Monthly Archives: May 2014

Curiosity killed the therapy cat

Random therapy things and thoughts:

(Please do share if you have similar or unique insights of your own)

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A long, brown strand of hair. I spot it lying neatly on the couch as I sit down. I feel indignant. Why is this other “woman” intruding on my therapy hour? What right does she have to assert her position in a space where I am the focus, at least for a little while? I brush it onto the floor. She probably brushed her fingers through her hair in despair just 15 minutes earlier, wondering why she felt so alone, so unnoticed. My heart softens and for the few seconds before my therapist sits down, I send a mental note to this absolute stranger…

Dear fellow client. You are not invisible. You made an impact on me and I don’t even know you. You’re probably more beautiful and powerful than you think. Own that. Regards. Me.

My therapist looks at me from his seat with quiet curiosity. I open my mouth and tales of loneliness and powerlessness flow out of me.

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A small wooden pedestal stands next to my therapist’s chair. It holds his glass of water or cup of coffee, tissues and a small pile of books which have no doubt been extracted from the bookshelf behind us. I cannot help but look at what books he’s been reading to prepare for our session. I am such a bookworm and I love psychology books…especially if it’s linked to my life in some way. Of course, the danger of this little game is that I may think a book is for me when it was for another client and hasn’t yet been returned to its niche. After taking an interest in the books and sometimes saying their titles out loud, he’s started facing the spines of the books the other way. Are the tools in the toolkit supposed to be kept hidden? It infuriates my curiosity. But nothing is impossible and I sometimes still manage to get a peek of the top book.

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My therapist is technologically advanced (thank goodness) and uses an iPad and stylus to write notes in our session. I often wonder what his handwriting looks like. Is it messy and indecipherable like a doctor’s? Or are his letters small and neat, thoughtful, like him? Does he write things verbatim or does he use abbreviations he concocted and perfected? Does he draw?

I also wonder what electronic confidentiality system he uses to describe his clients’ files. Are we simply known by our initials? Or does he have nicknames inspired by our looks (Goldilocks?!), after characters in books (Scarlett O’Hara) or well-known public figures (Einstein or Lincoln anyone)?

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It comforts me to see my therapist take care of himself by eating healthily. I know this because I am his last session in the evening and I often see what’s been left in his dustbin when I throw my tissues away. The wicker basket bin is right next to the couch and I can normally lean over from where I am sitting to put stuff in. I didn’t really click at first that the items in the bin were left by him. But I’ve noticed a common trend. I think he likes to buy healthy filled sandwiches from a fancy chain store because the brown wrapping and labels are always the same. Sometimes he also has a pack of nuts (maybe to prepare for those of us who are nuts?).

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In one of our sessions, I noticed a big pot plant with a shiny red ribbon on a table in one corner of the room. If you’ve been seeing your therapist for a while, you’ll know that decor and items in the room rarely change- it’s supposed to be their way of creating a predictable, safe and comfortable place for you to return to. I was perplexed but immediately thought it had to have been a gift from a client. Then I wondered why he might have been given the gift… was it his birthday? Had someone been touched by his kindness and care? Or was it perhaps a parting gift for someone terminating a special and long-term therapeutic relationship? I didn’t want to ask because I felt like it might place him in a position where he would have to disclose more than he wanted to. So I sat with my curiosity instead. After two sessions, it was moved to the communal sink in the waiting room.

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The washing up liquid that the therapists in the practice use at the communal sink is hilarious. It’s called “sensitive washing liquid”. Obviously I know it’s for sensitive skin. But I told my therapist that it was quite fitting that sensitive therapists use sensitive liquid.

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That Introvert Got Herself a Therapist

That beautiful moment when us introverted people can release the inner into the outer with a safe person…

This too “shell” pass

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I believe the unconscious blooms like a butterfly out a cocoon when we give in to sleep. Our dreams become a rich source of information to process, interpret and apply to move forward in life. One of the things I started doing this year was keeping a dream journal as I remember between one and three dreams almost every night. While I had always been fascinated (and sometimes freaked out) by the after-hours theatre in my head, I never really delved too deep into what things might mean or tried to connect recurrent themes. That changed when I went into therapy. It was rewarding to find that a) my dreams could be taken seriously and b) every person has inner wisdom if they just open their eyes (keep them closed when you sleep though). Symbols are the lifeblood of dreams and said to signify aspects of the self or others, such as thoughts, emotions, states of mind, fears or desires.

