Life in a Bind – BPD and me

My therapy journey, recovering from Borderline Personality Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I write for , for Planet Mindful magazine, and for Muse Magazine Australia, under the name Clara Bridges. Listed in Top Ten Resources for BPD in 2016 by


Transferentially yours – an email to my therapist, unsent

This may be the first weekend in – oh, a while – that I won’t have emailed you, and you won’t have replied. Am I depriving myself of contact, sabotaging myself, being childish, stubborn, cutting off my nose to spite my face? Maybe one, more, or all of the above.

Lately we’ve got into a debate about the reasons why I’m therapy, and whether or not I really want to change. And all because I wrote you an note, on an impulse, saying that I could change what I did or how I acted, but I didn’t see how I could ever change how I felt about myself. Okay, maybe not all because of that – there had been a fair amount of me finding myself in exactly the same situation I had found myself in many times before, apparently unable to see, accept and take in others’ concern and care, while at the same time believing only my own negative self-perceptions irrespective of any evidence to the contrary. But still, in a very specific way, our debate was the immediate result of my note, a note I wrote on impulse and when I was feeling despairing. So please, have a little faith. Though you wouldn’t be the first who didn’t, and who doesn’t. I know I like to think we share things – but I didn’t want this to be one of them.

I suppose I only have myself to blame for encouraging you to give me a kick up the backside, by telling you that I respond to challenge. But when you challenge me I want to feel secure in that challenge; and that means not just knowing that you are my anchor if I fall apart, but knowing that you feel secure in throwing out the challenge. That you have the confidence to challenge and to believe in me even when I don’t. That you know the answer to the question you are asking, but are trying to get me to see it. I want to feel that your commitment to me is stronger than your challenge – even if I fail it. Because I can try again, and you can help me.

This time, the challenge felt a little like a threat. I responded, as I always do, to that motivational kick, but how much was due to fear? And at what price? Doubt, an undermining of my feeling of security and safety, and of my belief in your commitment, even though you insist your commitment is there, and that what you are asking for is my own.

It feels as though all of this has come about because we have spent so long talking about my marriage recently – which is very helpful, and incredibly important – but we still haven’t talked about my feelings and actions over the Christmas break, and our own relationship hasn’t had much of a look-in. I agree with you that we needed to stay with the subject of my marriage – that the fact I wanted to put that to one side and focus on us was in itself a very important issue to address. Why did I keep running away from the conversation? Why did it always feel like an imposition on therapy time to talk about the key present relationship in my life? Of course we needed to talk about my marriage. But the longer we have focused on it, the less connected to you I feel, and the less I am able to maintain a sense of your benevolence.

You keep saying that working with resistance is a very important part of therapy. That it can be very uncomfortable, both for client and for therapist. I have seen lots of different emotions pass across your features over the last couple of weeks, even though I can’t identify what they are, and that disturbs me. I’m sure I have annoyed you, perhaps even angered you. Disappointed you maybe? Who knows. In our last session when we were talking about my husband, it felt very much as though you were on ‘his side’, rather than mine – though I know there are no ‘sides’. You said you thought my husband was doing his best and wasn’t sure what else to do, and it seems to me that perhaps you were talking just as much about yourself, as about him. You want me to give him a break, to stop identifying him with ‘mother’ – is that getting to you too?

I know that I will come back to session next week, still wanting to work through all this. I know it is important, and I hope that I can make some progress. I want to work at this – however disconnected I feel. However insecure I feel, and even if you don’t have the faith that I want you to have. I will do the work because I respond to challenge and because, whether I feel I’m doing this on my own or with you, I want to do it for you. Yes, I want to do it for me as well – but what strikes me really powerfully is the sense that even if I have to do this feeling entirely alone and disconnected, I will do it for you. I have to – you are everything.

Perhaps the upside of taking the focus off our own relationship, and of not seeking to immediately repair the rupture and ‘restore things to rights’, is that it allows the transference to persist for longer, and more powerfully. Which I guess is really the point, and the only way through. But in that case, please remember that my lack of faith may not really be in you. And if this situation is all transferential, then the really heart-breaking thing is – how many of the things I thought I had done for myself, while feeling disconnected and alone, were actually done for someone else?

Other than through my feelings towards you, I have lost all access to my original responses to many of my parents’ behaviours towards me. These days they elicit simply anger and resentment on my part, and I have cut myself off so completely, emotionally, that I find it hard to imagine that my inner being ever wanted to respond in a way that pleased them or had the urge to do what they wanted, particularly when feeling criticised or unaccepted by them. It’s very hard to imagine that that situation would ever lead me to cling on, rather than push away. Part of me does want to push you away – it’s the more recent and more enduring response – and maybe I am doing that emotionally, to a degree. But it feels as though we are bound up together, regardless, and I will do this work to show you that there is a basis for the faith that I want you to have.

