I've found it terribly upsetting watching the news in recent days – terrorism, random acts of violence and the horrors of increasing poverty and civil war. For a variety of reasons I also have had to slow down lately. It has given me the time and space I‘ve needed to be thinking a lot about how all this impacts on the therapy I do. In the midst of the world's insanity, how am I doing at helping people create environments where they can grow emotionally?
Doing therapy in this moment is a strangely conflicted experience that is hard to describe: I’m emotionally raw, and yet also more present, relaxed, emotionally connected and attentive to my patients. I wonder if my group therapy patients notice? Maybe they see other changes that I can't see in how I am with them. Maybe they can’t.
My patients are also expressing a heightened emotionality, and it’s all over the place emotionally speaking. “I just feel like crying all the time,” said one of my clients, “What do you think is going on?” She begins to cry and say, “It’s how I’m living my life and then the whole world is crashing.” “Hmmm.” I am paying attention to the totality of what she is talking about.
It does drive home who we are as human beings—our emotionality is not inside of us. It’s socially and culturally created. My therapy group considers how our emotionality is created in and of the world. She just can’t stop crying about it all. That seems ok right now. The group is there for her.
Another client told the group that he had broken down crying this week in the street. It was completely “out of character” for him, and he was deeply embarrassed by it. Now he was talking about this humiliation with his group. I felt really happy about it. Perhaps we had been able to create an environment that allowed him to express his sadness and to say how isolated and disconnected he felt from everyone in his life? He told me in our intake session that he wanted to be in group therapy to learn to be with others. It was excruciating for him to be more intimate, as it is for many of us. Sometimes I think therapists are isolated as well. There is very little written about the therapist’s experience.
Another long-time client told the group that she was “completely falling apart.” She shared her fears for her friends in Paris and the many anxieties she’d been experiencing in recent days. With the anxiety had come deep sadness. She was feeling terribly vulnerable and that was super hard for her. I had something I wanted to say to her that I had been thinking about for over two years. I was still not so sure it would be helpful and was reticent to say it. I decided to find out what she thought. I would not make the decision without her. I asked, “So I don’t know if this would be helpful. I just have a sense that it might help your anxiety. Should we do this?”
She and the group told me to go for it. “I think your mother (who we have never talked about much) was very cruel to you when you were most vulnerable. It makes some sense to me that you would be frightened now. I think it has something to do with how hard this period of your life is now,” I said. She wanted to know if what I was saying was “the truth.” I told her I didn’t know. I was suggesting that we play with my hunch – turn it upside-down, inside-out, and use it to explore. No truth telling here. So we did. She cried and cried and cried. I felt like crying with her.
In therapy you have the privilege of helping people who are in some serious pain. Many are holding onto emotional energy – sadness, rage, fear, pity – shutting down and repressing it. Yes, we occasionally “vent” and “let off steam." But for most of us, the number of social contexts in which we can explore and go somewhere new with our emotions are few to non-existent. So we shut down or settle for the “truth” of what really happened as if we could know.
While the severity of pain varies, virtually everyone I meet needs more creative ways to be in their lives and in their pain. That’s what motivates me as a therapist, to support a process of emotional liberation – to support people who have lost touch with themselves as creative beings to take risks with others and do our relationships in new ways.
I include in this growth prescription relationships between therapists and patients. Certainly it is the case that I need to keep growing. I think I am. It doesn't always feel good. Sometimes it feels downright awful. Being emotionally connected includes feeling the intensity of pain and limitation. What makes it all worthwhile is empowering people to take a shot at developing our humanity together.