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.