Therapy Lesson #6: Say how you feel anyway
I had mentioned in the What I Learned in Therapy, the complete list post, to leave a comment if there was any particular lesson anyone wanted to know more about. Normalwasnotmygoal (may I just say, awesome username!) left a comment asking about feelings being irrational, so I thought I would expand on that lesson in this post.
So therapy lesson #6: Feelings are more often than not, irrational. Just because they don’t make sense, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be expressed.
I had no idea how divorced from my feelings I was, when I started seeing the Boundary Ninja. Actually most people would have told you I was quite an emotional person (ignore my husband in the background, jumping up and down yelling “Hell yeah!”). I was so scared to recognize or express my feelings that I would stuff them down and stuff them down and stuff them down, until the pressure built past the breaking point and then they would burst forth in all their ugly glory, taking everyone, including honestly, me, totally off guard because the intensity level would often seem way out of proportion to whatever was going on.
During our couples counseling, before I started working with BN individually, he started pointing out how hard I fought against expressing my feelings. Once I started working with him on a one on one basis, this became even more evident. When I would experience intense affect, I would end up bent over, with my eyes closed, pressed into a pillow, clenched and rigid, without a sound and to top it all off, I would stop breathing. I would attempt to become a biological black hole of a person, with an event horizon past which no feeling could ever escape. BN would have to remind me to breathe. During one session, when I was working so very hard not to make a noise, he actually told me that it was ok to make some noise. It was actually a sign of healing for me, when I was able to cry and actually not fight against any sounds escaping.
So we went looking for why it was so hard, and so scary for me to express my feelings. And found some interesting things. My dad was abusive, but my mom just wasn’t all that available. In discussing my past, BN once offered the opinion that my mom was probably dissociated a lot. So I think when my feelings got really intense, especially the “painful” or “difficult” ones such as fear or hurt or anger, mom disappeared because she didn’t know how to handle it. So I learned that expressing my intense emotions got me abandoned. This was unfortunately, a pattern that was unconsciously being reinforced in my marriage (my husband and I have matching sets of luggage, we’ve since worked that one through, which has helped us immensely. I was also doing some reinforcing for his patterns also; just want to make it clear there were changes necessary on both our parts. :)) Expressing my feelings could also get me in trouble. I told the story about remembering just when I started to get scared of being scared in Therapy Lesson #2.
So I had good reason to believe it was important not to experience or express my feelings. This led to my possessing some weird beliefs about my feelings. I would “vet” them. In other words, there was no flow to my feelings, because I had a gate installed. The gate of “rationality.” Before allowing myself to “have” a feeling, I would first examine it for appropriateness (this was especially true of anger). I would analyze the circumstances about which I was having a feeling and decide if it was reasonable to have that feeling or not. If I decided the feeling didn’t make sense or wasn’t reasonable, I refused to have it. 🙂 I’m sure you can see how this could get you in trouble.
My other barrier I would have to leap before allowing that I had a right to a feeling, was whether the feeling was about something I could change. After all, if it wasn’t going to change, what was the point of having a feeling about it, let alone expressing it? Nothing was going to change. This was especially true of my longings and deep desires. I heard “no” so many times as a child, that I had promised myself I would not endure the pain of hearing that again. So I only asked for things I knew I could have. Which kept me “safe” but put rather a crimp in the range of things I was actually willing to ask for. 🙂
One of the first times I ran into the irrational aspect of feelings, was when we lost my mother-in-law around three years ago. She had lived with our family for the last five years of her life and the only regret I ever had about living with her was that we did not start sooner. She was a truly wonderful woman and we were very close; we truly loved each other very deeply. So, although she had a full life and went gently after we were prepared, it was a difficult loss. I was seeing the BN regularly when I was mourning her. One session, we were discussing her death and it surfaced that I was REALLY angry about her death. In the middle of venting about her death, I said “I just want someone to bring her back” but followed with “how stupid to feel that way, it’s obviously not possible.” And BN looked at me and told me very gently that it’s a normal part of grief to be angry at our loss, that of course I wanted my mother-in-law back. That there was nothing wrong with wanting her back. “But,” I said, “it’s totally irrational to be angry that someone isn’t bringing her back.” To which he responded, “yes, it’s irrational, feelings often are. That shouldn’t stop us from expressing them.”
My strongest experience of wanting and longing for the impossible centered around my feelings about the Boundary Ninja. My feelings for him ran the gamut: paternal, friendship, mentor, romantic and erotic. But all of these aspects had one clear thing in common; I wanted past his boundaries. I ask you, gentle readers, would the nickname Boundary Ninja have stuck, if there was really ANY hope of that?