Somehow, I feel I have to work for your faith. My works, your faith; a theologically mixed and dubious sort of salvation, but there it is. The key thing is to know where we’re headed, even if right now it all feels like a somewhat purgatorial existence. I miss you – and who knows how next week will unfold…..



Memory Monday – “Swallowing up the storm – BPD and anger”


For many people with BPD, changes in mood and can be sudden and dramatic, particularly when precipitated by a powerful trigger. In my own experience, my resistance to particular triggers wears down over time, so that rather than becoming gradually ‘immune’ through exposure, the opposite happens – the more often I become triggered in a certain way, the more easily and more quickly I spiral down into incredibly negative thought patterns. It’s as if the feeling of being ‘trapped’ and the belief that the situation can’t and won’t change, is reinforced every time I find myself at that point.

I haven’t said a great deal about my marriage in my blog – out of a sense of ‘propriety’, wanting to protect my husband’s privacy, and to avoid any awkwardness given that a couple of friends who know us personally, read my blog. However, I don’t think it would be too ‘disloyal’ to admit that unfortunately, my husband is one of my greatest triggers – or rather, his words, and our arguments, are. I think it would also be fair to say that the triggers are as powerful as they are, because of the way in which I have come to associate him, and certain patterns of behaviour, with my mother and how I felt when I was younger. After these arguments, I am left feeling worthless, annihilated, and despairing. My mind turns to suicidal ideation, and the phrase ‘I can’t live like this’ repeatedly presents itself to me.

Last Friday was one such triggering evening, which led to me, for the first time, to begin to act on thoughts I had had for a long time, of driving to ‘the place in my plan’ (if I can put it that way). Not necessarily because I had definitely decided to end my life, but because I felt I needed to know what it would be like to be there. How would I feel? I also had a vague thought I might phone the Samaritans but didn’t want to do that from home. I picked up by bag, put my coat on, told my husband I was going out, and went out of the door – at which point my husband said something perfectly ordinary, but something that made me hesitate and come back in.

Sunday night was also triggering – but that time things were different. I think it was probably one of the briefest spikes in intense despair I have had, dying down almost as quickly as it appeared. The suicidal ideation was there and for a short period I felt very unsafe, despite being at home with my husband and children still around. But the feelings of worthlessness did not continue all evening and rather than being consumed by sadness, I was angry – I still am. And I think that made a difference. Rather than absorbing it all into myself as I had done on Friday night, and turning it into a different, self-critical emotion, I gave my anger outward expression. Perhaps not in the best or most productive or most helpful way, but not in the worst way, either. It involved some fridge door slamming, and some use of swear words, and some heavy sarcasm (though directed self-mockingly at myself, rather than at him). But it seemed to work – at least with regard to reducing the desire to inflict pain (or worse) upon myself.

And so given recent events, I thought it would be timely to link to a post from the summer of 2014, on BPD and anger:

Re-reading it now, the idea that  ‘disappointed expectations’ might lie behind at least some of my anger, seems very persuasive. Friday was even more of a blow because it came so soon after an evening when for the first time we had spoken more openly about how we felt about our marriage and what we wanted to change, in the presence of a couple from church. For a short time it felt like a step forward – and then on Friday it felt as though nothing had changed. Opening up and being vulnerable was incredibly difficult for me – I spent a good part of the meeting physically shaking with the effort. And yet to have ‘business as usual’ occur on the Friday night felt as though everything I had said had gone unacknowledged and unheard. I’m sure he feels the same about me – and that we both have a lot to learn about ourselves, each other, and the way we relate to one another. But in the meantime, I will try to give expression to my anger a bit more often – not in deliberately hurtful or vengeful ways, but in ways that allow me to express something, rather than internalise something, and in ways that aren’t likely to be as risky to my well-being.


