Monthly Archives: July 2014

The “perfect” therapy client

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Sitting on the therapy couch activates intense anxiety and I always feel like I am display, on show. For a naturally guarded and private person, it makes sense that speaking about myself would seem scary and revealing. For that hour, my muscles stiffen. I am hyper-aware of how I am being perceived. Extended silences make me even more anxious. Although the silence is intended to act as a loving holding space, it feels reproachful.

I specialise in past tense, present tense and future tense…

This tension in the therapy room is something I have often explored with DS (my therapist Deep Soul). Perhaps it’s because therapy is a place where you cannot hide. You can try to pretend with words but your body language will deceive you. It’s a space where shame is under the full glare of the therapist’s gaze. It’s a place where, try as you might, your less desirable side will be exposed and scrutinised, albeit with kind intention.

These feelings have very little to do with DS and everything to do with what I am bringing to the room. In one session, we discussed how important it was for me to be the “perfect” therapy client. Maybe you’d find some of this familiar…

– You’re super accommodating when your therapist announces last-minute changes.

– You always make sure you are early or on time for appointments.

– You ensure you look and smell good, even if you’ve just come from a work day where you were stuck in a cubicle of sweating Jabba the Hutts and dealt with people who make teeth-gnashing Rottweilers look more approachable.

– You politely greet your therapist and ask how they are.

– You listen carefully to each and every insight because it’s what you “should” do, even when you really don’t feel up to it in the moment.

– You dig a hole to China trying to explore “how you are feeling” because you think an answer will satisfy them.

– You consider the burden and impact your words and actions will have on your therapist and the relationship.

– Even if your therapist is not the homework kind (like DS), you avidly Google topics discussed in the session, make mental notes and basically create your own detailed homework schedule.

– You don’t leave all your crumpled tissues on the couch. You place them in the bin before you leave.

– You make sure you pay your therapist beforehand, like clockwork and without fail.

Trying to be perfectly imperfect…

What may become clear is that not all of these behaviours are particularly helpful to the client. Theoretically, part of the therapist’s job is to give up their needs and life for you in the paid hour. I say theoretically because it’s easier said than done. The hour becomes a space in the day where you can let the mask slip. Trying to cut out these tendencies can also be potentially unhelpful. I told DS one day that I “shouldn’t” be so hard on myself and expect to be perfect at all times. Basically, I was again trying to be the perfect therapy client by trying to force myself to be fixed, simply by stipulating what I could and couldn’t do. So many rules!

It’s easy to say that self-compassion is what is needed in this somewhat confusing healing process. I personally think that’s a harder tool to grab if you struggle with low self-esteem. Someone who thinks they are a piece of crap may not feel they deserve to cut themselves a break. This is probably where your therapist’s unending empathy becomes an important catalyst for change.

Do you stock Therapy Client Barbie?

Obviously, there are very blissful times when their attunement is so intense that it uncoils the springs in our bodies and we exhale in relief. The distance between the couch and the therapist’s chair is greatly reduced when DS tunes in like a curious detective fiddling with the dial of a radio, trying to cut through the fuzziness until he’s found a crystal-clear channel. It’s like time stops. We revel in this comforting moment together and our heartstrings pluck in perfect harmony.

So, as you can see, feeling safe and trusting enough to “not be perfect” is one of my own therapy challenges. One day it will eventually be okay to not be perfect in therapy. And hopefully, that will extend to life. Until then, feel free to share “perfect client” moments so we can cut through any ¬†unnecessary shame.

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The emotional receipt of the world

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I look at the world and see things that need to be fixed. This to-do list of global wrongs is so long it would wipe out more than the Earth’s entire rain forests if printed out. But it doesn’t need to be printed out. I get an emotional receipt every time I stride through town. People’s lives swirl towards me in an assault of rattling tin cans, discarded newspapers and petrified sweat mingled with drips and drabs of despair.

Images sweep me up and away to a place where I’m left asking why some people are born with a head start and others are placed three miles behind the start line.

To the lone woman trying to sell magazines on the side of the road late last night, wearing a flimsy garbage bag over a dress to protect against the rain… I am sorry. I didn’t have coins on me to help you out. I saw the longing in your eyes for a dry, warm spot in my car. Where would you have liked to go if I let you in?

To the man who battled to make a bed in the space between two outside pillars a few days ago. I watched as you unfolded your plastic sheet and tried to lay it down on the wet grass, with nothing else to protect you from the elements. You looked so vulnerable out in the open, and yet so resigned to the fact that you did not have four walls of your own to protect you in fading light. I am sorry that not everyone gets their own piece of land to call home. What would you have built if that opportunity was given to you?

