My therapy journey, recovering from Borderline Personality Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I write for welldoing.org , for Planet Mindful magazine, and for Muse Magazine Australia, under the name Clara Bridges. Listed in Top Ten Resources for BPD in 2016 by goodtherapy.org.
I love this post, by one of my favourite bloggers, because there are two very powerful concepts described within it, which resonate with me very much indeed.
I have been, and continue to be, resistant to many things in therapy. I still struggle with resistance against accepting the boundaries of therapy; resistance against taking on board that I may have missed out on a type of acceptance when growing up that simply cannot be ‘made up for’, but must be grieved; and resistance against the possibility of mending my broken relationship with my parents. Those are just three examples from a much longer list.
There has been movement in other areas, though – where, as the post says, I have embraced new realisations that I previously resisted. This includes, as described in a couple of recent posts, accepting the idea that I must ‘wait‘ and be open to receiving what others have to give and to the possibility of developing self-validation, rather than constantly asking for reassurance from others.
I think the most powerful lines in the post are the final ones: “When I started therapy, I imagined letting go to be the conclusion, but it’s actually just the beginning.” In some ways, ‘letting go’ feels so much like a loss, involving suffering and being left empty; whereas this post makes it clear that it’s not so much about losing something, but about gaining the ‘here and now’ – coming face to face with the person we are in the present. More than that, it makes it clear there is still so much work to do – we can let go of what cannot be rewritten and we can do an awful lot to mould the way we deal with what we have let go.
I’m fearful that ‘letting go’ will change me – but perhaps it’s actually about realising that I have already changed. It’s not about leaving something behind, but about recognising the ways in which it still is, and may always be, present in some way. And perhaps it’s resistance to that idea, and accepting what that means, that makes letting go so difficult to do.
Everything was ticking along rather nicely in therapy, until circumstances took an unexpected turn three weeks ago. I’ve managed to keep my head above the depression, but it has been difficult to write or read other blogs… my apologies. Thankfully, the worst of it’s slowly edging away like a stormy weather front.
I have spent months sharing past memories, edging through childhood trauma, recounting the years of sexual abuse, and trawling the effects of growing up with narcissistic parents has become one of the most enlightening and validating experiences of my life.
During those developments, my head felt as though it was in an endless chaotic loop. I steamrolled ahead and experienced a number of lightbulb moments along the way and even the odd bolt of lightning, but it was a relief to feel the intensity of the issues start to fizzle out.
‘Why are you carrying a copy of ‘Little Rabbit Waits for the Moon’? asked my husband a couple of weeks ago, as I came home after therapy. ‘I lent it to my therapist’ I said. ‘Why did you lend your therapist a children’s book?’ he asked, puzzled, then thought better of it, gave me a strange looks as if to say ‘this therapy lark is really weird’, and walked away….
Ever since my therapist quoted T. S. Eliot at me this time last year, the concept of ‘Waiting’ has had a special sort of significance for me. But I never expected to find it embodied in a children’s book about a little rabbit waiting for the moon to come out and watch over him, before he could go to sleep. My pre-schooler came across the book at a children’s group, and the parallels grabbed me as soon as I started reading. I went home and ordered it from Amazon straight away. It’s my book, not my children’s – and it’s quite hard to convince them to let me read it to them. I don’t think Little Rabbit’s ‘waiting’ is exciting enough for them – well, I can relate to their impatience, at least…..
When my therapist referred me to those six lines from T. S. Eliot last year, I wrote about them in my post ‘Waiting’. It was very short, so I will reproduce it in its entirety here:
“I told my therapist I was thinking about leaving because I didn’t feel cared for or understood. My therapist told me that establishing a therapy takes time. I told my therapist that I couldn’t just wait for someone to come along and understand and care about me. She said that it was about waiting to come to the realisation that I was cared for.
She asked me if I knew T.S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’. She said that part of it was about waiting. This is that part.”
At the time, I appreciated the beauty of the words, but I felt I was missing their point. It was as if I knew they should be having an impact, but they weren’t. I wasn’t quite sure what they were trying to say – or rather, I felt fairly sure that I didn’t want to understand or take on board what they were trying to say. I have never been a patient person – I’ll always go for the two squares of chocolate now, rather than wait for ten squares of chocolate later. That is no reflection on how much I love chocolate – delayed gratification is just not my thing. But wanting to feel loved and understood is not about gratification – it feels like a desperate, basic need; like survival. And the idea of waiting for that was very difficult indeed to get my head around.
As time went on, the words were no less beautiful, but they became more meaningful. I got a little more used to ‘waiting’. A little more used to my therapist not providing me with reassurance all the time – particularly reassurance as to whether I was cared for or understood. And I became a little more used to the idea that the two things – lack of reassurance, and waiting – went hand in hand. The former provided a space in which the later could, eventually, lead to an appreciation of what was actually there.
I’m no expert in poetry interpretation – and I haven’t read any commentaries on these lines from T. S. Eliot. But the way I interpret them in relation to myself, is that quite often, what I feel as though I desperately want or need, is not necessarily what is best for me, or what I actually need in the long run. Or, it may be the complete opposite of something else I that I long for. When I look at how things have turned out for me in the past, many of my decisions show evidence of ‘hope for the wrong thing’ or ‘love of the wrong thing’ – however desperately right and necessary those things felt at the time.