Two nights ago, I saw a new symbol in my dreams for the first time. I’d thought I’d share the journey of this symbol, a pure white fossilized shell that spiraled inwards, with you…

In my dream, I was searching for my therapist. In order to get to the therapy room, I had to go through a garden nursery and maze, competing against other people to find him. Only the first person at the end would get to see him. With my mom and sister beside me, I raced ahead. I tried taking shortcuts to get to the front. One of these shortcuts was a path enclosed with mesh. We had to get down on our bellies and crawl through the mesh tube like on an obstacle course. Once inside the tube, I suddenly had a different mission. I needed to find these small white shells that were buried in the sand. My sister was there to help me. My mom was on the outside of the tube watching on. At first, all I could see was dirt on the ground. But when I raked my fingers through the brown sand, I found lots of the shells just beneath the surface. I felt like I had achieved this mini-mission and could look for my therapist again. To do that, I had to crawl over hundreds of the shells to get to the exit. I freaked out because my belly felt exposed and I was afraid the shells were going to come alive and crawl over me. My dream changed before I could find out whether I got out the tunnel or not.

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The spirals of the shell were mesmerizing. They somehow felt familiar. I was compelled to search for their meaning. Symbols around water usually represent emotions. The hard shell is a metaphor for the way we secure and protect ourself from the world. In doing, we hide who we really are or how we really feel. Protection thus becomes a double-edged sword because it means we become reclusive or emotionally closed off.

I imagine the inside of a shell is also quite cosy to the creatures who occupy it. In the same way, our shells (personas or defenses) help shelter, nourish and protect us from problems thrown at us in life. There is a purpose for everything which has been created.

Therapy is helping me find my shell/s that have previously been hidden just beneath the surface. I was living life without being aware of the shell around me. Therapy is a journey that has felt like a search and rescue mission at times, but something which has also evolved into a quest involving physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual planes. That I was crawling while searching for the shells shows my nature in real life… I do things cautiously and methodically after careful preparation. Babies also crawl. It is indicative of a necessary developmental phase that eventually gives you the strength to stand on both feet and walk tall. The tube I crawled through was like a womb. While I feel like I am progressing to the end of the tunnel, a rebirth, I still feel held back somehow. It would have been interesting to see what the end of my dream was. But perhaps the point is for me to find out for myself.

Ever curious, I tried to locate the name and species of the shells that were so clearly etched in my mind. They turned out to be ammonites which lived in the sea between 65 and 240 million years ago.

AMMONITE originates from Ammon, the god that many Greeks associated with Zeus. Ammon had ram-horns that were also spiraled. Ammon was the Greek derivation of the Egyptian god Amun, who was widely praised as the Protector of the Road. After chewing on this info for a while, it resonated that many people think wearing their shell is the only way to protect themselves on the road of life. I find it interesting that my shells were pure white- it could convey a sense of innocence and purity. The fact that they were fossilized may also be a sign that I’m seeing them as relics of my past.

The term Ammon has another fascinating link that I uncovered. The hippocampus in the brain consists of two parts- Ammon’s horn and the dentate gyrus. Together, they resemble a shape of a curved tube, which has been compared to a ram’s horn or seahorse. Most psychologists and neuroscientists agree that the hippocampus plays an important role in the formation of new memories about experienced events (either episodic or autobiographical memory). Part of the process of therapy is about re-framing memories. The hippocampus is also believed to assist spacial navigation- where we are in position to the world. Without a fully-functional hippocampus, we may not remember where we have been and how to get to where we are going.

I too am finding my place in the world. It feels uncomfortable to get rid of things which have been a part of me for so long. But as layers are stripped, I find my borders becoming more defined, not less. Perhaps the lesson is that by stripping myself of outdated protective measures, I do not lose myself or forget where I’ve been or who I was. Taking a cup of water out of the ocean does not mean there is no ocean left. The gap is replenished with something fresh and flowing.

 

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“Need Jerk” reaction (It takes two to therapy: volume three)

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Today’s therapy session made me feel needy. It was the second session after a long break in which my therapist forgot to contact me. Being away from therapy and being forgotten by my therapist in this time re-activated some serious inner fear of abandonment.

It’s hard to describe to someone who is secure but you basically feel like you’re going crazy. On an adult cognitive level, you understand that your therapist was probably very busy and that you can easily survive two weeks without him. On a child-like level, you feel paranoid, scared, alone, sad and angry. I have had these moments before and felt reluctant to share them with my husband because I don’t expect him to understand and I don’t want to burden him.

Anyway, I opened up in the session and told my therapist that I was scared to need him in case he wasn’t there when I reached out. It was also difficult for me to accept help from other people because being needy was seen as weak while growing up.

He didn’t rush to fill the gaps or re-assure me. Instead, he just sat quietly in his chair with his leg resting on one knee and gazed gently at me on the couch. Cars whooshed past outside, a tree branch cracked and the wooden floors creaked slightly. And yet, I felt the silence in the room screaming out like a canyon between us. I wanted to shake him and ask if he had not just heard what I had said. The silence passed between us and hot tears rolled down my cheeks. I broke down and told him I really needed to know he would stick by me in the therapeutic relationship, even if I expressed uncomfortable or unacceptable thoughts or feelings. Included in this was a plea for reassurance. That I was safe with him in the therapy room and we would work as a team, especially in those moments where I was lost.

