Home > ambivalance, feelings, healing, needs, safety > What I Learned in Therapy Lesson 3 – The Goal of Healing

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.

  1. October 18, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    New to your blog (and so glad to have found it).

    There are so many parts of your story that are similar to my own and a few aha moments took place while reading it. Thank goodness for this post, I needed it at this stand still point in my life.

    I look forward to following along.


    • October 18, 2011 at 4:57 pm

      Welcome Amanda! Thanks for saying hi. I’m so glad that you found it helpful. I went and looked around your blog and I get the similarities. 😀 Looking forward to getting to know you.


  2. hemlock
    October 18, 2011 at 11:26 pm


    So glad you are writing about your experience, that there will be a single repository detailing your journey. You have a powerful story to tell and equally powerful yet humble voice. I’m pretty much stuck in therapy right now, no movement to speak of but a lot of fear…and it all surrounds the *asking for xyz* scenario. It’s terrifyingly threatening on many levels, so much so that I can’t begin to articulate the fear. I know that you get it.

    Thank you for the time you take out of your life to give to the Psych Cafe forum and now to this blog. It is tremendously helpful, YOU are tremendously helpful.


    • October 19, 2011 at 9:51 am

      Thanks for coming over and reading here. And thank you so much for your very kind words, they were very moving for me. I really do want to help other people heal, as I had so much help in my healing. To have you say it’s helpful for you is just incredibly meaningful for me.



  3. Evolving
    October 23, 2011 at 11:01 am

    I have received so much comfort, encouragement and guidance from your blog and postings on Psych Cafe. I too have a disorganized attachment and have been working extremely hard and struggling so much in my therapy. Therapy is definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life! I think only those in therapy can actually relate to that. I have run away from so much in life to avoid being hurt. My dance in therapy is constantly moving closer and backing away with intense emotions surfacing. It’s a rollercoaster for me and my therapist.
    For me, being hurt by my therapists words and actions has been extremely difficult because I never imagined that I would be hurt by him. It has been devastating. It was like dropping off a cliff in therapy. I think my expectations may have been unrealistic, and as you have talked about very eloquently, it’s not really possible to find/have a place of perfect safety. However, I thought I had found someone who would never hurt me and I have been hurt AGAIN. It makes me want to run away even more and yet I realize, running away, truly is not the answer.
    Thank you for helping me to keep working hard, to continue figuring out all of this and much more.



    • October 26, 2011 at 9:20 pm

      I am really glad you found this helpful, thank you for you kind words. And I very much agree that therapy can be really difficult (especially if you’re doing it correctly! :D) I’ve always said that therapy isn’t for wusses, it can take a lot of courage to face your fears. I hope that you are able to talk to your T about being hurt and how this feels. It’s important to both be able to have your feelings heard and understood as well as having your T be able to reassure you about the relationship still being intact. I also want to reassure you that as difficult and painful as it can be, there is another side past all the pain and it was worth it to get there.



  4. Little Blond Girl
    October 29, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    I have just stumbled upon your blog and see so many similarities in my experience with therapy. I’ve been in therapy, on and off, for almost 14 years with the same therapist, but have been seeing him regularly for the last 6 years. We’re swimming in attachment issues (he always says that I should jump in as the water is fine – I don’t tend believe him and generally stick a toe in here and there and hope that I don’t drown). I have read all your posts and can relate to most of them – most specifically the “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”. I go through this almost every time I leave his office and within the hour am sending him an email so that I can get a reply before he leaves for the day. I need to know that we are still okay, especially if it’s been a particularly vulnerable session where I’ve shown feelings. He has come to expect this and responds. We’ve also had the “I didn’t think you wanted a response to the email” conversation many a time. In fact, we just had it again this last week, so yes, I understand the cyclical nature of the work – but am terrified of it each time it comes up, even if we’ve had the conversation before (and I didn’t die and he handled it just fine). Anyway, because I don’t know anyone else who is dealing with the same issues I am in therapy and struggling with the same fears, it’s nice to hear that others have been there, have struggled with boundaries and asking for things and expressing how they really feel and made it to the other end. So thanks.


