Things I Learned in Therapy (So Far)

Posted on January 15, 2011


1.  Mirroring

For a while when things were at their worst, I attended group therapy sessions with a bunch of other depressed women.  It was just about as awful as it sounds.  I hated it, partly because sessions were held at an inconvenient time, partly because I am a control freak who prefers to lead groups rather than be led, and partly because some of the other women in there drove me absolutely batshit crazy.  I am, I swear, a nice person who gets along with most people, but I’ve also always been a big believer in obeying my gut feelings.  However, when I told Dr. Otto the reasons I wanted to drop out of group, he pressed me not to, saying I had as much to learn from the people I disliked as from the ones with whom I clicked.  He insisted that many, if not most, cases of instant hatred are sparked because the hater sees something she doesn’t like about herself (or something she fears might be true about herself) mirrored in the person she hates.  I, predictably, rolled my eyes at this and said that there was no way I shared characteristics with those whiny, depressed losers who droned on and on about how SAD they were about everything and how the unjust world kept them DOWN and who stayed in relationships that weren’t working or jobs they hated because they thought they could never find anything BETTER and…huh.

Then I started looking around at the people who rubbed me the wrong way in other parts of my life, and sure enough, the mirror thing is almost always true.  (Some people are just assholes, and that’s why you hate them. I have nothing in common with, nor do I fear becoming, for example, Sarah Palin.) Remember, it doesn’t have to be something you know about yourself that you see reflected, it can also be something you fear about yourself…hello, 40+ year old spinster ladies with cats who put a brave face on things and throw a lot of their energy into macrame and being a good aunt.  I’m sorry I can’t be in the same room with you, but I just can’t.

2.  Some of that inner child bullshit isn’t such bullshit.

I have a working class, Rust Belt aversion to anything that smacks of new agey-ness.  I bristle immediately when people start talking to me about energy work and chakras and teas recommended by their acupuncturist.  I can’t keep a straight face during yoga.  So when a shrink once told me that we needed to focus on healing my inner child, it was all I could do to stay in the room.   What utter nonsense, blaming your adult failings on some wounded fragment of your infant soul, kept floating around because Johnny was mean to you on the playground in fourth grade and you never got over it.  GET OVER IT.

However.  I’ve come to believe that there is something to this idea, for those of us who grew up in chaotic or alcoholic homes.  The idea that a kid might have to make huge emotional leaps and display maturity well beyond her years, thereby skipping over some important developmental phases, makes intuitive sense to me.  One common trope of addiction recovery holds that addicts stop developing emotionally when they begin using, so they have a lot of catching up to do when they get sober.  I think there’s a parallel with this inner child business: if you were thrust into an adult role as a child, and I certainly was, you have to deal with it at some point as an adult.  If your sweet little kid needs weren’t met properly, they don’t just disappear; they warp into adult-size needs that you can’t deal with because you never learned how.  Some people become uber-control freaks.  Some people become a bottomless pit of neediness that no relationship can ever fill.  Some people punish their inner child, as they were punished, by sabotaging themselves at every turn so that they remain unhappy, because unhappiness is their natural habitat.

For me it’s money.  My therapist said–and god, I hate myself for even repeating it–that I put myself in financial peril all the time because it both forces people to rescue me–Can I borrow twenty dollars for a couple days?–and prove their love that way, and because it gives me a great excuse to beat myself up when I only have that borrowed twenty bucks to my name and payday is still five days away.  I have a whole post about this saved in my drafts folder, but I find that I can only look at it for very brief periods of time, because staring at the face of that particular issue freaks me right the fuck out and makes me want to buy shoes.

3.  Don’t catastrophize everything.

This is the best word I learned in therapy.  In a nutshell, catastrophizing is what that negative voice in your head is doing.  Prior to learning this concept, I thought that little voice was in everyone’e head, and that it was actually predicting the future so I’d be ready.   I’m not going to that party because there will be too many people there I don’t know, and I hate people I don’t know.  I can’t believe I sent that email to the boss with a typo in it–I am a terrible person who deserves to get fired, if not just die.  I got a parking ticket; I’m so irresponsible that I should just sell that car.  I already ate a donut this morning, so I might as well have fried chicken for lunch.  I can’t believe I didn’t get the joke the guy I’m dating told–he is going to think I’m stupid and worthless and never call me again. I talked too much at dinner and now they think I’m an egotistical asshole; they were only laughing to be polite.

Catastrophizing is The Secret’s evil twin; if believing in your own success can make you successful, believing in your own worthlessness and that no one will ever love you can make you feel worthless and block you from receiving love.  Allegedly.  I still find myself arguing that actually, I’m just a very astute observer who is attuned to other people’s reactions, and that the little voice inside my head is telling the TRUTH WHY WILL NO ONE BUT ME ADMIT THAT THE WORLD IS A CESSPOOL.

So, you know, baby steps.

I am not claiming that I’ve internalized all of this, especially that last one.  But I keep trying.  I’ll close this rambling, oversharing mess of a post (that should probably really be a diary entry) with a poem I really love.  I’m pretty sure the poet and I could have a damn good chat over a bottle of wine about people’s crazy thought processes.


I Have News for You Tony Hoagland

There are people who do not see a broken playground swing
as a symbol of ruined childhood

and there are people who don’t interpret the behavior
of a fly in a motel room as a mocking representation of their thought process.

There are people who don’t walk past an empty swimming pool
and think about past pleasures unrecoverable

and then stand there blocking the sidewalk for other pedestrians.
I have read about a town somewhere in California where human beings

do not send their sinuous feeder roots
deep into the potting soil of others’ emotional lives

as if they were greedy six-year-olds
sucking the last half-inch of milkshake up through a noisy straw;

and other persons in the Midwest who can kiss without
debating the imperialist baggage of heterosexuality.

Do you see that creamy, lemon-yellow moon?
There are some people, unlike me and you,

who do not yearn after fame or love or quantities of money as
unattainable as that moon;
thus, they do not later
have to waste more time
defaming the object of their former ardor.

Or consequently run and crucify themselves
in some solitary midnight Starbucks Golgotha.

I have news for you—
there are people who get up in the morning and cross a room

and open a window to let the sweet breeze in
and let it touch them all over their faces and bodies.