‘Girl in therapy’ recently wrote a fantastic post entitled ‘The significance of what you wear to therapy‘, and it prompted me to write about this subject as well, as it’s one I’ve been conscious of for some time.
One of the things I find fascinating about therapy is the way in which it can be a microcosm of every aspect of life, despite the apparently limited nature of the physical space it takes place in, and the types of interactions that occur within that space. Though it almost feels as though therapy ‘forces’ me to channel emotions and messages through innocuous every day occurrences or objects that otherwise might not carry much meaning; perhaps it is that in the absence of other ‘distractions’, and under the intense focus of the process, the meaning of all those things that might otherwise be missed, can be thought about.
How I pay my therapy bill, whether I am late or early to session, how I sit in the therapy chair, can all tell me something about what is going on internally for me – what I am thinking and feeling, even if I am not fully conscious of it. The same applies to what I wear.
In general, my ‘default’ position is to try and ‘look nice’ and be fairly neat, whether I am casually or more formally dressed (which depends on whether I am going to session from work or from home). I always try and turn up with some foundation and eye-liner on, though I have noticed that I am becoming a little more relaxed about the possibility of turning up without them! Perhaps this follows on from an occasion when I mentioned this to my therapist and she said she didn’t notice whether I was wearing make-up or not. Not, I hasten to add, because she is unobservant – I think she was trying to tell me it doesn’t make a difference to how she perceives me!
I know I am not beautiful – but I suppose I would like to be so, in her eyes. And though I know that that is not all about physical appearance, at the same time I have a fear of being repulsive and untouchable; and so mustering as much physical attractiveness and as much ‘youthfulness’ as I can, feels important.
But – and it feels difficult to admit this (though I have done so, to her) – it is also about ‘competition’ and ‘sibling rivalry’. She has two daughters, and though I have never seen them, I know that they are younger than me, and I imagine them to be beautiful. I know that I can never ‘measure up’ in any way, shape, or form, because they are her flesh and blood; but as her ‘therapy daughter’, I don’t want to be left too far behind, either. When I imagine her going downstairs after our sessions, and seeing her daughter, I think of her perhaps feeling grateful that her daughter is wiser, happier, more fulfilled than I am. And prettier. And I know that it is perhaps unlikely that any of those thoughts cross her mind; but they cross mine, and I do not want to be the ‘poorer’ child.
I do not always dress according to my ‘default position’; sometimes I dress according to the ‘internal part’ that feels most dominant at the time. More often than not, when I diverge from my usual dress code, it is because ‘the flirty one’ is in charge, and I have let her loose in my wardrobe.
I remember the first time this happened – I turned up to therapy in a very short skirt that had last made an appearance about fifteen years ago (when it fit far better). As usually happens to my more ‘confrontational’ internal characters, they orchestrate a scene but then they tend to flee it the moment I actually arrive at my therapist’s door. When my therapist and I later talked about what I had been wearing, she said that I had ‘looked sheepish’ as soon as I walked in. However, that didn’t prevent me from turning up a few months later in a pair of very short denim shorts and high heels……
My semi-conscious attempts at flirting with my therapist via poorly chosen outfits and bare skin, abated for a while. Instead, I remember at one point arriving all in black, with a top that buttoned up very close to my neck. I was covering up, as much as I could – conveying just how closed off from her I felt, and how little I wanted to communicate with her.
But then, all of a sudden a few weeks ago, when I was going through a very painful time both during therapy and in my marriage, I turned up to session wearing one of my fanciest sets of underwear that I hadn’t worn for many years. Of course my therapist was oblivious of the fact, and I didn’t enlighten her. Neither did I enlighten her (at the time) about the fact that the ‘original plan’ had been to turn up with no underwear on at all – having inadvertently had to ‘go commando’ once in jeans, after a swimming trip, I am very glad my internal part and I saw sense! The following week I went ‘half-way’ and turned up with no bra and my shirt unbuttoned as low as I dared (which wasn’t very low at all) and then kept my hands crossed over my chest and my knees tucked up against my front, for most of the session.
I feel rather pathetic describing this behaviour; and I’m trying to make light of it as it seems better to laugh, than to feel ashamed. But fundamentally, I think my behaviour is about wanting to be seen and accepted. It’s about creating a space for a different part to communicate, albeit not in the most productive, effective, or appropriate way. Recently I had a dream in which I was first of all flirting with a male colleague on a stage in front of a large group of people, and then was flirting with a woman in front of both of our respective partners. When I told my therapist, one of her first comments was that it seemed as though there was a desire to be seen, and I think that she was right. There are often parts of me that feel left behind in therapy, or in life, and they are still learning how to make their presence felt, and they are still trying to feel integrated. While they learn, and while I learn with them, they make use of what they can, and I try and notice, and interpret for them.
What we wear in therapy is about what we want our therapist to see – not just literally and physically, but internally, emotionally, and metaphorically. It is part of our communication, and not just with our therapists, but with ourselves. But – and as I think can be seen by the way in which my mood often changes the moment I arrive at my therapist’s door – what we wear can simultaneously be a defence against what we don’t want to be seen or talked about. It can be part of our resistance to the process of therapy.
What I wear to therapy is a communication; but it is an indirect one, and I have found that much of my indirect communication is simultaneously a defence – against vulnerability, against pain, against fear of rejection. It is a type of communication that keeps my therapist out, rather than inviting her in. It challenges her, rather than welcoming her. It speaks to the fact that there is something that does not wish to be spoken about. As I have written about before, it is a mask to hide my true feelings, my true ‘face’ and my true self.
What we wear in therapy says something, but what it says is something that we need to figure out. Our clothes can be revealing – in many more ways than one.