For the past few days, I have been thinking a lot about whether it’s time to stop therapy with E.
On the one hand, she’s been my therapist for a long time, and she’s often been extraordinarily kind to me. Most notably, she gave me pretty unrestricted texting access to her for nearly three years. That was amazingly generous, and it did me a lot of good. It reduced the incredible sense of isolation I was carrying, and it made me feel that someone could tolerate knowing me at more than a superficial level.
But if you have been reading much of my blog, you’ll also know that I have had a lot of ups and downs in my relationship with E. She’s not all that great at talking about the therapy relationship, and often when I try, she says things that put a greater distance between us. I think she is a person who fundamentally values and protects her independence, whereas I am someone always seeking deeper and stronger connection. So I probably trigger some kind of claustrophobia in her periodically, and at times her rather impulsive responses, especially assertions of her independence and separateness, can feel like rejection to me.
In addition, she has not kept up with current research on trauma and trauma therapy. I think sometimes, as I learn more about trauma elsewhere and see the benefits I get from my trauma-informed group therapy, that I might have improved more quickly if I’d been working with someone more focused on the body and less on correcting my thinking errors. Not to say that it isn’t also relevant to notice and change negative thinking patterns. It’s just that I think we spent too much time there for too little benefit.
I feel guilty whenever I write (or even think) criticisms of E. She offers what she offers, enthusiastically and kindly. As I said, she’s been very generous. I always had the choice to leave and find someone else. But then, at the time, I didn’t know there were other therapies that might help more, and I feared losing the warmth and kindness she showed me. I especially couldn’t imagine giving that up when I felt my worst. She was like a lifeline to me.
In March this year, I was really struggling in my relationship to her. Every single week, I felt triggered before and after our sessions, triggered enough to send me to bed, to incapacitate me for a few days, or once for a whole week. This is pretty striking because in every other way, I’m doing pretty well. No flashbacks. No depression. More openness with my husband. More friends (even though I can’t always see them in person). More time spent on art, which makes me happy.
That’s why I decided to take a full month off therapy. In April, I didn’t meet with E at all. I did have one group therapy session and two brainspotting sessions–but these were with other therapists. I was meant to have one more group session and two more brainspotting sessions, but I got really sick at the end of April. It’s by far the least therapy I have had in a month since at least 2013.
I wasn’t sure what it would feel like to operate without therapeutic support, but it felt good. Overall, I’ve been very stable emotionally. When something has bothered me, I’ve journaled about it or used self-soothing strategies or just retreated inside my internal house to converse with its many inhabitants. I’ve been fairly productive (except when sick).
Only one thing has bothered me at all this month: thinking about my relationship with E. Sometimes when I thought about it, honestly, I have felt enraged. I think about how clumsily she put a stop to our frequent texting and how much that hurt me. I don’t know that she’s ever fully realized how crappy that felt. I think about our first major rupture, back in 2016, which was over something small but took me three months to recover from. Why have we never really processed that? I think about how I asked her very directly if she was prepared to work with me on attachment issues, and she said yes, but then she has not offered me anything in that area and we’ve only talked about it if I’ve brought it up, mostly only with information I’ve learned elsewhere and brought to our sessions. So why did she even say yes then?
I can feel myself get worked up inside. Doesn’t she feel a sense of professional responsibility? I wonder.
Doesn’t she care about me as a person anymore? Why did she give me so much time and attention back then, and then cut it off so abruptly? Why does she so often seem not to see me?
If I go down this road long enough, finally I get to, why doesn’t she love me?
That question, of course, is only partially about my relationship with E. More importantly, it’s the fundamental question I have about my mother. But it’s not only about my mom. It’s so hard to disentangle the emotions, because sometimes it actually is E, not my mom, who hurts my feelings, but the intensity of my response is probably increased because I carry so much unresolved hurt from my mother.
(This is part of why I recently started brainspotting. I’m hoping that I can use that to reduce the intensity of emotion I still feel related to my relationship with my mother. But that’s for another post.)
Today is Monday, May 3 and on Wednesday I am supposed to see E for the first time in five weeks. Yesterday she sent an email saying the weather should be nice and we could meet in her garden. It wasn’t an email individually directed to me but rather to all of her clients; I can tell by the wording. I thought about sending a response, “Great! I can’t wait to see you!” but I haven’t. I haven’t because my feelings about seeing her again are more mixed than that.
I am excited to see her, that is true. I am also nervous to see her. I am unsure what we should talk about. I feel wary. I feel less trustful than I used to feel. I feel impatient and frustrated and annoyed and hopeful and longing and probably a dozen other things.
I wonder sometimes, should I tell her about all the anger I’ve noticed? But I don’t really trust that she will be able to step back from it and look at it with me, compassionately and helpfully. She might. But she might get defensive. Once she told me, “I’ve never intentionally hurt you…” and in the context, I felt as if that meant, “so you don’t have any reason or right to be so upset.”
And honestly, she never even knows how truly angry I have felt, because I minimize it when I even try to talk about it. I guess that says something right there, that after all these years, I still feel I need to minimize things because I am not sure how she might respond.