Sidenote: As deeply as I could long to get past his boundaries, I was also terrified that I would. The lack of boundaries between my father and I was how I was injured. It would have been horrible re-enactment if BN had not held those boundaries. So as much pain as they could cause -and at times that rose to the level of agony- I was, and continue to be, grateful for his ability to keep the boundaries intact and myself safe.
So I really struggled with the feeling of “why in the world should I talk about how I feel about him?” when we already knew the answer and the ending. The answer was no, BN would forever and always be my therapist and nothing more. So what could possibly be the point?
But the pain and pressure got so great that I would end up talking about it. At times, my feelings centered around longings and at other times about my fears. Both could be irrational. I longed to go back and have him as my father or somehow be a part of his family. Not having a time machine or magic wand, this one was obviously out of reach. I longed to have a romantic relationship. Not going to happen, not only would it be a violation of his ethics as a therapist, we’ve both been married for a very long time. (Another side note: I finally reached a point where I recognized that the erotic feelings were at their strongest when something really painful was coming up and had to do with wanting some way to find a surcease from the pain.) I wanted to know more about him, to have a friendship and spend time with him not limited to 50 minutes. You can’t be friends with your therapist without destroying the therapy. My fears were just as irrational. I was terrified he would abandon me despite the fact that he told me over and over and over that he would never ask me to leave and barring any acts of God, he wasn’t going anywhere. I often feared that he would hurt me, or be exasperated or angry with me for being scared when the only way he had ever behaved toward me was with patience and care. He had proved himself trustworthy in every way possible, yet I continued to distrust him.
So we talked and talked and then talked some more. We talked about these feelings until I became CERTAIN it was only a matter of time until his head exploded. Seriously, I expected to find brain matter on the walls any session now. But something happened every time I managed to express these totally irrational feelings. Each time I was met with acceptance and understanding and above all compassion. BN listened to my feelings, worked to understand how I felt and why I felt that way. He put them into the context of what I had experienced and showed me how much sense they made. I felt like an insane idiot who was shattering into jagged shards and he reflected back to me a whole person who was incredibly congruent. He kept telling me no, that I couldn’t have want I wanted, (quite gently mind you, but also clearly) but he listened and paid attention and comforted me.
And do you know what I learned? That I mattered to him, that my feelings mattered to him. That when he told he wanted to know how I felt, he meant it. How I felt didn’t need to make sense, it was enough that they were my feelings. I mattered. He reflected back to me my worth until I understood and accepted what had always been true. I am a worthwhile person and I matter. It was in speaking those nonsensical feelings that I learned that I had worth.
Think about children. We do not always say “yes” to our children; as a matter of fact, we often say no. “No you can’t have a hot fudge sundae for breakfast” (you have to wait until your my age for that!). “No you can’t stay up late.” “No, you cannot have that toy right now.” No’s are necessary in order to take good care of a child. What is important is that when they have feelings about being thwarted and express them, their feelings are welcomed and understood. That’s how they learn they matter and their feelings and needs are important enough to be attended to.
I have seen the process enough, both as a client and as a volunteer on the crisis lines and at its heart is a mystery. Human beings do not need solutions; they need to be heard and accepted. I have spent 10 minutes on the phone with someone struggling with really overwhelming problems and at the end they are no closer to a solution, but sometimes, when it works right, they feel immensely better and are incredibly grateful. When we connect with another human being, we create the space into which God moves and his healing flows. I have felt that way when the BN listened to me. After a phone shift in which I handled some really intense phone calls, I emailed the BN because I was so excited about seeing this mystery that I had experienced with him, happening from the other side. His reply was priceless: “The process is filled with awe. Don’t understand it, but can still be awed by it.”
I actually wrote a poem once during my work with the BN, when I was struggling with wondering what good it did to speak my feelings about my past, when nothing could change the past. I include it below.
Anger and fear, two sides of the coin.
Driven by both, never-resting,
Needs that can not be met.
The words fade into
an aching emptiness returning void
Nothing that was may be changed
To experience the pain with
another to understand,
journeying from emptiness and worthlessness
to a birthright of care.
Not sickness just a way to survive.
Who knew that being known was so important?
Learning to embrace the self by being embraced.
The words go forth and are heard,
returned to my need with understanding
lighting the way to change.
So yeah, you’ll feel stupid and ashamed and embarrassed, but say it anyway. Your feelings are just that, yours, and you are entitled to speak them, to send them out and have them heard. Your feelings matter and so do you.