It’s still no, but still helpful
I am back with the promised update on my last session with BN. (For background, see my previous post The Whole Story of the No.) It was an intense, difficult session but a very productive one and I left feeling better than I came in and with a much clearer understanding. And a lot of respect for everyone’s comments as they highlighted a lot of the material we ended up talking about. I do want to put up a language warning as both BN and I were indulging in order to convey the emotions.
It felt scary driving to BN’s office, but I realized something very important that also felt like a significant step forward. My fear was about how difficult and painful the feelings would be that were evoked by what we needed to talk about, not about the relationship. It hit me that through this whole thing I have not been worried about our relationship in terms of its ending or being damaged beyond repair. I trusted BN to handle any of my feelings that arose and any anger directed at him and I also knew whatever we decided, we could work through it. This level of security has been a long work in progress, and has been building very slowly, but it was satisfying to realize I had come this far.
BN let me into his office with a kind smile (which is reassuring considering my last communication with him was to say I was angry). In fact, he was beautifully non-defensive and very open through the session. I kind of got the feeling at times that he would have been happier if I had been angrier. 🙂 We did the usual exchange of my asking how was his Christmas and getting a brief positive response then he asked about mine. I talked a little about our Christmas, then told him one more thing I didn’t want to forget, then said “The Book.” And yes, it came out with capital letters. 🙂 I told him that I had written a blog post about it and gotten a huge response both in terms of traffic and comments. That there was a lot of good insight and I had realized there was a lot going on around this issue, that I wasn’t certain if I agreed with him saying no about reading it together, and that I had also realized that it wasn’t just about Christmas but the content of the book. But where I wanted to start was by hearing the reasoning behind his decision.
His response was what I expected. That his reasoning was the same as he had given about the hug (we spent a LOT of sessions working through that no). That the request, while being completely reasonable, was at its base an attempt to obtain that which I had not had as a child. That it couldn’t possibly be enough to compensate and that I would be better served by talking through how I felt, and examining the deeper meanings behind the request (I am desperately trying to remember his exact words and can’t but it was eloquently put and conveyed a lot of compassion). That he did not enjoy saying no to me, or the pain that it caused. That it was entirely appropriate and even a good thing that I asked. That he had felt very strongly based on my response to his quoting Robert Fulgham about wanting to be carried up to bed, that this was about how much I had wanted that and the loss of not having it. That he totally understood my being angry about it; that of course I would be angry about not being able to have had that then and being denied it now. It was clear, concise, sensible and something we have discussed exhaustively in the past and I did not disagree with anything he said.
But my response (reinforced, I think, by his being so clearly accepting of my anger) was a very vehement “I don’t give a shit! I know all that and I don’t care. I don’t want to accept this gracefully or maturely, I am angry that I can’t have what I want.” BN made it clear that I didn’t have to be calm, or accepting or mature, that it was safe to be angry about it. I told him that after I left our last session, that I kept thinking through that I knew what this was about, it was about my past, I needed to face the loss and grieve… and then I realized I was trying to talk myself out of how I was feeling. BN’s immediate and approving response was “Exactly AG, but you are entitled to however you feel about this.” I told him that I realized that the truth was that I was angry about being told no. And hurt. That here I was, doing what he told me to do, risking to ask for what I needed to change my beliefs about asking, and I did and here I was, hurt again. That it was only reinforcing my beliefs about asking being a bad, dangerous thing to do. Here I was again, in that terrible place.
BN said “that he understood how frustrating it could be, that anger was understandable. That a therapist tells you to take that risk, then says no, that son of a bitch. (I must confess that in my head I was thinking that epitaph was a little mild. ;))But a therapist should never tell you that you will never get hurt in therapy, of course you will, it’s impossible to have a relationship, or go through life for that matter without getting hurt. Just as everyone has to hear no sometimes. So the only promise is that you will have somewhere safe to express all of your feelings and be understood. Think about a child of five, they do not turn to their parent when they are sent to bed and say “thank you for being so considerate of my well-being.” They get angry and express that and sometimes they even hate their parents. You never had a chance to do that, to protest the things you didn’t get, but you can now. I don’t care how well you understand the necessity, you should be able to get angry at me for saying no to you.”
