I haven’t written a post in two weeks — unusual for me — because during that period, I have felt almost overwhelmed by the events in my life, mostly enjoyable and of great meaning to me: my oldest son’s 21st birthday, my middle child’s high school graduation, my daughter’s promotion from middle school, two flights (one to Chicago, one to Los Angeles), followed by the drive cross-country to Colorado, where I will continue to work throughout the summer. My fatigue levels have been made worse by some poor choices I’ve made along the way, and I’ve watched myself “hardening up” in response. Now that I’ve recovered a bit, I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk about the importance of choice “after psychotherapy,” and what can happen when you don’t respect your limitations.
At the beginning of May, I had set as a goal for myself to complete a rough draft of my book on defense mechanisms before leaving for Colorado; that way, I reasoned, I would have an entire month to review and revise it at leisure, before my summer break. I really wanted to achieve that goal. At the same time, I wanted to keep up with this blog as well as the one on PsychCentral, and especially to continue practicing piano. I can become very cranky if I have to forgo my practice; I normally get up at 5 a.m. in order to make sure that I have uninterrupted time alone, so piano doesn’t impinge on work and family life. Even before May became truly hectic, I knew it was unlikely that I’d be able to accomplish everything I had set out for myself. I probably should have accepted that piano would have to take a back seat if I were going to finish my book.
Instead, I drove myself onward and refused to accept that I couldn’t do everything. As I discussed in this early post, there’s a very bratty, entitled side of me who can throw big internal tantrums when he doesn’t get what he wants. Instead of standing up to him and facing the rage — sorry, no piano — I let him have his grandiose way. The days went by and I grew increasingly tired. Although I did my best not to let it intrude on my therapy practice, one of my clients sent me an email after her session, asking if I were all right!
As I grew more tired, I also became harder and harsher. I tried as much as I could to keep it to myself, but even so, my temper grew shorter and I became testier. Normally, when people submit comments I find irritating, I approve them without responding, but during this time period, I replied in haste and quite harshly to one of them. Later that day, I wrote the commenter a personal apology and deleted my harsh reply. As my stress levels rose, I “coped” with it by drinking more than is good for me.
I use the word “hard” to describe myself because it’s an almost physical sensation, as if I’ve tightened up all over and feel my whole body to be hardened and taut. I have a mental image of myself with my jaw set and my teeth clenched. When I finally noticed this hardness and began to view it as a defense, to wonder what I might be defending against, I soon realized I was exhausted, sad and ashamed of myself. My eyes welled up; as I came into contact with my shame, I felt much “softer”, but also shaky, as if I were on the verge of something quite threatening to me. In an early post about my sole experience with a panic attack, I discussed the anxiety of disintegration under psychic pressure; as I softened up, I realized that my “hardness” was also holding me together, but in a defensive way.
It’s not an obvious thing, but I had made a choice, a poor one, when I refused to take my own limitations, as well as the limits of time, into account. I indulged an unhealthy, omnipotent side of myself and paid the price for that indulgence, then tried to manage the resulting stress with alcohol. People around me unfortunately paid the price, as well. After I softened up, I accepted that I couldn’t keep going at the same driven pace. Thoughtful writing took more energy than I had available so I stopped work on my book. I stopped writing posts. I even cut back on piano practice. All the same, by the time we reached Colorado Sunday night — after that +&!#$@ flat tire on I-70 — I was exhausted. Two nights of good sleep and I’m feeling better, but still tired, still in need of recovery. I’ll get back to my routine and resume work toward my goals only slowly.
Last week in session, my thoughts about hardness came to mind during session with a long-term client, a woman who has had a sort of merged relationship with me for many years. Only recently has she begun to emerge from this fusion and to see me as a separate person. In recent sessions, she has worn what I’ve called her “dead face” — quite hard, without any smiles or warmth — and talked about how enraged she has felt with me for being separate. Over the years, she has shown a remarkable intuitive ability to gauge my states of mind; during the session, I began to wonder what she might be sensing about me, and whether her “hardness” might be a defense against something else.
If you’ve read this early post, you’ll remember the client I’m discussing, and the way she used hatred as a kind of psychic glue, to hold her together in the face of disintegration anxiety. In this recent session, the idea came back to me and I thought I understood. I had a hunch, I told her, that all this anger and rage toward me were really a way of warding off her sense that I’d recently been feeling overwhelmed in my life. (Normally I wouldn’t talk about my personal life but I had a sense she had intuited this about me.) I thought she felt so frightened by the experience of me as a separate person and in pain that she had to “harden up” against it. Her transformation in response to my words was dramatic. She softened up and told me that last week, when she had been thinking about me, she envisioned me with a sad face and recoiled in fear from the image. For the remaining minutes in the session, she no longer wore the “dead face”; she seemed quite soft and vulnerable, but also a bit afraid and worried about my state of mind.
Anger, rage, harsh judgment, righteous indignation and blame — all of these “hard” emotional states may serve as a defense — for me, a defense against shame as well as disintegration anxiety; for my client, a defense against terror. While we normally value softness over hardness as a character trait, it’s useful to remember that the experience of being soft isn’t always such a wonderful experience for the person who feels it. Softness means you’re vulnerable. Softness means you can easily be hurt. And if if you rely on hardness to hold you together, softness sometimes means you might fall apart.