A woman perched on a grey sofa screams at her therapist.
The room has a large window that looks out on blue sky and sunshine.
“I’ve been coming here all these years and I’m still not okay. You’re the expert with all the training! Why haven’t you done a better job at helping me? You’re supposed to guide me toward what I need. I have entrusted myself to you. What is wrong with you? You’ve been wasting my time and money!”
Her voice gets louder, her face more contorted, her emotions more bitter, her words more scorching. Her therapist hands her the tissues.
That was me in therapy many years ago.
While I was particularly vocal, I detect an undertone of this with pretty much every client at some point. It could show up as a long pause while they wait for me to begin the session, or voicing frustration months into the process.
At the time, my verbal attack covered feelings of sadness, loneliness, helplessness, and despair. While I had made some progress in achieving my therapeutic goals, I still wasn’t where I wanted to be.
My inner brat had kicked in. Think toddler in a supermarket aisle. Face down on the floor, purple-cheeked, bug-eyed, arms and legs writhing, snot and dribble combining, screaming, “No, I don’t want to!”
When we expect to be fixed by our therapist, our child part is in the room.
Am I criticising us for being, at times, childlike? No. That’s nothing to criticise. It’s just the way it is and probably the reason why we are in therapy.
We are probably in therapy because it’s difficult to identify and act on our needs. A tell-tale sign is the client who struggles to envisage what would be different in their lives if therapy were successful. To say, “I would feel less anxious” or, “I would do less over-thinking” is only half of the answer. I then ask, “If you were feeling less anxious or overthinking less, what would you be doing with your time?”
Sometimes this draws a blank. But if you don’t know, how can your therapist know?
The therapy will meander. I might catch myself over-compensating for your lack of input. Probably in the end, you will leave and dismiss it as an unsatisfying experience.
This doesn’t mean you’re doomed. Instead, let’s look caringly at those vulnerable child parts and ask:
1. What gets in the way of knowing?
Perhaps, we learned as a child that emotions are either “good” or “bad.” Our parents told us, “Don’t get angry, it doesn’t suit you,” when we had a temper tantrum. Or they brushed over our grief when our pet went missing by saying, “Don’t worry” or, “It will be fine, we’ll get you another one.” Maybe there was an unspoken family norm that we “don’t show our vulnerability” or “we keep smiling no matter what.”
So even if not made explicit, we deduced from the emotional void that certain feelings were inferior.
Since we crave our parents’ love and acceptance we relegate those feelings. We feel ashamed of those feelings. We unconsciously assume these as negative beliefs which show up in how we behave. We might believe “if I get angry, I’m bad” or “feeling excited is risky” or “feeling sad is unbearable.” We don’t get angry and we lose our power. We don’t allow our excitement and we feel that life is joyless. We avoid our sadness and we feel depressed. We bury fear and sabotage the relationships, threatening our defenses.
Our feelings tell us what we need from ourselves and others. Emotions are energy in motion and provide the drive to get what we need. If we don’t allow and heed them, we get stuck.
2. How can I change that?
Firstly, notice negative self-talk. Gestalt Therapy theory describes it as the critical voice or “top dog” who condemns us for being inadequate. Notice how you reprimand or insult yourself in a way you would never talk to a friend. Can you discover the need beneath the behaviour you are condemning?
When you accuse yourself of being lazy for not going to the gym five times a week, can you empathize with your need to rest?
When you feel shame for declaring your love to your best friend after two bottles of wine, can you relate to the part that yearns for love and acceptance (even if the object of affection is a little misplaced)?
When you feel guilty for not helping your mother yet again on a Saturday morning, can you feel compassion for the part that feels unacknowledged and hurt?
Stop “minimising” your emotions.
We do this by making a joke at our own expense in front of our friends. We put on a happy face. We also do this by telling ourselves, “it’s not that important,” or “it will be fine,” or, “it’s not worth it, I need to choose my battles.” What we are actually saying is, “I’m not that important.”
3. Next time you catch yourself doing this, ask which emotions you are dismissing?
Quit being so “nice.” Some of us excel at seeing things from another person’s perspective. So much so that we miss our own perspective!
We say things like, “I don’t like it when my partner overreacts and spoils our Friday night, but he suffers from anxiety so I don’t want to add to his pressure.” Or, “My boss has enough on his plate so I’d feel guilty to mention I am overworked and stressed.” Or, “She’s mostly nice to me so that’s what I focus on rather than when she treats me like sh*t.” Or, “I guess I feel frustrated about it, but someone has to do it.”
Dr. Young has coined the term “self-sacrifice schema.” This is when we operate from an underlying belief that our needs come second or that in order to get our needs met we must satisfy another’s first.
But isn’t being able to step into another’s shoes a more mature, harmonious, and constructive way to behave? Isn’t there enough conflict and misunderstanding in the world? Not when the price you pay for sacrificing your own feelings and needs leads to anxiety, panic attacks, low mood, overeating, over-drinking, or chronic fatigue, to name just a few.
Next time you find yourself skipping into the other person’s shoes, ask yourself which part of your own experience you are overlooking.
4. Even if I could “fix” you, then what?
I look back and wonder to myself, even if my therapist had waved a magic wand and “fixed” me, could I have handled the results? I would have had to give up helplessness and step into power. But there is something safe about helplessness. Status and responsibility bring exposure, risk of failure, and shame.
Getting “fixed” means giving up feeling enraged and righteous, and instead feeling scared, doubtful, and uncertain. It means giving up relational dramas and loneliness and exchanging them for true intimacy with the risk of getting re-wounded. Was I ready for that? Did I have the inner wholeness necessary to make the changes sustainable? I don’t think I did. That comes from “fixing” yourself.
5. What do you gain from your symptoms?
If I wasn’t ready to be different, then were my symptoms indirectly serving me? I would have felt enraged to hear this at the time—as might my clients. I am not implying that suffering isn’t real or that we have consciously created it. Of course not. However, consider the person whose depression means they have an excuse for saying “no” to things which they would struggle to say “no” to otherwise. Or the procrastinator who doesn’t need to face their inner emptiness as they are so distracted with catching up on their “to-do” list.
Take your child gently by the hand and go figure it out.
Can you imagine how you would fill the gap in your life if you were “fixed?” Can you give an answer that goes further than describing an elimination of symptoms?
Write at least four lines in answer to each of these questions:
How would you behave differently?
How would you treat others differently?
How would you walk and talk differently?
How would you play, work and perform differently?
How would you treat others differently: friends, relatives, partner, parents, children, and work colleagues?
How would you treat your body?
How would you talk to yourself?
How would your character change?
What sort of things would you start doing?
What would you stop doing?
What goals would you set and work toward?
Then do something about it.
Gestalt Therapy theory is pinned on responsibility—being responsible. This means having an emotion, identifying the need it conveys, and trying to meet it. This doesn’t always mean doing something grand. Sometimes an emotion just wants to be accepted.
If as children we learned that certain emotions are unacceptable, we will struggle to know what we truly need. We shouldn’t criticise ourselves for that. Instead, this difficulty can become the focus of your healing. As a therapist, I can’t and won’t fix or “help” you. I would be keeping you in a child-like state if I did.
But, I can and want to facilitate your awareness, which is the first step toward change. I also can and want to support you non-judgementally to step out of your comfort zone and try something different.
Which baby step could you take right now toward one of your goals?
Did I manage to fix myself? Well, these days I sit on the opposite chair. I buy the boxes of tissues. From time to time I gaze out of the window at the blue sky and sunshine. They feel much closer than before.
Young, J.E. & Janet, S. K, “Reinventing Your Life’, Plume, New York, 1993.
Author: Alexandra Schlotterbeck Stevens
Editor: Sara Kärpänen
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