Trauma happens in relationships, so it can only be healed in relationships. Art can’t provide healing. It can be cathartic and therapeutic but a relationship is a three-part journey (Alanis Morissette). The results of any traumatic experience, such as abuse, can only be resolved by experiencing, articulating, and judging every facet of the original experience within a process of careful therapeutic relationship (Alice Miller). Clearly, everyone from well known singers to psychologists agree that the therapeutic relationship is extremely important; it is the tool that heals trauma. I write about this relationship every week. Yet, I was surprised to read a description of my blog as one that focuses on the therapeutic relationship, especially when I refuse to even acknowledge it with Bea. Looking back over my posts, though, I’m not just writing about what I’ve discussed in therapy, or how I felt about it; I’ve written out the journey of my relationship with my therapist. My writing focuses on the very thing I have refused to talk about: the relationship.
What is it about the therapeutic relationship (or really any close relationship for me) that feels so scary and threatening? I don’t like the idea of someone really knowing me, I’m terrified of rejection, and I can’t handle feeling vulnerable. I don’t open up to people; although most people in my life are presented with a facade of me who is very open, it’s not the real me. And to be real with another person, and let them see all of my parts is frightening.
When I first started therapy, I didn’t want anything to do with talking about or even thinking about the relationship. Oh, I went to therapy and tried– tried being the operative word here– to talk, and I emailed Bea between sessions, and I even had a minor crisis early on and really needed extra support– which she gave– between sessions. At that point though? I would have told you the relationship was not important, and that Bea was “just” my shrink. I trusted her, but I didn’t. It was an odd place to be.
I’m lucky, in that Bea isn’t a normal therapist (or she’s at least unlike any I’ve ever seen before). She seems to work with what I need at the time, while gently pushing me forward. She also just has this calm acceptance about her, kind of this sense that things come up as they need to, we will work through things as we need to, and it will be okay. When I couldn’t talk during sessions, and needed her to, she did. She talked about trauma, and effects of abuse, child development, and dissociation.
When I very obviously needed something more to be able to connect with her, she gave me that, too. She has shared with me stories of her children and mistakes she has made as a mom (she yelled at her kids, too). We have talked about our wedding dresses, and I know what hers looked like and that she was married outside. I know she saw her own therapist, and has cried over things that happened in grade school, and has hid behind her coat during uncomfortable discussions. I know that she, too, doesn’t eat meat, but she does like fish if it is fresh and cooked right (and so she shares the same exceptions I share to the whole no meat thing). I know her family of origin isn’t as open as she would like. Over the course of our relationship, there have been many such small disclosures, all of them conversational and relevant to what we are discussing at the time.There is an argument that therapists should be a blank slate, no self disclosure, because therapy needs to be about the client. In theory, I can understand that. But in practice, it doesn’t work for me. These little snippets make her more real to me, and make it easier to open up. I’m not under any delusion that she is my friend, or that we share a relationship like I share with my friend Kristin. But it’s easier to talk to someone when you feel comfortable with them. Seeing that Bea is not hiding herself, helps.
There’s been times that Bea has shown anger at memories I’ve shared, and times where she has shown tears. This is yet another form of self disclosure that some people frown upon, but it was the first introduction I had to the idea that it might be okay to feel something, and even express it, about my trauma. She made it safe for me to cry, and to begin to think about anger because she wasn’t afraid of her own feelings.
It took me a while to even admit to myself that I cared about what she thought, that I had become somewhat attached to her. Even then, I did not want her to know this, and I refused to talk about the relationship. The first time she hurt my feelings, I actually said nothing to her about it. I had finally disclosed, via email, my eating behaviors, and had jokingly asked if I passed therapy 101 and got a gold star. Her reply back included something about no gold stars from her because she could not reinforce the childhood messages I received about having to perform well. That did hurt my feelings, and while I refused to admit it at the time, I can see now I was looking for reinforcement of that very idea. Fifteen year old me came out in full force and wrote a very snotty email back, but I never sent it. Instead, I reverted to the other childhood message, and ignored it. Bea actually brought it up two sessions later, stating she was surprised I had not responded to that email. I simply said I had not realized there was anything to respond to. She let it drop, as it was obvious I was not going to talk about it.
The second “failure” was when she did not understand my telling her I was in a “not okay” place. This did lead to talk about the therapeutic relationship, at least on her part. I did not want to talk about it. We sent emails back and forth about this, with me telling her she could say it was important but I wasn’t going to think the relationship thing was important. We never did come to any agreement beyond the agreement not to discuss it at the time, and the disruption over Bea not understanding my message of “I’m not okay” was worked through.
Just a few weeks ago, I began to share something incredibly painful and shameful with Bea. I didn’t even have words to tell her about it at first, but she managed to convey support and understanding somehow anyway. I think it’s because of the relationship thing. When I finally did have words, I couldn’t tell her. I first had to admit I was afraid she would leave me once she knew. I discussed the relationship with her, admitting my fears of her abandoning me to deal with all the ugly crap alone, and she reassured me that she wouldn’t leave me mo matter what secrets I had to share. I took a leap of faith, trusted in her, and in our relationship, and shared the ugly memory with her. She didn’t leave. Since then, I’ve felt a different level,of trust with her, of safety; I really do believe she isn’t going anywhere. And I can admit, at least to myself, that the relationship is maybe the most important piece in therapy.
I’ll leave you with Bea’s words on the therapeutic relationship, sent to me when I told her that the relationship thing was not something I was going to talk about, and that it was not something I was going to consider to be important:
“The relationship thing is super duper important. I take your trust in me very seriously–it is an honor to be trusted in this way, and I do everything in my power to do my job the best I can because you deserve that. Unfortunately, I will screw up at times. There will be moments when I don’t get things, or for various reasons can’t be as emotionally available as you need. These disruptions, however, will be repaired. It might be uncomfortable to think that this relationship piece is so important–truthfully, almost unbearably uncomfortable at times because it makes a person feel super vulnerable–but I can’t lie to you and tell you it’s no big deal because it is…..The relationship is scary because of the vulnerability and exposure–excruciating vulnerability and exposure at times. (but worth it–bountiful rewards!)”