Home > abandonment, acceptance, ambivalance, anger, boundaries, dependence, disorganized attachment, Emotional regulation, feelings, needs, pain, responsibility, shame > ‘Tis the Season: Strategies for coping with a therapist’s absence – Part II

‘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!

  1. July 19, 2014 at 1:09 am

    This makes a lot of sense and the reading was very worthwhile, thanks

    Like

    • July 19, 2014 at 11:09 pm

      I’m glad you found it helpful, Josie, thanks for taking the time to say so!

      Like

  2. July 19, 2014 at 3:00 am

    I just made it through my therapist’s month long absence. I grit my teeth like a champion until the last week, when I realized a 3 week vacation really meant I wouldn’t be seeing him for a month. My emotions were still under control, but my body failed me. I was in tremendous physical pain, fatigue challenged my stamina, I wanted to sleep until his return. Thankfully, he has returned and I am feeling replenished again. It is strange to have an external life source. I keep asking myself how and when I will become my own life source.

    Liked by 1 person

    • July 19, 2014 at 11:18 pm

      Hi Spacefreedomlove,
      Welcome to my blog and thank you for commenting. Love your username! That’s the downside of gritting our teeth. When we don’t allow our feelings to move through us, then they get jammed up on our nervous systems and wreck havoc in our bodies. I am glad to hear he is back and you are feeling replenished. I don’t think we ever become our own life source. I think we always need connections in order to feed us. It always makes me think of the Bible verse “where there are two or three together, there am I with them.” We are made to be in relationship and when we are connected to another human being, I think it creates the space into which love can flow. I remember once in frustration remarking to BN that I should be able to find what I needed in myself and he told me that it ALWAYS comes from the outside. But when you have secure attachment, your outside source of the “good enough” parent is taken in on such a deep level, while your brain is forming, that the source is internalized so that it is always available to be drawn on even when not in the presence of your caregiver. I find that my relationship with BN has mirrored that in that as I have felt more secure, I have internalized him more so that he is a source of life and comfort even when we are separated by space and time. I think I am more conscious of BN being the source because having to do this as a adult I much more aware of the attachment relationship. BN also told me once that the relationship was not meant to be the focus, but the taken for granted background in which we moved to be able to do what we needed to. Our earned secure attachment with out therapists in the same way enables us to risk and grow and live more fully. The end goal has never been to leave it as soon as we get secure. It’s to learn to carry with it with us always. ~ AG

      Liked by 1 person

      • July 20, 2014 at 12:46 am

        AG, I’ve actually been reading your blog for a while. I found it when I first started therapy and was endlessly reading everything and anything I could to explain what was happening to me, what I understood to be transference at the time. Your blog was and is still one of my most treasured findings on the subject. It is clear that your relationship with your therapist is profound, safe and secure. As someone with an avoidant attachment style, I have never given relationships their due credit and your reply is forcing me to reconsider that. All this time I have been thinking that the end goal is to be able to find fulfillment within, without help from others. That last part, the part where I exclude the importance of relationships in our lives is where I’ve had it all wrong. Relationships are the key to finding wholeness and serenity. This makes me feel a sort of relief, a peace about needing the therapeutic relationship as much as I do. Thank you so very much for your insight!

        Liked by 2 people

      • July 27, 2014 at 8:53 pm

        I’m always running from the longings and desire to be near my therapist at the same time wanting desperately to get closer to her. It’s the ” come closer, stay away” scenario. I try so hard not to need her and to show her I don’t need her that I took a self imposed 10 break from therapy after 7 months of 2x/week sessions. I made it through using all of your suggestions ( I also had a taped session to listen to over and over 😏) and am looking forward to returning tomorrow and letting her know that I now understand that the goal is not to go it alone, but to learn how to and trust myself in making the “healthy” connections with others throughout life and that is what will sustain me.

        Thank you for always being able to write so clearly what is all jumbled up in my head. Your sharing of your journey has made mine that much easier/clearer.

        Like

  3. July 19, 2014 at 9:20 am

    The part about regulating emotions really spoke to me. I feel things with a passionate intensity, yet I often do things that feed those feelings – like listening to certain types of music. I’ve been putting off changing this behavior, but perhaps it is time to finally do it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • July 19, 2014 at 11:21 pm

      April,
      Honestly, I find this one difficult to implement. I tend to be given to strong emotion and can often use music or movies to provide a catharsis providing me access to the feelings. Which has its place at times, I think, but at other’s is not a good game plan. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. ms.c
    July 19, 2014 at 11:13 am

    AG, Thank you again for your thorough and thoughtful understanding and for helping me feel a little less messed up and less depressed. There are not many places I can go to find that understanding reassurance, yet many alternate paths that feed and fatten the opposite.

    Like

    • July 20, 2014 at 8:16 pm

      Ms.C,
      I am glad this helps you feel a little messed up. I know just how crazy it can make you feel, I honestly thought I was really crazy for a long time. One of the most precious gifts BN ever gave me was to show me that I was having normal reactions to unusual circumstances. I am more than happy to pass that lesson along. xx AG

      Like

  5. July 19, 2014 at 11:45 am

    Thanks for your honesty. I’m in my forties and so struggling with these issues just from wreck to week. I struggle so much that I just want to quit therapy. I feel so needy. I’m just not able to express my feelings openly. I plan on doing so every session but the words don’t come out.

    Like

    • July 20, 2014 at 8:22 pm

      Hi Ambivalence,
      Great name I can feel like the embodiment of that emotion. 🙂 Welcome to my blog. Your feelings, of want to quit and feeling so needy, are very familiar to me. It’s the terrible bind of healing, we need to do the very thing that scares us the worst is exactly the thing we need to do to heal. We cannot wait to not be scared to speak, we must learn to speak despite our fear. Our feelings follow our actions. It’s truly ok that you’re not there yet. Just do what you can do when you can do it. It’s slow work and sometimes we can only see progress when looking back over a long length of time. You’re not too needy, these are normal, healthy human needs, but how they were treated taught you to believe they were too much. ~ AG

      Like

    • July 24, 2014 at 9:41 pm

      I do the same thing ambivalence. I have decided that until I have the ability to overcome the fear that keeps the words from coming out that I have to write down what I want to say and read it during the session. For awhile I’ve been sharing difficult things via email, and I think this is the next step. Hopefully some time I’ll be able to just share what I want to say without the help of writing it down, but it’s where I am right now. I don’t know if something similar would work for you or not.

      Like

      • July 24, 2014 at 10:36 pm

        Actually yes it does work for me as well. I often email the things I can’t say. And yes, we need to be accepting of where we are at. I also journal a lot which helps me sort through my thoughts and feelings. Sometimes it helps me to figure out what I need to say vs. write. 🙂

        Like

  6. DpBluSee
    July 20, 2014 at 11:40 am

    Hi AG,

    Thanks for posting this. You are putting out such helpful information to so many! You really should write a book. There is not enough/any(?) material out there about what it is like to be a patient in an intense, reparative psychological relationship! It is turbulent waters for sure.

    I think I have used each and every one of the strategies you’ve mentioned in these posts. I’m lucky in that my T typically only goes away for a week at a time. He once went away for two weeks, and I harassed him about it at every session before and after (19 days!! 19 days!! How could you??) I have weathered it differently each time one of his absences come up. I used to be more terrified but now, mostly ;), I know he is coming back, and I will see him again.

    Best,
    DBS

    Like

    • July 20, 2014 at 8:27 pm

      DBS,

      Thanks so much, but have you been talking to my husband? 🙂 He’s nagging me to work on a book. I’m glad that you were able to harass him about his absences, talking about those feelings and being understood is how we learn to get through the break! Glad to hear its getting better. If there’s anything you use to get through and I didn’t mention it here, please feel free to write another comment n and share it. I don’t think it’s possible to have too many tools in this toolbox. 🙂 xx AG

      Like

  7. GreenEyes
    July 21, 2014 at 12:12 am

    Dear AG
    Popping in to say hi and thank you for posting these strategies. Even those of us who are well seasoned patients need reminders of how to deal with our therapists being away or to manage difficult feelings between sessions. Can you please send some warm weather my way? Hugs to you XXX GE

    Like

    • July 21, 2014 at 10:36 am

      (((GE))) How very lovely to hear from you! I have been wondering how you are doing. And I totally agree, the reason I wrote this post was to help me to get through the break and know I had this all written down somewhere. 🙂 I will do my best to send some warm weather your way! Although there is a such a shortage of it in our winter, we tend to be a little stingy. 🙂 (Sorry to talk about all those summer activities in the dead of your winter. 🙂 ) xx AG

      Liked by 1 person

  8. True North
    July 22, 2014 at 12:14 am

    Thanks for the mention. It good to read these coping strategies. My T is leaving for vacation next month. That is when you can return the favor and endlessly listen about how wonderful “my” T is LOL. He will only be gone for a week (two therapy units) but it still can be so tough to handle. It’s actually worse now than the first year he went away. Probably because our relationship has gotten so much deeper (yeah despite my kicking and screaming). Hugs to you, TN

    Like

  9. Ann
    July 23, 2014 at 1:38 pm

    AG, Did I hear book? Please, please say you will consider this option. Just bundle you posts, get an editor and I will buy the first ten copies!!!!! If the marketing is done well, you would have a windfall. I do not know of anyone who has published a book explaining first hand what the therapeutic process can feel like. It would help people who struggle with confusion over the therapeutic relationship. It could also help people to recognize when a T’s boundaries aren’t appropriate. I think it is safe to say, this is a unique relationship that can not be experienced outside the room. Your T is not your parent, spouse, partner, child, friend, lover, or boss. Yet, the relationship can be very scary. And for many of us it develops very slowly and morphs in all kind of directions. I know I practice very scary things (emotionally) with him before I try them out in my real life. On top of that, when he takes a break (yikes, next week!) I have to learn to find ways to self-soothe. We all know our Ts need and deserve as many breaks as it takes to keep them balanced. But tell that to the hurt, needy child inside us that makes us scared to not have access! I do think seeing that we have survived the separation when they get back is part of the therapy! OK, AG, get to work on that book!!! Xoxo Ann

    Like

    • July 24, 2014 at 9:54 pm

      Ann,
      My husband is paying you to say that about a book isn’t he? I want to but I think I’m scared. Been meaning to bring it up with BN. I am also struggling to find time just to keep up with my emails and PMs on top of my extended work hours. I am finding it hard to work on another blog post let alone a book! (I say this knowing I am not nearly disciplined enough about my use of time. 🙂 ) But I am starting to think its a good idea. May I be honest? I am a bit shocked at the response my writing is getting (and even more shocked at my google rankings as they seem out of proportion to my traffic). But I think I am starting to see that a book written from this perspective might be helpful for a lot of people. Thank you for the encouragement, I feel obnoxious even saying what I just said (how could I think anyone would want to hear what I have to say?! Yes, I react with shame even to compliments. 🙂 ) xx AG

      Like

  10. Jay
    July 24, 2014 at 8:57 am

    I loved the second part of this series! I have recently come across a few bloggers about to go through therapy breaks and referred them right here 🙂

    I wanted to ask if you ever dream of BN, have worked through the content with him and came out better because of it? I ask because I’ve been dreaming of DS a lot recently, since he returned from on-off breaks and my fears of him abandoning me were reignited. In the one dream I felt like I couldn’t access him. Then I dreamt he was going to New York and going to charge me for four more sessions because HE was angry at leaving, even though it wasn’t my fault. A few nights ago, I dreamt we were in his loft apartment and that I wasn’t allowed to sleep in his bed upstairs anymore. I had to stay downstairs. He left me there and like a good old detective story, I was convinced he had tied a long strand of hair across the top step so he would know if I went upstairs without his permission. It’s quite bizarre but I will definitely take it into therapy room sometime. Was just curious whether you benefit from your dreams! I feel so needy sometimes but your advice about self-compassion makes sense.

    Look after yourself!

    Like

    • DpBluSee
      July 24, 2014 at 3:36 pm

      Hi Jay,

      I can offer a comment on dreams. Dreams are an integral part of my therapy. I have often dreamed of my therapist and found they are very revealing. Because so much of therapy is about the relationship between the therapist and the client dreams can be very instructive in bringing to light what is happening in the room and in the client’s projections and unconscious attitudes regarding the therapist. I think they are helpful for both people! Dreams are very rich material. I encourage you to bring them to your therapist, which it sounds like you are going to do!

      Best,
      DBS

      Liked by 1 person

    • July 24, 2014 at 10:11 pm

      Hi Jay,
      I definitely dream about BN. I once made an emergency phone call to him because I had a really vivid dream about him getting up and walking out in the middle of a session and not returning. That dear man audibly winced when I told him about it which helped me feel much less foolish. Its been a while since I’ve had one but when I was in my most dependent phase I had a lot of dreams about him and about being with his family. So much so that I had dreams versions of his office (which was really strange and not at all like his real office) and his home (which I’ve never seen). Oddly enough the dreams about his family were always about me being very welcomed by them but never able to spend time with him. I have also brought a lot of dreams into therapy with both my first T and BN about all kinds of things. A lot of my dreams and examining them have often led to major breakthroughs (this was especially true when I was more actively recovering memories and processing trauma). I’m big on the “anything is grist for the mill” school of therapy. BN has commented about it a number of times. I take in books, both fiction and non-fiction, movies, music, poetry (mine and other people’s). dreams, you name it. If it sparked some thoughts or seemed relevant, I talked about it. Whenever I tell BN how amazing it is that he understands me so well, he tells me its because I have let him see so much of me. So my advice would be to go for it, I think dreams can lead to really rich discussions.

      And thanks for sending people my way, so glad you found this post helpful! ~ AG

      Like

  11. Ann
    July 25, 2014 at 1:44 pm

    For anyone out there whose T is on break-I feel you! I had my last session this morning before his vacation and thought it went well. Then I had to go to my parent’s home to help with something (that are 86 and 89). After a couple hours, I was majorly triggered. Among the triggers was my dad ranting about Obama and how the Middle East is taking over and how my son could be killed. My son is going to be deployed to Jordan in a month and, believe me, you don’t want to have someone telling you your son is going to die. I went home and cried and journaled. I wanted the safety of my T. But as I wrote, I told myself that I would not always feel so weak. I also realized that like all relationships, my relationship with my T will grow and change as time goes by. Our separation is part of the therapy in evoking feelings I avoid but am forced to deal with. My relationship with my T is not static which in some way brings me comfort. I tend to think in black and white, all or nothing, here or gone. Now I can see that my relationship with my T is not all or nothing. It changes and morphs and helps me grow up. ( I think my emotional age is now about 8 years old, but I am still growing!)
    I know this is a place where I can share my feelings and have a voice. Thank you AG.
    Something AG doesn’t know is that I can be a pitbull at times, and now I have a focus—–her future book! I don’t know when or how, but I know there is a lot of wisdom to be mined from her openness. She doesn’t know it yet, but whether in 2014 or 2050- there will be a book and I claim the first 10 copies. No pressure AG 🙂 Fortunately, you can’t stop progress and I think this site is her book in progress!!! Happy weekend to all! Xoxo Ann

    Like

  12. Ms. Sharkey
    July 28, 2014 at 10:30 am

    Another Jane Austen fan! Oh, you are a woman after my own heart! Please tell me you’re a Bronte fan too. 🙂

    Reading your blog is like a support group for me. It’s such a relief to be around people, even just in a virtual way, who “get it”. That makes it easier, for me at least, to practice self compassion. After all, if I wouldn’t chastise someone else for missing their therapist, then I shouldn’t chastise myself either. Easier said than done when my inner critic is busy telling me that I should be able to cope better than this, that I shouldn’t have gotten attached in the first place, I ought to have known better etc.

    Like

  13. HopelesslyAttached
    May 29, 2016 at 11:07 pm

    I stumbled across this particular post by mistake and it couldn’t have come at a better time. I actually copied the part about the therapist giving a transitional object. I’m going to email it to my therapist. That idea has given me so much hope, which is the first since I heard of the vacation. Thank you for the posts

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