Magical thinking

My ex-therapist Jane, used to use the phrase ‘magical thinking’ to describe my tendency to assume that others know, or should be expected to know, what I am thinking. I couldn’t help but post this comment by my youngest child that immediately brought Jane’s words to mind – and of course, as this little one’s parent, I am extremely biased and can’t help thinking it must be one of the cutest illustrations of magical thinking around 🙂

talking in my brain


Feeling untouchable – touch in psychotherapy, Part 2

[This is a follow-up post to ‘The desire for touch – touch in psychotherapy, Part 1‘]

Even before touch became a subject of discussion in my therapy, I was always acutely aware of any occasions when my therapist and I were in very close proximity, or when we touched fleetingly or accidentally. Once, as I got up to leave, she pulled down a book from her shelves to show me something. We stood side by side, very close, not quite touching. As well as the physical proximity, I suddenly became aware of the height difference, particularly as I was wearing heels. When sitting down, that difference is not at all apparent, and it felt strange being taller; somehow incongruous with the fact that I often feel like a child in her presence, and she feels like my shelter and high tower.

On another occasion, as I sat on the floor next to her chair to show her some photos, our shoulders touched. A number of other times, our fingers and hands made contact as we have passed objects – a photo, a ring, a card, a rock – from one to the other, to look at. I’ve always wondered whether she noticed, and whether she wondered if I noticed, and what it meant to me. The moments have always been fleeting, and I have been careful to try not to do anything or use anything as an ‘excuse’ to grab more of them. Of course I’m aware that if I pass her something to look at, touch may happen. Do I want it? Yes. But I am as fearful of being accused of engineering situations specifically for this purpose, as I am convinced of the fact that I would not feel comfortable or respectful doing so. I make the choice to pass her something to look at, directly into her hand, rather than by putting it on the table beside her, or waving it in front of her. In that sense, I am choosing to ‘risk’ touch – I might even be hopeful for it. But it happens as part of an ordinary sequence of events – in those situations, to act otherwise would be to specifically try and avoid touch, and that in itself would feel uncomfortable and ‘forced’.

I’m not sure it would be accurate to say that I ‘enjoy’ those moments of touch – they are incredibly fleeting and too laden with complicated feelings, for that to be the case. I appreciate them and treasure them – as ordinary but special moments of connection and interaction; as grounding moments of her reality and humanity; as part of a memory of something that we have shared. I’m often very unobservant, but in those moments I notice things like the smoothness and neatness of her nails, or the softness of her skin.

But there is one overriding reason why I appreciate those small moments of touch; one key reason why they are so significant, as well as special – she never pulls away. When our shoulders touched, she didn’t flinch; she’s never drawn her hand back faster than she needed to. Either she didn’t notice the touching, or she didn’t mind. Either way, my fear and unconscious expectation was that she would both notice, and mind. It felt surprising that she didn’t draw her shoulder back; or that she didn’t try and grab the edge of a passed object so as not to come into contact with my skin. I didn’t expect her to lean forward palm up and open-handed to receive what I had to show. I didn’t expect her to stand so close. I didn’t expect her not to pull away.


I spent a long time pondering why it was that I felt so ‘untouchable’; why I thought that my therapist would feel uncomfortable or threatened by my close presence, and would back away immediately from any contact. It didn’t feel logical that I should be so surprised at the fact that she did not seem to find contact distasteful. My parents never showed a reluctance to touch me or hold me – if anything, the reluctance was mine, as my mother has always desired much more physical contact (such a hand-holding or hugs) than I have felt comfortable giving. I could see plenty in my upbringing that would make me feeling ‘unlikeable’, but nothing that would make me feel ‘untouchable’.

And then one day as I was sitting in a café reading an article on touch in therapy, I had an unexpected memory of secondary school, and suddenly the feeling of being ‘untouchable’ made sense. There is so much in my life that I have discounted from being significant or formative, simply because it happened in not-so-early childhood, or because I survived it and never thought about its import at the time. I loved school – my love of learning over-rode everything, as did the existence of my own group of friends, the support of teachers and the structure of the environment. A child gets through something because they have to – I’m not sure I’d have the same strength now.


I was not the only one who experienced bullying; my friends did too, though it was something we never talked about, and I don’t think we even really saw it happen to each other – we were too busy trying to emotionally protect ourselves. The bullying was never physical and it wasn’t even that frequently verbal. But every day when lining up and filing into the school hall for assembly, I was aware of the gap that was left where people were trying not to stand too close. When sitting down in our lines on the floor, some would leave a large gap or try and start another line, not wanting to be near me or occupy the same physical space. I would try to think where to position myself so that this was less likely to happen, or less obvious if it did. How could I arrange to be at the beginning, or at the end, of a line? How could I make it so that what was happening to me wasn’t as obvious and so that I didn’t need to feel any more ashamed than I already did?

