‘The Remarkable Impact of Being Seen’ is the first part of the title of one of Dr Stein’s recent posts. The remainder of the title is ‘More on Erotic Transference and Love’. I have written both about erotic transference and love for my therapist, but it’s not this aspect of the post that I felt compelled to write about.
When I read Dr Stein’s beautifully written (as usual) piece, I felt angry. Not at him, but at myself. I recognised the truth of what he wrote – that there can be a remarkable impact indeed in being seen, in being truly understood, listened to, and accepted. To quote from the post: “You experience less emptiness in his [the therapist’s] presence. Indeed, you might believe you have been newly minted because, for the first time in forever, someone perceives you with fresh eyes.” And then this:
“When you look in his eyes you see your reflection. In a flash the disjointed world takes form. For the first time. At last.”
But I also recognised that what sounds so beautiful, so logical, so persuasive, and so inevitable, is proving so very difficult for me. I was angry at myself for ‘failing’ – or at least for not being able to manage not just the expected, but what would be healthy and healing for me. When you look in her eyes you see your reflection. In a flash the disjointed world takes form. But what if it doesn’t? And what if instead of seeing your true reflection, you continue to see as through a glass darkly?
Perhaps I am even angrier at myself because I know that sometimes, I have the ability to see clearly. But that ability does not feel mine to command; I do not know how to call it up at will. The ability to see clearly involves seeing both myself, and others, as far as possible, without distortion. It involves being open to seeing; to seeing what is there, even when it is not obvious. It involves drawing generous, more accurate conclusions about myself and others, based on memories of relationship, and on previous interactions. It involves feeling clear-headed, and on an even keel. Seeing clearly generally means seeing well, and knowing all is well – with me, with my therapist, with our relationship. Crucially, it means being open to seeing myself in a true mirror, without the distorting mirror of the past, getting in the way. It means being able to feel – and not just know – that I am delighted in. It means being able to see myself as someone else sees me, who sees me clearly – not for who they want me to be, but for who I really am. And so sometimes – in some therapy situations and with reference to certain subjects – the disjointed world takes form.
But at other times – and for the most part, over the last few weeks – I have been unable to know myself as I am known. The distorting mirror of my parents, continually gets in the way. Two related subjects have dominated my thoughts since just before Christmas – loss (particularly of the therapeutic relationship, in due course), and ‘daughterhood’ (primarily the difference between being a ‘therapy-daughter’ and a biological daughter). It feels as though my heart and mind return, with increasing frequency, to the sadness that permeates those subjects. It feels as though they return, because they do not yet feel accepted or understood. When they return, I feel bad about myself – as though if I were stronger, or more grateful, or less self-centred, I would be able to simply put the sadness to one side, and focus on the things I do have, in the here and now.
I think my therapist believes that the feelings return because I feel bad about myself. That on some level, my sadness reflects a belief that I do not deserve ongoing relationship, or a fulfilling ‘daughterhood’. I don’t know. I can’t tell whether that’s the case. When it comes to these subjects, I can’t tell very much at all, because every time I talk about them, and cry about them, I end up feeling unseen. And when I look into my therapist’s eyes I see kindness, and I see caring, and I see a desire to help, but I don’t see my reflection. And I am angry, not because there is a fault in her vision, but because there is a fault in my own.
I know that my sadness is seen, understood, and accepted. She has told me, and shown me, that that is the case. But the sadness recoils from any attempt she makes to help me understand it; it feels like rejection. It feels like not allowing the sadness to exist or be seen. The problem is that in my psyche, and because of past experience, loss and being unseen are experiences that are fundamentally bound up together. And that makes it so much more difficult for my therapist to touch my loss with her gaze.
I have realised that I am heavily invested – subconsciously – in not seeing myself in an undistorted way. I am realising more and more how right my therapist is when she talks about all of us inevitably internalising the environment and worldviews we grew up with, even if consciously we believe the opposite and want to be the very opposite. I asked her what I’m supposed to do if my brain simply isn’t wired to move from experiencing acceptance, to accepting myself. She talked about how it’s not simply exposure to acceptance that does the work – we need to unpick and undo those internalised interlopers that aren’t congruent with who we really are or want to be.
Realising the existence and power of those internal interlopers has been a real eye opener for me in therapy this past week. It has been one of those lightbulb moments that it’s easy to want to live for, and that it’s important to remember was enabled by the difficult, painful and frustrating weeks leading up to it. It was so key, that it really needs to be the subject of another post. But what it helped me to realise was that my psyche is emotionally convinced of the message my mother worked so hard to instil in me – that she was the source of all my validation and wellbeing, that she alone cared for me like no one else ever could, and that others and their feelings were only ever temporary and fleeting, whereas she would be around for always. I hate the fact that despite the minimal degree of contact that I have with her now, and despite the fact I have emotionally cut myself off from her, she is indeed still around, internally, in a real and powerful way that I didn’t truly appreciate until a few days ago.
I’ve realised that subconsciously, at a core emotional level, I believe that I have no purchase on the concept of liking myself or defining myself in terms of certain qualities. Who am I to say that I am this way, or that way? It is others who must decide, who are qualified to say what it is that they perceive. My mother sought an emotionally exclusive relationship with me, in which she minimised the role of others in my life, and I have inadvertently internalised the belief that I can only take in validation from one significant person. I have to assume that as a child, I would have believed that to be my mother, even though my conscious memories are only of needing to resist her negative perceptions of me. Later on, as a teenager, this belief manifested as a yearning for a future partner to love me unconditionally. Now, it is from my therapy mother that I would love to hear positive words to describe who I am – words that I feel I would believe, coming from her. And yet even from her, I know I would need to hear them many times before I could believe them without doubt, and without fear that they were changeable.
At the moment, I feel as though I don’t know how to change the fact that others’ views of me don’t seem to change the way I feel and think about myself. My mother has ‘done a real job on me’ – to quote my therapist. She very effectively cut me off from being able take in the regard of others, however much I might want to. I have friends I care about deeply, whose kind and lovely words I appreciate. The words enter my ears, and my head, and at some level, my heart. But they don’t settle at a deeper level or change those long-internalised emotion-beliefs that don’t belong to me, but to my mother.
I know I need to find a way to change this, but I’m not sure how. Practice, practice, practice – my friends and therapist would say. Practice needs to be intentional – and perhaps now that I’m aware of the presence of my internalised biological mother, I can truly practice in a way that I haven’t been able to before. Perhaps I can practice in a way that will ensure that my internalised therapy mother ‘wins out’ more frequently and more easily than my internalised biological mother. Ultimately, that is what needs to happen in order for me to be able to fully take in the positive experiences available to me in therapy, and also to live a more fulfilling life after therapy.