Monthly Archives: October 2014

Ending each therapy session

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I had an interesting experience in therapy with DS (Deep Soul) on Monday. Our time was drawing to a close and I had discussed for the first time how anxious I feel around other people and how fearful I am of the anxiety’s effect on my relationships. As usual, he asked how I was feeling as we were wrapping up.

Most often, there’s just a deep sadness that time has gone by so quickly and that I will have to wait another week to feel his presence. I feel ashamed for feeling sad when he has been so kind. It’s like I am ungrateful and greedy. As a result, I find myself withdrawing the closer it comes to saying goodbye. It’s not entirely of my will. I just feel myself distancing, becoming really formal and speaking monotonously and without affect. This is most likely something I use to protect myself from feeling the pain at departing. DS raised his observations about my departures a while back and I have been trying to remain more present as a result.

So when he asked how I was feeling last time, I opened up about my sadness and tried to remain with him emotionally in the room. It was hard fighting against habit. I told him it was difficult. As I type this now, I think the difficulty is that I have to feel whatever is real for me in that moment instead of being numb. Feeling touched that he was being empathetic as we sat there, I said:

“It’s difficult but I am willing to do this [try be more present] for those I care about.”

Scared at the silence and that he might interpret the words as me coming on too strong, I added: “like you, my husband and perhaps a few of my closest friends”.

My intention with those words was to show him that I appreciate him sticking around and that I am ready to do the work I need to in order to strengthen my emotional regulation and intimacy skills.

Instead, he said it felt like I needed to reassure him or give up my own feelings and needs to maintain the relationship. I said he was reading too much into it. Oh boy, did I feel a need to distance myself from the rising rejection in my body then! “It feels like I am rejecting you?” he enquired gently. I said it sure did but that I understood what he was trying to say. He added that there was obviously a lot going on with me trying to stay present and he was curious to know what that experience was like for me. He didn’t want me to cut off certain feelings or leave things unsaid.

“I understand,” I said in a soft, somewhat monotous voice. “You’re trying to look out for my needs as a client.”

“As a person,” he replied.

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** “Friendship” by Pablo Picasso. 1908.

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My small but meaningful mindfulness journey

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Following a dedicated and daily mindfulness routine for a month has fundamentally altered me. My therapist DS is a strong believer in the powerful effects of mindfulness and I think it’s safe to say he was supporter before it became such a buzz-word. He recommended I try out meditation a while back but I couldn’t really find time to attend classes. I downloaded a few mediation tracks and it seemed to help a bit. However, it didn’t feel like something meaningful and lasting was taking place.

My life started filling up with obligations, increased stress and feelings that I tried to stuff down. Basically, I was on autopilot and becoming increasingly frustrated.

That changed 31 days ago, when I made a conscious decision to really give mindfulness a go. I discovered the free Mindfulness daily app and downloaded it onto my iPad. It is really neat because it offers a 21-day guided journey that you can follow without being connected to the internet. You choose three values and three goals that are most important to you. The app then tailors a program for your needs.

Each day offers a short video lesson in the morning and a suggestion on how to incorporate what you’ve learnt into the day ahead. Every night, it encourages you to work through the reflection video to shed the thoughts of the day. I liked the instructor’s soothing voice and the background visuals throughout the app. The features I found most handy were the check-in and pause buttons. You schedule when you would like these reminders to pop up on your screen during the day. The check-in asks how you are feeling, where have stress in your body and how present you are. The pause is a silent 15-second video that tracks two deep breaths and plays you a calming scene. After 21 days, you can choose your own ongoing practices and access a list of helpful videos.

I really struggle with tuning into my body and regulating my emotions. Obviously I am a lot better than I was when I first started therapy but these are skills that need to be practiced and refined. Secretly, I thought mindfulness would be this amazing little solution with golden wings and angel chorus, floating down from heaven to take away all my disturbing thoughts and uncomfortable feelings. LOL! As I track these expectations, it strikes me that I viewed it as being the ultimate numbing experience and something to magically take away all the negativity and pain. Actually, it is about acknowledging every sensation, emotion, feeling and thought in the moment.

Mindfulness is not a cure. It is merely something which I have found to be a helpful tool to add to my dusty mental health toolbox. The journey is long but I think this might just help me make it one piece.

STUFF I HAVE LEARNED AND EXPERIENCED SO FAR:

LESSON ONE: My breathing sucks. As the day progresses, my body starts kicking into self-preservation mode (what I like to call reptile mode) and switches into the lowest gear to survive. This means very shallow breathing and tightened muscles that are ready to spring into action and run away from the wild tigers and boogymen my amygdala is conjuring up.
PRACTICAL IMPLEMENTATION: After a month, I can make my stomach round like a beach ball by breathing in through my diaphragm. I’ve become aware of this life force rushing through my nostrils, into my lungs and whistling out my mouth. Two deep breaths sometimes manages to kick my body out of reptile mode and into relaxed, executive-function thinking mode.

LESSON TWO: My interpretation of stress makes me more stressed out. We have been taught that stress kills and is bad for you. It is true that prolonged stress has a detrimental effect on the body but if a study (that this app quotes) is to be believed, stress is only bad for you if you perceive it as being bad. Many people could debate this topic for days on end.
PRACTICAL IMPLEMENTATION: What I took from this was that by thinking of stress in the body as its way of preparing to effectively deal with a situation, I immediately felt more relaxed and empowered! It has become a bit easier to see stress as a physiological response that maximizes the resources available to get through a situation. Obviously, I still feel stressed out quite often and bogged down by numerous responsibilities but it doesn’t seem so permanent anymore.

LESSON THREE: Being truly present in the moment is difficult. How often have you gifted someone with your ultimate, focused attention? When was the last time that you ate an apple and delighted in its color, smell, texture and fragrant taste? Probably not as much as you would have liked. I think that technology has made it increasingly acceptable and doable to multi-task instead of do one thing at a time (and I say that while loving the amazing ways in which technology can enrich our lives).
PRACTICAL IMPLEMENTATION: I make a point now of attempting to fully be with my husband in a conversation. Hot baths have become a sensory delight. Washing the dishes… well, it’s still a pain but I realise that I rather like immersing my hands into bubbles and warm water.

LESSON FOUR: My body belongs to me. This sounds weird but it’s true. A typical habit to get through anxiety and stress is by ignoring what my body is trying to tell me. Ditto for scary feelings.The body scan exercise forced me to focus attention onto my physical presence. In doing so, it felt like I was actually starting to acquire a map of where I was in relation to my immediate surroundings.
PRACTICAL IMPLEMENTATION: I realize that my jaw is quite often clenched and my that my chest is closed and tight. I carry tension in my jaw, neck and shoulders. On the upside, in connection with my breathing exercises, it is becoming possible to connect with areas like my pelvic region. I think I have blocked off a lot of sexual energy in the past for some reason.

LESSON FIVE: Having compassion for myself is hard. I naturally expect perfection in everything I do. Mistakes are proof that I am unworthy and incapable. When things go wrong, I assume I must be partly to blame.                                                                               PRACTICAL IMPLEMENTATION: It is becoming a bit easier to take a step back and accept that it’s normal to be human, to make mistakes and be imperfect. I am sometimes able to interrupt a toxic stream of expectations (‘you should’, ‘you have to’, ‘if you don’t) with ‘I am’ full stop.  Still trying to call up compassion when I have the need to label myself as weak or lazy after a long day of work, ballet class and rehearsals, and studies.

The biggest thing I’ve gained is creating some distance from my thoughts and being more aware of emotions and processes in the moment. This awareness has stirred up some good content to work on with DS.

 

** Print by Izutsu Hiroyuki

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Reclining in therapy

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I went to my therapy session last night after deciding I was going to resist a pattern of avoiding intimacy and difficult feelings. The idea was to tell my therapist DS (Deep Soul) that I had considered taking a month’s break from therapy and that it was a way to punish him. In a weird way, I wanted him to know how awful, hurtful and lonely it felt for someone to be inaccessible. The same way I felt he was… Someone who would not show me how he was really feeling, who he was and what he was about.

It took a while for me to open up last night because the pain I felt from the previous session sat in my chest. DS listened carefully and seemed curious to know what I had felt at the end of our last session. I sensed he was waiting for me to make the link between describing myself as “upset” and the undercurrent of anger that he was picking up in the moment.

My GPS can’t find anger?…

Needless to say, it has taken over a year in therapy to even admit to being angry sometimes. Before then, it was a landscape I dared not tread or reveal to others. At my core, I have believed that anger is destructive and will annihilate relationships if expressed.

After some back-and-forth questioning, I eventually admitted that I was angry with him. I was so exhausted from a mentally and physically draining day at work, there was barely energy to remain seated upright on his couch. Admitting to the anger was a relief but also seemed to suck out the last vestiges of energy. I so desperately wanted to lie down, tuck a pillow under my head and relax into the slate grey material.

But everything inside was screaming that it was not safe to lie down. It felt too intimate and dangerous. Lying down was as good as being defenceless and at his mercy. Not only did I think these things but my body was tensing up to defend itself from something.

I took a deep breath and realised that I needed to take a risk. Especially as I had already risked baring my anger in a small way to him. And with that, I explained I was going to lie down a bit because I was tired.

Not my most graceful couch dive…

Have you ever seen a cat being forced into a bathtub of water? That’s how my body felt as I leaned back and rested my head against the pillow. Every limb wanted to spring up and out of there! My chest, stomach and legs felt exposed. I curled my legs up away from him and placed a cushion over my legs as a sort of barrier. I told DS that I felt like putting up the cushion between us as a makeshift wall.

It was a peculiar situation. I can’t say I knew exactly what possible scenario I was protecting myself from. After the initial internal freak out, the fear and anxiety became manageable and my body melted into his soft couch. I had never noticed the lampshade with dull, comforting light next to the couch. The position afforded me a view out into the street below and of his two bonsai trees on the window sill. Being there was surprisingly comforting in a way. I was going to tell DS that the couch felt  like a boat, drifting along the sea but I didn’t end up sharing that for some reason.