There were the science classes where a larger than average gap would be left at the lab bench between me and the next person; or the fear and sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when classes involved ‘pairing up’ and I had no allies because none of my friends were taking the same subject. And for a long time there was that awful art class where the teacher would simply go away and leave us to it for a couple of hours and some of the others would talk about me as if I wasn’t there and would pick up strands of my hair with a pencil, to avoid touching any part of me. I’ve never had much admiration or liking for my ‘inner child’, but as I write this crying, I have no idea how she went through that with even a semblance of staying intact, and for that I have to give her some credit and respect.


When the subject of touch has come up in my therapy, it has often seemed to arrive out of the blue – partly, I think, because it is often brought to the surface when I come across posts or articles that others have written, that bring my mind back onto it again. My therapist has made it clear that touch is not a part of how she works; and although I know she is happy to talk about the subject, at the same time I suspect that she thinks an intellectual debate, triggered by the experiences of others, is of limited therapeutic value. But when my own lived experience interacts with my desire for touch in therapy, that’s when I know she feels the subject is present and relevant, and the discussion can bear fruit. It can address what is happening in the room and in my head; it’s something we can both engage with, in the here and now. It is something we can pass between us to look at and examine more closely. It is no longer a discussion about what I want and what she won’t give me; but about what has happened to me and how she can help me understand what it means. In these times, the subject of touch connects us, even if physical touch does not.

Personally, I don’t think it would be detrimental to my therapy if there was the occasional moment of touch, to express connectedness. In some ways, I’m not convinced that my therapist thinks that would be detrimental, either. If we happen to touch, and want to talk about it, then we can. What is detrimental – and this applies to numerous areas of my therapy, as well as to other aspects of my life – is my constant focus on what I can’t have, to the exclusion of all else, rather than on what I can and do have. What is detrimental, is my refusal to accept reality, and my difficulty and resistance to bearing the frustration of boundaries, limits, absences and losses. Though I can’t speak for anyone apart from myself, that’s where the real work of my therapy needs to lie, and I need to try and use the subject of touch as an enabler to that work, and not make it a stumbling block. It’s in that context that I will experience my therapist not just not pulling away, but coming closer to meet me on the road, and standing by me while I try to figure things out – shoulder to shoulder, you might say, and heart to heart.



I am very grateful to ‘how to be an analyst‘ for originally raising the subject of touch in psychotherapy with me, in a series of comments on one of my blog posts. I am also grateful for the excellent reading list suggestions!

Ever since that time, a few months ago, I have been thinking, reading, and talking to my therapist about it. I have also been meaning to write about it, and am grateful to ‘Lou’ for her email on the subject, which raised it for me yet again, and led to me writing a recent post about the desire for touch, which will be followed by another post on feeling ‘untouchable’.

This post from ‘how to be an analyst‘ draws together her very helpful and informative comments on my older blog post, which initially sparked my interest. I am very thankful and appreciative for the time that she spent writing those comments, and for her honesty and courage in speaking about her own past experience and also her struggles in therapy. I very much hope that her comments will be as interesting and helpful for you as they were for me, irrespective of your own views on the subject. Touch is not part of my own therapy experience, but it has been very valuable to think about it, talk about it, and to try and understand the views of those who advocate it, and those who are hesitant…

how to be an analyst

It has been five months since I’ve posted. Motherhood keeps me busy! Also, analysis five days a week is incredibly complex and so hard to encapsulate and put into words, especially while one is in the thick of it.

But, I am grateful to the author of lifeinabind for bringing up the topic of touch in therapy. It has long, long been a source of both pain and pleasure for me, and I think it should be something that is considered as part of talk therapy far more than it actually is.

I don’t have time to explain or write a full post, but I will edit and take some of my comments that I wrote on lifeinabind’s post to explain my experiences and thoughts on touch in analysis (wow! This ended up being very long!). Also, for anyone who is interested, I will include the list of research…

View original post 2,835 more words


The desire for touch – touch in psychotherapy, Part 1

[It’s important to note that in this post I am not talking about ‘body psychotherapy’, which is its own branch of psychotherapy in which therapists are specially trained to work with the body and with experiences and memories stored and held within it, in order to enable emotional release and healing. Instead I am talking only about ‘ordinary touch’ in other branches of psychotherapy, by which I mean a touching of hands or of fingers, a hand upon a knee, an arm around a shoulder, a hug, or other similar instances. I am also assuming, by and large, that the touching is not necessarily of a prolonged duration or a very regular occurrence.