I asked my therapist last year, whether she hadn’t said she cared about me because it wasn’t true, or because she didn’t think it was within the boundaries of therapy to say it. She said that it would be ‘premature’ – and referred me to these lines. It was, in its ambiguity, a reply very much in keeping with the idea of ‘waiting’. Was it premature to feel that way, or premature to speak it?
The closest thing to those words I wanted to hear, came in December, after a couple of very emotionally tough sessions, and my post ‘My borderline mind’. I had finally realised the extent to which I saw everything through the lens of a strong desire to belong to someone who loved me and understood me perfectly and completely. Going through this in session involved some painfully hard-hitting but necessary realisations about the boundaries of therapy. I felt crushed, confused, vulnerable, but wanted to stay close. Having become conscious of that ‘lens’ I had no idea how I ‘should’ be seeing, or how to proceed with the therapy relationship. My therapist said that at the moment, maybe I just needed to accept that I found it hard to accept. ‘Accept what?’ I asked. ‘Accept that I care; that I’m here; that you matter.’
Just like that, un-remarked on in any way by either of us – but what I’d been longing for all along. It happened again, a few months later – as equally unexpected, as equally wonderful, as equally cherished. In a strange way it’s hard to explain, although I wanted to share how wonderful it felt, it also felt too private, too intimate, too special a moment to write about at the time. I held it close, very close to my heart. I still do.
But what was interesting about the first time that it happened, was how ‘soberly’ special it felt, if that’s the right phrase. The fact that it came after my realisation about how my life had revolved around the unrealistic expectation of a perfect relationship, gave it a completely different feel. A weightier feel, in some ways. I think that if it had happened before, it would have ‘gone to my head’, for lack of a better phrase. I may have tried to turn it into something it wasn’t. It might have fuelled those pictures of the ideal, and my pushing at those therapy boundaries. As it is, the ‘waiting’ that had transpired, meant that when the words came, the way in which I saw what I hoped for and what I longer for, had started to change. I felt more open to hoping and longing for something different. To loving someone a bit less perfect and a bit more real.
And so the words didn’t make me giddy – they weren’t like a rush of blood to the head. They stunned me, they blew me away – but they were like a warm, softly-burning fire in my heart.
Since then, I have come to link those six lines from T. S. Eliot with other ‘revelations’ – situations in which I realised that what I actually needed was the complete opposite of what I felt desperate for. I have always had a huge longing to be loved and accepted unconditionally. But at the same time, as had become increasingly obvious in therapy, I have an overwhelming desire to please – to do things to make ‘the other’ happy and to ‘gain favour’. But my desire to please pulls in the opposite direction to my longing for unconditional acceptance and is therefore counter-productive. If I always seek to gain favour, love and acceptance through pleasing, it is never going to feel unconditional. I am never going to see what may be right in front of me, if it hasn’t been gained by the method in which I feel desperate to pursue it.
Equally, I am very resistant to the idea of ‘short-term’ fixes for my mental difficulties – in many ways, it’s why I almost actively deny myself some things (e.g. recourse to religious faith, or meditation) which have helped me in the past. I don’t want to put a ‘sticking plaster’ over my problems this time – I don’t want to ‘recover’ only to find that I ‘relapse’ the next time my life hits a bump, boulder or mountain in the road. It’s why I am committed to the idea of psychotherapy and looking at the past, as well as trying to deal with issues in the present. And yet, a few weeks ago, when I felt as though I’d taken an enormous backwards step in therapy and was doubting my therapist’s caring all over again, I felt incredibly strongly that ‘all I wanted’ was for her to use a few simple and direct words to make it crystal clear that she cared about me. I was in such pain and it felt like such a simple solution, that I couldn’t understand why she would not do it. ‘It would be such an easy fix….’ I thought. Ah – that’s when the penny dropped.
Such an easy fix – yes, it would be. But I was also adamant I didn’t want quick fixes. I didn’t want a sticking plaster. My longing for instant reassurance pulled in completely the opposite direction to my desire for lasting understanding and change. That thought was crystallised even further when I read the quote that resulted in my post ‘Seeking reassurance – when the story in your own head changes’. I had to wait to realise that what I thought wanted was not really what I wanted. That often, what may feel like darkness is actually the light, and ‘the stillness the dancing’.
When I first read ‘Little Rabbit Waits for the Moon’, I felt that it was an incredibly sad story. Having waited, and waited and waited for the moon, Little Rabbit eventually gets so tired he falls asleep before it appears. The moon slides into the night sky, but Little Rabbit is sleeping – dreaming of the moon that will watch over him during the night. All I could think, was that he’d missed it. Missed what he had been waiting for – he couldn’t see it when it appeared.
Little Rabbit had waited a long time – and he had asked a flower, a lake, a winding path, the wind, and the great, rolling hills, how long he would have to wait. Each time he asked, he got an answer he didn’t like – an answer that made it sound as though it would be a very long time until the moon would appear. The flower may have grown into a tree by the time the moon came; the moon may have fallen into the lake; the wind might have turned into a storm by the time the moon arrived; and the hills, which had such a good view, couldn’t see it yet. And so Little Rabbit kept asking someone else, and someone else – ‘just to be sure’.