    • November 1, 2011 at 11:29 pm

      Welcome, I’m so glad that that what I’m writing is resonating with you. And I know it takes a very long time and a LOT of experience for it to stop being terrifying to bring this stuff up and to ask for what you need, but I do want to reassure you that it does eventually get easier. I am honestly at a point now where I *know* it’s ok to talk to my T about any and all of my feelings and we’ll still be good. I really trust that he’s there no matter what. I am even starting to reach a point where the missing him is easing up. So I would urge you to keep speaking up about these feelings. It’s in the speaking up and being met with understanding that we heal. I would also highly recommend going over to the Psych Cafe forums as there are a lot of people struggling with these problems who post there and it could be really helpful for you to talk to other people who understand what you’re going through. It’s good to “meet” you.


  5. searching for the other side
    October 13, 2012 at 1:32 pm

    I just found your blog- Excited to see you have been at this for a year and still going. – I’m going back to read your back posts as your words deeply resonate with me…I’m in long term therapy struggling with similar attachment issues- nothing short of hellish crazy making stuff.

    I’m not one to usually comment much on posts, but.. your line: “for goodness sake, couldn’t you even pay someone to not hurt or fail you?” just made me laught out loud. Particularly since I too have had my email issues with my T- and its been a particularly hot topic for the last several months (Ok, maybe a year)

    You have such a gift to be able to share and describe such a difficult experience so perfectly and with that kind of right on humor. Thank you for sharing it. I’m really looking forward to catching up on reading the rest of your back posts and following along as you go forward.

    Thank you!!


    • George
      October 18, 2012 at 7:04 pm

      Me, too, Searching–I think I’ve finally caught up with all of AG’s posts after coming here for the first time about 2 weeks ago. She is incredible. AG, if you’re reading, you’re wonderful and it’s clear that you’re filling a need for deeply sensitive, highly intelligent discussion of what it’s like in therapy. You’re helping a lot of people this way. And I think we all love your Boundary Ninja. 🙂

      I never thought I’d be a person who could learn something really, really valuable from a stranger on the Internet, especially since I’m not one for “supportive communities,” lol, and am pretty independent (aa-oo-ga! attachment issues!) but I sure have learned from you. Reading the things you’ve written has often been therapeutic in itself and has clarified much for me about myself and my relationship with my own T. I wish he were more like yours, but I see that he’s trying to do what he thinks best. I knew that before, but seeing it played out in your similar stories makes it clearer to me how much is his momentary failures, and how much my response, which is usually not altogether a response to him.


      • George
        October 18, 2012 at 7:06 pm

        ugh, error. I mean, “how much of my difficulty with him is because of his momentary failures.”


      • searching for the other side
        October 18, 2012 at 11:00 pm

        Yes AG- What George said. Thank you. I’ve caught up with most of your posts already too and I cant tell you how helpful it has been to read. And yes I too love your BN… and his quotes… and yours. George- best of luck to you… fortitude and strength. I am right there with you in the muck with my own T trying to muddle through.


      • October 25, 2012 at 1:39 pm

        I’m always reading, it’s just the replying I can be terrible about, I’m sorry! Can I just tuck you in a pocket so I have you with me for when I need encouragement? I really do appreciate you taking the time to say what you do. And may I say I am really impressed at your perserverence in reading through my blog as concise is not a word that can be used to describe my writing? 🙂 I am very happy to hear it is helping you. ~ AG


    • October 25, 2012 at 1:35 pm

      Hi Searching,
      Welcome to my blog and thank you for commenting! Really glad you like my sense of humor as not everyone does. 😉 Forgive the length of time I’ve taken to reply, life has been quite out of control between both work and some personal issues. Sorry you understand the email issues as they have been quite maddening at times. And I understand why its taking so long, i had to just keep going back and talking about it until it was worked through. But guess what? I eneded up dealing with a lot of issues I needed to. The truth is that often, the stuff we need to deal with, comes up IN the relationship. Thank you so much for the kind words, people like you keep me writing. ~ AG


  6. George
    October 19, 2012 at 11:39 am

    Thank you. Same to you, Searching. May you find it! (referring to your screen name.)


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