All the shrinky things keeps popping up in my life. In my last post, I asked some questions about enactment, transference, how you all felt about those concepts, those words, how you deal with it, how you experience it. And I am so grateful for all the responses I received. They helped immensely when I sat down to write in my notebook, and when I talked with Bea.
I want so badly to tell you all about Wednesday’s session, but first I think that I need to back up…..
Therapy has been all about the teen lately. A lot of it has been trying to build a relationship, trust, between Bea and the teen. The teen is so suspicious of everything. A few weeks ago, as the teen and Bea talked, Bea asked if there was any part of the teen that maybe wanted to be seen, to have connection? I couldn’t answer that when she asked it. Later, though, I sorted some thoughts out, and the next session, we talked about it.
“I know we said there were two teen parts, but that’s not right,” I tell Bea cautiously. I’m always afraid that she is going to tell I’m wrong.
“Can you say more about that? About what does feel right?” She has that bright curious tone in her voice. She really does want to know.
“Well….I just….what if you think I’m wrong?” I hide behind a pillow as I ask her this.
“Well, I don’t really think anything, except that you are the only one who knows how your parts are organized. I may have guesses, but even then, I don’t have an idea of *this is how Alice’s parts are*. But I would like to know, to understand,” she says, kindly.
“Okay. Okay. Well….I think……no, I know, there is one teen part. It’s all one part. Its just like….there are, maybe pieces of her….not really enough to be a part, but also they are separate in some ways. I don’t know.” I mumble my way through this, feeling dumb.
“That makes sense. Really good sense, actually.”
“It does?” I ask, surprised.
“Yes, it does. Can you tell me about the pieces?”
I nod, still hiding behind the pillow. I have my blanket covering my legs, so I can hide under it if I need to. “There’s the vulnerable piece. That’s the piece that is afraid of you leaving. There’s the shame piece, and that’s the piece that just feels….well, shameful for even existing, and shameful for needing anything, or for being, well, I don’t know what I’m trying to say. And the angry piece. The angry piece of the teen was the one running things this spring. But they are all the teen, all one.”
“That makes a lot of sense to me,” Bea tells me.
“I do want……the teen does want….connection. I just…..before, we tried and it was just this…..it all blew up. I screwed up. I can’t….I won’t be able to….” I cannot finish my sentence. Shame washes over me, and I have no words left.
“You won’t be able to what?” Bea prompts.
“I can’t answer that right now. I just don’t want to get mad again. I don’t want to be mad and have you leave.” I yank the turquoise blanket over my head.
“I’m not worried about that,” Bea assures me.
“Well, because I know that mad wasn’t about me. Anytime there’s an overreaction like that, it means that one of our issues has been triggered.” Her answer is simple, and her voice is straightforward. There’s no blame, no anger, no distancing in her tone, but I shut down anyway.
Devastated. I feel devastated. I thought we had agreed it was about both of us, that it was both of us who messed up, and that it wasn’t just all about me and my past. What happened? Did she just agree with me so we could repair the rupture before her trip? Did she trick me into believing her? I can’t believe she is saying I overreacted. I can’t do this.
I stayed far away and shut down the rest of our time. Bea tried to get me to talk, but I couldn’t be present enough to get any words out. In the end, she told me to email or call if I wanted to talk before we met again.
I don’t reach out, but by the next appointment, I have lots and lots of writing for her to read. Bea reads, and responds as she reads. I hide under my blanket, and squeeze cloud pillow.
*I thought we agreed the rupture was about both of us. I thought we agreed that we both made mistakes.*
“The rupture in the spring was about both of us, we do agree about that,” she says gently.
“Then why did you say that?” The words burst out of me.
“Can you tell me what I said?” She asks.
“You said that the mad feelings weren’t about you, that was why you weren’t worried about my mad making you leave, because it had nothing to do with you! And you said I overreacted!”
“Oh…..okay.” Bea takes a deep breath. “I wasn’t speaking about you directly when I brought up overreacting. I’m sorry you heard it that way. I wasn’t trying to personalize it, not at all. I just meant that in general, when people have overreactions, it usually means something from their past has been triggered. For me, it’s usually emotional overreaction, or it means me getting very defensive. Those overreactions aren’t solely directed at the person or event that caused them. It helps me to see that, so I don’t react badly. That’s all I was saying. I wasn’t pointing a finger at any part of you.”