To avoid writing a very long post, I have skimmed over the surface of what is becoming a more frequently written about subject, and I have not commented at all on the one very well-known and discussed case of Patrick Casement (1982) who refused to hold his patient’s hand when requested, in order to facilitate reworking a childhood trauma. Descriptions and discussions of this case can be found in a number of places including in two papers I have found particularly helpful, ‘The Meanings of Touch in Psychoanalysis: A Time for Reassessment’ by James Fosshage and ‘Physical Touch in Psychoanalysis: A Closet Phenomenon?’ by Kati Breckenridge]

I remember a painful therapy session from more than a year ago, in which my therapist made it very clear that hugs lay outside the boundaries of therapy. Up to that point I think I had still held on to a hope that it might be possible, if I waited long enough. If I’m completely honest, I think a part of me still hopes that perhaps she will ‘declare therapy over’ five minutes before the very end of the very last session, and will hug me before I leave. Hope can be very hard to stamp out – even if it turns on a technicality.

Since then, and until a few weeks ago, I’ve spent less time hoping for a hug or thinking actively about the subject of touch in therapy. And yet it’s been a subject that’s often been there in the background and I have felt a great need and desire for touch, on a number of occasions. Sometimes the need for touch feels simply like a desire to sit close to her, perhaps shoulder to shoulder, and sense her next to me. Sometimes it feels like wanting to have my hand held for reassurance or comfort; and at other times when I am very distressed I just want a hug and long to be held close for a little while. Most of the time I sit through those moments and we muddle, fight, wade or cry through them with silence or with words, or both. Occasionally, though, the need for physical contact feels so powerful it feels undeniable – as though it should not be denied. As though it’s absolutely vital in order to help repair a past or present experience, and cannot be replaced by words. I can feel that way both in and outside of session, but until a few weeks ago it wouldn’t really have occurred to me to talk about it – because since that time more than a year ago, it has felt as though there would be no point, because I know there is no chance of the undeniable becoming permissible.

Which is ironic, really, because so much of therapy consists of talking about needs that cannot be met – so why should this be any different? I am very grateful to ‘How to be an analyst‘ who raised the subject of touch in therapy in a comment on another one of my blog posts, and who happened to do it at a time when it was very pertinent for me and I was feeling a great need for touch. Since then, I have read a number of articles and papers (forwarded, with many thanks, by the author of ‘How to be an analyst’); and posts and comments by other bloggers and readers have continued to keep this very much a ‘live’ issue for me, even when, if I’m completely honest, I sometimes want to try and ignore it.

The difficulty is this – I don’t want this to be an issue for my therapy. I want to protect my therapy relationship at all costs, and I don’t want there to be matters about which my therapist and I are in complete disagreement. I don’t want to resent my therapist, or blame her. And so I have a natural tendency to try and talk myself into accepting her position on touch, and to convince myself that she is right. It would feel so much easier if I could tell myself I may not like it, but I think her way is best. But I’m not convinced, and the most I seem to be able to do is to sit on the fence, which is not a particularly comfortable place to be.


Touch in therapy in complicated – there’s no doubt about that. It’s risky, for both patient and therapist; there is great potential for misuse and damage to be done; there are serious ethical questions to consider. But just because it’s difficult, doesn’t mean it should be discounted. How often should touch occur, who should initiate it, how is it possible to know whether it will be helpful or counter-productive in a particular situation? All good questions, but again, just because they are hard to answer and require careful judgement, doesn’t mean that avoidance is best. Touch is most definitely not part of ‘traditional’ psychotherapy; it has been pretty much taboo since Freud decided patients in session should be in a state of ‘abstinence’ and ‘non-gratification’ and that touch, amongst a whole host of other things, muddied the waters of analysis and departed from the model of the analyst as a neutral ‘blank screen’.

But if there’s one thing I’m convinced of, particularly after reading a number of articles on this subject, is that touch communicates, and lack of touch communicates. Lack of touch is not neutrality – it says something. Not touching is an action of the therapist just as much as touching is. Both therapist and patient are together involved in creating the environment of the session and everything that they do or don’t do is part of that creation and conveys a message and carries an impact. Is lack of touch an avoidance of touch? Is it a painful holding back or a hesitant relief at not needing to get any closer? Is it done for the patient’s benefit or the therapist’s comfort? A lack of touch has many possible meanings – but meaning ‘nothing’ is certainly not one of them.

My therapist may not use touch as part of her practice, but she doesn’t think it is wrong or ‘prohibited’. In that sense, I feel fortunate that this creates an environment in which it feels possible to discuss the subject more openly and more comfortably. I don’t think she will ever touch me; but neither do I think that she will show me the door if I touch her. Or at least, she has implied that she won’t. She has implied that if the desire for touch is there or if touch happens, it is something to talk about, in the moment, and to try and figure out and understand.

