After I finished last week’s post, ‘A story about reassurance’, I realised that there was a second important lesson that the incident I wrote about, had taught me. In the story, I described a few sessions recently in which I was feeling vulnerable and childlike, distressed and alone, but was unable to fully verbalise that in session. My therapist spoke mainly to the more ‘adult’ part of me, and though at various points I wanted to ask her to stop or to tell her I was feeling overwhelmed, I was unable to. The sense of increasing hurt and isolation led to me starting to withdraw and to put up walls. However, unlike other occasions when I might have dwelt on how my therapist ‘should’ have acted differently, I ended up focusing much more on the fact that I wanted to stay present with her and vulnerable, rather than start building defenses.
This incident was a valuable lesson about reassurance, accepting ‘the other’, and realising that past defenses can be counter-productive and can hurt us, if they are no longer necessary. But it was also, I realised, a lesson about the person that I am in therapy. Or rather, the people that I am, in session.
For some time now, I have thought of myself as composed of a number of different internal characters, or ‘parts’ (not in the sense of the distinct identities of Dissociative Identity Disorder). But it was only after this incident that I realised that I tended to make the assumption that only one of those parts was properly present, or uppermost, at any one time. Now that I think about the assumption, it seems odd to me that I could ever have made it – after all I’m used to feeling conflicted about situations, or feeling like two different people at work, for example. But still, somewhere in there, I know I harboured some sort of idea that at any one moment, however short, I was communicating – or being communicated with – as one of my parts, and one only.
But what the incident above showed me, was that both my adult part and inner child were present at the same time, even though the only one I was conscious of was the child. Even though I felt my therapist was ‘talking to the wrong person’, the ‘wrong person’ was listening, and even absorbing what was being said (though to the child the experience felt overwhelming). I was operating in two modes – but only one was visible, and only one was felt. The reason I know that the adult was present and capable of taking something from the session, unlikely as it seemed, was that the tools that my therapist spoke about that day, I managed to put into practice over the next few days. Though I had desperately wanted my therapist to stop talking and change the focus, the adult part of me had found the session useful – she had received and then used what was discussed. Perhaps that is one of the reasons I found it so incredibly difficult to say anything about how I was feeling to my therapist – not just because the child part of me tends to find it very difficult to communicate anyway, but also because the adult part of me recognised the value of the session, and didn’t want to change direction.
A similar thing happened again, a few days later, but in reverse. I brought my ‘adult self’ to session, and though I had come in ‘with a plan’ of what I wanted to talk about, we found ourselves on a different track, and I decided to go with the flow. It was a useful, connected, interesting conversation, and I even remember thinking I was pleased with myself for being able to allow myself, without anxiety, to see where the session took me rather than being fixated on sticking to my plan. However, the moment I got into my car after session, it was as if my mind started to attack itself; or rather, a few of my ‘internal parts’ decided to go to town on the ‘adult me’, for ignoring what they wanted to talk about, particularly as they had already ‘held onto it’ for days over the weekend. ‘You f****r’ they accused me, in my head – needless to say, I didn’t stay feeling pleased with myself, for very long…..
Perhaps my biggest reaction, was surprise. I hadn’t realised, until I left, just how important it had been for me – for parts of me – to talk about the topics that were in my plan. I hadn’t even realised that there were other aspects of me present, waiting for their moment. I knew I had had a ‘mental eye’ on the time, thinking that I would ‘get to it eventually’, and that we still had time. Until we didn’t. But I didn’t really register, while I was congratulating myself on ignoring the plan, that there were parts of me that were still strongly invested in following it.
It was the first time that I had really thought about the fact that perhaps it was necessary to make space for multiple parts of me, during a session. That perhaps it was possible to take things in even when it felt impossible; and that perhaps it was wise to do an ‘internal scan’ even when things felt okay, to see if I was missing anything. I’m not sure I can say that I wish I’d changed focus, in either session – particularly as the sessions described in ‘A story about reassurance’ were so immensely valuable for the reasons highlighted in that post. But perhaps I would have made a little space – or asked my therapist to make space – for other parts of me at the same time. I don’t think that would have taken the focus off, and I don’t think it would have taken much time. Just an acknowledgement of presence, could be enough; or validation of the pain and confusion being felt. Perhaps it would even help to ask other parts of me to ‘bear with’ the conversation, because it was of value, even if not so obviously to them. Perhaps I need to make time to do that in words, in my own head, even if I am unable to ask my therapist to do it; though when I am feeling like a child in session, even an internal dialogue might be difficult to achieve.
I know that all of this must, on some level, must seem incredibly obvious. We are all a mixture of personas, we carry them with us every day, and we all sometimes feel conflicted. And if we are self-aware we recognise that there can be internal conflict, at a sub-conscious level, even if we don’t realise it. So why did the events and train of thought described in this post seem so surprising and important to me?
I think it is because often, when I have a ‘need’, particularly a ‘need’ in the midst of distress, it feels dominant and overwhelming. It feels self-evidently necessary and true, and it calls out to be met and to be answered. The idea that something positive could be going on, in parallel, that something could be being ‘taken in’ – while at the same time this need and this distress are going unanswered – would have been, in the past, unthinkable. It would have felt necessary for that need to be met before anything productive could happen, and before anything could change.
And so perhaps the reason that the realisation that I can be two people at once in session, feels so ‘radical’, is that it is fundamentally tied into my ‘Story about reassurance’. It is fundamentally tied to the idea that there is more than one way to meet a strongly felt need, and it may not be the way originally envisaged. Perhaps it feels so radical because, rather than being a second lesson that the story taught me, it is all part of the same lesson. The lesson that the child can never be the child it used to be. It is always, by necessity, also the adult – and vice versa – and their needs are not separate, but always linked. One cannot meet one set of needs, without impacting those of the other – sometimes positively, and sometimes not. The child often seeks instant gratification, whereas the adult knows that it is possible, and often desirable, simply to wait……
[As I thought of ending my post in this way, I went to look at ‘A story about reassurance’, and saw that under ‘Related posts’, WordPress had itself inserted as a relevant link, my post ‘Waiting revisited’ – precisely the one I had in mind as I wrote the last sentence above. I don’t believe in ‘signs’, but this was a pretty good one that I should leave the ending as it is!]