A couple of hours ago, I received another email from her, another one that has gone out to all her clients. It says that she has decided to move slowly toward retirement. She doesn’t imagine she will ever quit practicing entirely because she loves it, but she plans to start taking a lot more time off to rest, write, and be with her family.
Then she provides the list of dates she plans to take off in 2021 and 2022. It’s not that bad this year—it cancels six of our appointments, if I stay on my weekly on Wednesdays schedule. But then in 2022, she essentially has it set that she will work six weeks and then be off for two, all year long.
Thank goodness I am well past my desperately needed twice-a-week sessions! What would I even do if I still felt I needed those just to carry on from day to day?
Adult me: E has a right to work any hours or days she wants, of course. And she’s in her early 60s, so it makes sense that she would like to work less. She has told me for several years that she would probably start to work less over time. She has the right to choose this, just as I have the right to think about how this works for me and to stay or leave as I see fit.
Child me: Great, thank you, a generic email. She knows how tender this topic is for me, but she still sends me a generic email rather than waiting to talk to me about it in person on Wednesday or writing something more personal to me. But that’s because she is not really thinking about what this is like for me. What it’s like for me doesn’t matter.
Child me: It’s true she said she would work less, but I thought that meant she would stop taking new clients, maybe stop working Mondays and have three-day weekends. But she is just going to leave for two weeks at a time and leave me to cope. I am always supposed to cope by myself.
It’s more than a little ironic that I am upset, since I’m the one who just took a month off, and I’m the one who has been thinking maybe I am done working with her, that she doesn’t really have the skills or background for the issues that still challenge me. I’ve been saying for weeks, no months, okay years that maybe we are about done. And still I’m unhappy with the announcement that she intends to be less available.
Ironic or not, it never helps to pretend I’m not upset when I am. It never helps to tell the child part, “Go away! You are embarrassing me! Just stop that!” It only makes that part angry, more desperate, louder. I always feel better if, instead, I move toward the uncomfortable emotion and pay more attention to what the child part has to say.
If I look at what my child self says, it’s the last sentence of each paragraph above that stands out: What it’s like for me doesn’t matter, and I am always supposed to cope by myself.
Those are messages I soaked in as a kid, for sure. And they are messages I have replayed to myself often in my adult life, in ways that haven’t necessarily served me well.
First, a deep breath. It’s always good to start any difficult emotional work with a deep breath, right?
Next comes the part where I talk myself through this, kindly, without judgment.
So I tell myself, It makes sense that I feel a lot of hurt and anger when I think about E. It’s true that she’s often been great to me. It’s also true that she has really missed mark other times. It’s possible for both to be true, and no matter how great her kindness, I am still entitled to be upset about the times she has not met me with what I needed.
It’s normal and human to have mixed feelings about people who are important to us, I remind myself.
I go on: It’s doubly understandable when you acknowledge that some aspects of my relationship with E echo painful parts of my relationship with my mother. Sometimes, my mother could be very warm and loving. Other times, it seemed as though I didn’t matter at all. When I feel the same things in my therapy relationship, it is confounded by all that old pain. That’s also normal and not something I need to apologize for. It happens all the time in therapy. Therapists are trained to expect it. I’m not doing anything wrong by having reactions of this sort. I’m not being crazy. I’m not betraying E. I’m not being immature. This is normal.
I can be kind to myself as I cope with these challenging, yet normal emotions. We often tell ourselves and each other, “be kind to yourself,” but that can feel kind of vague. So ask myself, what does kindness to self look like in practice? I believe it might look like this:
- I stop myself when I notice any negative judgment arising, and I remind myself again that it’s normal and acceptable to feel as I do.
- I choose to spend some time with people who make me feel loved. That means a Zoom call with my sisters this evening. That means some cuddling time with my husband before bed. This is a way for child me to see that, look, I’m not all on my own anymore.
- I write about this on my blog, where I know that kind readers will make supportive comments and offer their insights. These comments tend to lift me up, and it’s so helpful to hear from people who have experienced similarly complex therapy relationships.
- If I notice myself starting to obsess, I pause and come back to myself. I remind myself that it’s not about what E thinks or how much E cares about me or how many days she wants to take off work. I do care about those things, of course. But what really matters is the way I talk to myself, the way I see myself, the way I treat myself.
- I give myself permission to take my time making any decisions about what to do. Maybe I will stop all therapy with E. Maybe I will decide to see her occasionally. Maybe I will stop and then go back in six months. I don’t know, and I don’t have to decide before Wednesday.
- I can counter the old messages. I can tell myself that my experience does matter. And I show I mean that by making good experiences for myself. For example, if (when) I do decide to stop therapy with E, I can read up about good practices for ending long-term therapy, and I can shape our ending. That way, even if I feel E isn’t always seeing what I need, I will be making sure my own needs are met.
So, is this the end? Probably, or at least it’s approaching the end. But I don’t have to be crushed by that. I don’t have to hate myself because of my conflicting emotions. I can use this as one more opportunity to accept and care for myself, even if it feels hard sometimes.