YOU ARE SUCH A “NEED JERK”, I REACTED…IN MY HEAD AT LEAST…

I looked to him and after a while, he asked if I was waiting for him to say something. I managed to force out a feeble “yes”. Cold panic crawled through my stomach and I could not believe he was being unresponsive. He said that he understood it must be difficult to be feeling this way. His tone of voice made me blurt out… “it sounds like there’s a ‘but’ in there”. He smiled and said something like: “but there is nothing else to be done except for us to continue talking and try to get somewhere”.

We moved onto other things for the remainder of the session and I was really taken aback by how I had bravely expressed powerful needs and had them ignored. To me, these needs were not unrealistic or unfair. All I wanted was him to say that he’ll stand by me, even if I fall apart. How can you fall apart mentally if there is no one there to catch you?!

At the end of the session, he asked how I was feeling and I replied that I was relatively calm because I had raised positive memories in the last seven days which made me feel good. I also said that I understood he wasn’t trying to be be cruel with his approach  but that I needed to go home and digest what had happened.

I’m starting to understand that by not reacting, he was giving me the space I needed to feel all these yucky things which had been buried inside.

Talk about a painful process.

 

 

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I was glued to my therapist (It takes two to therapy: volume two)

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No one warns you that you may become extremely attached to your therapist; that the relationship becomes central in your life and that they have the ability to evoke a maelstrom of powerful feelings within you, whether it be love, hate, anger, longing, envy or mistrust.

I never expected that I would see mine as anything more than a professional service provider. And yet, when you consider that a therapist provides unconditional positive regard, acceptance, empathy and a bottomless well of listening, it seems inevitable that this person holds the promise of a parental (or other) relationship you never had and so desperately wanted.

In the beginning, I was extremely focused on unloading my immediate predicament and unbearable emotions onto him. This bespectacled, tame soul was nothing more than a container for my secrets and feelings. A few sessions passed and he was still listening without judgment. The therapy relationship deepened and although I had some serious attachment issues playing out, I felt we could relate and that he wouldn’t intentionally hurt me. Most psychodynamic therapists feel the therapeutic relationship is key to healing and use the dynamics that play out as clues to what you might need. It was the small things that mattered to me. When he greeted, he kept the door open for me and offered me a glass of water or coffee. One evening (we have our sessions at 6.20pm because I have a hectic job), he came out to the waiting room and put the light on for me so I wouldn’t wait in darkness. He was always very in tune with whether the room was too hot or cold and offered to switch the air-con off or hand over a blanket. The best for me was the short chats we sometimes had at the end of the session in which he would recommend cool psychology or neuroscience articles, books or TED talks. We both had a keen interest in this type of stuff and I felt important when he thought I’d like something.

I came up with the idea to create a cartoon strip on the process of therapy (similar to Therapy Tales) and made him the central character. I spent hours perfecting the drawings, colour and message and handed it over to him during a session. He seemed surprised but chuckled and put it down on the table next to him. Another time, I overcame my fears and pored my soul into a non-fiction creative piece for my Masters degree. I printed it out and handed it to him, both wanting and not wanting to hear his opinion. It became vital that I obtain his approval and find ways to please him and impress him. At this stage, it should be obvious that I was treating him like the loving, affectionate father I had always wanted. It wasn’t really about him but about the relationship framework I was carrying over from childhood.

Many hours were spent thinking about what he was like outside the therapy room, what his wishes and fears were, what he did to de-stress, whether he had people who cared about him and other personal aspects I had absolutely no idea about. It was infuriating because he revealed very little about himself and always steered the conversation back to me, which was the whole point of therapy I suppose. I experienced a feeling very similar to the pure love one has for a teacher or adoring uncle. I felt ashamed that I was thinking about him so much and that I had fantasies of bumping into him at the shops or speaking about him over coffee.

It was at this point that I did some reading to see whether this was a common occurence. I found that many people had been through the same experience as me and immediately felt a bit better. Professionals and clients alike recommended speaking to your therapist about these powerful feelings as a vehicle to understanding yourself better.

It took a lot of courage and vulnerability but I opened up to him. After listening carefully for most of the hour, he normalized the situation while gently reminding me that boundaries remained in place and that we could never be friends. I felt both relieved that he hadn’t outright rejected me but also devastated that this relationship would always be one-sided. A few months later, I was still working through some severe disappointment and had a reality check which I shared in a session.

