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.
CREDIT: Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash