Life in a Bind – BPD and me

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.


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Mental health and the holidays: we’ve survived Christmas, but what about New Year’s Eve?

And….it’s that time of year again. And once again I’m dreading it, and this post from the end of December last year describes why, and is just as true then, as it is now. If anything, I am even more frightened of the depths of January this time, than I was last year.
The challenges of the holiday season are far from over, and if you either are someone, or know someone with mental health difficulties, please do reach out to receive or give support this New Year’s Eve. An understanding text (that doesn’t just say ‘Happy New Year’!) can make all the difference….

Life in a Bind - BPD and me

My heart sank when I saw the first of the ‘It’s been a wonderful year!’ type pictorial summaries pop up in my Facebook feed. It seemed to start even earlier this year, and just as the equivalent gimmicks did over the last couple of years, it’s spreading like wildfire; like some sort of contagion. In addition, I know that come 31 December, my feed will start filling up with expressions of festive cheer, thankfulness and the highlights of my friends’ lives over the last year.

fireworks new yearIf there were a Scrooge of the New Year season, I would probably be it. If there were a New Year’s alternative to ‘Bah humbug’, I would probably use it. But at the risk of losing those of you at this point who think I’m simply a mean and grumpy party-pooper – I have a serious point to make.

As soon as Christmas is over…

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BPD and parenting: Sitting with your child’s strong emotions

A few weeks ago I spent more than half an hour sitting in a room with my youngest child while he was having an almighty tantrum. He was trying to get out of the room, and I was trying to keep him contained until the storm passed. To be honest, I don’t actually remember how it started – I think it may have been my persistent but calm refusal to let him any more crisps after lunch. Given how exhausted he was at the time, his frustration and anger quickly escalated and he started hitting me. We were in a room with a group of friends and I sensed this would go on for a while, so I carried him into another room, shut the door, and prepared to ride it out.

He screamed and cried. He grabbed hold of my clothes, my jewellery, my hair, and tried to pull them. He tried to scratch me, to hit me and to kick me. At one point he tried to whip me repeatedly with a cuddly toy, which I put outside the room and told him he could have it back when he had calmed down. He kept trying to turn the door-handle and to get me to move away from the door, and then he tried standing on my ankles with all his weight, while I held them against the door so that he couldn’t open it.

All the while, he was screaming ‘mummy’, and ‘mummy, stop it’, and ‘mummy, you’re hurting me’ – though I didn’t touch him other than to occasionally gently hold an arm that was about to hit my face. I held my hands under his as he flailed them around while he was lashing out – a fun game of landing ‘high-fives’ under any other circumstances. Part of me was wondering what the neighbours were thinking through the not-very-thick-walls and whether they were getting concerned about what I was doing to my child – and then I put the thought out my mind. My child was my focus – and I was trying to do what was right by him.

A number of times I offered him a cuddle or stroked his back; or I held out my arms inviting him to step into them. I was present with him in his anger, and I listened to his cries and his complaints. I regret not saying a little more to show him that I could see how angry he was, that it was okay, and that I loved him and would stay with him in his emotions, for as long as it took. When he said ‘mummy, you’re hurting me’, I regret saying ‘I am not hurting you’ – because in his mind, I was. Maybe not physically, but I was setting a limit that he found immensely frustrating and his anger was scary for him and it appeared to him as though I was inflicting that on him. I wish I had said something like ‘I can see that you are angry and perhaps scared and I want to help you feel better’.

I gave him a different soft toy to cuddle. Eventually I gave him a second soft toy. And suddenly, with no warning, the mood changed, he stopped crying, and he climbed into my lap for a cuddle. I let him know how much I loved him and how wonderful he was, and told him it was okay to be angry and that I understood how scary that could be, but that it was not okay to hit me. We joined everyone else in the other room, but I was hyper-vigilant for anything else that might spark off another melt-down.

I’m not saying all of this to show off my parenting skills – which, much of the time, are very far short of where I would like them to be. I came across a quote on Facebook recently, which said “Parenthood is……whispering ‘for fuck’s sake’ before answering to your name”, and often that is me, with a whole load of impatience and shouting thrown in. What I am describing above is a new thing for me – a new way of approaching things. Up until now my tactics have been the fairly common ones of threats, consequences, time-outs, and counting to three (using halves and quarters where necessary!). But these do not work well for my high-energy and strong-willed children, and things have been getting increasingly difficult, with them often seeming to spend more time in time-out, than outside it. And I have not been feeling good about my parenting, and have been doubting how loving or validating it has been.

So what has made the difference? It may seem strange to say it, but BPD has. BPD, examined in the light of therapy and a parenting website I found recently (Hand in Hand Parenting), which really resonates with me and just ‘feels right’ for our situation, at this time. If you google ‘BPD and parenting’, you won’t find many positive references – much of the ‘literature’ or comment seems to be about how to guard against the negative effects that a parent with BPD can have on their children. And I have no doubt that unreflective parenting, with or without the complication of BPD, will not always generate the most optimal results for our children. But experience, when reflected upon, is a great teacher; and what many people with BPD know a great deal about, is emotional invalidation. When you understand how that feels, and what effects it can have, it gives a powerful motivation to do things differently and to avoid repeating familiar patterns from your own childhood.

In my own therapy, my therapist and I have spent much time about the fact that I fear the impact that my emotions will have on others. That I can’t simply ‘report’ how I feel, without it ‘doing something’ to those I report it to. Often, when I’m really struggling with something outside of session, I will take it to someone else first. A close someone, a trusted someone – but still someone else. It’s as if it doesn’t feel safe to take it to her; and it feels as though I would be placing a burden on her, and I don’t want to do that. At those times, she is allied too closely to ‘mother’ –  my own mother who was, and is, unable to just sit with the emotions that I bring, and to contain them. My emotions have an impact on my own mother – nothing I say is just ‘for report’. She becomes upset or anxious by any hint that there may be something wrong or that things aren’t going well – and she does nothing to disguise it. In fact, quite the opposite – she seeks reassurance, and she seeks it from me. As an adult, I have reached the stage where this just makes me very angry. But the way in which I feel desperate to protect my therapist from the ‘negative consequences’ of my emotions, is a clue, I think, to how I might have felt about it as a child.

Perhaps that is why the concept of letting my child express his emotions, and just sitting with them while that happens, feels so important. I need him to feel confident that he can tell me how he feels and that I will be able to handle it. That I will still be there, I will stay calm, and I won’t fall to pieces. That I will be the same, before and after. And the next time, and the next. I want him to feel safe, and to know that the only impact he has on me is to elicit love and understanding, when he needs it most.

Borderline Personality Disorder has done that for me – and for him; but BPD when reflected upon with the help of my therapist and in the context of my own experience. I keep worrying that time is ‘running out’ for me to do things differently rather than repeating mistakes my own parents made; and I am thankful for my therapist’s repeated reassurance that it is never too late, that repair, if needed, is always possible, and that every instance of breaking old patterns and doing things differently is an important step for me and for my children. She believes in my ability to be a good mother; and after sitting with my child’s strong emotions and holding him close when those emotions had subsided, I am starting to believe in it too.


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Christmas present selfie

sadness 2

There is room in the Christmas story for sadness, grief, confusion, and doubts.” (Vicky Beeching)

From now on, I really want to try and learn how to embrace sadness, rather than try and push it away. I want to learn how to make a home for it and genuinely invite it to stay – for as long as it needs to – rather than trying to shove it out of the door as quickly as possible. I want to try and co-exist – peacefully – with it; rather than feel as though it is unlivable with. I don’t want it to be the housemate that I am forever frustrated with for ‘messing up’ everything I try and put in order; but the wise live-in relative who I am grateful to for showing me there can be a different order that makes sense of things, or a way of redefining order altogether.

I hope my new Christmas present, my little blue friend (Sadness) from the film ‘Inside Out’, will help to remind me of those things whenever I feel anger, frustration, or resentment, at Her frequent presence in my life, particularly at times, like today, when I so strongly wish Her to be absent. I also hope that She will remind me of my therapist’s words on the same subject, and I wish that those words will end up being true: “You may discover that having the feelings (without also trying not to have them) may be a simpler process than you imagine“……


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Christmas wishes

This is an incredibly challenging time of year for so many – with or without mental health difficulties. I don’t want the words ‘Merry Christmas’ to sound hollow or to cause pain; but at the same time I want to wish you as much inner peace, contentment, and moments of hope and joy, as you are able to find tomorrow, on 25 December 2015.

I listened to a Christmas Carol service on the radio this afternoon and it ended with a blessing and a prayer that we may be filled with ‘peace and goodwill’. Not for the first time recently, I thought about how our ability to give to others – to love, to forgive, to be generous and kind – is much greater when we have a measure of inner peace and strength and feel ourselves in receipt of those same things, that gives us an anchor and a base from which to pour ourselves out without feeling as though we might run dry and cease to exist. Ultimately, we will find this within ourselves, even if we spend a lifetime trying. If, for now, someone else is showing you the way, I hope their steadfast belief in you, whether they are with you right now or not, will help you to get through this holiday period with as much peace, goodwill to others, and also crucially to yourself, as circumstances will allow.

To end on a mundane note – and with an apology. I am conscious that I have a long backlog of blog comments to reply to, as well as a number of lovely and personal emails sent through my ‘Contact me’ page. I can only sincerely apologise and say what is true – though not an excuse – that I had a very bad two weeks at the end of November with depression and difficult times in therapy, and this combined with a very stressful period at work. I kept posting – but the cracks were showing in a variety of ways. I intend to reply to everyone by the end of the first week in January, and am grateful for your patience and continued support – and comments!

With love and best wishes for tomorrow!


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Content, Safe, Saved

As mentioned in my two most recent posts (here and here), the subject of ‘mother’ – and specifically, of being a ‘therapy daughter’ to my ‘therapy mother’ – have been much on my mind recently, particularly as I am now in a three week therapy break.

If you have a ‘benevolent’ mother-figure in your life, whoever she is; and if she holds you and keeps you safe, whether literally or metaphorically; I hope these simple, beautiful, words by Pooky Knightsmith will bring her to mind and keep her in your thoughts and close to your heart, and remind you of safety and light…..

Pooky's Poems

She nestled
In her mother’s arms;
Content,
Safe,
Saved.
In this embrace,
She found her home.
Content,
Safe,
Saved.
Dark thoughts
Gave way to lighter ones.
Content,
Safe,
Saved.
These arms
Would hold her always now.
Content,
Safe,
Saved.

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Memory Monday – “Being excluded from your therapist’s life: you’ve read the reasons – this is how it feels”

It’s time for a therapy break – again. But along with the usual feelings of loss and separation, this particular time of year heightens the feelings of being excluded. My therapist is not just on a break – she is spending time, as so many people do over Christmas, with family. She will be surrounded by the people she loves; she will be engaged in family traditions that bind them all together as a unit. They will talk, laugh, remember, and sit close. And I will think about them doing that, as I have been thinking about the prospect of it already, and it will be painful – very, very painful. Of course I want all manner of good things for her – including opportunities to rest and spend time with her children! But what hurts is the fact that that is a part of her life that I will never have access to, and that not being a family member, friend, or even a casual acquaintance, there are certain types of access I will never have to her.

I described that pain of feeling excluded a few months ago, in my post ‘Being excluded from your therapist’s life: you’ve read the reasons – this is how it feels’, which you can find here:

https://lifeinabind.com/2015/04/18/being-excluded-from-your-therapists-life-youve-read-the-reasons-this-is-how-it-feels/

I think that at this time of year, exclusion feels heightened because it is so much easier to make comparisons with others and therefore to focus not just on what I can’t have, but on what others have instead. And as my therapist has pointed out, the unspoken (and for me, barely realised) undertone of that comparison, is a belief that I compare unfavourably with those who have what I desire. That somehow the reason for that insufficiency, is my insufficiency. That I am less acceptable, less worthy, less deserving.

In my post on feeling excluded, I spoke about being a ‘therapy daughter’ – a wonderful phrase my therapist sometimes uses to describe my relationship to her. But at this time of year, my identity as a therapy daughter can feel less like a special bond, and more like a differentiator between me and her ‘biological daughter’; a painful reminder of everything that she (her biological daughter) has access to, that I do not. For a number of reasons, I have been thinking  a great deal about that comparison this week, and having sessions in my therapist’s home makes it easier to indulge in imaginings about what Christmas will be like in her house, with her daughter; and that includes imaginings about the details of what I will be ‘missing out on’.

You see, when it comes to being a therapy daughter rather than a biological daughter,  it’s hard in so many ways. It’s hard being in that house when I know it’s not my space – even if a bit of it is my space for an hour, here and there – but it is and has been her space all along. It’s hard to know that the arms that she will be drawn close by, are the ones that I will never feel around me, and that the kisses in her hair, softly planted, will be, for me, only imagined or dreamed of. It’s hard to know that when I leave for the ‘therapy break’, she will be there even when she isn’t – because they are a part of each other. It’s hard to know that I am kept in mind during that break, but she is always kept in body, heart and soul; hard that I can be known, but she can really know. Hard that she can only ever be beautiful, because of how she is seen; whereas I constantly fear that my ugliness will betray me. It’s hard that she is a daughter, while I am only playing the part. Hard that, save ultimately, they never have to be parted; whereas for me, parting is not just something that takes place over Christmas – it is the end that was there from the beginning and that haunts every hello and goodbye.

I feel that lack of what I don’t have, particularly this Christmas time. And yet – I have the most wonderful therapist in the world, for me. Why do I say that? Because of this: “The reality is that difference, or not being my biological daughter, is no barrier to being connected, accepted or significant“. I can say without doubt that that sentence, and everything it means, is the best Christmas present I will have this year.


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Staying afloat

A friend shared this poem with me and I wanted very much to share it with you. I have read that it is about a father teaching his daughter how to swim – but it feels as though it is about so much more as well. Perhaps this will be particularly poignant if you have a daughter; if you are a daughter; or if you are aching to be the daughter of someone who is trying to teach you to keep your head above water in life, rather than sinking under its weight. Someone who is gently guiding you and buoying you up, until such time as that ability has grown inside you, light as air.

I’m a terrible swimmer and I can’t tread water for more than a couple of minutes before tiring; but I know how to float. It’s a question of remembering to lie back and lie still; remembering to look upwards; remembering to open my arms up in a wide embrace; and remembering the voice of one who tells me I am safe and I am held. And that even in fear and absence – especially in fear and absence – I am held. I hope you enjoy these beautiful words…

First lesson, lie back


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Grieving the past, in the present – and the impact of how we think about things

“A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

***

There is a view of the nature of philosophy that claims that it is not about discovering philosophical knowledge or finding solutions to philosophical problems; but that it is a battle against the bewitchment of intelligence by means of language. “There is not a single philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, different therapies, as it were”. In that view, philosophy, like psychotherapy, is a ‘talking cure’ – one in which it is not knowledge but understanding that is the key to living freely, as a whole person. “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about’” – in life, one might say, as well as in thought. In this model, the task of both philosophy and therapy is to try and use different frameworks to view what is already there, and  in order to do that it’s vital to understand how the language that we use – including pictorial language – can lead us astray.

Pictures, analogies, metaphors – can be incredibly powerful. They give us a way of talking about our experiences that shows what those experiences are like. But because we are human, with language and imagination, those pictures and analogies suggest other pictures, metaphors and analogies to us. We get carried along by a train of thought and very soon, we have turned a helpful way of seeing things and of showing what we see, into a landscape of pseudo-scientific facts and causal mechanisms. We all need ways of talking about things – but the danger lies in believing that our way of talking tells us something factual about the things that we are talking about.

A concept is not an object – and yet the confusion between the two is frequent in psychoanalysis. Talking about an ‘inner’ versus an ‘outer’ world may be a handy shortcut for referring to ‘goings on of the mind’, but the very language of ‘inner versus outer’ has furnished psychotherapy with a landscape littered with internal objects, mental processes, and psychic causal mechanisms, despite the fact that when I am doing psychotherapy or philosophy I am not engaged in the same sort of activity as when I am doing science. That is not to deny that there can be scientific, physical or genetic causes to psychological difficulties – it is simply to say that applying the language and framework of science to doing and participating in psychotherapy is like applying the rules of football to a game of chess.

***

Picture, analogies, metaphors – can be incredibly powerful, and can influence how we think and feel, and how we behave. But I’m not just talking about the difference between being a ‘glass-half-empty’ or a ‘glass-half-full’ kind of person. I’m talking about the difference between thinking of life as a glass, as compared to a river, or a tree, or an onion. Each analogy is not just a snapshot, it is a route-map, a train of thought, and subsequently of action. If I think of life as a glass, it is something that needs to be filled; it becomes about accumulation, whether that is of possessions, people, or happiness. My cup may be full to overflowing, and I may drink to the dregs and have my fill. I will be content, in other words, if the volume has been satisfactory, and I will act to increase that volume. If life is a river I may worry less about what I do, and may be more content to be carried along with the experience; I may be drawn inexorably to the sea, to my final purpose, gathering leaves and twigs and gaining tributaries and companions along the way. If life is a tree I may focus on personal growth; if it is an onion I may focus on trying to peel back the layers either of myself or of the world around me, to discover ‘what lies beneath’.

We take the first step – thinking of life as a glass –because it appeals, because it ‘makes sense to us’. But from that first step the subsequent ones flow in a way which seems independent of us and causally determined; in a way which seems factual. And so we forget that this was, in the first instance, simply a picture that appealed to us. But by that stage, the picture is holding us captive because its language has a hold on us, and keeps repeating itself to us, over and over.

***

There is a picture that holds me captive – it is a picture of a ‘pit of need’ inside me. This picture, this language, is the way I describe to myself a certain set of feelings. Feelings of longing and desperation; of wanting warmth and closeness, acceptance and connection. Over the last few months, those feelings have been associated with numerous instances of what my therapist has called my ‘subconscious breaking through the cracks’. Instances of impulsive action, regretted; of doing, without thinking; of boundaries pushed or broken. Instances leading to shame and self-loathing.

The thing about a ‘pit’ is this – it cries out to be filled. The very language I use to describe my feelings seems to imply that I need to do something – I need to seek that connection, in the hope that there will be an outpouring of love that will fill that pit, and make those feelings of longing go away. The pit cries out to be filled – it aims at action and future resolution, not at thought and reflection. It gives the illusion of control – because it’s easy to envisage a pit that, with help, can be made a little less empty. And so the pit attaches itself to a person – it becomes about the person with whom a connection is sought, and who can help to fill it. It becomes almost impossible to imagine that the pit may have nothing to do with that person at all – that the need may be not for something in the future or the here and now, but for a connection and an acceptance that should have taken place in the past.

***

My therapist has often told me that therapy cannot make up for the past, or replace what I did not have. My therapist may ‘stand for’ the mother I may have needed, or represent her in some way – but she cannot be that mother, or simply give me the experience I was missing. And by constantly wanting therapy, and her, to be something they are not, and by constantly fighting against the boundaries of therapy, I am not making the most of what it has to offer and I am not fully able to enjoy and appreciate it. It is never enough.

I have often read that one must grieve what was lost or was missing – but I have no idea how to grieve something that wasn’t there; something that is nebulous and unremembered. Save that, as my therapist has pointed out, it is remembered by virtue of the transference that is experienced during sessions. Even so, I have only recently learned how to grieve a person rather than bury feelings of loss – and I have no idea how to apply those lessons to grieving a lack of unconditional acceptance and connection in my past.

But what I have learned about grief, is this – that you have to sit tight, and weather the storm. That you have to be open to it and be pummeled by it and let it have its way with you. Grief comes in waves and you have no control over it; you have to let it wash over you, knowing that it will do so, but that more waves will come. And eventually, the waves will hit less often, and when they do you will feel less and less as though you are drowning. Eventually, it will be the good memories that will help you keep your head above water rather than weighing you down with a sense of loss. And then one day you will be able to smile at the memories, and enjoy them, and there will be an aching, and only the distant bodily remembering of the bruising and the storm.

***

What if when I felt those feelings of longing and desperation, of desire for connection and acceptance – I could think of them as a type of grief, and not as a pit of need? What if I could think of them as a wave hitting me, and washing over me, rather than an empty hole inside me, needing to be filled? What if I could just sit and wait, rather than be impelled to act? What if I could recognise that the feelings were not about something that needed to happen now, but about something that never did? And therefore that though the person who shares my space (mental or physical) while I am experiencing those things may be someone wonderful and important and maybe even someone that I love – they may still be completely distinct from that sense of fierce need and hunger?

What if I can change the language that I use to talk about these feelings, so that the picture of a pit of need no longer holds me captive? If I can instead use the language of a wave of grief, will I be able to break out of this cycle of acting when I should wait, and of acting leading to shame and regret? It’s worth a try, purely on those grounds. But it’s also worth a try because of the potential end-game – if the grief analogy is followed all the way through. It’s worth a try if, eventually, that fierce longing and desperation can be replaced by an appreciation, enjoyment and a true valuing of what I do have – whether in therapy or elsewhere. The people I am connected to may not be able to pour themselves out in the way that I might think I need them to – but they can be there for me none-the-less, and perhaps they can be my equivalent of ‘good memories’ to enjoy, once the waves of grief over the past, have done their work.


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Why Your Therapist Will Say the Wrong Thing

Last week, I reblogged a post by ‘Girl in Therapy’, on the subject of how therapists sign off their emails. I prefaced the reblog with a few comments about my own experience, and those comments and ‘Girl in Therapy’s’ original post prompted Dr Stein to write the following excellent post, addressing the question from the therapist’s point of view. I think his perspective is incredibly important in helping patients deal with the inevitable – when one’s therapist ends up saying the upsetting, inadvertently careless, or ‘wrong’ thing – because it shows what the price of trying to avoid that inevitability would be; a therapist who is far more preoccupied with what they should be saying, than with what the patient is saying.

As with many of Dr Stein’s posts, this one generated a number of interesting comments and much helpful discussion. In reply to one of the comments, Dr Stein wrote the following: “A question I did not raise is whether an acceptable closing might also become routine over time and thus, once again, not be satisfying. Perhaps another reader who is in therapy and who identifies with Sirena’s concern might address the question.

I wanted to take up this challenge and try and address it, at least from my point of view, because I think it’s an important question to raise, and one which throws further light on why this issue of email sign-offs is a difficult one. I don’t know if ‘Girl in Therapy’ would agree with this point of view, but it seems to me that the difficulty with email sign-offs (whether that is ‘Best wishes’, ‘All the best’, ‘Yours’ etc), is not about whether or not they are satisfying – but whether or not they are jarring.

If it were about satisfaction – as with many areas in therapy and in my life in general – I suspect it would be a case of ‘never enough’ and that, as Dr Stein has hinted, what was once ‘satisfying’, would become less so after frequent repetition. And it is fairly obvious even if difficult to accept as a client, I think, that what might ‘feel’, on one level, really satisfying – a very personal, ‘chummy’ or loving sign-off – is not possible when it comes to therapy. And so when I discussed this topic with my therapist, I wasn’t thinking about what I wanted her to write, or what would be satisfying for me read; I was concerned only with what I found it uncomfortable to read, and with trying to avoid that discomfort.

Therefore I think what is more important is what the email sign-off is not – rather than what it is. I don’t think its purpose is necessarily to provoke a positive reaction, but I think it is important that it doesn’t provoke a negative one. A jarring email sign-off is like a session where the therapist has failed to mirror the client, but because of lack of understanding rather than for the therapeutic benefit of providing the client with a different experience to the one they may have been used to.

Email sign-offs can be jarring for different reasons, in different contexts, and the same sign-off can be jarring in one case, and acceptable in another. Speaking personally, I find ‘Best wishes’ jarring if used by my therapist, because it feels much more formal than is warranted by the therapy relationship (which is intimate), but also because it is very much the language of my working world. Equally however, in most contexts I experience the lack of a formal beginning (e.g. Dear X) and the use of only a name or initial to sign-off, as being quite curt and ‘unfriendly’, even though I know that this is a perfectly standard approach used by a large number of people who certainly do not intend their emails to come across in that way. And so I can accept it at work, but I would still find it difficult to feel ‘cared for’ if a close friend sent me emails in that format.

And yet I am perfectly happy for my therapist to sign-off emails by using only her name or initial. I recognise that in the absence of a wide choice of other ‘legitimate’ sign-offs, this is a format which does not feel too formal, and does not feel incompatible with a caring therapeutic relationship.

Coming back to the question of whether repeated use of a particular sign-off would become dissatisfying over time – I think it’s worth bearing in mind that there is much more to an email than the sign-off, and I believe this is another case where the it’s more important to avoid jarring, than to use exactly the ‘right’ words at the end. You can convey particular sympathy and close attention to a distressed client by choosing to sign-off with ‘take care’ at the end of an otherwise brief exchange, rather than the usual ‘see you tomorrow’, for example –but you can equally convey the same sentiment in the body of the email, while leaving the sign-off the same. In such cases I think that it is not that repeated use of the same sign-off becomes dissatisfying, but that it runs the risk of becoming jarring in itself if neither it nor the tone of the substantive email exchange, varies to take account of the where the client is at, emotionally.

I say all of this, of course, from the position of someone whose therapist varies their sign-offs, and so I am trying to imagine myself into a situation where this was not the case! It’s also worth bearing in mind that in the comment threads on ‘Girl in Therapy’s’ post, my own post, and Dr Stein’s, there are clearly those who very much value consistency in their therapists’ email sign-offs, as it is reassuring and eliminates the temptation to try and read anything into variations. I would imagine that for these individuals, the reassurance persists over time, and does not turn to dissatisfaction –but of course, I could be wrong, and would welcome being corrected if so!

Dr. Gerald Stein

512px-Adolescent_girl_sad_0001

What follows might not be what you want to hear. Therapists don’t talk about it publicly. I hope, however, this gets you thinking about your counselor’s aims, what you might want him to do, and what is reasonable to expect of her or him in the effort to be the best possible healer.

Girl in Therapy recently wrote a post called How Your Therapist Signs Their Emails, reblogged by Life in a Bind with an insightful preface. The gist is captured here:

This thing, let’s call it a pet hate, is email sign-offs. You know the thing people write just before their name? And more specifically, the way my therapist signs off on an email or text.

She “hates” such closings as “kind regards” and “best wishes.” The blogger wants something different from her therapist than the equivalent of “a warmed-up, just vomited fur ball that I’ve stood on in…

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How your therapist signs their emails.

I love this post because I haven’t seen any other blog posts about this subject, and it describes exactly how I feel! I’d be interested in knowing how many others feel the same way, and whether you have raised it with your therapist. For me, email sign-offs came up as an issue very early on with my current therapist. My ex-therapist would never have emailed between sessions and so it wasn’t a topic that we discussed. However, the very first time my current therapist sent me an email, the use of ‘Best wishes’ at the end, really grated. At the very next session I said that I hoped it was okay, but that I couldn’t sign my own emails in that way, because I felt it was far too formal for the kind of relationship that I hoped therapy would be. I didn’t ask her to change the way she signed her own emails, but from the next message she sent me, ‘Best wishes’ had gone!

The comments at the end of this post show that there are a variety of opinions on the way that individuals prefer their therapists to end emails. Some find consistency to be absolutely key, so that there is no temptation to ‘read something’ into different end phrases. Others appreciate small variations particularly when used to highlight care or support at more difficult times. My own therapist varies her email sign-offs, mostly, I believe, without any specific intention. However, there are times when it seems clear that she has used a particular word or phrase for a reason – for example, she uses ‘take care’ rarely, but when she does, it is always in response to emails and times when I have been in much more distress than usual. At other times, her sign-offs vary from simply her first initial, to her name, to ‘see you next week’, to ‘until tomorrow’, to ‘looking forward to seeing you on Tuesday’. Her use of ‘looking forward to seeing you’ is also very important to me, as it’s often easy for me to fall into the temptation of thinking that she doesn’t really want to see me three times a week, or that she finds our sessions difficult or uninteresting.

If you are in contact in between sessions, how does your own therapist end their emails? Is this something you pay attention to or that bothers you? And if so, have you addressed this with them, and what has the outcome been? I would love to hear from you!