There are those who think that refusing to touch simply re-traumatises patients – that it reinforces the negative experiences of touch that they may have received as children, and that it doesn’t provide the positive healing experience they need instead. There are others who say that refusing touch allows the patient to fully experience the negative emotions from childhood in a way that enables them to be verbalised, thought about, talked about and worked through. This seems to be one of the key aspects of the debate over the use of touch in therapy and for me, it is intimately related to another key question (which I won’t go into here as it is a subject for another post!), namely: to what extent can therapy replace or re-provide what was missing in the past; and if it can’t, why is that? In what way is the process of learning or healing in therapy, different to processes or experiences that would have taken place in childhood?

But although these are key questions, they also make the assumption (made by Freud) that these desires, including for touch, are linked to infantile wishes. My therapist has said that although the child part of me may want a hug in session, it is made complicated by the fact that I am actually an adult. However, profoundly important though touch is in infant development, I’m not convinced that the desire for touch in therapy is always an ‘infantile desire’, and to describe it in that way can feel invalidating for the adult; as if the adult doesn’t have a right to feel the same need for affection. Touch in therapy isn’t there only in order to help heal experiences from childhood. It is also there to foster a sense of connection, a closer bond, and increased trust and openness, and there is evidence that it can communicate acceptance and enhance self-esteem. I don’t believe that all instances of my desire for touch come from a child-like place – and I wonder whether that makes the possibility of touch more difficult or more uncomfortable for my therapist to consider.


Even if nothing changes in my therapy with regard to touch – and I don’t believe it will – being able to talk about it has been a positive experience. It is good to know that my therapist doesn’t see it as a ‘prohibition’ or as something ‘morally wrong’, and it is ultimately bonding (even if it doesn’t feel so at the time) to be able to discuss this subject in a way that makes it (and me) feel acceptable. In addition, reading and thinking about this, and trying to get underneath the skin of how I feel about touch and how it makes me feel about myself, has led to an important realisation, which I will talk about in Part 2, on ‘Feeling untouchable’.

For now, I can think of no better way to end than by quoting from one of the papers I have found most helpful, ‘The Meanings of Touch in Psychoanalysis: A Time for Reassessment’, by James Fosshage: “Touch is a powerful form of communication. We cannot afford to eliminate a profoundly important mode of communication from our healing profession. As with any form of communication, verbal and nonverbal, we can use it advantageously or not for facilitating understanding, communication, and the analysis.”



Fear – a haiku or two

On New Year’s Eve some words were going round my head and I realised that they made a pattern. One I hadn’t written down since childhood, as an exercise at school – a haiku. Seventeen syllables, three lines, a 5-7-5 pattern. Remarkably, with only a little alteration, the pattern fit:

I’m scared of living,

I’m scared of dying; I don’t

Know which scares me more.

But then I remembered that haikus are supposed to have a contrasting final section, and are supposed to convey an image or feeling but without subjective judgement or analysis. They are supposed to show not tell, perhaps even to be ambiguous, in order to allow the reader to feel their own emotions in response, and to draw their own conclusions. And so I tried again, in a different way, to write another imperfect haiku about fear.

haiku fear 2


‘Shame and anger – when ordinary incidents are filled with extraordinary emotion’ (or ‘Take ordinary incidents into therapy – you never know what you might discover’)

A few weeks ago I stopped off at a supermarket on my way home from therapy. The store was busy, and I half-filled a small trolley and headed for the nearest till, which had two others in front of me – a wait of four or five minutes, I estimated. I suddenly remembered I had forgotten one item, and not wanting to queue again and knowing exactly where to find it, I ran to get it and was back within thirty seconds to a minute – only to find another woman (who had not been in the queue) unloading her basket onto the conveyor belt in front of me. I tried to say something rather incoherently about how the employee at the till would have ‘let me’ go and fetch the item. The woman was not sympathetic. Within seconds I’d virtually lost the power of speech, I was seething inside, and tears were building up and pricking my eyes. I said something about leaving, spun my trolley round and left the queue, headed for the self-service tills instead.

As I scanned and bagged my shopping, though no one would have been any the wiser, I was having an intense and frightening emotional experience. I was incredibly angry – the worst swear words I knew were going round my head and had she walked right past me on her way out, or had I seen her in the car park afterwards, I felt convinced I would have used them. And yet that was the furthest thing from anything I would ever have even contemplated doing. I am usually overly polite and conscious of not offending people; I hate making a scene or complaining, and I leave a shop when anyone starts to try and drive a hard bargain! I find it hard to swear aloud, in private, let alone in anger in a crowded place. And so how I was feeling, and what I wanted to do, shocked me. And it scared me because the strength of the rage was so great that I didn’t even have a sense of what the limit of it was. It felt so much bigger than me.