I said that I was still left in that place knowing I couldn’t get something I longed for so deeply. BN asked me “and what can you do about that?” I gave a very impressive blank stare. 🙂 To which he said, “you can recognize that you did not have this when you should have and grieve the loss so you will stop looking for it. But that while you didn’t get what you needed then, doesn’t mean that you can’t get what you need now. That’s why its important to learn how to ask, because many times you do get what you need.”
I told BN that at one point I was so overwhelmed with feeling like he was the only therapist that said no to so much, I pulled up and consciously thought about all the stuff he has said yes to (I wrote about in one of my replies to a comment). But the no evoked such pain that it wiped out the memory of all the times I got what I asked for.
He told me the real problem was that my reaction to hearing no was the immediate belief that I didn’t deserve anything and was wrong even to ask. That of course I had deserved to experience that. I said that it was my immediate “go to” reaction and BN readily agreed. He said it was important to remember that someone else’s no says nothing about you. I had to learn not to go there when I hear no, as a matter of fact, it would be better if my reaction when I asked someone for what I needed and heard a no was then “go fuck yourself.” (He then apologized for dropping the f-bomb so much during our session, which was pretty funny considering how many times I’ve said it. :D)
I had shared once with BN about another person I knew who showed up at a therapy session with her husband and another therapist to pressure her therapist into using touch in their relationship, and its something we refer to often, and joke about. BN mentioned it and said you cannot focus on the demand that someone provide you what you want no matter what. It’s a defensive move to avoid the pain of hearing no. That it’s so important to learn that you can be disappointed and hurt and tolerate the feelings. The only way to not get hurt is to not live fully. But to live fully, to experience love and joy, also means that you’ll know pain and hurt and its important to know you can move past them. That working through and grieving the loss evoked from hearing a no is important so that hearing no will not be so overwhelming or threatening.
I told him that my Christmas had been really lovely. Both girls were home from college and my sister had come also and we had a really wonderful time together. We had our traditional Christmas Eve of going to church, then out to one of our favorite restaurants, then Lights on the Lake. We all enjoyed being together and had talked up a storm and laughed a lot. That I had realized that even though I could not be with him, I was surrounded with love and I have such a deep sense about how blessed I am and how much I have now, that actually it was kind of amazing I have what I do considering my past. BN responded that I was able to see my children experience what I had missed and even though I could really appreciate what I have now, that an awareness of what I didn’t have would creep in and no matter how much I have now, I could still get sad when that happened. In what was a very open, intimate moment, I told him that I really love Christmas, but it’s also a time during which I feel sudden stabs of sadness. “It’s really confusing” I said, to which BN gently replied, “Of course it is.”
I asked BN if he had read the book yet and he said no (which I will confess bothered me a bit). So I described the plot to him and described how Santa manages to fix the relationship with Esther and her brother. On Christmas morning, everyone had what they longed for and the last page described how they had a wonderful Christmas together and “for once everything was right with the world.” By now, I was crying, but managed to choke out that what I really wanted was for BN to be Santa and fix all this and make everything right. At which point I broke down completely. My memory of what he actually said is a little blurry, but BN stayed with me while I cried, and made it clear that wanting that was natural, that anyone would.
When I was done, I was left in a place where I was keenly feeling the loss, both from the past of my childhood and the present of knowing we weren’t going to read the book together. As I sat, I felt so hurt and sad, but I knew BN would hold the line and it felt like I was trapped in this place of pain, there was no way forward because it FELT like the only solution was to have BN read the book with me (and on a deeper, symbolic level, fix all the deprivations of my childhood). And that was when I had one of those visceral “aha!” moments where you finally get on a gut level something you’ve been discussing for a long time. It hit me that the only way out wasn’t to have my desire fulfilled, to hear a yes. Right then I was feeling that sense of shame and unworthiness that we had talked about earlier, that my belief was that this pain was all there is because I had not deserved to hear yes, and that I would never get what I needed. But following swiftly behind was the memory of how many of my needs had been met in my relationship with BN, how he had taught me to carry that out into the world and get my needs met from other people and how I had come to learn that I mattered. I did not have to stay here. I may not have gotten my needs met as a child, but there was no need to continue in that deprivation. I really am capable of getting my needs met and I deserve to be able to do so. So the no I was hearing wasn’t “go away you needy, pathetic thing, of course you can’t have that.” It was “I am sorry that we can not go back and change things so that you got that, but you are worthwhile and your present needs can be met.”