My reclining body was triggered again when he spoke about the difficulties of the therapy relationship and how it was inherently one-sided. He was trying to empathize with where I am right now. As he said this, it was like there was a bubbling volcano about to explode in my stomach. A pain in my stomach erupted. It was scary and I was sobbing. He acknowledged that it probably felt like he was putting up a boundary. I agreed and felt like showing strong emotion was pointless. There was no use in being angry with him because it would not change anything. DS agreed but said that not having a use didn’t eliminate the anger. It was still there.

Thanks for getting the Wild Thing song stuck in my head…

At the end of the session, he suggested I read the children’s book Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, which some psychoanalysts believe is a reference to how destructive anger may seem in a relationship but is a feeling that can be tolerated if the attachment is strong enough. I quite liked listening to someone read the short picture book aloud here. If you watch the video or know about the book, you will spot how synchronous it was that the couch felt like a boat!

One thing I really enjoyed about last night’s session was that DS used “shitty” and “crappy” when talking about moments of anger. It’s the first time he has sworn. I told him that it made me feel like he was a real person and that he was probably doing it to encourage me to vent a bit more. If only he knew I swore like a sailor sometimes 😉

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So close and yet so far

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In the last month or so of therapy, I have come to identify one of my central struggles. I must have had a blind spot to not realise that this issue defines how I relate to others and see myself.

I fear intimacy.

Those three words seem alien on the screen. After all, I value my family and large circle of friends. I actively seek out friendships and human contact. How could I possibly fear intimacy if I am anxious to maintain closeness to others?

Well, it’s something I am trying to make sense of, with the help of DS (my therapist Deep Soul). There wasn’t a lightning bolt moment as such but, like a detective, I pieced together “here-and-now” therapy moments to come to this conclusion. DS hasn’t disagreed with my finding.

It would explain all the anxiety I have whenever we’re alone in the room. I reckon that if you had to look up intimate in the dictionary, this situation would feature in the top five! How often do we have an active other who is fully present for us? There is nowhere to run when I am on the couch and he is sitting in front of me. It’s like I can’t handle the closeness, even though consciously I love being able to vent and have him listen and interpret. What am I so scared of? Or why I am scared?

Happy Holloween…

I told DS that I think it’s because I’ve either had a limited experience of happy intimate relationships in my formative years or that I have never had a true intimate relationship at all, even if I’ve been under the illusion that it was intimate. Basically, I am working with a wonky model or map of how relationships are supposed to be. Relationships with my parents were based on compliance, authority and respect. I have a heart full of empathy for why they were that way and that this doesn’t make them bad people. But it does leave me with confusion and pain in relating to others on a deeper level at times. I don’t have strong, formative memories of being able to completely trust someone and be loved for who I am, not what I do or say.

In my heart, I know that intimacy is about being vulnerable and also feeling safe enough to assert views and personality to another. I believe intimacy is based on two people being authentic at any given moment. What makes this confusing in therapy is that DS gets to sit in his authoritative chair waiting for me to open up and speak. The imbalance terrifies me. The blank slate position triggers all sorts of feelings:

– Shame at not being “worthy enough” for someone to open up to me about who they really are and their own weaknesses
– Terror at having to give some or all of myself without reassurance or reciprocation
– Loneliness of the therapy relationship in terms of its one-sideness
– Sadness at feeling like I need to give up on my spontaneity in order to not break certain boundaries in therapy
– Confusion and anger at this catch-22 situation

In our session on Monday, it emerged that I seem to be afraid of enjoying the intimacy of a relationship without feeling loss at the same time. This was after I mentioned that it’s difficult to enjoy the caring moments between us because I know that I will have to eventually give up the relationship. He then asked about the feelings of loss I might have in relation to therapy ending at some point.

The question was innocent enough but I interpreted it as DS telling me I need to just accept there will be an end and more frightening, that it’s something he’s been thinking about a lot.

Don’t take a pill and don’t phone me in the morning…

After the session, I had the impulse to e-mail him and say I was taking a month’s break to escape from the confusion and hurt. It was also a passive form of “punishing” him. I decided to wait and see how I felt the next morning. I’ve been doing a dedicated mindfulness programme for two weeks and when I woke up the following day, I was mindful that the impulse was based on my fear of intimacy i.e. Let’s run away before things can get really hectic between us! I realised I would only be punishing myself and would feel very sad if I couldn’t go to therapy every week.

At this point, I accept that I will need to continue with the journey. At the same time, I have never felt more vulnerable. Wherever this leads, it feels like I have uncovered something important about myself.

Should I go against all my fears and send DS a message this week, letting him know that I became mindful of wanting to escape and that I am feeling vulnerable at the moment? This would prepare him for what to expect at our next session. I also feel alone and really need to feel like he’s there for me.

Or should I wait and raise it next Monday? Is part of therapy learning to bear this pain alone?

**Penny Siopis. 2010. Little Flame. Ink and glue on canvas.

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