I want to tell you a story.
It’s a story about a girl and a therapist.
The first time the girl met the therapist, she wasn’t sure. The therapist didn’t talk very much; and she also seemed to be more interested in individuals rather than their diagnoses. The girl was very wedded to her diagnosis, for it provided a sort of identity, something she felt she was missing. But the therapist was good with grief; and the girl felt a great deal of grief – she was drowning in it. And so the girl started seeing the therapist, though she still wasn’t sure, and for a long time she cried, and cried, and cried her way through sessions. And wished that her therapist was a different therapist – the one she’d had before. The one she was grieving the loss of.
The grieving continued, but there came a time when the girl turned a corner. A time when the girl turned towards the therapist, and started to listen. She realised that though she still felt grief, she also felt attachment. Attachment to the new, and not just to the old. But with attachment came a new kind of need, and a new kind of pain.
The girl was desperate to be cared for; desperate to be loved. She wanted reassurance, and she wanted it explicitly and clearly, in words. The therapist told her about the importance of waiting – but the girl didn’t really understand why it was important, or what she was waiting for. The therapist told her about the importance of being open to receiving care in the different forms it may arrive in; but to the girl, words seemed like the simplest, and easiest form, the thing she was most open to receiving. The therapist told her about the importance of the small, every day things; but to the girl, a single phrase – ‘I care about you’ – was the biggest thing, the need for which eclipsed everything else.
The girl refused to sit in her therapy chair and sat on the sofa instead, cross-legged, defiantly refusing to ‘play the game’, saying that she was thinking of leaving. The girl accused the therapist of being in some way personally deficient – incapable, because of something in her past, of telling her that she cared about her. It was inconceivable to the girl that anyone could refuse to give reassurance when it seemed so obvious that it was needed. The therapist talked about the fact that, ultimately, the aim of therapy was to enable the girl to find that reassurance within herself, because that was a more enduring and ever-present source of comfort.
The girl moved back to her therapy chair. The relationship grew; trust grew. The girl told her therapist that she loved her. And throughout that time, and the months and years afterwards, there were often times when her therapist reassured her; not always in the way the girl was expecting, and not often directly – but it was always a great comfort. Her therapist had a sense of the girl’s capacity to sit with distress, a better sense than the girl had herself. And sometimes her therapist saw that she needed to give, rather than hold back; that in that moment, giving was the better approach to healing.
But the girl found it hard to remember those times, when her need for reassurance and to feel cared for, overwhelmed her. And so the girl and her therapist went through cycles of rupture and repair, where the girl would pull back because she wanted her therapist to speak, to reassure, to reach out – but her therapist didn’t meet her in the way that the girl wanted to be met. The girl was in anguish because her therapist felt cruel to her. The girl was angry because she thought that her therapist was ignoring the needs of the child part of her. Again, the girl couldn’t understand why the words ‘I care about you’ should be withheld, when they were so easy to say. But throughout this time, her therapist was caring for her in ways that were much harder and required more of her, than words.
Each time, her therapist explained that though the child part of the girl felt a strong need, it didn’t follow that that was what the girl as a whole ultimately needed. That the girl was an adult, as well as a child, and had capabilities and thought process that she didn’t have when growing up. Her therapist said that the child’s needs could now be met in other ways; that talking about the child’s feelings, and validating them, could be one such way. That the girl herself could, in time, help to meet those needs.
The battles continued. The cycles repeated themselves. Sometimes it was about the fact that the girl wanted her therapist to hug her. Sometimes it was about the fact that the girl wanted her therapist to reach out to her first, to say something to help her feel better, without needing to ask. And sometimes, because everyone, even therapists, are fallible, it was because the girl and her therapist kept missing each other. The therapist addressed the adult part of the girl, rather than the parts that were hurting; and the girl was unable to let her therapist know what was happening insider her. When these ruptures took place, it took several sessions to resolve them. And the girl found it very hard not to dwell on the things that she felt she was missing out on, rather than being open to receiving the things that her therapist tried to give her.