There is an analogy I have used throughout my work with BN to describe how I felt. It’s a Dickensian scene, of me standing alone outside in the snow, barefoot and in rags, looking through a window at a scene of warmth and plenty and fellowship, knowing there was no way to get inside. I told BN that sometimes I hated him, because he showed me exactly what I had missed, and then cruelly told me I still could not have it, that I was looking at him through that window. But when I had that “aha” moment, I realized that although I had stood outside for so long, now I knew how to open the door and go inside where everything I needed was available. But as wonderful as it was being inside, it made sense that sometimes I would be sad remembering how long I had been in the cold. BN totally agreed. I told him I couldn’t remember where I had heard the analogy, but the result of trauma could be compared to facing the back of a three-sided cell. You were free to walk out but not until you were able to turn around and see that nothing was holding you but your inability to see a way out. He really liked that one.
I asked him if he thought I was stuck in the grief, did I have this strange masochistic need to be in pain? He told me that he didn’t see that, that I was much further along than I realized, that he had seen changes just in how I dealt with this situation. That he heard from me very shortly after our session, and then came in and was able to express it directly. I was willing to ask for an explanation. That a very reasonable grief was evoked, but that I was moving through it faster than before. That the core of healing is that when these feelings arise, I will be able to notice them, and place them in context but also know “oh yeah, I understand why I’m feeling that but I’ve faced that and can let it go.”
I told him there was another big difference I had noticed in my behavior. Normally, I think through the gifts I give him and am very introspective about why I am giving that particular gift. I gestured towards my cross stitch which hangs on his wall and said “for heaven’s sake, I worked on that for six months!” But this had been very impulsive, I didn’t think about it and just bought the book. He looked me right in the eye and quite firmly said “you might consider doing that more often!” I started laughing and said “but that way lies madness” and he laughed with me. Then I said, in a slightly anguished way “but it’s so messy!” and he said “yes it is, life is messy. But you’ll enjoy it more.”
So at the end of the day, right or wrong, this is BN’s boundary. He told me that he couldn’t be completely sure he had made the right decision, but he doesn’t think of it in terms of right and wrong. It’s using what you know of the truth, and making the best decision you can based on the knowledge you have, knowing that you can face the consequences and even change your mind later if you decide it wasn’t a good decision. Based on what he knew about me and our work together, this was the choice he was making. So this was an opportunity to learn how to deal with hearing a no. But hearing this no is not going to destroy the relationship. In fact, BN was very clear in encouraging me to not be so preoccupied with getting it “right,” that its ok to be more comfortable making my needs known or doing things I want knowing it will be ok. There is all the room and acceptance that I need to understand and learn from my choices. It was not a bad thing that I asked for this, it was a good thing and even important to bring this up.
So if you look at this request as ONLY the desire to share a story with my therapist, a no can look ridiculous, needlessly withholding and cruel. But when viewed on the deeper symbolic level, the request was really about wanting someone to change the past, be the parent I had needed and didn’t have, and make the loss disappear. BN was right to speak the no out loud, since he was not capable of meeting the symbolic request. And to just read the book would have been a way of lying to me and saying that he could make the loss disappear. The argument could be made that having that kind of nurturing and comfort now would be a reparative experience, and I am still not completely sure BN made the right call. But what I do know is that once he made the decision, he didn’t turn to me and say “tough shit, deal with it!” or “how dare you question me!” Instead he was compassionate and accepting, ensuring that I had a safe place to express any and all of my reactions, while focusing on my needs with no move to protect or defend himself from my anger.
So in the end, what was important wasn’t the answer but what we did with it.
The last thing BN said to me as I was on my way out the door was “thank you for being so open with me about your feelings” and I said over my shoulder “you really need to consider getting some help.” Sometimes, it’s nice to get the last word. 😀
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