Why your therapist SEEMS cruel, but really isn’t
We all know that therapy is a unique relationship, unlike any other relationship that we experience. It defies classification in that while it shares aspects of other relationships -friend, lover, parent, colleague – it is not quite any of these things. One of its unique characteristics is a therapist’s reaction to your pain.
In most relationships, when you express pain, the other person’s natural reaction is sympathy; they feel bad for you. This sympathy is often followed by some action whose clear intent is to make you feel better or help relieve your pain. Human beings (at least sane ones) do not like being in pain. So much so that we find it painful to see people we care about, and even people we don’t particularly like, in pain. So there is an almost automatic human response of answering someone’s pain with comfort. If someone is crying, we offer a tissue or a hug, if someone is scared, we offer comfort or reassurance, if someone is angry, we try to help correct whatever is making them angry.
Part of what makes therapy so GONZO confusing, is that therapist’s do not, by and large, do this. Their response to pain is not to immediately try to make you feel better. They try to empathize, to understand that which you feel, but not to make it feel immediately better. Which, since most of us are in therapy to feel better, really, really does not make sense. I mean, what the hell is wrong with them? I’m paying them damn it, to help me feel better, but they’re NOT doing it!! Don’t tell me you care and then JUST SIT THERE watching me cry!! (Please raise your hand if you have this tape in your collection.)
The problem is that in order to heal, we often need to experience and express long buried feelings. And we don’t usually bury the happy, good stuff. We bury stuff that was so painful and overwhelming at the time that we did not have the resources to actually FEEL it, let alone process and understand it so that it would become a normal memory. That’s what happens with our normal experiences. We process the incoming stimuli, we have feelings in response to what we are experiencing, and then we practice meta-cognition (thinking about thinking) during which we make sense of what is happening to us, fit it in with the larger narrative of our life and then store it as a biographical memory. Later, we can recall what happened, where we were, who we were with and what we were feeling. BUT it’s a memory, we REMEMBER feeling happy or sad or angry but we do not feel happy or sad or angry RIGHT NOW. Which is why there is a certain remoteness when remembering.
But when trauma occurs, we get overwhelmed, and the part of our brain that they believe “processes” our experience, goes off-line so we cannot understand or assimilate the experience or feelings that it invokes. This creates a traumatic memory which present research believes is both stored differently and in a different part of the brain, then our biographical memories. Traumatic memories are raw and unprocessed. I call it God’s Tupperware. The experience, intense feelings and all, would be stuffed in, and then the cover burped, after which I would shove the container on the back of a high shelf, to be left for years. So when I finally got around to opening a particular container, there it would be in all its glory, intense feelings and all. That is often why when we start talking about the past in therapy, it can often feel so intense, because the feelings come back with an immediacy that we do not usually experience when remembering. And it can feel overwhelming, because it WAS overwhelming at one time. So we learn to avoid anything and everything that might call up these unprocessed memories so that our life becomes circumscribed by all the things, events and feelings we MUST avoid. We dwell in a cage of our own (unconscious) making.
What we do when we heal, is to finally allow ourselves to experience those feelings, process the experience and make sense of what happened, to fit the event into our narrative so that it makes sense, and we can obtain a coherent picture of who we are and how we got that way. When we do this, we convert the traumatic memory to a biographical one. We can recall it; we may feel an echo of the sadness or pain, but it does not roar back at us with the immediacy it once had. I actually remember when I hit the point that I looked at the Boundary Ninja and said “I’m not quite sure when it happened, but what happened to me has become part of my past instead of something I’m still enduring.”
This intensity can sometimes extend to our feelings about our therapist when the situations we get into are triggering of past feelings. So we can react to what they are doing with an intensity that seems very over the top. In other words, our reaction to what they are doing (or often NOT doing) in the present, evokes the pain of the past and allows us access to the unprocessed memories of our past. But because it is NECESSARY to allow ourselves to remember and experience these feelings, if the process is interrupted with comfort or reassurance or sympathy, then the processing (or conversion from traumatic memory to “normal” memory as I like to think of it) gets short circuited.
So a therapist who trusts the process, who understands that you need to experience the feelings to understand and to process, in order to heal can look terribly cruel, sometimes even sadistic unless we understand the necessity of experiencing the pain to heal. I have an example of this principle from my therapy which I think serves as a good illustration. It involved not getting a hug and the BN’s detachment, neither of which I was very happy about.
SIDEBAR on TOUCH in THERAPY: I want to be very clear before I continue that there is a wide range of touch in therapy depending on a lot of factors, including the therapist’s modality and boundaries. I know people who do somatic therapy who find it incredibly healing, there are plenty of therapist’s out there who hug their patients (my first therapist hugged me whenever I asked), and clients who find the safe touch of a therapist’s hug to be very healing. The only really hard and fast rule is that there should be nothing of a sexual nature. Therapy is not a one size fits all craft, nor is every therapist right for every client. So what I am about to relate worked for me, but wouldn’t for everyone, nor am I in any way implying that a therapist who handled this particular topic differently be seen in any way as wrong or inferior. END SIDEBAR
I really, really wanted a hug from my therapist. Which was actually a pretty complicated topic since in the mix of feelings I had about him was an erotic/romantic component (which he was aware of as I had told him about it) coupled with the fact that I had been sexually abused by my dad. So my feelings about my therapist often carried an incestuous tinge and a large ewww factor. So I struggled for a very long time with bringing up the subject as I wasn’t quite clear about my motivations. I also didn’t want to risk hearing a no which I was 98.5% certain I was going to hear. Eventually, I worked up the nerve to ask because the longing for the hug was so intense and the pain of not having it was so acute. I, at least, did have the good sense to ask at the beginning of a session. So I told the BN that I wanted to ask him something and then I wanted to explain why I was asking. So I asked if it would be possible to get a hug at the end of the session. He immediately, and VERY gently, told me no (he really isn’t a cruel man, despite how I could feel at times). The BN has an across the board, all clients, prohibition on hugging. I probably should mention that we shook hands at the end of every session so it wasn’t about ruling out all touch. We spent the rest of the session discussing why he said no and why I wanted one. He felt that the possible benefit of a hug was so small compared to the risk of harm being done that it wasn’t worth risking it. As we discussed why I was asking, I connected it to the fact that I would move towards my father looking for the normal stuff a kid looks for: care, affection, safe touch. Only to be betrayed time and again. That what I really longed for from BN was to be held, safely, knowing that the hug was about my needs and would not need to be “paid” for. As we discussed this, I felt the incredible pain surrounding not having had that, not experiencing that safety. The BN met me with compassion and understanding. He very gently told me that those feelings were part of the reason that he didn’t hug me. That if he just hugged me, yes, I would be comforted, but that comfort would have stopped me from going past what I was feeling with him to the pain of what lay behind it, not having that from my father.