The anger started to fade by the time I got home, but the next day on the way to therapy, I found myself thinking about the incident and talking about it right at the start of session. By that stage I felt somewhat foolish for my internal reaction, but as I related the story I started to shake and cry. Alongside the remembered feelings from the day before there was also horrified amusement as I couldn’t believe or understand the impact those emotions were still having. I could only conclude that, trivial though it seemed, the incident – and my reaction – must mean something. Incidents like that have happened to me in supermarkets a number of times – they happen to all of us – and I have never reacted in that way before.


Exactly one week before the ‘supermarket incident’, I sat in session doubled up in my chair, heaving and shaking with sobs, hiding my face and as much of my body as I could manage. Before the crying started, I had never wanted so badly to just walk out of a session. I remember saying ‘you have no idea how I’m feeling, do you’ – before proceeding to tell my therapist how I was feeling, in a sentence that poured out in a voice that got progressively and embarrassingly higher and more cracked as emotion overtook it, and me with it.

For two years I had done everything in my power to be a ‘good client’, to try and please her, to never put a foot wrong, to not intrude, to not cross any lines or violate any boundaries. The thought of ‘making a mistake’ was terrifying. For two years, I’d succeeded – and then I didn’t. And what overtook me in that session wasn’t so much fear – because the fear was mainly in the anticipation of a mistake – but shame. I felt humiliation, and as if I’d been reprimanded – but mostly I felt enormous distress and I was horrified and so very very ashamed that I had done what I had most wanted to avoid doing – what I had spent two years absolutely dreading doing.

Without going into details, I had crossed a boundary by making a link between us online which could have directly – and very publicly – identified us as therapist and client, and would have, in effect, violated confidentiality. As my therapist herself noted, it was an incredibly out of character thing for me to do. I am normally extremely careful about protecting her and any details of our work which might reveal something personal about her. And what I did was certainly not intentional – though it seems bizarre to me now that I didn’t realise at the time that one of the implications of the link I’d made was that confidentiality would be breached. I didn’t realise, I wasn’t thinking; but there was no excuse, and I felt mortified.

When I got home I sent her a brief email – it had ‘a tone’. I then followed it with another one that said I didn’t mean to sound cold and angry, I was just still devastated and didn’t know ‘how to be’. I was brushing away ‘the tone’ – shame was still uppermost.


My therapist asked me whether perhaps the ‘supermarket incident’ was me experiencing the anger that it had not felt safe to direct towards her. That I was experiencing it towards a total stranger who ‘didn’t matter to me’ in the way that she did. At first I said that I didn’t think that was the case – because my recollection of the session the week before was that I had felt enormous shame, but not anger. But then I remembered ‘the tone’ of that email, and I realised that anger was there. It may not have been uppermost, but it was there. It was there because of the humiliation I felt at making a mistake and ‘being taken to task’ for it (which is how it felt, not necessarily how it was); and it was also there because of another recent session in which she had withheld direct reassurance when I felt I had a desperate need for it.

When I thought about my emotions as I described the ‘supermarket incident’ in session, I realised that what was making me tremble was not the anger I had felt in the store, but the emotions that had accompanied the anger. Emotions I had been only dimly aware of, as the rage was ruling over everything else. What I realised when describing the incident was that I felt shame as I stood there in the queue – that I felt I had made a mistake, had been ‘found out’, was being reprimanded, and I felt humiliated. It seems like a bizarre set of feelings to have in that situation; but I think it’s likely that a parallel with the previous week’s session – perhaps a sense of publicly doing something I shouldn’t have done – triggered all those feelings of shame, which in turn allowed the anger to surface. In the session itself, the anger would have felt too risky or out of place – I would have worried about its impact on my therapist, and it would have felt unjustified, as after all I was the one ‘in the wrong’. In addition, I still find it very difficult to reconcile the concepts of anger and love, and to accept that they don’t negate each other.

I realised that I was also very angry with myself, for ‘allowing myself’ to cross a line and make a mistake – and perhaps that too was being expressed when I felt so overwhelmed by anger at the supermarket till. I hate making mistakes – one of the many things I need to work on in therapy.


