Sorting the Past
In the comments after my last post, It’s still no, but still helpful, a number of questions were asked that I felt needed a longer answer than I would want to put in a comment and since they were all related, I decided to address them in a new post. They appear below:
Greeneyes: … how did on earth have you gotten through the struggle of accepting there’s so much we can’t get that we want? And how have you gotten through how painful the therapy boundaries are?
MetaMantraMe: How can we tell if we really are being denied something in the current time that we should be receiving? Or if it is, indeed, a projection of the unmet, and old, need from before onto today?
Liese: … when will we know that we’ve grieved all the losses from the past and that what is happening to us in the present is from the present? In other words, when will our feelings simply be about what is going on now?
In my experience, sorting through what are present needs and what are unmet needs in the past, grieving the unmet needs that can no longer be met, and sorting through whether our feelings are about here and now or are echos of the past are all interwoven tasks. This is the heart of the healing process. We walk into therapy, with our unknown unconscious, and enter into a relationship in which we can bring ourselves into the light and into focus.
BN always said there was no need to manipulate therapy or deliberately do anything to a client. The therapeutic relationship is like all relationships; what you need to work through and the issues you need to face will occur naturally. We all have unmet needs, some from childhood and some present, that drive us to seek help. Many of us go to therapy pursuing our life-long quest of trying to find that one person who will love us well enough and long enough to finally fulfill those needs, to fill up the void. These are often inarticulate longings, we don’t quite know what we are looking for, but we know we’ll recognize when we get it and finally rid ourselves of a plaguing restlessness. The set up of therapy: having someone’s full attention focused on us, and attending only to our needs, not asking anything of us and providing the closest thing to unconditional love you can find, triggers the feelings that finally, here is the end of our search. And so long repressed needs will start to make themselves known.
Therapy is also a place where we can, with the help of our therapist, learn about our behavioral patterns. Often, the behaviors that allowed us to survive in the past have become maladaptive and now get in our way instead of protecting us. These behavioral patterns make themselves manifest in the interactions with our therapist. So the basic idea of therapy is that we walk in, be as honest as we can be at any given moment and allow ourselves to be seen (despite our terror :)) so that our therapists can help us to make sense of why we behave the way we do and learn to change the things we want to.
For the purposes of this discussion, I will break our needs down into three categories: unfulfilled childhood needs, developmental needs and present needs. Unfulfilled childhood needs are those needs that can no longer be met and must be mourned as a loss. Developmental needs are the things that we did not learn as children, but still can learn from our therapists (albeit, with more difficulty and pain than if we had learned them while growing up). Present needs are our adult human needs for acceptance, understanding and connection. Our therapists usually fulfill these needs for a time so that we can learn how to get them met, then go looking in the wider world for a reciprocal relationship in which to get them met long-term. Much in the same way that a good parent takes care of a child and meets their needs, until they are mature enough to go out into the wider world and make a life for themselves.
So how do we learn to tell the difference between these types of needs? This is where the boundaries prove to be so important. It is in running up against them that we sort through these needs. This is also where it gets terrifying and very difficult…
We have to take the risk to speak up about what we are feeling and what we want. But this means we risk hearing “no,” and that can feel like it will destroy us. For many of us, we heard “no” too many times as children when we should not have. Therefore, we promised ourselves we weren’t going to risk that kind of pain again by asking for something we need. But that causes another problem in that we are not going to always get a “yes” when we ask for what we need, especially if it is something the person actually can’t provide (versus not being willing to). But we cannot know ahead of time where someone else’s boundaries are (there are obvious boundaries such as not assaulting someone, not stealing from them, etc. I am talking about the kinds of boundaries people set according to their own comfort level, desires and values.) So to speak up about what we need can feel very dangerous. But if we do not risk asking, we never get what we need. So we are faced with having to learn to not only risk hearing no, but surviving hearing no, if we wish to live in such a way that allows us to get our needs met.
