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.
Could you send her this Q? It so clearly highlights all the issue and your feelings. And you are so good at processing and working through it but it would be lovely to get the relational healing experience with E if she could hear this and be with you in it. I know we are meant to get to the place where we can go it alone. I feel like I did a lot of learning and thinking round things outside my time with Em but there’s so much to be said for feeling the pain and having it and those young parts witnessed and cared for by the other (Therapist). I’m sorry E sent you that information in a generic email. That feels off to me given she knows how much this kind of thing would unsettle you. Maybe it is heading towards a natural end and the good news is you have so many great supports in place now – but that said it’s still a big loss when the time comes xxx
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Hi RB, and thanks for commenting! Theoretically, I could share this with her. But practically, I can’t imagine it. I don’t feel it’s a good idea to be so direct with her about my conflicting emotions, nor to say that I’m still kind of mad about some old stuff. It’s not that she has become defensive once; it’s happened multiple times, and every time, it’s made things between us get worse.
At the same time, I know that avoiding it also leaves a chasm between us. It would feel unsatisfying to leave therapy with the chasm there, after everything we have gone through together. So perhaps I will cautiously, tentatively explore the possibility of healing some of the old stuff. It’s something I am thinking about today in anticipation of seeing her tomorrow.
I still wish she could see the pain of the young parts, their old pain and even the pain she sometimes caused (never deliberately, I know, but sometimes without sufficient thought or concern). I feel like that would feel very good to them. But if it seems she can’t really do that in a way that serves them, I will try to find other ways to care for them.
I suppose that means that what has changed is that I still want and appreciate what she can offer, but I no longer feel that I’m 100 percent dependent on it. I can find other ways to care for myself if I need to, including grieving the inability to get everything I want from my therapist.
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Q, why are you always pulling thoughts from inside my head and articulating them so beautifully? I’m sorry you’re in this place with E. I’m sorry that she chose the 4 weeks you’re on break to inundate you with messages that should have waited for an in-person chat. I am also so triggered by generic group messages sent to me without some personal couching. Reading your blog is so fascinating to me because, like CB and also me, you are on the other side of some healing, and there is no path for what this part looks like, when you ease out of intense, one on one, talk therapy and into the great beyond. When an end seems not only possible but probable. I especially relate to the things undealt with looming large, and larger still when the urgent need for attachment above all else starts to ebb a bit.. In any case, I hope you get an ending that is satisfying. I’ve decided the peter out is what will suit me, rather than a definitive end point. A door that is always open and my choice to walk through it or not. Is there a way you would want to integrate E into a life beyond regular therapy, or is it a firm goodbye you are after? Eager to read more from you about this. ❤
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I appreciate this comment so much and knowing that someone else is at the place, having done a lot of healing and trying to figure out what comes now, when you don’t live every moment in anticipation of those precious minutes each week with your therapist.
Thanks also for saying that generic group messages bother you too. I don’t want to be “oversensitive,” but also want to honor my authentic reaction. In fact, I have reached the point where honoring my authentic reaction matters more to me than whether she thinks I am oversensitive. But it still feels validating to know that someone else has reactions like that too.
Since reading your comment this morning, I have been thinking about your “peter out” approach and whether I might like that more than a firm and final goodbye. I don’t know yet how I feel about that. I’m just going to put it out there for the inhabitants of my internal house to consider, and I’ll see what emerges.
It is a beautiful relief to be able to say, and believe, “I don’t have to decide all of this today; I’ll figure it out in time.” E used to tell me things like that, and I thought she was crazy. No! I had to fix all of this now! Today! I can’t stand this uncertainty! I can’t stand the tension! I can’t stand all the emotions! But now I find that I can tolerate uncertainty and emotions and sometimes I can even tolerate outright tension. What a big change that is. What a gift that is, and it is a gift that E has given me and that I have fought hard to be able to accept.
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I continue to be moved and inspired by what you share. Being able to step back and notice your need to find other ways to care for yourself is a huge indication of the healing progress you have made. 💜
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Thanks, Sara. It’s not an instantaneous reaction. It’s kind of like a slow motion thing: I feel upset. Then, oh, I notice I feel upset. Then, a bit later, I think: wait, I can do something for myself when I feel upset. What can I do? A little later: Oh, right, I can name it and accept it. And I can soothe my feelings about it. How do I do that? Oh, right, right, it’s about connecting, and making space, and maybe writing… But it’s good. I mean, I never could have done this a few years ago. And I’m so grateful that I can not, even if it’s sometimes slow and clunky.
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That’s so great. I can feel myself at times move through those steps slowly as you mentioned. But I still mostly feel my system get hijacked and have a hard time making my way through without faltering into unhealthy choices. Regular therapy help is a must for me right now, but hearing about your process and progress gives me hope. I hope you are doing well this week. 💕
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Sometimes I find myself feeling like this therapy thing can’t be such a good idea or even very healthy, it just feels so crazy making 🙂 For me its because there are so many disparate desires/needs/issues inside so its a constant battle between needing to quit and needing it to be more or different from what it is. I think you are right that learning to just let it “be” what it is.
I like the ways you are being nice to yourself and I think that is what is healthy and healing. I think it is especially wise to take the time with the decision, and realize that its okay to not be sure what you want to do now or in the future as far as continuing therapy with E. I am still at babysteps with just recognizing that parts of me are super activated, anxious, and even terrified to continue therapy, and parts of me just want to be seen and heard and cared about and wants more, More, MORE!
Its definitely a process which I’ve probably made longer by fighting against. I’m gradually figuring out that even the shaming thoughts have worth and can’t be rationalized or shut up or shamed away. its just about noticing and letting it be at this point.
I so appreciate your posts and getting to see your journey. Thank you for sharing it.
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It is so NICE to see you here again! And thank you for you comment.
I absolutely know what you mean about wanting more, more, more! More being seen, more being cared about, more being validated in your sense that “this was wrong, what happened to you!” Sometimes I still want that a LOT. Like a crazy-making amount. Other times, I feel like, okay, enough time spent on that. It’s amazing how many contradictory emotions we can hold at once.
But if we can be kind to all those “crazy” longings and needs and contradictory impulses, I think it will be okay. It’s really the denying, repressing, resisting and hating our own needs that makes us so unwell. Or at least that’s a lot of it. Accepting and allowing the messiness brings a lot more peace of mind. Not all the time, and not without bumps along the way. But still, it means we can feel peaceful some of the time, which is a huge gift.
I get it. Bless your kind, authentic, resilient, brave, funny heart, dear.❤ I am inspired! Honest talk in a safe place is so healing isn’t it?
Just getting your thoughts outside your head, and seeing what it is you are thinking ~ so incredibly helpful.
It sounds like you have learned a lot from your good work with E. What a gift: a safe warm place to figure stuff out. I’m grateful.
Bless your good work as you find the strength to say goodbye or to stay in your therapy relationship.
Leaving with grace and gratitude and blessings is an art. What you have accomplished with E. Is both remarkable and irrevocable.👒 💐
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