During a recent session, my client Ellen was talking about how poorly she had done over our two-week Christmas break, in terms of looking after herself and using what she’d learned in treatment. It worried her and she didn’t understand why it should be so since she’d recently been taking much better care of herself. Coming back to her first session after the holidays seemed immediately to make her feel better, less distracted by the fantasies and obsessive thoughts that had troubled her during the break. I had some ideas about why this should be so but didn’t at first mention them; I waited to see where this train of thought would take her.
Later in the session, Ellen mentioned that she’d had a “scare” earlier in the week. She works as personal assistant to the boss of a medium-sized company; her boss had been away during the holidays and in his absence, some of his oversight duties had fallen onto her shoulders. She took off a few days herself during that period but because her boss was away, she felt it would be irresponsible to take as many days as she would have liked; this made her feel resentful, to have to deprive herself in order to fulfill her duties.
On the first day after her boss returned from his vacation, it occurred to Ellen that she should probably consult the firm’s calendar (which she had failed to do for a week or so), to see whether there might be an upcoming due-date for one of the firm’s projects. Sure enough, there was a project due that very day; she alerted the appropriate personnel and in the nick of time, they managed to complete the assignment for delivery. It troubled her that she had “forgotten” all about the calendar and wondered why she should have remembered on that very day.
In the way that I work — that is, psychoanalytically — I listen to what my clients tell me about their “outside” lives and see whether I can make connections from that material to what goes on between the two of us in my consulting room. When I can make such a connection, one that sheds light on both processes (external life events and therapist-client dynamics), I make an “interpretation”. Here is the gist of what I said to Ellen: During my absence over the break, she felt that I had left her with all the responsibility for taking care of herself, just as her boss had left her with increased responsibilities during his vacation. In both cases, she felt resentful; she didn’t want to be alone with this great responsibility and so had “forgotten” what she’d learned from our work together, just as she’d nearly “forgotten” about the calendar and the firm’s impending due-date. As soon as her boss returned, and as soon as I came back from the break, she suddenly found herself able to
With virtually every client who has made substantial progress and feels increasingly capable of self-care, I have found a similar dynamic. A good emotional fit between therapist and client that leads to true understanding and personal growth is extremely gratifying, almost like having a nurturing parent you can rely on; many clients feel
reluctant to give it up when the time comes. Some revert to earlier ways of functioning because they don’t want to be alone inside of themselves, making the difficult choices, assuming the role of parent to their unruly child selves. This dynamic can be a reason, in addition to those I discussed in this earlier post, why some people don’t appear to change. It also connects to my last post, concerning individuals who linger in childlike states where
they “force” the people in their lives to look after them.
In a larger sense, this type of growth revives anxieties about coming of age and separating from our parents. It makes us aware of the existential loneliness of our human existence, each of us separate from others and isolated within our own bodies and minds. I have also found that it inevitably stirs up anxieties about death as well: if we’re no longer children, if we’ve grown into independent adults able to look after ourselves, it must mean that we’re heading inexorably toward the end that awaits us all.
Finding Your Own Way:
Are you stuck in old familiar ways despite “knowing better”? Do you lean on friends or family members in repetitive ways, talking about the same old situations? It may be because you resent taking full responsibility to implement change, all alone inside yourself with no one to help you; change may also frighten you, because of where it might lead.
So much of the self-help literature is geared to help you effect change, as if change is this wonderful thing. Many people — I might even say most people — are afraid of change: better the unpleasant unknown than the possibly worse unknown. Change always highlights the passage of time, as well, the difference between then and now; if time keeps unfolding … well, we know where that leads. Maybe you see yourself as eternally “young”, the same person as you were in your early 20s who hasn’t changed a bit.
In addition, change and personal responsibility are HARD; it takes a lot of work and perseverence to make any
difference in the way you think and feel; wouldn’t it be easier if there were someone who could simply make it happen for you? Clients often love learning about themselves in therapy, feeling understood by their empathic therapist; they’re usually not as enthusiastic when they realize it’s their responsibility to do something about it. Weekends, longer vacation breaks and the prospect of termination usually stir up anxieties about what it means to be separate, responsible and alone.