So in order to determine if we are dealing with a past or present need, we first need to be willing to express the need. The best way of knowing if it is past or present is to ask. We discuss all the feelings around what we ask for: what feelings is the longing evoking, why do we want it, what do we think it will do for us to have it, what happens if we get it? This is where the therapeutic relationship becomes so important, because we can ask these questions of the person from whom we are asking for what we need. Because the therapist keeps their needs out of the room, the arena is clear of their agenda, and the focus is what we want and why we want it. And hopefully, if our therapist is attuned and paying attention, they will be listening to both our conscious expressions of desire and the unconscious patterns so they can help us understand what it is we are really asking for.
Paying attention to the intensity of your feelings is a good rule of thumb for deciding about past or present. The feelings which occur IN the therapeutic relationship are a road map of where you need to explore. The intensity of the feelings is often because they are evoking or resonating with experiences in our past, from a time when these needs were life or death. So if you’re spending a lot of time thinking “why is this such a big deal” or “why am I getting SO upset about this?” then its a good time to look to your past for an explanation.
A good example of this would be the time I found a book of poetry which featured BN in the acknowledgements and had a poem in the body of the book dedicated to him (see The Paradox of Shame). Seeing that BN had a deep, close relationship with someone so accomplished and talented made me feel intense shame, such that I wanted to flee the relationship. It was also incredibly threatening in that it felt like knowing this was destroying my sense of the relationship being a real one. It literally felt like the work we had done together was slipping through my fingers like sand. I do not normally react that way to finding out someone was acknowledged in a book. My normal reaction would be “wow, that’s pretty awesome!”
In trying to figure out why this felt so intense, I realized that I wanted to be special to BN, and this was rubbing my nose in the fact that I wasn’t really all that special. BN does have other clients that he cares about, he offers to them the same care that he offers to me. Which feels horrible. It feels horrible because I should have experienced a time in my childhood where I KNEW beyond a shadow of a doubt, in a taken for granted way, that I was special and loved more than other children (with the glaring exception of my siblings, but that’s another subject). I should have been able to feel that I was one of the most important people in the world to my caregiver. I want that from BN and I cannot have it. He cannot allow me to be that important to him because then our relationship would be about his needs also, not to mention that those kind of feelings about a client would interfere with the necessary detachment a therapist needs to see us clearly.
This is where a therapist’s clarity about the boundaries is vitally important. BN recognizes that even if he decided to kick over the traces and treat me as his most special client (I mean, we all know I’m his favorite, right? ;)), the time has passed where I could take in that treatment and integrate it into my sense of self in the way that would have happened as a developing child. So this is a loss that needs to be grieved.
But the loss is so painful and feels like it threatens our very existence, how do we face it? We face it by talking about how it feels, by having someone attend to our feelings of grief, of knowing that our loss matters, that it is worthy of grieving. One of the hardest lessons I had to learn was that getting the answer I wanted, having a longing fulfilled, was not the important thing. The important thing was that I was attended to in my disappointment, that someone would listen while I talked about how I felt, even if how I felt was angry at them for denying what I so desperately wanted.
This grief also feels so threatening and destructive because when we experienced the original loss, it WAS too much for us to handle. Because our caregiver was the source of pain, no one was there to help us handle the feelings and move through them. Alone and without the necessary resources because we were not yet mature, the feelings became something that had to be shut away in order to protect ourselves. So the other reason that it becomes important to express these feelings to our therapist is that they provide “containment.” Being with them and having them stay calm and unafraid while we experience the riptide of these memories and these losses, is what anchors us and teaches us that we are strong enough to have these feelings, that they will not destroy us and that we will not have to feel them forever. The first time I ever let myself experience the really deep grief over loss in my childhood, of not being loved the way I had longed to be, I was totally shocked that the tsunami of feelings lasted only minutes. I looked at BN and told him I was shocked to find the other side of despair, that I had always felt as if letting these emotions in would mean being trapped in them forever. In one of the paradoxes so central to therapy, we cannot know that we can face these feelings until we allow ourselves to face them and experience that they do not destroy us. We have to trust the process.
