When saying “the right thing” still isn’t enough

This therapy thing with Dr. W is still really new and we are still trying to figure out how to work together. I clam up in session regularly. She seems somewhat desperate to get through the walls but not so desperate that she sacrifices her boundaries like C did.

Last session she noticed that I had completely withdrawn, she pointed it out in a gentle, kind way. She had been pushing me to tell her why I felt judged in our previous session and I wouldn’t budge. I told her it was unimportant, it didn’t matter. We talked about how often I conclude things “don’t matter.” I told her frequently, “it doesn’t matter” is code for “I don’t matter.” That was part one of my homework for the week, to make note of all the times I think that thought. I haven’t quantified but I have come to a conclusion about when I think that thought; it is usually when I want/need something and I’m quite certain I won’t get that want/need met. I protect myself by thinking it doesn’t matter.

Part two of my homework is what I’m actually going to write about. Dr. W suggested that we use writing to communicate for now; she wanted me to write to her about my thoughts and feelings from that session, since she wasn’t getting them out of me otherwise. I could have done this in my journal but I knew I wouldn’t have actually shared with her next session if I did it that way. Reading my journal out loud is still too mortifying. So, I emailed.

Email is okay. I will not cross the text boundary again, though; that’s also open and I know Dr. W is very different from C but it is still too scary to cross that line. Better to just be safe. I feel okay emailing Dr. W for a purpose and then letting the email thread just simmer away which is what happened with this thread. What’s most interesting about the emails I’m about to share though is the fact that she said all the right things and yet they still don’t feel like enough. I still picked them apart, found what was missing. I did not tell her as much, it will give us something to talk about in session.

The emails started with me emailing her with my thoughts and feelings post-session, as she asked me to do:

Dr. W,
I know we probably both don’t want me to become dependent on communication via email but this felt most organic in terms of doing one part of what you asked me to do, so I guess this will give us a lot to try to talk about next session. I understand the potential limitations with confidentiality and email. I dont care about that; I will take that risk. It’s still safer than the alternative. And, sorry, this will likely be long. That won’t be a regular occurence.

In terms of thoughts/feelings about our session: 
I’m appreciative that you reassured me that it is safe to express feelings in there and that at least for that hour I don’t have to do it alone. I am, however, afraid that because an hour flies by if I do open the floodgates there won’t be enough time to close them and I’ll be left to drown all by myself when I leave. 
When you asked if there was anything you could do all I could think was just give me a hug or sit closer for a few minutes. I needed some kind of closeness, something to bring me back. I felt a million miles away from my body, from everything. But I know you don’t do the whole hug thing which is why I said it didn’t matter. I won’t ask for something if I know the answer is “sorry, I can’t or won’t.”
I also want to say that I genuinely believed you when you expressed concern over my feeling judged. That makes me believe you actually weren’t judging and that it was just my interpretation of the situation that was skewed. The details of which are as follows: I felt judged when I shared my reasons for expressing emotion and then again when you were giving me the love letter for “homework.” It felt like my being an overachiever, something which has served me well in life and is probably the only reason I’m still alive, was being deemed negative. It just felt like maybe the doing too much was a nuisance. I know you didn’t mean for it to come across that way and maybe I need to look at why I saw it through that filter. But, that’s how it felt when you said I could have just done one. And when you made a thing out of only focusing on the one emotion in the love letter thing. That’s why I felt bad for doing the whole thing and why I didn’t want to share any of it with you. I guess I’m afraid of the same things I’ve always been afraid of… it just doesn’t make sense that I am already bringing that in with you. I know that isn’t fair to either of us.
Lastly, I think it’s important that I am transparent about my last therapeutic relationship and how that is impacting our work together. It was kind of a big deal. I hadn’t let anyone in for years. Then when I finally did it felt like it blew up in my face. Everything she said that helped build the relationship and make the space feel safe was yanked away suddenly. I was shattered by the rupture and her inability to accept her part in that. I just needed an “I’m sorry, I may have let my stuff get in the way of my objectivity here and I can see how that hurt you.” I felt like I worked incredibly hard to get to a point where I acknowledged my own role in what happened but was met with rigid resistance by her. I didn’t need to be shattered again right out of the gates. So, I’m scared with you.
 I’m terrified that if I couldn’t even get it right in a space that was supposed to be safe the first time then I’m not going to be able to get it right this time either. If I let the walls down then I’m subjecting myself to possible hurt again. And the hurt from the first time nearly destroyed me (granted, her timing couldn’t have been worse, it was only a month after my grandfather died and I was just starting to grieve that). I know I am an adult and my emotions can’t kill me but the feeling them, the being stuck in them, the inability to control when they’re expressed… that can interfere with my life and my functioning. That nearly destroyed my livelihood. I cannot do that again. At the same time, I know you are not her and I know we are likely to make our own set of totally different mistakes.
I was frustrated at your pushing today but I didn’t feel threatened by it which is a good sign. When people push, while generally it leads to outcomes, it can sometimes also lead to me feeling punished; that wasn’t the case with you. I think that’s promising. 
Maybe I was the one doing the judging and maybe I misjudged. 
Katie
Shortly after that email I also filled her in on what I had wished we could have spent the hour talking about:
There were things I was dying to talk about today but I couldn’t. Like I saw my mother this last weekend. She is trying to get me to marry someone so he can become a citizen. It would also mean me supporting him and his daughter. Plus, she said I will never be happy in my current relationship because she is praying for me and God doesn’t agree with my lifestyle. But, hey, my health issues get me off the hook with producing grandchildren, so that’s a win.