Shame, blame, and hurt all flood me. I don’t say anything.
After a while, Bea asks if she should keep reading and I tell her that she can.
*I thought we agreed that my reaction to the awful Monday was very big and that you experienced it as very out of proportion because you expected the adult to be on board and to help control things, to function and cope as well as she had been but that in reality there was no adult on board and hadn’t been for several days, it was just me on board and I didn’t have a really secure relationship with you, just this very new, fragile, tentative, sort of testing out trusting you thing, and with that context the big reaction and big hurt made more sense. Lashing out, being mean, none of that was acceptable and there were better ways to express myself and tell you I needed help and was really hurt and scared, but put into context it you could understand why I had all the big scared feelings on the bad Monday.*
“I agree with all of this, about the adult not being on board and that your reaction made a lot more sense to me once I knew that.” She says.
“Because I failed,” I say, tears streaming down my face now.
“What do you mean you failed?”
“I….I screwed up. I failed and I don’t want to do that again. I don’t want that to happen again.” I sob.
“How do you think you failed?” Bea asks gently.
“Because…….you…..expectations. I can’t meet them. I’m not good enough.”
Bea doesn’t respond right away, and when she does, she sound sad. “My expectations were, well, they were more about how things had been going, not about me needing you to meet certain expectations. It was an assumption I made, a wrong assumption that the adult had been doing such a great job using her coping skills, I assumed she was on board and those coping skills would kick in. I shouldn’t have made that assumption. I was wrong.”
“You said you had to lower your expectations. I failed.” I’m wailing and whining now, but I can’t stop myself. This hurts.
“Yeah,” she says sympathetically. “I hurt your feelings really badly, and I’m sorry. This is painful. What I should have said was I had to adjust my assumptions, that I had gotten used to the adult being on board and using all her tools to cope and function. I needed to adjust because it wasn’t the adult on board, was it? It was you― the teen. And you are at a different place than the adult. Does that make sense?”
“Maybe. Maybe.” I’m a little calmer, but then I think of something awful, and the wailing starts up again. “What if I can’t meet your expectations this time?”
“This time, I can honestly say that I have no expectations beyond you just continuing to keep working on this stuff. I’m still getting to know this part, and you are still getting to know and trust me. Right?”
“Okay. Okay. Maybe.” I sigh. “I’m still worried. And scared.”
“That’s all right. It’s okay to feel like that, we’ll keep talking about it and just take things slow. There’s no rush.” Her voice is sincere. She means it. I feel calmer with her words.
Later, at home, I start to think about overreactions. I think about it a lot and when I sit down to write, hundreds, thousands of words pour out of me onto the paper. When I finish, I can’t believe I’ve written this, and I am filled with fear and shame and anxiety. But I take it with me to therapy, anyway.
When I arrive, Bea greets me and tells me she has something she wants to share with me from the SP book. Inwardly, I groan. I need her to not be shrinky today. Everything I have written could turn really shrinky and and I need that not to happen.
“What is it?” I ask quietly as I sit down.
“I’d read it before, but it seems so fitting right now. There’s a whole section about enactments and overreactions. It’s nothing bad, nothing scary,” she says as I hide my face with cloud pillow.
“I think maybe you should read my notebook first. It might….well, I just….it might sort of go together,” I tell her quietly.
She suggests that maybe the SP pages might give some context, and so I agree that we can look at those first. I don’t want to, but I also can’t give her my notebook when she feels so disconnected from me.
Bea pauses for a minute. “Do you want to look at the SP thing, or do you want me to read your book first?”
I shrug. “I don’t care. Whatever seems best to you.” I sound far away, and almost robotic.
Bea notices, and just like that she is back to being Bea. “I sort of think you agreed to reading the SP pages because I wanted to read them. It feels to me like you might have some important things written down that you really want to look at today.”
“It doesn’t matter.” I can’t un-disconnect myself.
“I think we should work with your notebook first. That feels important.” She says softly.
I get my book out of my bag, but then I can’t hand it over.
“Alice, how far away are you right now?”
“Far….sort of far.”
“Okay. Okay. Maybe it felt a little scary to have me bring up SP?”
“I don’t know. I just….I don’t want you to be shrinky. Okay? Because…..it could….you could go….” I trail off.
“I’m here, and I’m not shrinky. I can see how hard this is for you. I’m sure me bringing up SP stuff right away this morning didn’t help with that. But I am here with you.” Bea’s words comfort me. It feels like she sees the problem and is here.
