What I learned in therapy Lesson 1
See here for Lesson 2
See here for Lesson 3
I was once asked on the psychcafe forum the the 10 most important things I learned in therapy. I couldn’t hold it down to ten. 😀 I went back and dusted off the list and thought it would be good to go back through it now. I was in therapy with my first therapist for three separate runs of therapy over a span of almost 22 years until her retirement about five years ago. I took a year off, then started working with the Boundary Ninja (who was originally my husband’s therapist and had been doing couples’ work with us. Which is material for a whole ‘nother post. :)). Once we keyed in on my attachment problems, the work really took off. Last September, I made the decision to stop going regularly. The Boundary Ninja is a therapist of the “once a client, always a client” school of thought and his door has remained open, including emails or phone calls and when I feel the need, I contact him and go in for a session. I have went up to a four month gap between sessions but probably average seeing him about once every four to six weeks, with emails and occasional calls in between seeing him live. So this seems like a good time to revisit what I learned from the Boundary Ninja.
Before I begin discussing the lessons learned, I want to say that the most difficult thing to explain about healing in therapy is that it isn’t about “knowing” it’s about experiencing being with another person. So much of what I talk about below totally gonzo confused me when I first learned it. I used to tell the Boundary Ninja, that he was talking in Russian when he started explaining a lot of this to me. But staying with my feelings and continuing to express them through the confusion is how I learned it. And I must give credit here to my therapist who is really an incredibly gifted, compassionate man doing exactly what he should be. Whenever you find yourself thinking that I really know what I’m talking about, I can guarantee it’s because I am quoting the Boundary Ninja. 😀
Lesson #1 Healing is possible
I didn’t always believe this. Due to the abuse I suffered as a child, I had internalized a deep sense of my worthlessness, brokenness and could even at times feel I was evil at the core. Part of this was internalized because of the lack of care and part of it was implanted by my dad when he was trying to transfer his guilt by blaming me for what happened. I felt broken beyond repair, too far gone to ever recover. But I learned differently because of two things. The Boundary Ninja’s unwavering belief in my ability to heal, and the neuroplasticity of the brain.
The Boundary Ninja has been at this for a very long time, over 30 years and has learned to trust the healing process by seeing it work so many times for so many people. He himself will tell you there is a mystery at the heart of healing. I would agree. I don’t know how it works but it is in being seen for who we are, and being heard and understood that heals us. I probably haven’t mentioned it yet but the Boundary Ninja was a very humble man in the best sense. He had a good handle on what he was good at, he knew he was an effective therapist but never lost sight of his own humanity and woundedness. So when we talked about what was actually happening between us, he would explain it as something outside himself which was allowed to flow through him during those moments of connection and understanding. A source of infinite energy and love. Think of the bible verse “Where two or three gather together in my name, there am I with them.” When two human beings deeply connect, God (which is how I conceive of the higher source of healing) moves in their midst and healing flows. So although he couldn’t really explain the heart of it, he did understand what you needed to do to heal. You might not know how long it would take or how the journey would unfold, but you could trust the destination. So for a very long time, I sat across from him expressing my very deep fears that I could never heal, I would never get past my wounding or learn to be in an intimate relationship with another human being. And with a great deal of patience (why the man’s head never exploded I will NEVER know) he sat across from me and very calmly and with a great deal of certainty, told me that I would heal, that I could get better and he knew I was capable of being in an intimate relationship. That I was meant to live fully and the reason I wasn’t was that I had not been provided with what I needed to learn to do so.
Which brings us to the neuroplasticity of the brain. 😀 Early on, when we realized that I was struggling with attachment injuries, I started reading about attachment theory and human development and one thing came through loud and clear and allowed me to hope in a way I hadn’t been able to before: change is always possible. It is exponentially more difficult to do as an adult, but it is not impossible. The human brain continues to develop outside the womb, with the frontal cortex not coming online until around the age of two to three which is when we actually start laying down biographical memories. But before we reach that stage, our relationships with our caregivers and our experiences are literally physicially shaping our brains, forming neural pathways that carry the patterns of our experiences and later form our unconscious expectations of relationships. If we have a caring, attuned, loving “good enough” caregiver, then what is shaped and what we learn allows us to fully develop and function in a healthy manner. However, if we do not receive good enough care, we can take in wrong beliefs and wrong ways of relating that continue to echo throughout our lives, affecting all of our relationships. But here’s the good news. The brain never loses it’s “plasticity” which is it’s ability to learn new things, and form new pathways. Our relationships can literally change our brain structure (for a much more detailed explanation of how this works, see the book the General Theory of Love discussed in Helpful Books ). So the things we learn and beliefs we form, how we handle relationship are not set in stone. We are not doomed to a miserable existence by the damage done in an abused childhood. By being with someone who has fully developed, we can “go back” so to speak and complete the developmental steps we missed and learn what we need to know to function in a healthy manner.
No matter what the damage, given time and the right care, we can make things better and live more fully. I truly believe that is true for anyone. It can take a long time and be painful and chaotic and messy along the way, BUT it is amazing how much of the battle is just knowing that the battle can be won. The Boundary Ninja’s faith in my ability to heal was what allowed me to heal because he believed it so deeply that I had to believe it too.And he allowed me to run on his faith in me when I had none in myself.
I’ll cover Lesson #2 in the next post.
NOTE: I just want to say thank you to everyone who has been reading here. I’m really excited to have a place to share these thoughts and reflect on my experiences and it’s incredibly encouraging that there are people willing to take the time to actually read what I write. In that vein, I am very open to any suggestions for topics or questions that people might have. Feel free to use the Comments to make any requests. Thanks for coming along on my journey.
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