‘Tis the Season: Strategies for coping with a therapist’s absence – Part II
This is the second part of a two part series; the first part is ‘Tis the Season – Part I.
We’re discussing strategies for helping us to get through our breaks in therapy (of any length!). We left off at journaling and the strategies are continued below.
Support groups: It can really help to find other people that also struggle with their therapist’s absences. I have been a long time member of Psychcafe and it truly helps to have somewhere to go and talk about the feelings that come up with people who “get” what you’re going through. People who have never experienced this, no matter how much they love you, often have a very difficult time understanding what you’re going through, or why you would possibly feel this way. I don’t know about you, but I feel ashamed enough about feeling this way without having someone look at me with that “are you nuts?” expression on their face. There are a lot of blogs and forums on the web. Look around, lurk a bit, and find one you think would be comfortable. Some of my closest “real” life friendships have developed with people I connected with online. I have even met a few people in person and despite our friend’s warnings, we did not axe murder each other. 🙂 I have one friend who met my husband and I on vacation (my husband adores her!) and we decided that a real axe murderer would wait until the second meet up in order to lull you into a false sense of security, so we’re REALLY looking forward to the next trip. But seriously, having someone to talk to is just priceless. Especially if you know someone who has endless patience about listening to you go on and on and on about how wonderful your therapist is…. Thanks TN! 😉
Psychic space: Psychic space, a phrase coined by David Wallin, is getting some room between you and your feelings. Feelings come and go, sometimes with great rapidity, but the “I” who is having the feelings, remains. So when you are feeling scared or anxious or sad about your therapist being away, it can help to remind yourself that you don’t always feel this way and you won’t always feel this way. That there are times (if even for only a few fleeting minutes) where you can feel the connection and trust it. Really intense feelings can feel like reality, but in many cases, they are not an accurate reflection of reality. I said earlier that I am feeling scared about BN being away because it feels somehow dangerous as if I cannot cope if something happens and he is not here to help. But the truth is that I am not in any danger nor am I abandoned, and he still cares despite going on vacation. Psychic space is the place in which we can think about our thinking and check it against reality.
Recognizing the past: This is closely related to the previous entry. So many of the feelings evoked are really about not having had secure attachment and all about our experiences as young children. When I was really struggling to get through breaks, it was because BN leaving evoked my unprocessed feelings and ungrieved losses around being abandoned, having my needs not be attended to, and not mattering. BN is doing none of those things when he leaves, but it can feel like that. I think it is very important to acknowledge, and even honor, the feelings that come up. They are your experience and there are good reasons for your feeling that way, especially when seen in context. It just so happens that the catalyst unleashing those feelings, your therapist’s absence, is not the correct context. The correct context is a small, powerless child left to cope with too much with too little for too long. But in this case, your therapist will return and can provide safety and support to help you cope with those feelings.
Curiosity:Again, this is closely related to both Psychic Space and Recognizing the Past. On the surface it really can feel ridiculous for a woman in her mid-50s to miss someone she only sees 50 minutes a week so badly that she needs to hug a blanket. Don’t know about anyone else but feeling this way, having such a hard time with BN’s (well deserved!) breaks can often make me feel very ashamed. I’m sure a lot of you are familiar with the ugly self-talk: “What is wrong with you? This is pathetic! It’s a couple of weeks, not years. Just get it together!” Once when I was feeling really ashamed of how jealous I became of my husband in a couples’ session, BN very gently asked me what it would be like to stop hating myself for how I felt and instead just accepted the feelings, and looked at them so I could understand myself. As I said above, these feelings make sense in the correct context, but many times we do not understand the context yet, because we are still working to sort and understand our experience. So try not to beat yourself up, but instead approach your feelings with curiosity to see what you can learn from them.
Exertion: I like to call this the Sense and Sensibility approach. 🙂 I am a big Austen fan and I just finished re-reading Sense and Sensibility. Something really struck me this time in reading it (it’s why I love to re-read Austen, I seem to get different things each time) which is the contrast between indulging in our feelings and exerting ourselves to master our feelings. For those who are not familiar, the story is about two sisters: Marianne and Elinor. Marianne is deeply sensitive and passionate, and disdains people who actually have calmer feelings as not really being worthwhile. Elinor is more temperate, and although she feels as deeply as Marianne, is also committed to regulating those feelings so as to not impose on the people around her. The book opens with the loss of their father and it is here where we first see their differing methods contrasted. Marianne deliberately seeks out situations that deepen and intensify her feelings of grief, such as playing the music her father loved. Elinor was left to handle necessary arrangements such as dealing with dismissing servants, finding a new place to live and even interacting with her half-brother and sister-in-law (who now owned the estate where they grew up) because she felt it was important to master her own feelings. As the book progresses, we see both women fall in love and handle the situations very differently, again with Marianne being incredibly indulgent in how she handles her feelings, while Elinor always strives to regulate hers.
So what really hit me while reading this, as I am in the midst of a break with BN, was that no matter how justified my feelings are and deserving of compassion (see above 🙂 ), how I treat those feelings is still within my control. So like Marianne, I could dwell on my fear and my pain and seek out things that would intensify those feelings. Or like Elinor, I can strive to place my feelings in proper context and exert myself to using my resources to manage my feelings. There are varying degrees of success with this strategy and it doesn’t stop the feelings from coming, but I must admit that it feels more productive to engage in activity that helps me move through the time, rather than seek out that which will only make it worse by dwelling too much on his absence.
Self-compassion: This is a bit redundant as I know its been mentioned a few times, but it’s so important it gets it’s own entry. These feelings are sourced in deep wounds and deserve gentle treatment. Even from yourself. If you are having a hard time being compassionate with yourself, I have a great trick that helps you to access it. First imagine a friend of yours feeling this way about their therapist being gone. How you would feel about how they felt? How would you treat them? When we think about someone else, the distortion of our shame is removed and we see more clearly how we deserve to be treated in our pain (No, you are not different from your friend, nor are there good reasons for why you should do better. Stop that!). Then think of a small child of three or four years old, and how they feel when mommy and daddy leave. Developmentally, that can be where we are. No one expects a three year old to have a stiff upper lip and be completely under control when their parents leave. I know we are not children and (unfortunately as much as we might long to) cannot indulge in a temper tantrum, but it can help to provide you with insight into why this is such a struggle. These lessons are hard enough to learn as a child, and are much, much more difficult as an adult. All the more reason to be patient with yourself.
I hope that you can find something here that helps, but I do want to finish by saying, that sometimes it is just hard and painful and the only way to cope is to just grit your teeth and get through it. These are feelings, intense, primitive and deep, welling up within you, and reason will only get you so far. I find if nothing else works, then teeth-gritting always does. And despite feeling at times that it would, the pain never did kill me. Time may pass slowly, but it does pass. My best wishes to anyone facing a break right now! Hang in there, winter’s coming!
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