‘Wanted to check that we are still okay….’
‘From my side we are…..it is all part of the work….’
This was the start of a brief email exchange with my therapist following our session last week. The hour was a bit of post-mortem of the previous session, and I felt as though I was continually criticizing her, and so I left feeling predictably anxious about what effect that might have had on our relationship. Leading up to last week’s session I had felt angry, withdrawn and resentful, but as usual, I found it almost impossible to take the intensity of those emotions into session. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t express them, they seemed to melt away in her presence. Nevertheless, I still felt hurt and separated as I explained how angry I had felt over the last few days, and how I had wanted to shut her out and not talk to her at all.
We talked about the session that had resulted in those feelings, and about why they might have come about. I had finally worked up the courage to delve deeply into a difficult topic, but she had stayed on the surface while all the while a part of me was crying out to be heard.* A case of lack of attunement or lack of communication? Whichever it was, the key question, it seems to me, is what does it mean, to the client, when that happens?
I think it’s fair to say that I see ‘conflict’ where perhaps others may see disagreement or misunderstanding. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that for me, disagreement is conflict. It’s conflict when I feel anger; conflict when I feel like I’m criticizing; conflict when I have a different opinion to someone I care about or whose opinion I value. And to me, conflict is always a negative thing, as are the emotions that accompany it. There are three keys ways in which my views of conflict are unhelpful and which therapy is enabling me to address.
Conflict is about me. When it comes to work, I know that there is such a thing as a difference of opinion, and that chances are it’s not personal. However, when it comes to those I care deeply about, this concept doesn’t even enter my head. It is always personal. My husband gets frustrated because he finds it almost impossible to have an adult argument with me. I withdraw immediately into silence, because it feels like an attack. When he disagrees with something I believe in strongly, or is completely uninterested in something I am passionate about, it feels as though he is rejecting me, however much he emphasizes that he is not. If I am caught up in a conflict, it is because there is something wrong with me. It’s about something I have done or not done; it’s about a way in which I fall short, or a way in which I haven’t pleased someone. Conflict means that I have made a mistake – and I find it very hard to live with making those. Alternatively, and more rarely, it means that someone else has made one – and being hurt by another’s ‘falling short’ is a risk I’d rather avoid.
Conflict is a disaster. It’s not just uncomfortable, it’s a threat. It’s never just minor – the fact that it happened at all is indicative of something wrong – not just in me, or in the other person, but in the relationship itself. I can never understand how quickly my husband seems to recover after an argument. While I wallow in self-hatred and despair over our marriage, he will appear to be fine within a few minutes or hours, and certainly by the next day. For him, the argument was not about him as a person, and the fact that it happened did not signify a catastrophe in our relationship (there are plenty of other signs of that, but that is for another post!).
Conflict is terminal. It is something to be survived – or not. My first response to conflict is often to want to turn and run and to never have to face a similar situation again. The shame of making a mistake or ‘behaving badly’, or the pain of being hurt, both drive me in the direction of wanting to turn my back on the relationship in question. One strike and you’re out, or I am – the result is the same. For example, my relationship with my mother-in-law changed a few years into my marriage, the moment we had our first argument. For a few years I had felt ‘adopted’; like a princess who could do no wrong. But that ‘minor’ argument felt like a betrayal – she showed that she could be displeased with me, that she could be critical of something I had done. It hurt, and since then I have been emotionally distant – and I will never let her in again.
But even when I want to repair conflict, I find it very difficult to know how. Talking about it, as I did with my therapist, feels as though I am criticizing and attacking the other person. That is how it would feel to me, and it’s hard to grasp that they may feel differently. Will they hate feeling criticized and consequently hate me? How will our relationship survive, and how much damage will I have done? This brings out my strong need both to reassure, and to be reassured that everything is okay. Hence the email exchange with my therapist – both damage assessment and damage limitation.
