Life in a Bind – BPD and me

Borderline Personality Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and my therapy journey. Listed in Top Ten Resources for BPD in 2016 by goodtherapy.org. I write for welldoing.org under the name Clara Bridges.

What happened in therapy when life was too busy to make plans

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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…..

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10 thoughts on “What happened in therapy when life was too busy to make plans

  1. What a great insightful post! These are things I have often felt too. I remember preparing for first dates with girls by making lists of things to talk about. Eventually I grew to the point where I could be spontaneous and respond to actual stimuli in the environment, in the moment, rather than preplanning everything, which destroys the ability to be spontaneous. I would suggest that deep-lying feelings of fear and insecurity, as you hinted, are driving the need to preplan and control things. I was this way for many years and I know that it was the fear of “merging” or being close to another person, and the feeling abandoned and alone, that was driving the controlling and preplanning behavior. If one can feel pleasurably merged or “at one” with another person emotionally, trusting them deeply, then the need to plan and control things will go away. In other words a therapeutic symbiosis helps relieves many of the negative emotions and obsessive behaviors.

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    • Thank you so much! It would definitely be good to be able to be spontaneous while at the same time feeling comfortable. I would also like to be able to truly share a silence with my therapist, without either feeling uncomfortable or retreating off into my head. Yes, fear and insecurity – what will she think of me if I have nothing to say? Will I disappoint her, not keep her interested etc? Will she be silent and will the silence make me feel alone? I think your comment about feeling pleasurably ‘at one’ is interesting. Only because, for me, that phrase has very obsessive connotations – the idea of losing myself completely and utterly in another, the complete annihilation of boundaries etc. Whereas I think what you’re describing sounds a bit less ‘extreme’ than that – feeling at one while also feeling separate. Feeling comfortably together, a deep trust and a deep comfort, but not a self-annihilation or a take-over of the other.It sounds as though you’re using ‘merging’ to describe therapeutic symbiosis, whereas I tend to think of it as an obsessive thing….But, terminology aside, I completely agree that the key to alleviating some of those disturbing symptoms and behaviours, is a positive, deep and trusting therapy relationship. It’s taken me a while to appreciate that, to understand what it means and its nature, and to see small glimpses of how it really can effect change, and it really is both humbling and awe-inspiring. And absolutely terrifying in that, eventually, that relationship will come to a conclusion…..Thank you again for reading and for commenting – I always appreciate your responses and your insights!

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  2. Wow! The lists for therapy… I thought I was the only one who rehearses like they were about to perform onscreen… I think showing up with a plan is sometimes acceptable, even productive. We make the most of that time by preparing and prioritising. However, recently I’ve been realising this is a personal ploy to avoid spontaneous feelings in the here and now.

    In the last 2-3 weeks, I put it to the test and went to therapy with a blank page. The stuff that came up was extremely potent. Those dreaded silences were more frequent and louder than usual.

    Will I be going to future sessions without a plan? I’m not so sure. I think it’s right for us to approach therapy in whatever way we feel most comfortable. If that includes lists and sub-lists then that’s okay. Great post!

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    • Thank you for reading and commenting! It’s interesting, all the different reasons behind the planning…..I feel like I’m in an emotional dessert at the moment – what I wouldn’t give for some actual feeling, spontaneous or not. At the moment, at least, I think the planning is to avoid the silences, the feeling of letting my therapist down, the worry about ‘not doing therapy right’….. There are lots and lots of uncomfortable feelings associated with those things – but am I planning to avoid spontaneous feelings? I don’t know….I worry endlessly about NOT feeling real feelings in therapy – about discussing difficult things and not connecting with whatever pain lies within. I tend to shut down in the silences – I can’t think and the only thing I can feel is either alone or embarrassed. Yes, the silences are loud, but nothing potent can come up because I’m just paralysed…..how do you get round this? How did the potent stuff just arise? Was it helped along by your therapist? I just don’t know how to do it…..I know our situations are different, but I feel like I really need to be shown how to really let the silence bring something out, and how to tap into the feelings that were there in the past situations I might be describing….Like you, I’m not so sure I will going without a plan that often! I did have a plan at my last session, but at the same time I allowed myself more spontaneity and freedom during the session, to stray from my plan, and I think that was helpful, and provides a good ‘middle ground’ between planning, and no plan at all. Thank you so much, again, for your kind words – it’s really good to hear from you 🙂

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      • I don’t know how long you’ve been in therapy, but feeling in an ‘emotional desert’ isn’t at all surprising.
        No one can show us how to deal with the silence. Silence evidently means something significant to you and
        any interference from a Therapist has the potential of clouding your own true (eventual) understanding.

        While it’s understandable you fear letting the Therapist down by not doing the Therapy ‘right’, it might be helpful to understand that there is no right or wrong way; it’s whatever comes up for you in that moment. Your Therapist doesn’t harbour expectations of any kind.

        The silences make you feel alone and embarrassed… that sounds a good place to begin in Therapy. Maybe you could explore with the Therapist why you feel this way? Does it remind you of something in your past? Were you at one time accused of letting someone down by not doing something “right”. Does the loneliness come from your childhood?

        How I got over the torture of silences with my current Therapist was by simply mentioning it. Sometimes that goes a long way to ultimately defuse the issue. My Therapist is much more aware, so he makes an extra effort not to leave me in them too long. I have also asked him once to rescue me from sinking into the dumb-struck silences.

        Not experiencing real feelings is another common issue for most people in therapy. I’ve discussed a couple of issues with different Therapists, but still haven’t connected with one single teardrop. That doesn’t mean I’m doing something wrong or wasting the Therapists time, it just means those issues are buried under more layers than I first thought.

        Sorry, this has evolved into a mini-post. One last thing I will say is that I think you’re dealing with Therapy very well. Awareness is the key to healing and you demonstrate lots of that. It’s a good move forward to take a plan to session, while leaving a little space for spontaneity. That’s a perfect start and will guide you forward, I’m sure of it.

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      • Hi Cat, Thank you SO much for this, and apologies for my delay in replying. It’s not been the best week, and I’ve got very behind in replying to blog comments….I am really grateful for everything you’ve said, and I know that it is true. The questions you raise are very good ones, as are all the points you make. My therapist keeps telling me there are no rules, and she has not expectations – I just have to really keep emphasizing that to myself, in order to try and truly believe it! And yes, it is important to try and understand why silences are significant for me, and where that might come from. Like you, I try to say something if it’s going on too long. Sometimes that leads to a quick response, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes my therapist ‘rescues me’ before it gets to that point. But it’s good to hear you say that it’s not wasting the therapist’s time, because that is a worry of mine. And it’s also reassuring to hear that the experience of an ’emotional desert’ or lack of connecting with emotions in therapy, is a common one. In typical ‘I must do it right’ mode, I feel I need to know who to get under the buried layers – but I know it’s a matter of time, a matter of waiting, and a case of going slow. Don’t worry about ‘mini-posting’ – I do it all the time, as you probably saw on Cat (Half of a Soul’s) posts 🙂 I love to read about your thoughts on things. And thank you for saying you think I’m dealing with therapy well – that means a lot 🙂

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  3. I believe writing blogs and sharing comments are all part of the therapy process… glad it helped

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  4. Pingback: The paralysis of perfectionism | Life in a Bind - BPD and me

  5. Pingback: Being enough | Life in a Bind - BPD and me

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