Fast forward some time ahead and we had a long break of three weeks (my vacation ran into his vacation.) I had emailed him twice during that vacation, neither of which he had answered. I finally broke down near the end of his vacation and made an emergency call, because all my feelings of not mattering had been triggered by the lack of response. I ended up talking to his backup therapist (a really wonderful man) who then asked if I still wanted to talk to BN. BN called me back about a half an hour later and reassured me which got me through until our next session. At that session, we discussed the emails and he told me that he wasn’t really sure why he hadn’t answered them, maybe he was just on vacation and not in the right mindset, but that he had gone back and read them and his take was that I hadn’t asked for a response. We discussed this all at great length, but near the end of the session, he looked directly at me and said “AG, I have to ask, where is your anger over not getting any replies?” Kind of knocked me back in my seat. I got in my car to drive home and the anger hit. I realized that I was furious at him, angry that I hadn’t gotten replies to my email (didn’t he KNOW how that would make me feel!!?!), angry at how he behaved, angry at what I felt were his excuses. My husband and I had a marital session scheduled for the next night. By the time I got home, I told my husband I was absolutely furious at BN and unless we could arrange a phone call, I was not going to our couples’ session. My husband very graciously offered to allow me to just take our couples’ session, so I emailed BN to let him know I was coming in alone.
I went in and told him that on the way home, I realized that he was right. That I was really angry about not hearing from him but had been scared to express it. That I was angry about the whole way he was behaving. We explored that and what came out was how angry I was because I had missed him over that three weeks, it had been difficult not seeing him and that when I walked in, it was really good to see him. That what I wanted was to be warm and fuzzy and talk about his trip and how he was doing, to hear that he had missed me, to feel connected, but what I got instead was detached therapist analyzing my feelings. He then (as he told me later in the session) acted in a deliberately provocative manner, asking me questions and then adding “is what I’m doing right now what you’re talking about.” (When he told me that, I told him I came close to throwing a pillow at him. He smiled and thanked me for my restraint.) I finally moved past all my intellectual understanding and fear of being angry and trying to be the nice, good patient. It just came pouring out, that I was angry at feeling like some kind of f—ing specimen (I may not have mentioned this before, but when I’m really upset, my language would make a sailor blush. Not proud of this, but want to be honest.) That I was f—ing tired of becoming vulnerable and ripping my heart out of my chest and throwing it out into the middle of his office while he sat behind his f—ing boundaries, that were complete bulls— and just something he hid behind. That I was sick and tired of it.
BN, who remained very calm and non-defensive throughout this, very gently asked me what it was that I wanted from him. And I practically screamed at him that “I want you to get the f— up from out of your chair and cross that impassable chasm between your f—ing recliner and my seat and come and hold me and tell me everything will be ok!” To which he replied, again incredibly gently, “but it wouldn’t help, at least not the way you think, it wouldn’t make you not getting a safe embrace from your father not have happened, it’s a real loss.” And then I told him that “sometimes I just wish you would f—ing lie to me!” Then I lost it. And the real pain and real grief over what I didn’t have from my father came sweeping over me. It wasn’t really about BN, it was about my past. When I had finished sobbing, I remember looking up and saying to BN, I didn’t mean what I said about lying. I’ve told you in the past that I would rather be honestly hurt by you, then have you lie to me. He pointed out how amazing it was that I could recognize such different feelings within minutes of each other.
Bottom line, unless we allow ourselves to feel the pain and express it instead of being comforted and not going there we don’t heal. A good therapist has to be able to tolerate seeing a patient in pain. Therapy can feel and look quite sadistic. BN often said that he could only tolerate it because he knew that there was healing in it. And that to offer comfort at the wrong time could hold out the promise of something he couldn’t actually give me. He could never provide that which I had not been given, he could not do enough to make the real losses disappear. He could only provide a safe place to grieve and mourn my loss, to learn the skills I needed to heal. Healing can be hellishly painful but not nearly as painful as being told you can have what you have been searching for your whole life, only to realize that once again you have been betrayed.
So the next time you are wondering how your therapist can be so cruel as to sit there and watch you be in pain and make no move to stop it, try to consider that it is an act of love which requires deep strength, compassion and discipline because so much of therapy is coming to grips with the deep grief over that which we deserved as children but did not receive. Our therapists must endure being the trigger that draws this pain out and then answer a pain not of their making with a deep compassion and understanding. I eventually learned a profound respect for BN’s ability to face and walk through that pain with me, instead of rescuing me which would have made both of us feel better immediately, because his sight was fixed on the long-term, on my healing.