Unusually, I turned up to my last therapy session without a Plan B. Even more unusually, I turned up without a Plan A either.
A couple of weeks ago I came across an excellent blog post by Dawn Friedman, a counsellor working in America, entitled ‘When you have nothing to say’. Dawn is a family therapist and as well as writing about parenting and children’s issues, she writes about the experience of therapy, both from her own professional perspective, and from her experience as a client.
This particular post struck a chord because it described exactly, the way that I plan and prepare for my therapy sessions. I make lists, in my head, of topics or events to talk about. I order the lists –and make sure that the order is logical and will flow appropriately from one topic to the next. I prepare ‘opening lines’ and follow-ups to opening lines. I think about what we could talk about if I get through the list. Or which topics I will leave out, if we don’t have time to go through the list. I visualise the scene; I imagine the conversation. And since the day, a few months ago, when my therapist ‘caught out’ my sub-conscious trying to flirt with her by wearing short skirts, I also think about what I’m going to wear.
The post made a very interesting comparison. Dawn wrote: “Therapy is a lot like writing. Sometimes you come to the page with a plan and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you have it all outlined and mapped out and sometimes you’re free writing whatever comes into your head no matter how messy and disorganized and ungrammatical it might be.”
When it comes to my blog posts, I generally come to the page without a plan. I may have thought of an opening or closing line – I may even have drafted out a paragraph in my head – but in essence I’m happy to write freely, and see where it takes me. Why do I find it so difficult to apply the same approach to therapy? I suppose it’s because the blank page and I can sit in companionable silence without me feeling as though it is expecting me to write something. I’m not worried about boring the page, or disappointing it. I don’t wonder what the page is thinking, or whether it’s judging me. I don’t worry about wasting the page’s time by filling it with meaningless, therapeutically insignificant trivia. And even if I do, I can press CTRL-X and ‘take it all back’. If what I write on the page is messy and disorganized and ungrammatical, I can tidy it all up afterwards.
Nevertheless, despite my doubts about my ability to treat therapy in the same way as writing, and largely due to a short time between sessions and a busy time at work and at home, I decided to listen to Dawn’s reassurances that it is okay to just show up without a topic prepared. And so I did. No script, no Plan A, no Plan B (or C, D….).
I sat down in my usual chair and my mind ranged over the numerous topics I could mention, none of which seemed to grab me emotionally at the time. In desperation, I started with a couple of small events from the night before, and then, not quite sure how I would ‘get into’ those, changed tack and moved back onto an item we had discussed during the previous session. The conversation was interesting, but it seems to me that even more significant than the content of our discussion, was my reaction to the situation I found myself in.
It may be okay to just show up, without a plan, but it does not yet feel okay to me. As well as making me feel lost and uncomfortable, it brought some entrenched anxieties and thought patterns to the fore. Looking back on the session, I realised that having a plan is about more than being organised, not wanting to forget anything, or not wanting to bore or disappoint my therapist. Having a plan is a strategy for avoiding two things I find acutely uncomfortable about therapy – silence, and the possibility of ‘doing it wrong’.
Ever since starting psychotherapy, I have worried about ‘doing therapy right’. I think that attitude is deeply entrenched, in a great many aspects of how I approach life. I like to do things ‘properly’ and well. My assumption is that there is a right way – or at least, a ‘best’ way – to do most things. Although I’m incredibly sensitive to feeling controlled, and don’t like feeling restricted, I’m also reassured by rules and knowing how things should be done. Rules help me to feel in control because I know what I need to do in order to get things right. Rules also mean that I know what I need to do in order to please others, and that has always been important to me.
My therapist has repeatedly told me that there are no rules in therapy, and that there is no ‘right way’ to do things. By this, she does not of course mean that there are no boundaries – only that I do not need to worry about how to be, what to say, or whether to say anything at all. I hear it, over and over. Sometimes, I even think I really ‘get it’. Very occasionally, I even think I really manage to do it. Until I realise that there being ‘no rules’ in therapy, has just become another rule, and I feel anxious if I think that I am failing to obey the ‘there are no rules’ rule.
And so I started to read a lot of books about therapy, and they are incredibly interesting and illuminating. I really feel as though they are helping me to understand therapy (and my therapist) better, and therefore to be less resistant to certain parts of the process, and to gain more from it. Until my therapist pointed out that my desire to learn about the process of therapy may just be another way of trying to learn ‘how to do therapy’, and how to get it right.
I had begun to think that one of the ways in which I was slowly starting to ‘do it right’, was my reaction to silences in therapy. At the start of my work with my current therapist, I found even the briefest silence intensely uncomfortable. If it took place when I was in any way distressed, it verged on the excruciating. Initially, I saw this as an external issue – a fault with my therapist, for not talking enough. My therapist helped me to see that there was an internal issue that merited examination – why I found the silences so incredibly difficult and painful to deal with.
I realised that I felt silence as abandonment – abandoned by a person, and abandoned of my perception of that person. I felt cut-off, and left alone with my despair. I felt that words would have reached out to that despair, but they would also have reassured me of my therapist’s benevolence, and let me know what she was thinking. Without those words, I felt as though her mind was cut off from me, and I could not trust in who she was. Was she judging me? Was she condemning me? Did she understand me or care about me?
Bearing the silences has become easier over time, partly through positive change, and partly through defensive coping mechanisms. I started to try and cope with the silences by staring hard at a certain point on the carpet or at my therapist’s shoes, to focus my attention on something other than the intense internal discomfort. These days, I find myself staring off into space, and having the sense of drifting. I can sit with the silence without feeling that excruciating discomfort – but instead I end up ‘zoning out’ from the session and tuning into my thoughts. I’m in my own little vessel, wrapped up in my own head, and drifting away from shore. But my therapist and I are getting to know each other better, and I think that she senses my drifting. Recently, instead of letting the silences go on for too long, she has been ‘pulling me back’ into the room by asking me a question. And rather than the silence meaning I lose trust in who she is, it is my trust in who she is that is gradually helping to strip the silence of its negative associations.
Going into therapy without a plan, brought me face to face with my anxieties over ‘doing therapy right’ and dealing with silences. The discomfort of not knowing what to say, plunged me headlong into the discomfort of feeling as though as I was rambling, and therefore ‘getting it wrong’.
I think that session taught me a valuable lesson – that I need to practice turning up without a plan. I need to learn to sit with the discomfort that it brings, which invariably will also mean continuing to work through my anxieties over silence and the need to follow rules and to please others. If I can turn up to this page without a plan, and get from ‘Unusually’ to here (albeit by a rather longer route than I had hoped!), I can try and apply that same approach to some of my therapy sessions. My therapist is not a blank page – luckily. My blank page may not judge me for my lack of inspiration, but neither can it help me to regain my inspiration. In her post, Dawn talks about trusting your therapist to help you to figure out what you would like to say. Working with the blank page – filling it – is essentially a solitary journey of discovery. Whereas, as Dawn writes, “You and your therapist are working in collaboration….The two of you will discover what it is you’re working on through the course of your conversations.”
I have reached the end of this post with a number of CTRL-Xs, and a fair amount of tidying up. It occurs to me that although I cannot delete whatever messy, disorganised and ungrammatical material comes out in therapy when I turn up without a plan – I can still ‘tidy it up’ afterwards. Not in a manner that shuts it away or tries to sweep it under the carpet – nothing said in therapy is irredeemable – but in a manner that helps to make sense of it, and to show where it fits in.
So I will endeavour to more often turn up to session without a plan. Now that sounds like a plan…..