To the teenaged street kid with the body of an eight-year-old and the weariness of an 80-year-old. I am sorry your first experience of life was a womb swirling with wine, methylated spirits and methamphetamine. I have no answer as to why so many other children first opened their eyes in an amniotic sac of pregnancy vitamins and happy hormones. What would you have aspired to be if you were in a classroom and a caring kindergarden teacher asked you that question?

There are too many questions and not enough answers. I feel their pain but I also feel remnants of hope. And perhaps that is the human condition. That despite everything, we are wired to survive and to persist. To beat the system. And our own demons.

If we exist in something like The Matrix and we’re a coded DNA heap of 1’s and 0’s, I cling to the hope that we’re all noughts striving to be ones. One with ourself and one with others. To think of a lesser reality would mean it was all for naught.

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Love, loss and longing

 

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Love, loss and longing have flitted in and out of my consciousness the last two weeks. Without my therapist DS (Deep Soul)’s presence, I have been a little boat on a deep body of water, trying to navigate emotions snapping like ravenous piranhas under my belly.

Love…

My husband was a welcoming dock. Warm lips and kind words lubricated my bow. I gratefully lost myself in him. It was a temporary reprieve from the somewhat inexplicable sadness and confusion kicked up in the therapy room.

At the same time, my spirits were lifted by the week-long visit of an old university friend who has been like a sister to me. She recently went through an extremely difficult time in which she was admitted to a psych ward with depression and anxiety. I slipped into a familiar caregiving role with ease and focused on her wellbeing with all my might. I wanted her to know how much she was loved and appreciated. We spoke for hours on end and I took off time from work to treat her and show her around. Most importantly, I was a container for all the emotions she struggled to handle. When she criticized herself, I questioned her beliefs behind the criticism and softened the blow. When frustration threatened to crack her apart, I stood patiently beside her and held her hand. I took in all her sadness and despair and reflected love and acceptance back. I did this because she needed me. And this is the care I would have wanted from someone had I been in a dark pit with no way out. Perhaps mirroring a therapist’s containing care was unsustainable but I think the holiday did her a world of good and it offered an escape for me.

I also leaned in to our upstairs neighbour, her husband and their adorable 11-month-old son. We have recently became close and I’ve developed a strong bond with their boy, who lights up with a smile and holds out his tiny hands every time he sees me. The friendship has been a welcome breath of fresh air for both of us. You see, my neighbour has a busy and sometimes lonely schedule as a famous pop singer.

Loss…

Just as soon as our house was bustling and full of life, it emptied out. My husband left early this morning for a week-long business trip. A few hours later, I hugged my friend goodbye and watched as she left for back home. An empty house. The smell of the pancakes my friend made for a farewell dinner lingered in the air. I caught a whiff of my husband’s shampoo on our bedsheets.

Upstairs, I could hear my neighbour and her family packing for a month-long music tour overseas. They would be leaving before nightfall. Next door, I heard the sound of people packing up boxes and moving furniture out. It was the family of our elderly German neighbour who had come to move him into a retirement home. They painted over the oil splatters and smoke stains of a lonely man. They replaced the smell of neglect with the smell of paint and disinfectant.

The ache of loss dragged my stomach down.

Longing…

I long to be okay with everything I am feeling. I long to understand why I sometimes feel so unworthy and damaged. Why do I feel like the love and happiness I receive will just as surely be taken away from me if I enjoy it and attach to it too much? Why am I so hyper-vigilant about possible abandonment and perceived alienation? I wish I knew.

The week stretches before me. I am scared. But I also see a time to sit. To contemplate. To feel everything. Life is bittersweet and the universe has thrown me a bone to keep the scales in balance.

I saw DS again tonight after a series of interrupted sessions. I was not quite sure what to expect after our tempestuous session last time. The session helped sooth me a bit and prepare for the week and our future sessions. As always, my dream last week spoke louder than words:

I used a magical machine that gave me the option to warp to different places. I pressed a button and it warped me to a house on a hill in a posh housing estate. I was invisible because the machine had put an invisibility cloak over me. From the patio, I could see a pool as well as the rolling countryside over the high walls and electric fencing. I guessed this was either DS’s house or his family’s house. I stood at the bottom of the house and saw a family on a higher patio playing around and joking with each other at the table. They all had curly hair like DS, some brown like him and some blonde like me. I desperately sought DS because I needed to speak to him. I couldn’t find him and guessed he must have been inside a bedroom because he was sick. There was no way for me to get past the family because then I would have become visible. I had an aching sense of loneliness and separation looking at the family scene. There was an ornamental metal hippo sculpture next to me. I patted and stroked it lovingly while lost in thought and unsure of where to go next.

And ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation (and reunion, I would add)… The Prophet by Kahil Gibran.

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