Home > abandonment, disassociation, feelings > What I learned in therapy Lesson 2

What I learned in therapy Lesson 2

See here for Lesson 1.

See here for Lesson 3

Lesson #2: I don’t need to be scared of my feelings or overwhelmed by them. I learned this by watching the Boundary Ninja not be overwhelmed by them.

By the time I started working with the Boundary Ninja (OK I give, I’m using an acronym 🙂 BN) I had done significant work in therapy, recovering memories, processing trauma, learning about boundaries and most importantly, in learning I had my own voice. Throughout this, anyone who knew me (for over three minutes) would have probably described me as a very emotional person with a wide range between my highs and lows (for the geeks in my audience, if I were a sine wave, I would have a high amplitude. :)) So you can imagine my total shock that the most major discovery I made working with BN was how very far I stayed away from my feelings. They were often in lockdown, shut away, and kept as far from me as possible. This dynamic was so pronounced that I was in my late 40s before I actually realized I was a right-brain dominant person and that I actually had a creative side. I had fled SO far over into my left brain to stay away from my feelings that I had gotten an engineering degree.  (I worked as an engineer for eight years, then left the work force for five years when my first child was born and when I returned became a technical writer.)

I started working with BN in couples’ counseling with my husband and one of the dynamics he observed was that when I let my feelings out it was always REALLY intense because it was only when they got extreme enough that they would burst past the bindings I had them under that they would show. And when they did, because of his own hard earned issues, my husband would disappear. Mainly because I often used anger to try and control our relationship because hey, it made my dad really powerful. And it fit well enough with my husband’s past, that it quickly got very scary for him and he would distance himself. (My husband and I always say, yes we have matching baggage, as in a matching pair of Louis Vitton trunks. :)) Which BN and I eventually figured out was the continuation of a pattern I experienced in childhood. If I expressed strong emotions, I was abandoned. I highly suspect that my mother was abused as a child (she almost never discusses her childhood) and from what I have described, BN thinks she was probably disassociated a lot. I think when my emotions got intense (as any child’s will, let alone one experiencing abuse), then my mother got scared and left.  So I had learned over a lifetime that to express my real feelings meant I got to be alone.

Combine that with the fact that I was being abused by my dad and experiencing really intense emotions which I was getting no help dealing with. Or as BN put it, one parent wasn’t there and the other overstimulated me and smashed through my boundaries.  So I feared my emotions because I had experienced them in a way which felt like they threatened to destroy me, or would get me abandoned. I was terrified of my own feelings. On a deep, unconscious level, I believed that the only way to survive, to not be abandoned to death was to NOT have feelings. Or if I did, I sure as hell wasn’t going to express them. I know that death sounds pretty dramatic, but remember we’re talking about a small child who actually is dependent for their life on their caregivers. Those overwhelming emotions I couldn’t process got stored fresh, so when they came back, they really did feel life-threatening.

In some ways, I was caught in a catch-22. Expressing my feelings meant I was abandoned and alone. Not expressing my feelings was to keep my true self hidden, so I was alone with the belief that anyone who got in far enough and knew all of me would leave, so I was still alone. Didn’t matter where you started, I ended up alone. It’s no way to live. Not to mention that it is in experiencing our feelings that we know we are alive. Awareness of our feelings is vital to living a full life.

So BN and I started a very long journey focused on getting me to allow myself to feel my feelings, to let them flow through me.  It was REALLY scary work.  Thanks to therapy I am the BEST scared driver in the world. For the first couple of years I worked with BN, I can count the number of sessions I wasn’t terrified to go to on one hand. (The only lower statistic was sessions in which I have not cried. :)) I hit one very long stage where I would walk in, say hi, how are you, sit down and say I need a few minutes. I would then stare at the floor and try to control my breathing.

Sidenote about breathing: I was trying to hold my feelings in so hard then when my affect got really intense, I would stop breathing. Seriously, my therapist had to tell me to breath! It wasn’t uncommon in the middle of a session or emergency phone call to have him say “don’t forget to breath AG.”

But here’s the thing. No matter how scared I got, BN never got scared. Never. No matter what I talked about, no matter what affect I showed, he was totally calm and accepting and there. And all through this he just kept telling me that these were only feelings. That there was a consistent “me” who was having the feelings and was there before they came and would be there after they left. I had no idea what the hell he was talking about when he first told me that.

So we would talk about how I felt about him, which would lead to what had happened in my past and as I connected with the memories, the long stored emotions would emerge, in a very intense fashion. And there would sit BN across from me, incredibly calm and showing no fear. You know what? If someone who is with you when you’re terrified is showing NO fear, you eventually start to wonder if what is happening is really that scary. So between him not being scared and supporting me through the feelings (when things got really intense, and I was sobbing and incoherent, he would talk to me like I was around two years old and just soothe me with his voice) I eventually learned that the feelings weren’t going to destroy me, that it was ok to have them, that I had survived the things the feelings were about.