I had felt an immediate connection with my own impatience over waiting to feel ‘watched over’ and cared for. A connection to asking and not liking the answers I was receiving. A connection to the difficulty of waiting, and the sheer exhaustion (emotional, in my case) of that wait. But what I hadn’t picked up on, until my therapist mentioned it, was the connection between Little Rabbit’s constant asking – ‘just to be sure’ – and my own frequent reassurance seeking.
What I did eventually realise, was that I didn’t have to view it as a sad story. It wasn’t about Little Rabbit missing the moon, or Little Rabbit not knowing he was watched over. The moon was always there, in the sky, and when it finally ‘made an appearance’, it was no less real just because Little Rabbit was asleep and couldn’t physically see it. Not only that, but Little Rabbit had internalised the object that he was longing for – he had created his own representation of the moon that was watching over him, and that, presumably, gave him a sense of safety while he slept. A sense of safety that he could take with wherever and whenever he went (to sleep), irrespective of whether the actual moon was ‘in evidence’ or not. Little Rabbit waited and waited, and eventually found out that what he actually needed, was not what he though he needed at all.
A T. S. Eliot poem and a child’s story about an impatient little bunny may seem like odd texts to put side by side and to compare. But I think they share a similar meaning, and have a similar message to give – at least to me. I’m sure my children are oblivious to it. I’m sure my husband is perplexed – and a little bemused. But my therapist understands what T. S. Eliot and Little Rabbit have in common – and finally, after a lot of waiting, so do I.
I’m dreading the August therapy break – as you can tell from the above poem I wrote. Although I’m also trying to convince myself it will be okay – as you can also tell from the above.
Last year, the six week break included two to three weeks of incredibly low mood and suicidal ideation. It included poor decisions about how to spend my time, and I resolutely held out from contacting my therapist by email, despite the fact she had told me it was okay to do so.
Although I cannot completely control how I will feel, I am hoping that this time, I will be able to do things a little differently, and therefore I hope that I will end up feeling a little differently. The two-week Easter therapy gap was the first time I felt I’d really managed to stay connected to my therapist. It was incredibly hard work – striving constantly to challenge unhelpful thoughts and to remind myself that she still cared and hadn’t abandoned me. But I’m going to try and work hard at it again, despite the much longer gap.
I am also going to schedule regular nights out with friends; I will ensure that I do something ‘just for me’ at times when I would normally be in therapy, whether that is spending time writing, or watching a film. I will make sure I don’t stay in alone, on difficult anniversaries which remind me of loss or abandonment; and I will ‘allow’ myself to take the very genuine offer of help from my therapist, and email her now and again.
And I will make sure that I put in place as many other support mechanisms as I can. For example, though I felt very guilty at the thought of ‘using up resources’, I will be signing up for the Textcare scheme run by the mental health charity SANE. Textcare provides emotional support for anyone affected by mental illness, including family, friends and carers. It provides help either at regular times when you might feel isolated, or at specific times when some extra support might be needed. I know that receiving a text once a week for five weeks, at a time when I would normally be in therapy, will help me to feel supported, thought-about, and less alone. If you think that you may struggle during your own therapy break this summer and that this would be a useful additional support, please do find out more.
In the meantime, here are two excellent posts by therapists whose writing I greatly enjoy reading, on the subject of therapist vacations. They look at the break from the therapist’s perspective, and from the client’s perspective, and also give pointers for further reading.
Finally, for a light-hearted approach to the issue, try googling ‘August therapy break New Yorker’. You will find a number of interesting and amusing (depending on your perspective!) articles. However, the following extract from the start of one of them, is, I think, an interesting question for anyone in therapy (and not just New Yorkers) to ponder, particularly as one of the most valuable aspects of a therapy break can be the experience and subsequent discussion, in therapy, of all the thoughts and feelings that came up during the break:
“To many New Yorkers, August poses a potent question: What would life be like without therapy? Analysts have no shortage of answers to this question – and it could take you a year’s worth of 50-minute hours to explore them all.” – Jennifer Senior
I’ve realised that I’m very nervous about sharing my most recent post (‘Seeking reassurance – when the story in your own head changes’) with my therapist. Not because of what she might think – on the contrary, the people-pleasing side of me that wants to do well and seeks praise, is hoping that I’ve written and realised something that she will ‘approve of’. But I am worried that what I have written will change how she behaves towards me. She already withholds reassurance on a number of occasions, for the reasons I described in my post. And although in writing the post I really felt I understood the benefits of her approach – at the same time I am scared that she will with-hold any and all reassurance in future. That she will take my new-found understanding as licence to never give me what I sometimes desperately feel I want and need.
Standing back from that fear and from those thoughts going around in my head, I was struck by the extent to which I believe my words and actions impact upon her. Not just on this occasion, but almost all of the time. I worry frequently that what I say or do will lead her to withdraw from me, or change the way she responds during session, or will motivate her to discontinue email contact. I also project my own insecurities and ways of thinking, onto her – I assume that she will react adversely towards me, because that is how I would react in a similar situation.
But it suddenly occurred to me a couple of days ago, that there is a bizarre kind of tension in all of this. When I am worrying about the impact I am having, I feel anxious and helpless – she will change how she behaves, and there’s nothing I can do about it. But there’s an almost narcissistic quality to the view that my every word and action impacts her in that way. My anxiety implies a hidden belief that my words and actions have power over her – to the extent that I make no conceptual room for the fact that she has her own thoughts and beliefs, and for the possibility that they may be unaffected by my actions. I am never conscious of this hidden belief – in fact, I find the idea abhorrent. All I’m conscious of is a helplessness in the face of the possibility that she will change, and a desperate desire to make it better and to find a way to ensure that her reaction does not end up being the one I fear.
I remember many months ago, being caught completely by surprise by both my therapists’ words and the strength of my reaction against them. I cannot remember the exact context, but she had said something along the lines of me feeling powerful or wanting to exercise power in the context of my family dynamics when growing up. I was almost trembling with tears of protest at the suggestion that I might want to control or have power over somebody. It felt like an insult and completely anathema to who I was. But there’s no smoke without a fire, and where there’s vehement denial, there’s probably something deeper to understand.
I find the desire for control and power over others, ugly. I hate to think that that desire might be a part of me. I find it hard to believe it could lurk within me, particularly given how sensitive I am to being controlled. The idea of me being the perpetrator of what I hate, sickens me. I see myself as a ‘live and let live’ sort of person. I feel as though I have no interest in controlling others. Not only that, but part of the violence of my reaction against the thought of me wanting to exert power over others, is a strongly held belief that forced words or actions are meaningless. I have written before about how difficult it is for me to ask for what I want or need, because I feel that if I have to ask, the other person doesn’t really want to give, and the gesture is invalidated.
And yet….I would like my needs to be met – but without me having to ask. And I do hate the sense that my plans are being frustrated. If there’s something I really want to do or have put together a plan or proposal I really believe in – I hate it when someone else puts an obstacle in the way, or points out reasons why the plan may not be the best idea. It’s not that I want to ride rough-shod over someone else’s desires, but I do desperately want to be ‘allowed’ to do the things I really want to do. Is that trying to exercise power or control over someone else? I don’t know…..
And in so far as I want others’ views of me to remain positive, and in so far as I fear the impact I may have on others’ actions – I suppose you could say there is a sense in which I want to control those adverse reactions and mitigate against them. But it seems to me that many with BPD, myself included, are caught in two different power-struggles, neither of which they have chosen. Those power struggles may have their origins in childhood, but they continue to play out in all sorts of adult relationships, until they can be explored and hopefully resolved through therapy.
I think that as a child, I had a power I didn’t want (over others) but not the power I wanted (over myself). I didn’t choose either situation, and in that sense, felt helpless in both. My parents were strict, and my mother very intrusive; I felt that my views were not respected or taken seriously. I didn’t feel free to believe what I wanted, or to be who I wanted. At the same time, I was aware that I was the centre of my mother’s universe and that everything I did or said affected her. If I fell over and hurt myself, she panicked. If I expressed sadness, I made her sad. If I didn’t listen to her, I made her angry. If I expressed a very different viewpoint to her own, I disappointed her. She needed me to be happy: she needed me in order to feel happy; and she needed me to be happy so that she was too. I didn’t want – still don’t want – to be at the centre of her universe. I hate the responsibility (and yes, the implied power) that comes with that.
A number of those with BPD have experienced relationships with care-givers who wanted to maintain early enmeshment, and to resist the child individuating and finding their own sense of self, which could be very different to that of the care-giver. This may be one of the reasons for the unstable sense of self that is one of the diagnostic criteria for BPD in the DSM IV. It may also be a reason for the blurring of boundaries between oneself and others, or oneself and the world. It’s easy, in that context, to see why many with BPD project their own fears and worldview onto other people; and also to see why they may unconsciously believe that everything they do impacts (usually negatively) upon others and upon their environment.
This may come across as people with BPD being self-centred, arrogant or un-empathetic. As if they believe that everything in the world is to do with them. But a child’s world is very small – and someone with BPD may have been unable to ‘outgrow’ the very real sense that everything in their own world was to do with them. I was an extension of my mother – and she didn’t just absorb everything I said and did, she reflected it back at me. If I disappointed her, she might use emotional blackmail to obtain compliance. If I expressed sadness she might ask for reassurance that everything was okay. What I did had an effect; the effect was negative; and I had to try and make up for it in some way. Either that, or give up interacting at all.
I don’t want to be responsible for everything that someone else feels or does. I don’t want that sort of power, and I really wish I didn’t feel or act as if I had it. There is no safety in being with someone who is as changeable and susceptible to my emotions, as I am. Even though I am afraid of not impinging upon someone else – because how will I know if I matter, if nothing I do affects others? – I want the other to be robust and separate enough to hold my emotions without either absorbing them completely or giving them back to me in a way that makes me feel responsible for both of us.
I do want power over myself – whoever that may be – and to feel acceptance when that self is expressed. Next time I worry over the impact I may have had upon my therapist, I need to remember that she encourages that self-expression – and accepts it, rather than reacts to it. Accepts me. Acceptance is empowering – and that is the only kind of power I truly want or need.
‘He hesitated, struggling to find the words he wanted. “You see, there’s a fundamental connection between seeming and being….We understand how dangerous a mask can be. We all become what we pretend to be…..It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.
….listen. I’ve got it now. You meet a girl: shy, unassuming. If you tell her she’s beautiful, she’ll think you’re sweet, but she won’t believe you. She knows that beauty lies in your beholding…..And sometimes that’s enough.
….But there’s a better way. You show her she is beautiful. You make mirrors of your eyes, prayers of your hands against her body. It is hard, very hard, but when she truly believes you….Suddenly the story she tells herself in her own head changes. She transforms. She isn’t seen as beautiful. She is beautiful, seen.” ‘
― Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind
I often ask my therapist for verbal reassurance. She often refrains from giving it directly and gently tells me that it is important that I come to know things through experience. This is a constant struggle for me, and I have written about it before (‘How do we come to know things?‘). It’s still hard for me to accept that words, which I value so highly, may not have the same power as experience. But I trust her, and her judgement, and so I have tried to be more accepting of her approach and not to resent it, even if I don’t fully understand it.
Butthis– this quote above, which I found by chance on the internet, from a book I’ve never read, struck me immediately because it seems to directly address this question of experience being more important than words, in a way that is both extraordinarily beautifully expressed, and which also makes complete sense to me.
I have always told my therapist that I feel strongly that words are concrete and not open to interpretation in the way that actions can be; and that they are helpful because I can remember them and bring them to mind whenever I need reassurance in future. However, although words may be powerful, their power is temporary, which ispreciselywhy I so often need to remind myself of them. They don’t remove the need for future reassurance, even if they deal with it very effectively in the moment. Why?
Because others’ words can allay our fears, but they cannot rewrite our own internal scripts for us. They provide no motivation to change the story that we tell ourselves, about ourselves, inside our heads. For example, they may tell us that at this point in time, someone loves us – but they can’t convince us that we’re intrinsically lovable. We feel lovable only in so far as someone else feels that way about us – the quality is vested in their perception of us, and not in our own being. Which is why the message needs such constant re-enforcing – we need to check that their perception hasn’t changed.
I used to argue that if my therapist reassured me with words, at least for a while, I would eventually reach the stage where I no longer needed to ask her for reassurance because I would have a ‘bank’ of words and phrases to remember and to bring to mind. I would have internalised her reassurance. I thought that was the goal; that when I reached that point, I would have achieved the holy grail of being able to provide my own validation and reassurance.
Reading that now, my argument seems fundamentally flawed. Internalising her words is not self-validation – I am not ‘doing it for myself’. She is simply doing it for me, but in absentia. It is ‘other-validation’, but one step removed. I am still lovable only because she cares; and not because she has seen something in me that is worth caring about.
It IS hard – extraordinarily hard – to change those stories that we tell ourselves, about ourselves. It won’t happen without an internal fight – it certainly won’t happen when there is no incentive; or, indeed where there is an active disincentive in the form of a powerful feel-good remedy which gives us a temporary high.
Words are powerful, but they are also easy to say. There is no hard graft, either in saying them, or in receiving them. But it takes effort to demonstrate to someone how they are seen, and effort to be open to that demonstration, and to receive it. Coming to know something by experience – being shown something rather than told it –is a difficult road; but perhaps the very effort is part of what has the power to change our own internal perceptions of ourselves. To change the story that we tell inside our minds.
‘She transforms’ – yes, but the transformation is different, depending on your viewpoint. In her own eyes, she has gone from being a person who was thought beautiful by some, to being a beautiful person. For others, she has transformed into someone who can see her beauty for herself, and not just through the eyes of others.
She was always beautiful – and perhaps now even more so, because she believes it too.
You can conceal something in many ways – by disguising it and making it look like something else; by hiding it away and making sure it isn’t seen. A mask can be something you put on to hide your expression; your expression can be something you put on to conceal your thoughts.
We all wear a mask and conceal our thoughts – in many ways life could not proceed without it. If we told everyone everything that was on our minds, all the time, the world would be an even noisier place and we would have precious few friends left in it. We pick and choose; we filter what we say, and in that sense we present the world a partial view. That’s okay – those are the accepted conventions of social conduct.
But the conventions in therapy are different. My therapist and I had talked about ‘free association’ in the past – mainly to comment on how difficult it was. Though associated with Freud, it does not need to be done on the proverbial couch or in the context of ‘traditional’ psychoanalysis. Free association is: “the mental process by which one word or image may spontaneously suggest another without any necessary logical connection”. The idea is that the patient, quite simply – oh, if ever there was a case of ‘anything BUT’ – talks about what is on their mind, with no effort to tell a linear story or shape the thoughts that come to mind.
I’ve lost count of the number of times my therapist has encouraged me to ‘just say what’s on your mind’, when I have been sitting there in silence, or admitted to not knowing what to say next. It’s only now that I realise that I heard the words, but what I took them to mean was: ‘just choose one of the many things you had on your list to talk about before you came here’; or ‘just think of something sensible or interesting to say’.
Which is why when she eventually told me that I censor my thoughts it was simultaneously both a statement of the blindingly obvious and also a blinding revelation. Censorship is not just the enemy of free association – by definition, if I am censoring my thoughts I cannot be free associating. Censorship is about suppressing something- free association is about revealing the suppressed. I find it hard (and sobering) to believe that I have been in psychotherapy for two years and have never thought about this before, let alone realised what I was doing and how it might be impacting the therapeutic process.
This realisation came a few sessions after another, similar ‘revelation’ in which I became conscious of the fact that I spend a lot of time during session talking to my therapist, as one might expect – but a fair amount of it happens IN MY HEAD. So when there’s a silence (which happens quite often), sometimes I will be panicking about what to say next, sometimes I will be trying to reach a thought or a memory or try and figure something out. But often, I’m simply continuing the conversation I was having a moment go, but in the safety and privacy of my own brain. Since I’ve become aware of this, I keep catching myself doing it with disturbing regularity – even, on occasion, catching myself ceasing to verbalise mid-sentence.
Why? Why am I doing these things when the very reason I am supposed to be there is to talk openly about how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking? I thought I trusted my therapist to a great extent and would tell her anything – but somehow the thought of telling her things as and when they happen, downloaded straight from my brain with no filtering – feels like a very different, and a much bigger, risk. The silence is a type of filter too – it’s just one that lets nothing through, rather than showing some parts, and hiding others.
My husband recently told me that I have never really talked to him in the way that many partners communicate with each other. I don’t really talk to him (or to others) about my day, or about how I feel. I can make small-talk at parties or intellectualise if it’s called for, but when someone asks me about myself, my tendency is to answer briefly and then focus all the attention on them, by asking lots of questions in return. That way lies safety – I’m in control of the questioning and my anxiety over what to say or not say, can dissipate. Why do I find it so difficult to talk about myself? I think there are probably three key reasons.
What I say isn’t interesting: fundamentally, I don’t understand why people would be interested in what I have to say, unless it benefits them directly in some way. Why would they want to hear about my day? Or about what I thought of the news, or a particular situation at work? It feels as though it would be boring to talk about. Why would someone want to know about the minutiae of my life?
Defence against intrusiveness: the only person who DID want to know about the minutiae of my life – my mother – felt she had a right to know. And so keeping quiet about certain things was a way both of preserving my own space and keeping complete ownership and control over certain parts of my life and my thoughts. And if my mother wanted to know the minutiae, she also made it very clear that no one else could ever love me or be there for me, in the way that she was. By extension, no one could ever be as interested in me as she was. Or perhaps interest came to me to be synonymous with intrusiveness; and if there is an absence of the latter, perhaps I also take it as an absence of the former.
What I say will be judged: sometimes I don’t feel I can start a conversation because I know I don’t have the energy to finish it. Sometimes I don’t talk because I know my view-point won’t be accepted. When I was younger, people would ask me questions and I knew what answer they wanted me to give. The answer that accorded with their own view, or at least their view of me. And we’re back again to feeling as though no one would be interested in what I have to say: if my answers are judged, then what was behind the question was not a genuine interest in me.
Judgement, lack of interest, intrusiveness. All of those past experiences make it hard to talk in therapy. But their absence in therapy makes it equally hard to talk. My therapist is not intrusive, she doesn’t judge me, and she is genuinely interested in me. But I have no idea how to operate in that environment – all I can think of, is ‘what does she want to hear, what does she want me to say?’. It’s almost impossible to believe that she doesn’t have ‘an agenda’, however benign it might be. It’s hard to get my head around the fact that she values and wants to use whatever I bring, because whatever I bring is an expression of myself, and that is what she’s interested in.
Once I became aware of my censoring, I did start to tell my therapist things I would have ordinarily chosen not to mention. Thoughts and memories that came to mind that I couldn’t see the relevance of. Phrases that I would normally have reworded to sound more innocuous. Small details of my day that I thought inconsequential. And of course, they were anything BUT. She made use of them immediately, in ways that made perfect sense. They resulted in material we’re still working on now. Perhaps it was simply luck that the first few times I tried out ‘un-censoring’, the results felt really significant.
But it doesn’t feel like luck. It feels as though this is what I was meant to have been doing all along. Or, because my therapist often tells me there is no ‘should’ in therapy – it’s what it would have been helpful for me to have been doing all along.
Free association is hard; it’s uncomfortable; and it’s risky. Why? Because it involves a complete lack of censorship – it’s a revealing, an unmasking. I’m going to try and say what’s on my mind more often; and I’m going to try and always talk to my therapist aloud, and not in my head. I don’t want her to be able to say: “Your silences remain; they are your biggest mask”*. Instead, I want to fill those silences with whatever comes to mind. It will take courage. As the children’s film ‘Cinderella’, says: “The greatest risk any of us will ever take – [is] to be seen as we truly are”. When it comes to therapy, at least, I think that is one risk that is definitely worth taking.
Part II – think before you act
Mask, noun: A covering, worn as a disguise
Sometimes we don’t just keep thinks hidden by omitting them in some way – we put something on to act as a disguise, or at the very least to act as a barrier to make access more difficult. Sometimes the mask isn’t a lack of communication, but communication by a veiled means. Saying something, but not transparently. Saying something, but in way that involves having to peel back the layers to find what lies beneath. Saying something, but not with words.
I have my therapist to thank for this observation too, though as she correctly identified, at some level I’m just as aware as she is of how I’m communicating, even if I will not consciously admit it. It’s the clothes that I wear – particularly the really inappropriate ones when I’m feeling flirtatious or when I suspect that our conversation will move onto the subject of sex. It’s the emails I bombard her with less than twenty four hours after session and with less than twenty four hours to go until the next; none of which really requires a reply, but I write to ask for one anyway.
My therapist talks about how sometimes I substitute action with thought – which is a nice way of saying ‘think before you act’. But it’s also a way of saying that although ‘actions may speak louder than words’, that tends to apply more to consciously chosen actions, where the action evidences the words, rather than avoiding them. Unconsciously chosen actions, not preceded by thought, are communication-avoidant, and what they are evidencing is much less clear.
My emails were communicating an urgent need to let her know I still needed her, still wanted her, still missed her, after I felt I’d ‘pushed her away’ the previous weekend and in the last session. The really short shorts and bare legs – well, I’m in the middle of talking about what they might have been communicating, so forgive me if I put that one on hold for now!
I tried to apologise to my therapist for the emails and for the inappropriate clothes – but she would have none of it. As she pointed out, it is all ‘grist for the mill’ and what’s important is that we talk about it. I know no one who always thinks before they act, and rather than berating myself for putting on a disguise, I should instead try and remember: “A mask is what we wear to hide from ourselves”**. If that’s the case, paying attention to how we’re ‘clothed’, can give us some insight into what we’re afraid of; what it is that we’re hiding from. As this wonderful quote says: “In a corner of my soul there hides a tiny frightened child, who is frightened by a corner where there lingers something wild”***. The difficult thing about therapy, is realising that the frightened child and the ‘something wild’ can both be parts of ourselves. When we start talking about them rather than acting them out – perhaps then we can start to integrate them into our view of ourselves, and to accept them.
And perhaps then there will be no need of a mask to hide behind; at least in therapy, and to ourselves.
I sent my therapist a link to my post on my uncensored, jumbled thoughts after last week’s painful session. She replied, and said that she was very much aware of my current struggles and that sometimes therapy can hit hard stretches where it feels very confusing and hard to work out what is happening. She said that my post reminded her of a line in the T.S. Eliot poem ‘East Coker’: “And what you do not know is the only thing you know”.
She first mentioned the poem to me more than a year ago, when I was caught up in a different but still very intense struggle, wondering whether to leave therapy because I didn’t feel cared for or understood. At that time, she spoke about the importance of ‘waiting’, and quoted from a slightly earlier section of ‘East Coker’ which I then shared in a blog post. Those six lines on ‘waiting’ have been hugely important for me and I keep coming back to them. At first I did not really understand or accept them – but the longer I have been in therapy, the more I have come to understand their wisdom and to see it played out in my own life, both within therapy and outside it.
I think a similar thing will come to be true of the lines above. The first three lines make me smile, as they make me think of the number of times my therapist and I have talked about the process of therapy; the fact there is no ‘wrong or right way’ of doing things; and that there is no ‘should’ when it comes to therapy. She has said it before – and I am sure that she will say it many times again. These days I try and pre-empt it by saying “I know you will say there is no ‘should‘….” to which she replies “good” or “you are listening” with a mischievous smile on her face.
At the moment, therapy certainly feels like a ‘way wherein there is no ecstasy’, but much pain. It certainly feels like a ‘way of ignorance’ and a ‘way of disposession’. And the only thing I know is that I don’t know how therapy is supposed to work, and I don’t understand how I’m supposed to ‘own’ the therapeutic attachment in a way that heals, but also in a way that accepts that I can never actually ‘own’ that type of relationship outside its limited experience in therapy.
I love the way that my therapist acknowledged my struggles. I love the way that she pointed me to a poem; one that she knows already means a lot to me and which I relate intimately to therapy. And I love that having pointed me to the poem, she said this about it: “It probably makes it no easier to bear…but it is a route forwards, not backwards and it doesn’t negate what has gone before. It is new territory and it will feel strange at first.”
It does feel strange – but she is in my corner. And that makes both the waiting and the not knowing, much easier to bear.
[Usually, I like my posts to have a structure – a beginning, middle and an end. This post is a departure. It has a great many beginnings, some middles and no real end. It’s mostly failed beginnings, as I tried to start over and over and over again. At some point I gave up and simply started writing down thoughts as they came to mind. Paragraphs. Single sentences. At another point I started writing aborted beginnings again. There is no logical structure – and a fair amount of repetition.
It was a few days ago – and three hours after my last therapy session. I was hurting and I was very confused. For the last few sessions as well as dealing with the ‘content of therapy’, we kept coming back to the ‘process of therapy’ itself, which for me, was rapidly becoming a major part of the content. It felt as though almost every thought, feeling or conversation I was having, was coming up against a way in which I was wanting therapy or my therapist to be something other than what they were. I was finding it difficult to accept them, and therefore to be open to what they could give me.
I know there is no ‘route map’ for therapy. That some of the most renowned therapists have no idea how the process actually works – they just know that it does. And so I have always tried to accept the uncertainty of not really knowing how therapy was going to unfold or what my precise destination was. But recently, and particularly at my last session, I felt completely lost, with absolutely no sense of what I was meant to be doing, of how I should behave, or of what might constitute progress; while at the same time feeling that those thoughts were ‘wrong’ because there was no ‘right way’ of proceeding in these matters.
So these, for what they’re worth, are my jumbled thoughts and feelings, as they were at the time. I share them not because they are particularly helpful or insightful, or explanatory – but only in case someone else may be feeling exactly the same way, and may want to know that they have company in those feelings, and that some of them, at least, may be short-lived. I no longer wish to undo what I have been doing; I don’t regret trusting (to whatever extent I may have done that), taking risks, loving. But I’m still confused – about many things. And I’m still not sure how to ‘do therapy’ – if not ‘better’, then at least in a way that is more helpful to me. But, as my therapist said, the more I can simplyexperience it rather than analyse how I’m doing it, the more we can work on together. Including what that ‘togetherness’ actually means.]
I feel horribly confused. Nothing makes sense. I feel diminished. Hopelessly diminished. Or hopeless and diminished, or both.
Maybe I should try and see her as my doctor. As just a professional who’s there to help me. But that is what she is, isn’t she? And maybe not constantly reminding myself of that is the biggest part of the problem.
I feel as though I want to undo everything that I have done or that has happened since I entered therapy. All the progress I thought I’d made, all the things I thought I’d realised. The way I thought I’d trusted and opened myself up. The acceptance I thought I’d felt. It all feels like a lie or a massive self-deception.
I feel numb with a dense ball of pain inside my chest. Squeezed up so tight, so that the rest of me can just be unfeeling and still, while a little part sits still and hurts.
If this is all just material for therapy, how does therapy work? I can emotionally disengage from the emotion – that’s fine. I can treat it as ‘material’ – but that involves even greater compartmentalisation, not less.
The world was safer before therapy. I may have been dysfunctional but I understood my dysfunction. It worked, it kept me safe. I knew what the end goal was – protection and survival. Now I have no idea what I’m striving for.
I feel diminished. As if everything I thought I’d understood was a lie or a convenient piece of self-deception. As if every time I felt a sense of acceptance it was based on an error. My error. It feels as though I can never get it right.
I don’t want to be a bother. All I ever wanted to do was the right thing.
I feel as though everything I thought I’d understood or achieved over the last two years was a make-believe story – a convenient piece of self-deception. Every little piece of ‘acceptance’ feels empty, illusory, based on a misunderstanding or misapprehension about what was going on. I feel diminished. Utterly diminished.
So the goal of therapy is to understand where these feelings come from. But who’s going to pay attention to the experience of the feelings themselves? What do I do with them? How do they go away? Are they even real? Or am I simply my own interpreter? Who experiences me? Are the feelings only the instrument of understanding?
I can’t write and it’s driving me crazy. I feel gagged, bound up, trussed by an inability to express myself to myself.
I feel diminished. I don’t understand. I feel like there is nothing of me left, except the edifice that I knocked down and that now needs to be built up again. I wish I’d never trusted. I wish I’d never let myself feel.
I feel as though nothing I say, do or feel is right. I’m not even right to think and feel that there is a right way to think and feel. I am caught up in vicious circles that it seems impossible to escape. I’m trying to step outside my worldview to put it right, but just like stepping outside of language, that’s impossible. It’s a task that can only happen from within – but I have no idea where to start.
“Who knows? Who hopes? Who troubles? Let it pass! He sleeps. He sleeps less tremulous, less cold, Than we who wake, and waking say Alas! “ *
Therapy means always thinking about what the feelings mean and what they’re telling me. If I’m missing her it has to be because of ‘this’ or ‘that’ or because she’s representing ‘so-and-so’ or ‘a.n. other’. Is there no room for me just missing her? Is there no room for the experience being meaningful and not just its interpretation? I can bring the feeling to therapy and we can talk about it. But who deals with the feeling in the moment? What deals with it? Do I just file it away for future reference? As I have always filed feelings away? Oh look, I miss her. Isn’t that interesting. Let’s talk about it in two days time. Won’t that be nice. The fact is I miss her and it’s visceral and it’s real and the only antidote feels like some comfort, a sense of her presence or some simple words.
Is she only ever a representation? Not real within herself? At least, not to me? Only ever a projection?
I need to get my head around the fact that she shouldn’t mean this much to me. That she should be like a doctor or a colleague. Someone there to help me with a problem but not to get emotionally invested in.
I dreamed that I had a building made of white lego, with a white terrace at the top with lots of tables and chairs on it. I dreamed that I started to dismantle the lego and take the supporting bricks out from under the terrace. In the end, it was like a letter ‘U’ laying on its side. A bottom, and a top, with nothing in between. It looked and felt fragile, with no underpinning. What would happen to that terrace?
I feel like that lego structure. I feel diminished. As if everything I thought I’d understood and felt in connection with therapy, has been dismantled. Over the last two years I thought I was building something – but now I realise it’s all just air.
I felt accepted at least partly due to a sense of freedom to express myself and make myself and my needs known, in the moment, rather than being held back always by politeness, or fear, or propriety, or wanting to protect her from myself. Spontaneity and freedom as opposed to constant questioning, over-thinking, rumination, self-doubt, anxiety. And all without judgment. But that was a mistake.
I don’t want to be any trouble. All I ever wanted to do was the right thing.
Maybe it would work better if I saw her just as a professional who is there to help me with something. But that is exactly what she is. And perhaps that is the heart of the matter.
She is just a professional there to help me. Repeat after me. Endless times, please. Until I can believe it. Until I can act on it.
But for me professional means unemotional and unattached. No connectedness. If she is just a professional there to help me I should be able to go in, talk about how I’m feeling, have a conversation, leave, feel better or perhaps not feel better. But not think about her. Not dream about her. Not want to be close to her. Not miss her. Not want to share everything with her. I wouldn’t feel that way about my doctor – so why should I feel that way about her? It feels like I’m trying to talk myself into something and I don’t even know if it makes any sense.