a big, heavy, sad feeling welling up in my chest. At the same time, I was reading into E’s unemotional, sort of more analytical response the kind of disapproval I got from my family and later from my ex-husband: What do you have to be sad about? Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Your feelings aren’t a big deal; just get over it.

It was confusing to feel both those things at the same time. And feeling as though E disapproved of my sadness also made me mad at myself–and mad at her. Why doesn’t she get it? She feels so distant. She doesn’t show any warmth or emotion herself.

Adding this to our session two weeks ago, where I felt she was arguing with me about whether I should leave group, it wasn’t a big leap from there to we aren’t on the same wave length. She doesn’t understand me. Or she’s thinking I’m doing it wrong. We aren’t connected. I’m needing something she isn’t giving me. It’s my fault. No, it’s her fault. No, it’s my fault; I want too much. I want endless warmth and nurturing and validation for my feelings.

By the time the session was over–and since we started late, the end came soon–I was frustrated again. Frustrated and disconnected and doubting myself and doubting our connection.

I told her just before we ended. “Okay, I will carry this heavy sadness and try to give it some acknowledgement, instead of denying it. But here, can I leave a little of it with you? Just a little piece.” I pretended to hand off some invisible something to her. “You don’t have to carry it around and be weighed down by it. You can leave it on the stairs adn just give it a friendly look from time to time. It’s just that I feel I’ve so often been left to carry hard things on my own…”

I trailed off. It felt silly, maybe a little pathetic. It was my effort, in the last moment of the session, to reconnect with her at an emotional level. I was inviting her to share in the emotional experience with me, just a little.

She smiled and pretended to take the invisible sadness I passed to her, and I felt a moment of relief. But very soon after we said goodbye, all my doubt, frustration, sadness and rage came roaring back in. Too many damn feelings. I know it’s a ridiculous thing to say, but sometimes I just hate feelings, you know? I know that the only solution is to allow them to be whatever they are. But sometimes I just want them to lighten up a bit.

Photo of signs saying "road closed" and "wrong way" and an arrow indicated no left turn.
CREDIT: Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

19 comments

  1. Everything you write here is so understandable, from the traffic lateness throwing you off kilter, to the second-guessing why you might be asked so many questions and the guilt attached to that. I especially like how you placed your hand on your sternum and spoke kindly to yourself. This was helpful to read because, when I think of my next session with Guy after our last meeting, my stomach flips a tiny bit and I wasn’t sure what I’m supposed to do after noticing!
    I know you left the session feeling somewhat incomplete still, but I’m pleased you managed to speak some of your sadness and think your act of pretending to give an invisible chunk of it to be kept for a week, and dealt with kindly, was a pretty big thing to have done, especially given how out of sorts you felt that whole session.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your interpretation is so kind, LS. I had been thinking, oh, I let being late throw me off, and I handled the whole session badly. But you sort of reframe it to say, considering how off-balance you felt, look how you still managed to speak up and to ask E to hold some of your sadness for you.

      I want to remember that. A good friend of mind talks about how powerful it is for her to reframe some of her “failures” in more encouraging ways. I think you just provided me a good example of that. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I can see how feeling empowered by being honest and speaking up in your group therapy and then having a unsatisfying individual therapy session must feel painful and hard and challenging. I think you can still feel proud of your hard work while also feeling sad about your session. Both things can co-exist and I hope you can still feel that pride in speaking up and advocating for what you need. But oh, I feel you on the Too Many Feelings thing. I hope the feelings fade soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for understanding about Too Many Feelings. It’s ironic because a few years ago I used to complain that I had a stone heart and never felt anything. Now I’m complaining about the opposite?!?

      Fortunately, the feelings didn’t disappear but their intensity did start to drop over the next several days, and I feel more centered now. Of course, I have another individual therapy session this afternoon, so we’ll see what I say after that!

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  3. Oh hell. Why does this crap happen when you least need it to? I completely understand who unsettled being late can make you and how hard it is to ground in session as a result. I’m glad you were able to ask for a little of what you needed at the end of the session. You hold so much for yourself and sometimes we just need someone to hold a bit for us too. Sending you huge hugs xx

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  4. I remember being late to therapy once and having a full-on meltdown in the car. I do not blame you.

    Additionally, what you said about loving your mother but being sad about what wasn’t offered resonated with me so much. I think this relationship we have with our parents is so complex and while of course our parents can never be perfect, our child selves often needed so much more than we got. My mom equally has never had a lot of the skills I lack, so it isn’t her fault. She did her best, but it can still be painful for me to grieve the loss of what could have been.

    E could have let you process your sadness further for sure. I think that this would have gotten you stuck whether you were late or not. I’m glad you recognize that her opinion isn’t prescriptive of how you should be reacting.

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    • That’s so insightful, what you said at the end: “her opinion isn’t prescriptive of how you should be reacting.” It helps me realize that I often HAVE looked to her to take cues for how I should be feeling. She tends to be calm most of the time, and sometimes when I have told her stories of abuse, that to me are shameful and scary, and she stays super calm, I have read that to mean, “it wasn’t really that bad.” But it felt bad to me, so I was left confused. I thought, maybe I am wrong to make this a big deal.

      I think I am gradually learning that I get to have my own opinions and my own reactions. I just haven’t really articulated it quite this way, that I don’t have to get her to invite me to a particular emotion before I acknowledge it. So thank you for helping me see it this way!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I think that feeling sad over the things you didn’t get as a child is not surprising. Sometimes I think the pain of what I didn’t get from my mom only really registered and became real when I saw (and sometimes experienced/felt it in therapy or through being mom to Kat) all the things I missed. It still makes me so sad, and I think there is still grief to be felt and worked through. Maybe it’s not so much that you need to spend time on this trying to understand it and make sense of it (I think we both have a logical understanding of why or how our mothers weren’t what we needed), but maybe you just need time to grieve what you didn’t get. I’m sorry E wasn’t attuned enough that day to see that you really did need to spend some time on the mom stuff (and it makes sense to me that you would still need to spend time on it— it’s big stuff!). I’m really glad you thought of leaving a piece of the sadness with her, that was really a smart thing to do. I’m amazed how much you have grown— to be able to reach for connection when you aren’t feeling it, and to really ask for what you need? That is everything. It’s huge! And it’s something that I bet Q from 5 years ago never thought she would be capable of. I hope things got sorted with E, and that you are feeling kinder to yourself now. 💗

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are so right, Alice. Five years ago I never would have had the nerve to tell E, “here, hold some of this for me!” Honestly, I might not have even done it a year ago. There’s been a huge shift in my sense that I have a right to my feelings and even a right to ask for help with them. It feels good to know that!

      Like

  6. I’m sorry you had such a crappy day and session. I relate so much to the being late thing. It also throws me off and sends me into a heightened state of anxiety and overwhelm. I aways show up way to early because of that. And, you deserve to have your emotions validated.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Being late sucks so much! I’m like you and tend to show up early as well, especially for therapy. (Maybe not for things I don’t care about as much.)

      Thanks for saying that about deserving to have my emotions validated. It is SO SO SO important! It has taken me a while to realize it but sometimes I think it’s more important that anything, more important even than “solving” things. Since I’ve learned this, I have tried to become better about validating other people’s feelings as well. It’s made me more attentive to what emotions I think underlie things that people say, and a lot of the time it helps me be more patient with them.

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