I flip through my book, scanning the pages I had written. “This shouldn’t be so hard.”
“It is hard. This work is hard. It’s hard to let someone in, especially when we already feel vulnerable. It’s hard.”
“Okay,” I breathe, “Okay.” And I hand my notebook over.
First, I don’t like that word. Overreaction. It feels bad. It brings up all the other words my mom like to use..,.drama queen, over sensitive. It feels the same. Overreaction makes me feel blame and shame for not being perfect, for feeling what I feel, for not being able to ignore my feelings and behave. My mother’s favorite thing to tell me, anytime I was emotional. “Don’t be a drama queen.” “Oh, Alice, she just always has to be the drama queen.” Even jokingly, said in a playful tone, “Oh! She’s our little drama queen!” Or, “Alice has always tended towards the dramatic.” That’s the first thing, it’s hard to even get past that word, the blame and shame and the feelings that word means, that I should not feel how I felt, that I am out of line.
Bea stops reading, and starts to speak. I stop her before she can form the words. “Just read all of it please. Just read it all first.”
“Okay. I can do that.” Her voice is soft, reassuring.
I would have said, even a week ago, I would have said that my reaction to that bad Monday (which actually was a Wednesday but was the first appointment that week) was not an overreaction. I would have agreed that everything later was, but not that day. I would have argued that showing up to therapy, triggered and vulnerable and needing you to be there, and you not being there was awful and that my reaction was in line with that. I would have argued that having a therapy session ―when I really needed you― and me not even needing to be there, because rationally, logically, that session was not about me. It was you, processing insurance stuff, and the email you had just read, and trying to figure out how to handle the insurance stuff, but initially, it was not about me, I didn’t need to be there.
I’m probably saying this wrong and I will probably be in trouble for being blaming, but please, just keep reading. I’m not blaming.
I would have argued that my reaction to that, my fears that I had needed too much and broken you, my hurt that you weren’t there, my fear that you were looking for a way to get rid of me, was not an overreaction. I still hate that word. But maybe it was. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, and maybe I did overreact.
Maybe it’s more fair to say that I wasn’t reacting just to that day. Don’t get shrinky here, okay? Because it was about you in some ways. Even if the events that day hadn’t been extremely triggering, I still would have been hurt, and there would have been mistrust and fear. But I don’t think as much.
That whole day parallels the way my mom reacted over and over and over to me. I’d go to her, panicked or sad or mad or whatever, with all these feelings and no idea how to handle them, just drowning in them, and she would just check out. It was terrifying, to be left so alone with everything. She’d be there, right next to me, but not there, talking and talking and talking about something that had nothing to do with me, she could have been talking to anyone. And if I even dared to get upset or mad about that, she would accuse me of being a drama queen. She would blame me, “Don’t be such a drama queen. Life isn’t that hard.” If I didn’t stop my behavior, if I didn’t straighten up my act then, there would be the silent treatment until I did. Ms. Perfect would take over and fix everything. Things would go on as if nothing had ever happened.
It seems so clear now, how much that day parallels my Mom’s actions. I wouldn’t have been so upset and hurt if I hadn’t experienced that over and over and over. Me showing up distressed, and emotional, you not being present. Me getting upset and you not understanding why because all you could see was that you were just talking about insurance. Me freaking out and being angry, and you choosing to ignore my rage. Ms. Perfect finally taking over.
But what happened with you is different. Because you came back. That was hard to trust for a long time, because that was new. And you wanted to talk about what happened and hear what I really had to say. That was new, too.
I’m afraid to tell you all this, because I don’t want shrinky Bea. But I think this has to be worked through before anything else. Even little things, like when I tell you I am sure that my feeling ABC is silly, that’s my way of preempting the drama queen accusations I still expect to hear. All the uncertainty around you being able to handle my stuff and really be there, that is from this mom stuff. So. That’s it, that’s all of it. And I’m sorry for all of it.
Bea sets my book down on her lap, and lets out a deep breath. “I don’t like that word anymore, either. Overreaction is not a good word, and I am cringing that I used it. I am so sorry that you felt blame when I used it. I think a better thing to have said would be to call it disproportionate.”
“That still feels bad,” I whisper.
“Yeah. I get that. Can I say something? Remind you of something?” She asks.