It is the ‘ordinary events’ that can provide some of the most valuable material for therapy. In the past, I think I might have dismissed the ‘supermarket incident’ as not being ‘important enough’ to merit discussion. But that session was a big encouragement to take my therapist at her word when she asks me ‘what is on your mind?’. Whatever it is I have been thinking about in the car on the way to session, or as I walk up the path to her front door – perhaps that really is what I should be talking about, irrespective of how important it seems or what else I might have had planned. That session was yet another encouragement to not ‘censor’ the material I bring to therapy (as described in a post I wrote a few months ago). Given a choice, I will always choose to discuss our relationship, before anything else (another ‘temptation to avoid’ as described in another post from quite some time ago, but so difficult to put into practice). However, here is proof, if you need it, that often the most mundane looking situations or the most unrelated looking incidents, can actually be about the therapy relationship. So the next time you are making your way to session, whatever it is that is on your mind, will you bring it into the discussion? Or will you decide that it is irrelevant, or unimportant? You may be right – but what might you discover if you take the chance?

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In the Land of Those Who Dare Not Speak: A New Year’s Parable

Rather than saying the traditional ‘Happy New Year’, I wanted to reblog this wonderful and thought- provoking parable by Dr Stein. I don’t know if I have ever made a New Year’s resolution – I always knew I was terrible at sticking at them. If like me, these resolutions are not for you, perhaps this parable will be for you instead. Perhaps you will recognise yourself standing at one or other of these doors; or as having walked through one or more of them already. Perhaps you will see a land you are adamant you do not wish to enter; or a land you desperately want to navigate, but don’t know how.

For my own part, I think I stand beyond the third door (in the land of those who feel themselves undeserving), but at the threshold of the fourth. One of the cruelties of the third land is that internally, it feels as though one is inhabiting the space beyond door two, and drowning in jealousy. So often, I feel I have no right to sadness, and that all I do is complain and want the happiness that others have. So often it feels as though sadness about my life is not legitimate and so it must be that I am a ‘bad person’ who feels envy and cannot be content with their lot.

When I commented as such, Dr Stein replied as follows: “If one feels he does not have the right to his unhappiness, then any amount of envy feels like further evidence of one’s unworthiness………..I’ve encountered many for whom their envy adds to a list of self-created demerits. Where does this sense of “badness” come from? Most often from parents who neglected or criticized (“big girls don’t cry”), discouraging the emotional openness of their children who wanted only comfort and understanding, but received distance and/or disapproval: emotional sterility. Less often, however, the parent can’t handle the young one’s emotions. The child cannot risk the emotional collapse of the parent, so sees his own feelings as suspect and dangerous to the parent’s (and his own) safety. When such children become adults they feel indulgent and selfish looking for more than politeness in a relationship, also expecting that their expression will damage someone dear. The therapeutic task is to grieve the unresponsiveness (or inadequacy) of those whose job was to stay strong, tolerate the child’s pain, and bind his wounds. At first this feels wrong and more evidence of ingratitude, holding the potential to harm another. In time, however, it heals.”

I would like to thank Dr Stein for that response, which feels spot-on as far as my own experience is concerned. And I would like to express gratitude to his profession, as far as standing at the threshold of door four is concerned. Only we can make the decision to go into the ‘hardest, least sure’ place; and to keep on going, when it seems impossible. But we have help – a great deal of help, care, support, inspiration and so many other things – from those therapists, counsellors, doctors and professionals of many kinds, who take that journey with us. There is no map for our journey – but they try and make a map of themselves. None of us knows the terrain or how the journey will unfold – but they and try and act as a guide anyway, to point us to something within ourselves. And some of them tell us parables, to try and help us understand the stories that we live and the stories that we tell ourselves.

So this new year, what will you resolve? As Dr Stein asks at the end of his parable: “Four doors. Which will you choose? Or will you wait, decide not, hesitate?”

Dr. Gerald Stein


Imagine you stand in a courtyard, four doors equidistant from you. One leads — you hope — to some version of material prosperity: stacks of crisp greenbacks, luxury, titles, accomplishments. Are they more than you need or what you desperately need?

Behind door number two resides jealousy. Here is the personal storehouse of unfulfilled wishes. A worker stands with a brush. He paints everything with the green of envy. No objects inhabit the place, only the ideas with which you fill your head, catalogued for your review: the kind of marriage of this one, the beauty of that one, the genius and happiness of another. To enter you must speak the language of complaint.

A third portal stands in the shadows: the door of the undeserving. Those who step through believe they lack the right to speak of suffering. They’ve been told their life is good. All their externals are…

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