Another thing, someone who sexually assaulted me throughout my childhood added me on social media (my Instagram is public). He commented on a photo that he lives where I just started to go to school in person. He wants to hang out as if nothing even happened. -_- He has a daughter the same age I was when he started doing what he did to me. He is trying to get full custody. I have no evidence to support anything happening to her but if I ever found out that it was… I wouldn’t be able to live with myself for doing to her what everyone did with me… no one protected me. 
Part of the problem is likely that I have too much to say and no idea how to condense it for a therapy hour.
Her response to both emails was really all I could ask for. She said pretty much all the right things: 
Hi, Katie. I agree, I don’t want email to become your primary form of communication with me. But as I said yesterday, this is a step in the right direction and I really appreciate you being willing to share more, even if it is written for now.

I am glad to hear overall what we discussed in session felt beneficial and healthy. I know those are difficult topics but it is important to check in regarding the therapeutic relationship and what is and isn’t working, especially at the beginning. I know it was a very difficult therapeutic rupture previously, and I will continue to have patience and compassion as you feel more comfortable in our work together. That is the foundation of true growth, change, and vulnerability.

I understand your concern about fitting everything in in one hour, however I encourage you to try and reframe that expectation and pressure. There is not a specific goal or outcome expected per session, rather each session is a step towards a much bigger end goal. There is no way we can fit everything in in one hour, so it is okay to discuss what we can, and pick up there next time as needed. We can continue to explore wrapping up in a way that helps you feel in control before we end each session. 

In regards to your second email, it sounds like you have multiple anxiety provoking and triggering situations occurring. I am glad you gave me an idea of current experiences, and hope you can continue to feel comfortable and willing to discuss these in session so you can begin processing them out loud.

I hope you are able to take care of yourself this week, and I will see you next week.

Thanks again, Dr. W

She does a great job of responding in a compassionate and thorough way. Yet, all I could think was “she didn’t address the part where I told her why I felt judged or the part where I said I needed closeness. Does that mean she will never be open to that? Does she not want to be close?” Maybe that’s so totally silly. Why do I even want that closeness? I have plenty from people in my life outside that room. But for some reason when I’m in that room, I feel small. I don’t feel like me. I dont feel like the woman who has friends and a girlfriend. I feel like the lonely child, desperate for someone to protect her. But how does one even begin to explain that to someone else, even a trained professional who has expressed genuine unconditional positive regard? In my case, one doesn’t. I left her email without response until I got news that one of our students had passed away, at which point I sent the following response:
Thank you for the thoughtful response. I will try harder in person.

One thing though, I don’t think I’m actually afraid of fitting it all into one hour… I’m afraid of opening the box and letting even one piece out. Just one thing at a time feels like too much. I am afraid I’m not actually strong enough to contain any of it on my own. So I stuff it down and avoid it and run from it. Exactly the opposite of what we were told today at work… which is kind of the real reason I’m emailing.
All the anxiety provoking/triggering situations, still there, but they got squashed by heartbreaking news at work. We were called into a meeting today and told that one of our students was found dead in his car. We were told how to handle our fragile, grieving students in the coming days (since that’s all we have left with them). Told that we need to authentically model emotion to normalize their feelings. I knew eventually this (death of a student) would be part of the job but I guess it was just something I let stay tucked away in the back of my mind. I wouldn’t have been open to caring this much about my kids if I hadn’t tucked that away, outside the realm of possibility. 
Tomorrow and next week aren’t going to be easy. I debated whether or not to say something to you this way (or at all)… I guess not wanting to be alone with the feelings won. 🤷‍♀️
Again, her response was exactly what I needed it to be: 
Katie, I am so very sorry to hear about this, my sincerest condolences. What an incredibly difficult situation. I am glad that you shared it with me, and I will check in on this next week to see how you are grieving. You sharing this is the opposite of trying to contain it on your own, so that is progress, even among very difficult circumstances.

Anytime we are grieving it is essential that we take care of ourselves. Please try to do that in any healthy way you can over the weekend and I will see you in a few days.
Dr. W
The emails end there. I never sent a response to that email because it didn’t seem like a response was warranted. I’m glad that I don’t feel like emailing will lead to the same pitfalls as with C. But, at the same time, I’m still scared that I am so incapable of talking in person. What is that about? Anyone else experience that?
I do feel like, despite having had some parts of my email unaddressed, I am more inclined to trust her. She genuinely seems to want to understand my perspective and to make the relationship work. It seems two-sided in a way that it never did with C. I hate that I keep comparing to what happened with C but I just have to be sure that doesn’t happen ever again. I have to protect myself. I went to C for help letting my guard down and instead ended up having to reinforce the walls. Dr. W has her work cut out for her. I really, really do plan to try though, to do my part in letting the walls come down.
Why is this therapy relationship business so freaking complicated?!

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