‘Blaming the parents’ feel like a therapy cliché, but with this particular issue, I think the origins of my feelings and reactions are clear. Expressing anger was a negative thing in my family, particularly if I was the one expressing it (which happened increasingly rarely, as a result). Even feeling anger, if it was towards a family member (my parents in particular), was quite clearly never justified. Whatever had transpired, the view put to me was that my parents acted only ever out of love. Not only was there no justification for anger or conflict, it was quite clear that it made my mother upset, and ‘how could I do that to her’? Our disagreements therefore felt as though I was attacking her (or at least I thought that she perceived it that way) and that therefore what I was doing was wrong. Conflict, disagreement, anger – they seemed to have no place within a happy, harmonious, family. They seemed unnatural – interlopers to be feared and discouraged, rather than opportunities to express oneself and to ‘clear the air’.
It is not surprising therefore, that conflict with my parents was never really resolved – and the same holds true now. Days and days can go by with no telephone contact after an argument, and by the time we next speak it’s all been swept under the carpet and completely ignored. When I lived at home and it was less easy to avoid communicating, it always felt as though it was a case of my mother being able to reach a point where she could either dismiss my view or try and control my behaviour. That might be by telling me I would see things from her point of view when I got older; or by saying that although I might hold a particular belief, she wanted me to promise not to act in accordance with it.
It’s not surprising that arguments with my husband feel like a disaster; or that I am very anxious about upsetting my therapist if I talk about having ‘negative’ feelings towards her. But for me, one of the most rewarding, helpful and emotional aspects of therapy, has been the repeated cycle of ‘rupture and repair’ – of conflict of one type or another, which is worked on and resolved. It is helping me to modify my views about what conflict is and what it means – or doesn’t mean. At the moment, I can only really take those lessons on board and apply them, if at all, in the context of my relationship with my therapist, though I am taking very small steps in the direction of testing things out with my husband. It feels as though the risk of confronting and resolving conflict is still too great to take unless I feel a huge amount of safety, trust, security and acceptance in the relationship. But I hope that that will eventually change, though that time feels almost impossibly far away at the moment.
Part of the reason I chose my current therapist was a gut instinct that she was robust enough, and I could be open enough, for us to resolve difficulties together. That instinct was borne out the first time we tried to resolve such a difficulty, by her wonderful response – her openness to criticism, her lack of defensiveness, and her apology for a comment that had upset me. Over much of our therapy I have spent long hours worrying over instances of apparent lack of understanding or attunement between us, but now I feel that being able to discuss and resolve difficult situations together is much more valuable than always striving to be on completely the same wavelength. Not just valuable, but more realistic as a template for relationships outside of therapy.
Rupture and repair – working through conflict – is also ultimately beneficial in creating a closer bond, counter-intuitive though that may seem. I have written before, about the desperate desire to be known by and to better know, one’s therapist. In working through conflict, you come to know something about the other person, which you might never otherwise have seen. Whereas a perfect understanding, a perfect mirror, shows you only your own reflection.
[* Dr Stein recently published a post called ‘The Unsung Value of Denial and Distraction: Where Therapists Can Go Wrong‘. It illustrates just how difficult it is for both therapists and clients to tread the line between going too quickly and too slowly in therapy, and neither one’s judgement on the matter, can be relied on absolutely. They will both get it wrong, some of the time, but talking about the feelings this engenders, can be very illuminating.]
May 31, 2015 at 1:00 am
I love love love this post 🙂
June 6, 2015 at 10:13 pm
Thank you! I love the triple love 🙂 Seriously, I’m really glad it meant something to you and thank you so much for reading and for taking the time to comment, I really appreciate it. Keep in touch!
June 6, 2015 at 10:27 pm
So much love ❤
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May 31, 2015 at 1:30 am
June 6, 2015 at 10:12 pm
Thank you very much, that means a lot….
May 31, 2015 at 6:03 am
I relate to your entire post. Most, if not all of it. I often get frustrated when I feel my therapist doesn’t delve as deep in difficult topics I am discussing that were SO hard for me to bring up. Or at least I perceive she isn’t. I’m unconvinced it’s her; I think I want to go there on some level, but there is also hesitation that she picks up on. And she is aware of how easily emotionally triggered I can get, so perhaps she is waiting for me to go deep and she is just following the lead. But for me, even uttering any words on some topics feels deep! Not sure if any of this resonates, but thanks for sharing.
