What I Learned in Therapy Lesson 3 – The Goal of Healing
See here for Lesson 1
See here for Lesson 2
Healing is not reaching a place of perfect peace and safety. It’s knowing that you can remain safe and be at peace no matter where you are.
Like most people, I went to therapy because I wasn’t happy with how my life was nor how I felt in it. So I wanted to get “better.” But the problem is that I really didn’t know what “better” was, just that it needed to be different from what I was. So, again like most people, I headed off to therapy, explained the problem as best I could, and trusted my therapist to get us headed in the right direction. Which she did. I just had no idea how very long that journey would be and how much ground it would cover.
My first bout in therapy was in pre- and post-marital counseling (we surrounded the wedding with it. :)) I was 25 and at that time consciously remembered that my dad had been an alcoholic and scary angry, that my parents had split up when I was nine and divorced when I was 11 and around that time my dad disappeared. So we started working on that stuff and the issues that came from it. Dealing with abandonment, being totally clueless about boundaries, abysmal self-esteem and finding my voice. While typing those out I realized that I pretty much continued working on all that for the whole time I've been in therapy. 😀 I worked with my first therapist for a span of 22 years until she retired, but it consisted of three or four separate bouts of therapy with breaks of varying lengths in between. During the third run, I ended up recovering memories of being sexually abused by my father from around the age of four until my parents split up. We did a lot of work around trauma processing and working with my disassociating, which I became aware of as I became conscious of the memories.
When my first therapist retired, I took a year off and then started working with the Boundary Ninja (BN) on an individual basis as well as martial counseling (long story for another post :)). During all the work with my first therapist, it was still about getting "better" but I was also trying to raise two children, work full-time and be a wife. After I had been working with BN for a while, he told me that I had used therapy very effectively to allow me to live my life and fulfill my responsibilities until I could find someone who could help me heal.
A lot of work with BN covered much of the same territory as my first therapist, but dug down much deeper. Once my therapist identified my disorganized attachment (because one minute I was screaming "I have to get the hell out of here" before immediately throwing myself at his feet, clutching his ankles and yelling "puhlllleeeeassse do not go away." OK a little hyperbole there, but you get the idea.) we started to go back over the same issues and memories but this time paying attention to the patterns playing out in our relationship so I could understand my unconscious ways of relating. More often than not, we would identify feelings I was having about BN, which in turn would lead me to a belief I carried. In tracing the origin of the belief, we would often run into a significant set of circumstances in my childhood in which those beliefs were born. We traced the origins of my implicit memories and slowly unraveled why I believed what I did and why I behaved the way I did.
One of the strongest drives that emerged as we did this was that of me trying to keep myself "safe." In some ways, my whole focus was on not ever being hurt again the way I had been as a child. In many ways, I was on a quest to find the perfect place with the perfect relationship. Somewhere out there was a person who would finally love me so well and so much that I would NEVER be hurt by them. They would love me enough to not hurt me. And unconsciously, for a very long time, that was my goal in therapy. I would become healthy enough to find that perfect place. Man, did I turn out to be wrong. 😀
One of the ways this became really clear was in my asking for what I needed (or NOT asking might be more accurate.) BN used to tell me that I wouldn't ask for something unless I absolutely knew I could have it first. It took me a very long confused time to understand that one. (I often told him in the beginning that he was speaking Russian). One of the areas this became very clear was surrounding email. BN allowed contact between sessions using either email or the phone. He's not real fantastic about email in terms of response time, but he has a really robust system set up around emergency phone calls. I would call his answering service and leave an "emergency" message. Emergency meant that I needed to talk to him right away rather than anything anyone would probably call an emergency (I don't think "I walked out of your office and started missing you terribly in the parking lot and can't take it anymore, I need to know you're still there" would really qualify for most people. :D) That meant that he would return the call within an hour (there were a few rare exceptions caused by special circumstances.) Email could be anything from a few hours to a few days. We actually had a major disruption once because I sent an email, didn't hear back for three days, finally made an emergency call and when I asked if he had read my email, he told me "I don't remember." Wasn't pretty, but a story for another day.
My point being that reaching him by phone was a done deal, with a guaranteed response, yet I KEPT emailing and putting myself through this incredible hell since the period between emailing your T and getting a response is the slowest movement of time in the known universe (and probably several alternate realities). There was actually a period when a close friend of mine who was also in therapy, forbade me to email because she just couldn't handle trying to hold me together while I waited for a reply (a quite reasonable response I might add). So one time, in sheer frustration at not getting a response to an email, I asked BN what had happened. And he told me that he hadn't thought I needed a response. To which I told him we'd been around the block about email a number of times and he KNOWS I want a response (while thinking "aha, got you now!" I should have known better by then.) His response was not what I expected; he said that I was trying to protect myself. By not asking for a response, I protected myself from getting a no. That it was risky to ask for what I needed because I might have to suffer rejection. That I had often experienced bad responses to making my needs known so one of the solutions I came up with was to learn not to ask. To make my needs known in a way that a "no" could be written off as a misunderstanding. I went away and thought about that one (actually this was a conversation of long duration and we returned to it in many subsequent sessions, it took me a long time to understand and be conscious of this dynamic.) for quite some time and realized that somewhere in my childhood I had decided to stop asking for what I needed because I wasn't going to allow myself to be hurt by another no. And I realized that I kept using email because although the phone response was more reliable and more timely, I was essentially calling his service and ASKING for a call back and it felt too threatening.
So I started learning to ask for what I needed. Fast forward to a couples counseling session, where we were talking about a dynamic between my husband and I (honestly don't remember what it was about, which probably means I was in the wrong that time. :D) and I looked at BN and said " but if I do that I could get hurt" and BN answered without pause "so you get hurt." I kind of rocked back in my seat shocked and he just let it hang there. And I realized that I had always been SO focused on avoiding getting hurt that I NEVER thought about what comes after. So I did think about it and had a revelation: Getting hurt would not kill me! Nor would I remain hurt forever. The feeling would pass. (AG's 2nd law of therapy: most major "aha" moments in therapy sound "D'oh" when you say them out loud.)
As more issues arose in therapy, especially around my relationship with BN, I came to understand the pattern in my life of avoiding so many things so I could stay "safe" and not get hurt. But here's the thing, I was still getting hurt AND I was missing out on a lot of things. And sometimes I was getting hurt by failures on BN's part. I mean, for goodness sake, couldn't you even pay someone to not hurt or fail you?
So this is what I learned: as long as you are a human being in a relationship with another human being, you will sometimes be hurt. Because being human, we occasionally screw up and fail even the people we dearly love. So the point wasn't to find a place of perfect safety – which was a REALLY good thing to realize since it doesn't exist – but to learn that my feelings would not kill me, that I could be hurt and cope with the feelings that arose and even repair the relationship. BN taught me how to tolerate my own feelings so that no matter what happened or how I felt I could know that I could handle it. I might need to reach out for help but I would get through it. It would be ok in the end. So instead of looking for a place of safety, I carry my safety with me, free at last to go to where I wish.