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?