Therapy isn’t enough
Therapy isn’t enough. Never has been, never will be. The Boundary Ninja would often say that to me when I would bring up my pain about his boundaries. I had all the classic complaints. How could I work through what I needed to in only 50 minutes a week? How do I open up when I need to and then pull it back together to walk out? Why couldn’t he hold me and comfort me when I was in pain? Why couldn’t I see him outside of therapy and know more about him? Why couldn’t I live under his desk? 🙂
Now the first time he ever told me therapy wasn’t enough, I must confess gentle reader, that what went through my head was “What the f***?!?! If you know that, then why in hell am I here?! I have no f***ing idea what you’re talking about?!?” Took me a long time to express that (I do believe I cleaned up my language when I asked. But maybe not, I could sometimes really rip loose in the BN’s office. Mainly because the first time I ever used the “F” word in front of him, when I calmed down I apologized for my language. He informed me, in no uncertain terms, that I was never to apologize for that, adults talk that way when they’re angry, we sanitize things too much and I should express myself however I needed to. I have often wondered if he ever regretted saying that. :)) He said many times to me (he had to repeat most things to me about 13563 times as I am slow to catch on) that therapy isn’t enough, and honestly, I thought it was extremely puzzling for a long time. I mean, I heard the words, but had no idea what he meant by them. But I eventually learned their truth.
So why do we go you ask? Good question. A discussion has been posted over on the psychcafe forum which has caused me to think deeply about this so I wanted to talk about it here. I think that this realization, that therapy isn’t enough, was one of the most difficult and most painful for me to understand and accept. But I also think it was an essential principle for my healing.
Our childhood needs are healthy and appropriate ones. In a perfect world, we can expect to be the center of our parents’ attention (ok, we may have to share with some siblings, but you get my point), recognized for the unique worthwhile person we are, soothed, comforted, taught to recognize our needs, express our needs and get our needs met. We should know a level of love and security that we take for granted, as a background in which we can explore and learn and become who we are. We should have loving others, who put aside their own needs to attend to ours’ expecting nothing in return. We should be able to have the felt experience of our worth. We should be able to experience our own needs before we have to attend to others’ needs. This never happens perfectly, but with a “good enough” parent, it’s consistent enough to build a secure base on which you can build a healthy, secure life.
But, unfortunately, as we all know, we do not live in a perfect world, nor does everyone receive what they need from their parents. And when we don’t receive what we need, we often fail to learn what we need to in order to live a full life. There are many important lessons to be learned as children and some of them are vitally important for our development as a whole person.
A person who grows up with insecure attachment (which is another way of saying they really didn’t get what they needed) arrives in adulthood with two problems: the unmet needs of childhood (and all the feelings associated with not having those needs met) and the developmental steps that were skipped or distorted by not having our needs met or being taught certain skills because our parents did not know them either. It’s hard to teach something you do not know yourself.
These two problems are the key to understanding both why therapy isn’t enough and why what therapy can do is often so horribly painful that it feels like you MUST be doing something wrong (even when neither you or your T are doing ANYTHING wrong.) In the rest of this post, I want to talk about the unmet needs of childhood and in my next post address the developmental steps.
The part that makes therapy not be enough is our unmet childhood needs. Those needs: attention, attunement, love, comfort, soothing, specialness, worthiness, went unmet. I won’t mince words, not getting those things can be a terrible deprivation that lives behind an unconscious, life-long search to get them met. In every relationship, we unconsciously test the parameters of the relationship, does this person care for me the way I’ve always wanted, will they finally love me enough, enough that I will finally feel like I am worthwhile and have a place in the world? Will I finally know I am loved? Sometimes we would find a promising relationship that would hold out hope of finally answering all those needs, only to be disappointed. Have this happen enough times and you start to develop bitter baggage, either by believing that love is not real or you are so unworthy as to not deserve it. The painful lessons of childhood are reinforced over and over.