“You are this kind to everyone,” I said softly while averting my eyes. “I thought I was special and that you had seen something in me. That you thought about me as much as I did you. I wanted to be special but this is your job. You deal in empathy and your job is to care. It’s the job, not me.”

He didn’t confirm or deny. Instead, he just waited for me to continue and asked questions to clarify certain feelings. While I knew he could feel my disappointment, there were no satisfying conclusions. It became a little easier to speak to him after that because I felt like I was seeing him at least a bit clearer. The goal of being the perfect therapy client and caring how I came across didn’t matter as much anymore.

I still care about him deeply and regard him in the same way I would a father or the older brother I always wanted but never had.

All I hope for is that he really does care about me as a person. That he won’t forget about me when our professional relationship comes to an end one day. And, maybe, that he took something valuable away too.

 

 

 

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I chose my therapist because he looked like a classic psychoanalyst (It takes two to therapy: volume one)

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The therapy process is complex. Anyone who has ever been in the therapy room can attest to that.

Even before you sit on that couch (or beanbag or whatever bum-cushioning method your therapist is experimenting with), a number of decisions have been made and psychological processes enacted. I know this not only as an active participant but as an intensely curious soul who has researched and read journal articles and opinion pieces till my eyes have fallen out in frustration and amazement. Ultimately, I have concluded that therapy is a truly magical process in which two individuals create a shared reality to observe, engage with, comment on or alter. There is no other relationship quite like it and no way to fully convey the experience unless you’ve been there.

However, I would like to try. In this first post of ‘It takes two to therapy’, we’ll look at one of the first steps involved… finding a suitable therapist to take that journey with you.

“I CHOSE MY THERAPIST BECAUSE HE LOOKED LIKE A CLASSIC PSYCHOANALYST” (TRUE STORY)

Anyone slightly au fait with technology might comment that finding a therapist is as easy as clicking on a relevant, good-looking Google result. I agree that this is a very good place to start and obviously assumes you’ve made a conscious decision that you need help with a certain aspect of your life. On this level, important factors to consider would be the therapist’s location, their fee, whether they accept your medical plan and whether they have experience in treating people who have similar issues to you.

However, I’d also like to propose that you’ve probably zoned in on a certain therapist because of how they look. It sounds superficial but it’s because you most likely didn’t even realise you were doing it.

Retrospectively, I chose my therapist because he looked like he knew his stuff. His mustache was dense above the lip and tapered down to a trimmed bush on the chin. He had an open forehead and a receding hairline that ended with a bush of curly hair  Warm and curious almond eyes peeked out from behind black-rimmed spectacles. His profile photo was black and white, which conveyed that he was a blank slate just waiting for me to infuse his room with personality, quirks and words. It screamed classical psychoanalyst. I took a few good looks and decided he was safe.

What do I mean by safe? We all have narratives- personal stories that dictate what we fear, love, hate, believe and trust. You might find you choose a female therapist because you’d feel more comfortable speaking about sex or body issues with her. Or you may feel that females are more nurturing and understanding. Perhaps you have a relationship with your mother that is fraught with tension and, without realising it, you’re seeking that loving motherly relationship you never had. I think I chose my male therapist at the time because he was not “my type”, so to speak. I thought his look, although not at all unattractive, would make it much easier to be emotionally intimate without risking being attracted to him. That in itself is telling. Conversely, I was also longing for acceptance, approval and affection from a powerful man. Go figure.

The point is that a decision which seems very logical and rational rarely is. But sometimes I think these are the best types of decisions. At the end of the day, we subconsciously seek what we need to resolve our past and move towards healing.

HOW DO WE MAKE EACH OTHER FEEL?

As with online dating, looks are one thing but how you click is another ballgame altogether. Organise a trial session so you can see how you feel around your therapist, whether they are easy to relate to and if they seem interested and able to help you. When my therapist first agreed to see me, I assumed this meant he had taken me on as a client. What I didn’t realise was that therapists use the first session to see how they feel about you too! It doesn’t make sense to work with someone if you have an absolute aversion to them or do not feel like you can help them. They also take in your facial expressions, how vocal you are, what you’re wearing, your level of personal hygiene and the way you speak or describe something or someone. If I had known this beforehand, I think I would have been a lot more nervous about how I was coming across, like one would in an interview setting.

That said, therapists are trained to tune into your world and feel empathy for what you are going through. I think it would take something extremely obvious, or powerful, for them to not like you or see something in you that they could work with in follow-up sessions. Ultimately, you should come out of the therapy room feeling like you have someone who is excited to know more about you and help you uncover your potential. Sometimes you may be unsure and need a second session for confirmation. It may take a few hits and misses, but you’ll eventually find that therapist you just “click” with.

This month marks a year that I have been with my therapist.  I’d love to hear what made you chose your therapist and what your first session was like.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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