But therapy is a mysterious process, and over time, things began to change. Sometimes, battles go on for what seems like forever, and it feels as though things are moving backwards. And at other times, the pace of change can be so rapid that it feels like too much. One day there was a large, and frightening rupture – and so it was, that when the girl was stretched to the limits of her resources, her resourcefulness kicked in. The girl drew a picture, because she didn’t know what else to do. It was a picture of the different parts of her, including the child and the teenager, who were so often involved in the ruptures with her therapist. The girl began to find relationship within herself – among those different parts of her – and at the same time she gained a greater internal sense of her therapist, both in her presence and in her absence. The girl also gained a more enduring sense of her therapist’s benevolence, while at the same time beginning to see that she herself might have some ‘redeeming features’.
And then, sometime later, the girl felt terribly, terribly alone. She cried, and cried, and wanted desperately for her therapist to reach out to the part of her that felt vulnerable and young. She wanted reassurance, but for two sessions, the therapist and the girl missed each other again. The therapist spoke to the girl’s adult self, and the girl felt even more alone. The therapist said important things – things that the girl’s adult self managed to absorb, and use. But the distress and isolation were too much for the girl’s inner child, and she immediately started to put up walls, and to defend herself from further hurt. The girl felt cut-off, and didn’t contact her therapist that weekend, though she would usually send a message or two.
But for the first time – the very first time – the girl spent that weekend thinking about her reaction, rather than her therapist’s response. She saw that what she was enacting, sped-up a thousand fold, was her childhood progression from feeling invalidated and unseen, to shutting down her emotions and closing herself off. And she felt strongly that she did not want to react to her therapist in that way. She spent all weekend wondering what she could do if this happened again – and why would it not? – and trying to figure out a way to stay open to her therapist, and to remain emotionally vulnerable.
She spoke to her therapist about it when they met. Her therapist apologised, and said that she hadn’t realised how strongly the child parts were present and suffering; and the girl appreciated what her therapist said. But the girl’s focus was still very much on her own reaction. The girl told her therapist that she wanted to stay vulnerable and connected to her, irrespective of what her therapist said and did. The girl told her therapist that she didn’t want her to change, she just wanted to change her own response. The girl said that she knew her therapist was safe, and caring – and that if there was anyone that she should be able to stay vulnerable with, and not build walls against, it was her. Otherwise, how would she ever learn to do so with anyone else? Her therapist nodded, and spoke about the fact that once upon a time, such defenses may have served an important purpose for the girl; but it was problematic when defenses were erected, when they were not needed.
Over the next few days the girl thought about what she’d said, and how she had felt, and it was almost as if someone else had been speaking, thinking, and feeling. It didn’t seem possible that she could mean what she had said, given how strongly, how certainly, in the past, she’d felt that her therapist should be responding differently to her. But she did mean it. She trusted her therapist, and her care, and she wanted her therapist’s free, genuine response, even if it didn’t always meet her needs in quite the way that she was hoping for.
It wasn’t that she didn’t feel she could or should ask for what she needed; on the contrary, she trusted more than ever that her therapist had her best interests at heart and cared deeply for her. It was that she seemed to accept, more fully than she had before, that the answer to her request may not take the form she was expecting. Sometimes her therapist met those needs in ways that required openness to different forms of receiving; and sometimes her therapist met them by encouraging the girl to rely on the version of her that the girl had internalised; the version that she would carry with her, after the process of therapy had ended. And the girl also accepted that if, as we all do, her therapist ‘got it wrong’ on occasion, that did not detract from her care; and the only thing the girl could control, in that situation, was her own response, and her own vulnerability. And she knew without a doubt, from those repeated cycles of rupture and repair, that vulnerability was far more effective at healing the relationship, than distancing, control, or accusations.
The girl felt good about this realisation. At the same time, the girl felt scared by the realisation of change. She knew she still had a great deal of work to do with her therapist, but every so often, it felt as though the relationship was gradually slipping through her fingers. Not its emotional reality, or its significance, but its physical reality – the existence of two people together, at the same points in time and space, slowly, being pulled through the infinitesimal moment of ‘now’. The number of times she would sit in that therapy chair, steadily diminishing.
But the story is not ended yet. It continues with its twists and turns, with its changes of pace, with its moments of closeness and laughter, and moments of not knowing what to say. There are more obstacles to encounter, and more lessons to be learned – but for now, an important one has been absorbed into the girl’s being, and the relationship between the girl and her therapist, and between the girl and herself, is the better for it.