A turning point for me with the Boundary Ninja was reading Geneen Roth’s When Food is Love. She talks in that book about the fulfillment fantasy we build around certain relationships. That we find a person to hang the fantasy on, and how we see them doesn’t have all that much to do with the person they really are. This hit me like a ton of bricks. Because so much of what I felt for the BN had echos in my past. In looking back over my past, I realized there had been a series of relationships with men that started with really intense feelings on my part of “here he is at last” accompanied by feelings of incredible elation and excitement. Then would come a long period where I did what I could to have the relationship (with varying degrees of success) until finally would come the bitter disillusionment of realizing they really weren’t the person I thought they were. So I would move on until along came the next man who held out the promise. The BN was simply the latest in a long pattern.
But here was the problem. While I could often feel like the BN didn’t care because of the feelings evoked by the boundaries, when I spoke to him about what I was feeling, he was attentive and focused and understood and accepted all my feelings. His behavior did NOT fit with my perception of him not caring. As a matter of fact, in my better clearer moments, I realized I had never experienced what I had with him. It was the closest to unconditional love I ever had from a human being. No matter what I brought to him or what feelings I expressed, I was met with compassion, acceptance and understanding. EVERY SINGLE TIME. I talked to him about googling him and seeing a note he wrote to his granddaughter, my erotic feelings for him, my desire to belong to him in any way I could (daughter, niece, lover, wife, friend, you name it I would have been glad to take it), my hatred for the family who knew him in a way I couldn’t, my anger when he held his boundaries, my fear that he would violate me the way my father had, my terror he would stay, my horror he would leave, my love of his socks, my gratitude for all that he was to me, telling him he was my beloved and how could I bring myself to leave him, dreams, books, music, anything that had meaning for me. All of it was met with the same unwavering acceptance. And then he would work so hard to make sense out of all of it, to see the patterns and help me understand myself. And he walked into the heart of unimaginable pain with me and never left my side. And never showed an ounce of fear. To this day, as much as I have worked through idealizing him, I still cannot picture him scared. And on top of all that, the man unflinchingly accepts who he is in my life and just how close he is to the center of who I am. He is my secure base, the place to which I return when I am in need. He accepts that with the full knowledge of the responsibility he has undertaken.
I ask you, how do you look at that person and say “you’re not doing enough?”
So what I eventually had to face was that the BN, without hesitation, would do whatever I needed that was within his power and for my good. In so many ways, I had what I had always looked for, but it wasn’t enough. IT WAS NOT ENOUGH to make the pain go away. To make the loss of a loving, safe father disappear. To make the loss of being unprotected by my mother disappear. To make the pain of living steeped in fear for decades go away. For the pain of realizing that I needlessly lived for years believing in my own unworthiness. If he had broken every boundary, allowed me 24/7 access, allowed me to know him, break bread with him, become an important part of his life, it still would not have been enough. This part eventually became really clear to me because I have a wonderful, loving husband who allows all those things, and it wasn’t enough. As I learned to take it in, I looked around me and realized that I am loved. I am blessed with some amazing people in my life. But it still wasn’t enough. That part of the reason the Boundary Ninja held those boundaries, even when they caused pain for both of us, was because he would not hold out the promise of something that he could not deliver. We can take things in on such a deep level as children, we were open in a way we no longer are. So even if a therapist was capable of giving us the time and attention a parent would to a young child, we are not capable of taking it in and making it part of us in the same way we would have. And as adults, that behavior towards us outside the limits of therapy would be inappropriate. Relationships now consist of two whole people who both bring needs.
I fought, and screamed and wrestled and wept, tears of sadness and rage, I railed against God, and the Boundary Ninja, until I finally faced the truth. I had to allow myself to recognize my loss and grieve. When I finally surrendered and allowed that grief in, it was one of the most difficult and painful things I have ever done. It was also some of the greatest relief I have ever felt. I had always thought that if I let that grief in, there was no way out of it. But it did not destroy me, I came out the other side knowing I no longer needed to fear that grief. I am strong enough to bear it. I grieved for a long time, I grieved until I ended up screaming at the Boundary Ninja “how long do I f***ing have to grieve? when will this be finished?” But I did finish. I don’t want to say that I never feel sad about what happened to me, or even that I don’t still have feelings of grief here and there. But it’s in the past, where it should be. And I am no longer looking for that which I cannot find. Which has freed up a tremendous amount of energy to do other things.
In my next post, I’ll talk about what you can get from therapy, the completion of our development, for which therapy is enough.
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