This would be hard enough if we only had to do it once, but we have to do it over and over until we do not need to do it anymore. I have gone back, time and time again, to talk to BN about the hurt, the anger, the rage, the sadness, the despair, you name it, that has been evoked by understanding my losses, by allowing them into my consciousness. I have screamed and cried and yelled at BN. I have threatened to throw things at him. I have been furious at his refusal to fight with me. I have been utterly amazed at his willingness to walk with me anywhere I needed to go, no matter how much pain I encountered. Through it all, he has stood still, a steady unchanging presence, open and accepting of all that I bring. Now I know that all of me is acceptable because he never changed toward me. And I know that I really do matter because he has paid attention to all of it.
So in many ways, BN has functioned as a human sorting bin. I ask him for something. If he says yes and provides it, I know it is either something to help complete my development or meet a present need. For example, during our work he has allowed 24/7 contact by email or phone (I call his service, he calls me back within an hour). BN has told me that it is impossible to know when you will need your attachment figure, so it was important that I could reach him when I needed to. So he met my need for access to my attachment figure, so I could learn to be securely attached. He has given me a blanket from his office when I asked, (I gave him a replacement) so I had something of his to comfort me when I was away from him. I have a handwritten note for which I asked him when I “ended” therapy. But if he says no, that what I have asked is not something he can provide, or its gratification will block my healing, as he did with hugs and reading the book and allowing me to live under his desk, (Full confession: I HAVE asked to live under his desk, but for some reason we’ve never had a serious discussion about that one. ;)) then I know I am up against a loss and have to go through the grieving process.
Once the grief is acknowledged and processed, it loses its power over us. Subsequently, when it is evoked or triggered, we can recognize a grief that we understand and have dealt with and let it go. The feeling can move through us freely. In a sense, once we learn we do not need to fear those feelings, we no longer need to revisit them. We have brought them into consciousness, so when they spring up in the here and now, we can acknowledge within ourselves “oh yes, I recognize that feeling, I know what’s going on with that, but I don’t need to react to it” and get on with what is actually happening.
Another example from my own experience. Because of the pattern with my father, of moving towards him to get my needs met, then having it turn abusive, I hold this deep-seated belief that I should not trust anything “good.” Anything good will eventually be ruined. Which means that in the middle of really wonderful, fun, fulfilling times, I can be struck with a sense of dread, of feeling like it is really bad to actually let myself enjoy something or believe I am doing it well, because it will only hurt more when it turns out not to be true. But I have learned, by working through the grief of not being able to go to my father and trust his care for me, that while that belief once made sense, it is no longer true. That it is ok to enjoy and accept good things, knowing that in those rare times where something does go wrong, I can face and handle any feelings that arise. So, in effect, when that fear rises up, I can now quickly identify “oh yeah that feeling is being triggered, but I know it’s not really the truth” and move past it. In other words, because I am no longer avoiding the grief or terrified of feeling it, I safely can allow myself to be conscious of it, and therefore, discount its relevance to the situation at hand. This is something that used to take days, or even weeks, to accomplish. But now, it can happen in a matter of seconds, on the fly so to speak, such that no one but I would actually know it happened.
We never reach a point, nor does anyone, where our past will never rise up, but we will become more skilled at seeing the lies of the past at work, and putting them aside to see the present more clearly, including our own abilities and strengths that we can use to take care of ourselves when need be, and to express our needs and reach out to get them met. There will always be some trial and error to the process, but recognizing that we won’t always get it right and that’s ok is also freeing. If we realize we made a mistake, we can change course and correct it. It really is ok to be human and not get it right all the time; no one is perfect and we don’t need to be either. When discerning the difference between past and present no longer feels like it threatens our existence, it can be much easier to do.
May I confess that everything I have said feels inadequate? In so many ways, this process is an emotional, felt experience and so much of what we need to learn is learned implicitly by watching our therapist model the behavior. We learn what we need to know without really knowing how we learned it. In the end, the most useful thing I can say is to trust the process. Trust that no matter how irrational you feel, or how scary it gets, that all you need to do is show up and be honest. Talk about how you feel, as many times as you need to and for as long as you need to until you feel better. Knowing that the process will take much longer than you want it to, and hurt a lot more than anyone would want to experience. But there is a point to the pain, when you heal and can let the pain go. And yes, I realize this is a terrible answer. 🙂 The truth often can be. Having to go through this process sucks, but it’s a lot better than not being able to heal.
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