I started by feeling like a totally frozen river with no movement, but as we worked the ice slowly broke up and the feelings started to flow. I remember at one point describing that my emotions could sometimes feel like a small, babbling brook flowing through sunlit meadow and at other times like a raging river threatening to overflow the banks and that was when I would call him. 🙂

A major turning point in our therapy was when I remembered when it was that I had learned to be afraid of being afraid. BN and I were discussing the fact that I thought his being a male was a very important factor in my work with him (again, material for a future post, the effect of the gender of the therapist) and I told him that I would never have worked individually with a man. That it was only because I came to trust him in the couples’ work that I considered seeing him for individual work. He asked me what was it that made me trust him? (He often asks REALLY good questions. Painful and difficult, but really good. :D) I sat and thought about what it had been and finally looked at him and said “you didn’t get angry when I got scared.” Even I thought that was a slightly strange answer.  In journaling about it later, I recalled one of my very few memories of my father that I had always had (versus the recovered memories). I remembered being about six or seven and we were out on my dad’s boat. It was a large sailboat with a fixed keel, which was moored up a creek off a river, so you would use a small outboard motor to go down the creek and raise sail once you hit the river. You reversed the process on the way back. One evening we were coming back and as we headed up the creek, the engine failed. So my father was working on it and getting angry and frustrated. Well, I was a small kid and got really scared that he wouldn’t be able to get the engine started and we would be stranded out in this creek all night, a rather daunting prospect. Looking back, we were in NO danger. The creek wasn’t that deep, the banks weren’t that far away and it was a fairly populated area, but I was young enough that I didn’t put all that together. I got so scared that I started to cry. It would have just taken a minute for my father to stop and reassure me that we were fine and we would get off the creek, but instead he yelled at me. And that was the moment it happened. I got scared of being scared. If I got scared, then Dad got angry and I was in trouble. So I had to not get scared. You can see where this would be difficult for a small child (0k, seriously this would be difficult for a human being. Full stop.) So the fact that when I would express fear (and oftimes, terror) and BN’s response was to understand and comfort me was something REALLY different.

He was so good at not showing any fear, that once when he told me a story about being scared, I actually told him I found it impossible to picture. I mean, I know he’s human and therefore, must be scared sometimes, but I just can’t wrap my head around it. He often described therapy as a place where you feel safe enough to feel scared.

So eventually I learned that my feelings were not something to be scared of because he consistently modeled the behavior. Even more importantly I learned that  expressing them would not get me abandoned. I remember one session I went through an especially intense bout of grief with my head down and face covered. When I managed to calm down enough to look at him again, I remember saying “why are you still here?” And he asked me if I could think of a reason he still would be. I told him insanity sprang to mind. 😀 After we had a good laugh, he told me that the real question was why hadn’t my parents stayed?

  1. True North
    October 10, 2011 at 10:52 pm

    This post was really timely. Today I had a session with my T who talked to me about the same things. That I was not scary or my feelings were not overwhelming. He never looks scared, he just looks pretty much the same no matter what I tell him. I have been confused by his lack of looking either excited or dramatic or some other extreme show of emotion. I have accused him more than once of not having any empathy. Or at least not wanting to show any to me. We are sort of at an impasse right now in this regard. I’m starting to think that I don’t really know what empathy looks like so how I can see it in him?

    And so… because he does not seem scared of my anger, emotions or my past, it feels safer to tell him about them. My last T became so scared of me that he abandoned me. My current T has worked hard with me to get me to see that it was my former T and NOT me that was the cause of this.

    Thanks for the interesting read.


    • October 11, 2011 at 12:39 pm

      TN, so glad you found it helpful. BN’s ability to stay through the emotions and respond so evenly was very key to my recovery. But I also understand your struggle with seeing the empathy. We really don’t expect it, so it IS hard to take in. And at times the steadiness can be quite maddening when you’d like MORE of a reaction. (I tried to get my therapist to fight with me for a long time and he was REALLY good at not doing it. I often fantasized about throwing things at him in session during that time. :D) But in the end, despite how the calmness and detachment can hurt at times, it was also what taught me to trust his empathy and believe in it. So glad that your current T is helping to repair so much. You’re living proof that there is life after a bad therapist.


  2. Strummergirl
    October 11, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    The communication between you and your T is so beautiful, AG. Thank you for sharing it here. I know it was messy and chaotic when you were going through it, but the way your BN provides that safe place for you to feel is so inspiring to read about, as is your courage to keep going back to thaw that river out a little bit more. 😀 That last statement your BN made, about the real question being why hadn’t your parents stayed, really hit me hard, as I’m sure it did you, too. Funny how healing can come not only by answering questions, but also by just showing how we could ask different questions. 😉 Love, SG


    • October 12, 2011 at 6:59 pm

      Thanks for commenting SG. 🙂 I agree about the power of the right question. It was something my T used very effectively. There were times he asked me questions, that shocked me so deeply they became a pivot point in my healing (Me: I wanted flay my father alive, it was a horrible feeling? BN: Really, it has horrible?” and sometimes he asked haunting questions that I would worry at like a dog with a bone for the week in between sessions. One of my favorite compliments he ever paid me was once when I told him he could ask really hard questions, he told me that I could too. 😀 I am glad that his impact is reverberating out to you. Love, AG


  3. November 28, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    Thanks for this, I hope I’m starting to get to this place…..with lots of kicking and screaming though.


    • December 8, 2011 at 11:12 pm

      Hi Normal,
      If you’re not kicking and screaming, you’re not doing it right. 😉



  4. Willow
    June 1, 2015 at 8:32 pm

    Hi AG, so here’s a question….”Expressing my feelings meant I was abandoned and alone. Not expressing my feelings was to keep my true self hidden, so I was alone with the belief that anyone who got in far enough and knew all of me would leave, so I was still alone. Didn’t matter where you started, I ended up alone.”
    So how did you manage a full relationship with the above state? I’ve always been alone because of this, and wonder how people can manage a marriage, not to mention kids..
    Thanks if you feel like answering.


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