June 6, 2015 at 10:20 pm
Yes, this resonates completely, thank you so much for commenting and telling me your experience, and I’m so sorry about my delay in replying. The same has happened to me a number of times – finally getting the courage to mention something, and then it feeling flat and anticlimactic and sort of insignificant, when I do. We spend half or one session on it, and then I can’t find a way of returning to it again – not just that, but somehow there doesn’t seem to be anything else to say. Which is why it just feels as though we’ve stayed on the surface – surely there should be more to uncover? I think you’re right that therapists can be very cautious about not going too deep too quickly. Just as they can be cautious about giving you enough space to express yourself or just ‘be’ – I guess with me, both run the risk of it ending up feeling as though my therapist isn’t engaged enough or close enough, and that can be triggering in itself. Therapy is so hard – thank you again for sharing your experience, it was really good to hear your thoughts, and keep in touch!
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May 31, 2015 at 2:14 pm
Appreciate this piece.
June 6, 2015 at 10:12 pm
Thank you for taking the time to let me know 🙂 I’m really glad it was helpful….
June 2, 2015 at 6:46 pm
Thank you for linking back to one of my posts. Re: “rupture” and repair,” my initial thought was to the fact that I had (successful) hernia surgery a few years back. 😉 Language is such a funny thing. I sometimes am amazed any of us understand each other! This post describes some of your progress. Don’t forget it!
June 2, 2015 at 11:01 pm
Thank you so much for your comments/replies both here and on your own post that I commented on. I will reply properly tomorrow but couldn’t resist passing on the fact that I saw your comments just before I went into a therapy session, and I showed them to my therapist. The second half of your reply to my comment on your post was exactly what my therapist has said to me on a couple of occasions in the past (but of course it’s so hard to take on board). She laughed and said ‘great minds think alike’ 😉
June 2, 2015 at 11:25 pm
Well, you made my day! I am proud to be in such good company!
June 3, 2015 at 10:22 pm
I’m very glad and humbled to have made your day 🙂 And you are indeed in very good company (but then I am rather biased) 😉
At the risk of sounding as though my therapist/parent fantasies are running amock, I do cheekily think the two of you would get on well if you ever met in ‘real life’. I probably need to discuss this little train of thought with her – it might end up being rather revealing…!
I think she has had some encounters with the ‘Chicago therapy scene’ as it were -I believe she has met and heard Jonathan Lear speak, and that she has a high regard for him. And of course I have also directed her to your posts, particularly the ones I have shared through here!
June 3, 2015 at 10:25 pm
Very nice, thank you. My REALLY appreciative readers wear sandwich boards with my blog’s URL on them, just in case you have some idle time. JUST KIDDING! 😉
June 3, 2015 at 11:02 pm
I’m trying to think of a witty reply or board slogan, but one eludes me 😉 Thank you for making me giggle 🙂
June 8, 2015 at 9:07 pm
Apologies for the belated reply, but I just wanted to say a big THANK YOU for your words here. I didn’t really think of this post as being about progress, but then I find it very hard to recognise progress and it’s immensely valuable to have it pointed out and be reminded of it. I will try not to forget it, and your words and encouragement make that easier. As for language…it is a subject in which I am very interested 🙂 And I do a very good job, it seems, of using language in such a roundabout way as to make myself little understood and easily misunderstood, in therapy! Something to work on……I’m glad your past surgery was successful – if I were to ‘play’ at therapy, what does it mean, I wonder, that this came to mind when I mentioned rupture and repair? 😉 Oh the number of times I have been tempted to try and ‘therapize’ my therapist – but I wouldn’t dare 😉
June 6, 2015 at 1:50 am
Reblogged this on MAKE BPD STIGMA-FREE!.
June 6, 2015 at 10:11 pm
Thank you again for the reblog! 🙂
April 23, 2016 at 8:26 am
Like you, I also wasn’t allowed to show/express emotions. Although if I expressed anger, I wouldn’t just get a talking to. I would feel it as well. I hate conflict, it terrifies me. And it truly is a disaster.
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