“I did mess up. Your feelings were, and are valid. I hurt your feelings, and you were really scared. Just because my misattunement brought up all the feelings you had every time your mom checked out and left you alone with your emotions, that doesn’t make your hurt over my actions less real. It’s an and, not an or. Does that make sense?” Bea asks.
I nod, and then realizing she can’t see me because I’m hiding under my blanket, say, “Yeah. Yeah, it does.”
“It was really scary for you to feel so alone, with me and with your mom.” Bea says quietly. “I can see how my actions mirrored hers, almost perfectly. Even my first attempt at setting a boundary, at not reinforcing the distortions……in my attempt to not reinforce those beliefs, and my worry over behaving like your mother, I did just that.”
“But we figured it out. And you won’t ignore me anymore.” I whisper.
“No, no I won’t, not as a choice. I know that wasn’t a helpful boundary for you. But I can’t promise that I won’t have days where I’m misattuned. I hope though, that if you are feeling ignored, you will be able to tell me that.”
“Maybe. I’ll try.” I can’t promise that I will, because I can so easily fall into the dark and twisty place when I feel ignored and left alone. But I can try.
“Good. That’s good.” She says.
“Yeah? I’m here.”
“I’m so sorry I behaved so badly.” I’m sobbing now, as guilt and shame and grief threaten to pull me under.
“I don’t think that’s fair to say. You reacted. You were scared. I know that.”
“I was awful. I’m terrible, I’m so, so sorry. It wasn’t fair and I’m mean and bad and awful and I am so, so sorry. I didn’t mean to do it.” I can’t stop. I’m on a rollercoaster going downhill and I can’t stop the tears or the pain at looking at my behavior. I was terrible. I treated her terribly.
“You are not mean. You said some mean things, that does not make you mean. You are not bad, or awful, or anything else. You reacted emotionally, and yes, it was disproportionate, but it was real and I did hurt you. I can hold that, and at the same time know that all the rage and mean wasn’t about me. That’s what I was trying to explain the other day. It’s okay. We are okay, and you are okay. All right?” She’s stern now, kind but stern. She needs me to hear her.
“I’m still sorry.” I say the words through my tears.
Bea murmurs soothing things until I start to calm down. Then Bea wonders if different parts had a different relationship with my mom.
We talk about the parts and their relationships with my Mom. The little girl loves her mom, and just became who she needed to be to be loved. She just locked away all the questions she had about not being protected and not be good enough to be herself. There’s grief there, sometimes, but overall, the little girl knows it wasn’t about her, it was about her mom’s inability to cope, and she just holds all the good parts of her mom and none of the blame or shame of not being good enough. The adult is able to have this easy, on the surface friendship with her mom. She knows her mom’s flaws, and can even accept them. She doesn’t expect emotional support, or even authenticity or depth from her mom, but she likes chatting with her and hanging out.
The teen’s relationship however, is a mess. As I try to describe it, Bea says, “That’s part of where this push pull dynamic comes from. The teen’s…..probably even really once you were a preteen….all teens have big emotions, and confusing feelings and thoughts, but the Kenny stuff, the abuse added to that, and all teens start to separate from their parents, but it was maybe harder for you, because the teen didn’t really have that secure base, she didn’t have that soft place to land as she went out and explored. And teens need that. They need someone who is bigger, stronger, and wiser that can let them go, and yet still be there. Teens need to push boundaries and question things, and they need a safe person to be able to do that. They need a safe grownup to turn to and they need to be seen. You really needed to be seen, because so much of you was hidden for so long. All teens feel this sort of self conscious shame at times, but your shame was so much bigger and all encompassing, partly from the abuse, and I think, too, from not being seen. That’s how we beat shame, by being seen.” Bea is doing that thinking out loud thing again, but it’s okay, because she gets it. She gets how I feel, why the teen’s relationship with her mom is such a mess, and why that makes it so hard to just trust Bea to be safe. As she’s talking, I can see exactly why the teen part of me feels the way she does and acts out the way she does. All those “borderline traits” make sense.
When it’s time to go, I realize we hadn’t read Bea’s SP thing.
“We can always look at it next time if you want to,” she assures me. “This was much more important.”
“I could read it. I do have the book.”
“That’s right, I keep forgetting that. I’ll write down the page numbers for you, okay?” She offers.
“Okay. Thanks,” I say.
When I leave therapy, I feel pretty grounded. It’s only later when I read the SP book that everything gets all stirred up again.