Small Steps in Therapy
“Could you say that in a way that’s not so critical of yourself?”, my therapist asks.
“Uh, maybe?”, I reply.
I muddle through a new version of what I just said. My therapist responds that there is a subtle semantic shift with a huge long-term impact.
“I don’t think I’m even able to spot the difference at this point”, I say.
“I know. It’s why we are doing this”, he responds. As the therapist, he gets to be curious instead of reactive or elevated about whatever topic we’ve landed upon.
Therapy isn’t easy. Often it stirs up thoughts and emotions I’ve buried for too long or unable to handle because I didn’t have the right tools including the right therapist. It’s also an opportunity to practice new skills and healthier emotional choices in a safe environment.
I struggle with positive feedback in some areas of my life. Tell me I’m a good teacher, I’ll appreciate it and say thank you, tell me I’m super creative and have made an impact on you, I’ll also say thank you and it will mean a lot but physically I have other things going on. My muscles tighten, my stomach drops, I feel cringy. It’s like I’m suddenly wearing clothes that are several sizes too small and I feel it everywhere.
Expressing the fact that I struggle with this is also difficult. One week my therapist made a comment about me being a good mom and I just nodded and let it go even though all the negative physical reactions were happening. Then a session or so later he said some really nice things about me and I kept quiet.
At home, I went back and forth debating myself on why I should tell him and how it will be okay to tell him and that’s the whole point of why I do this. My defensive self went into all the reasons I shouldn’t do it in an attempt to protect me. This went on and on.
Third time's a charm! He made a positive comment and even though I could hear my heart pounding in my ears and every alarm in my body yelling at me to stay quiet, I said to him in a mumbled and inarticulate small voice that I don’t do well with his positive comments.
I’m not sure what my body thought was going to happen. He paused and said that’s interesting and let that just be for a moment. I took a breath and managed to take a look at him and it was a face of curiosity and immediately I felt better. Oh, this is safe and I expressed something and it was met with genuine interest my brain says to me while my body was confused not sure how to physically react.
We explored that moment for quite some time during this particular session. It wasn’t easy yet it was a very big teaching moment for me. An opportunity to practice a new communication skill. If I’m able to have space where it’s safe to practice then eventually I can do it outside the comfort zone of this familiar office.
Therapy can be an opportunity to discover patterns and belief systems that have for whatever reason been developed and bring to light how they no longer serve us thus providing new paths to traverse. The other thing this moment allowed was informing my body and heart to begin to really believe that it’s safe. My head completely knows this but that isn’t the whole me. A small moment like this signaled I could open up more.
During sessions, we sit across from each other. He is in his rolling chair. I notice how he uses it. Pushes it back when he senses I need space, comes forward when I need reassurance. For most sessions, he sits a comfortable distance from me as if we were just having a regular old conversation.
One week we were super deep into some discovery one session and once again all the alarm bells were going off inside my head. Genuinely curious about why I felt one way was leading to questions but the thing is I knew the answer.
The hard cold answer that I don’t ever share.
I cut him off mid-sentence and told him I needed to tell him something. Even I recognized the change in my voice and body. I went flat, rote, completely detached. I would think even a therapist seeing their very first patient could read this change.
As my demeanor changed so did his. He went from curious to somber. You hear people talk about holding space for each other but until you experience it firsthand it’s hard to describe. He was holding space yet I noticed he backed up his chair just a little. Perhaps reflecting upon my entire demeanor to get a sense of where to begin once I shared.
I did share. His chair rolling from being to the right of me to right in front of me but not too close.
“Thank you for trusting me to share and I’m sorry you endured this”, was his response. It was filled with warmth, empathy, and most importantly the truth. He meant his words.
“Yeah, well what can you do about it? I mean it was a long time ago and it’s over”, was my reply from a voice that felt far away.
He rolled his chair a tad closer and asked what I was feeling. I told him I just shut down whenever I recall this. I go completely numb and have no way of accessing it. He said for now that’s fine and in fact, he’s kinda glad that’s how I go because there are so many ways I could cope that can lead to things even being worse. I nod saying yeah drugs, alcohol, and whatever else was never my thing. I look everywhere but at him. He asks what I am thinking to myself apparently reading my thoughts. I told him I always tell myself not to be so dramatic.
He asked if someone said that to me what I would think and I told him that of course, it’s traumatic. He agrees but doesn’t push. In fact, we just let it be. He rolls his chair back.
How can you do your emotional work with a professional if the professional doesn’t have all the information? We don’t go to a doctor and leave out details yet this feels entirely different. It’s because emotional well-being is complicated. We are all raised in environments that have their own set of norms and rules we play by and changing our norms takes a lot of work.
You don’t just talk in therapy but often times it feels that way. A rapport is being built and a dyadic relationship is forged. The following week we don’t even discuss my revelation. In fact, we have yet to circle back. I know we will have to at some point but I’m grateful he understands I’m not ready.
I am ready, however, to speak up when something he says makes me uncomfortable or sparks a reaction in me. In fact, this week I know I’m going to tell him I’ve been on high alert all week based on something he asked me to merely consider. I’m not fearing this interaction, I’m looking forward to it. I noticed patterns we are working on breaking stepped in and took over. I’m frustrated with how easily that happened. Then again, I have years of thinking one way to undo. Self-compassion, even the smallest amount, is a new skill and I’m very much a beginner. I would say that’s a step in the right direction.
I know what lies ahead isn’t easy and I have to walk the path but I also know I no longer have to walk it alone.