Powerful session from yesterday. This is the best I could do based on memory (not a real transcript).
A client in his early 60’s who I have seen on and off for a few years came in to see me yesterday. This client has a tendency to avoid his inner life. He struggles to empathize with those who do not share his view of how to do things. There is an slightly off-putting arrogance to him. His defended self is “positive” and he enjoys being the center of attention. He accomplishes this by being funny (he’s not especially funny) and by telling stories (he is a good story teller). He ends up in therapy because the darkness he denies finds expression through cocaine use (his first presenting issue) or through the way he vents his frustration at others (not violently but insolently). He usually ends therapy because he “feels better” but his transformations are minimal. Having said all of this, I like him very much. I see who he is better than he does and deep down in him is a soulful human being who survived childhood trauma (though he denies it is trauma).
One of the ways this client has traditionally coped with his disowned fears and insecurities is by hoarding money and being frugal. He is very “well off”. He returned to me yesterday not because he is afraid of contracting the CV19 virus but because of the impact it is having on his investments. He did not walk into the room with his usual effusive greeting. He walked in with a heaviness in his heart and with child-like sadness in his eyes (a look I had never seen before). His breathing was shallow and slightly rapid indicated to me that he was feeling anxiety.
He began by telling me why he is coming back to see me and for once it was not an elaborate narrative full of unnecessary details and “entertaining” side bars. He said something insightful at the end of his story, “It’s weird but I feel like the more I have the more anxiety I feel”.
I would here like to include my own sidebar. I have noticed a common theme with people: they call any feeling, thought, and desire (sexual or not) “weird” if it does not fit into the category of “happy” or “positive”. To me this is indicative of how we live in a world that urges us through pop psychology and advertising and peer/family pressure to be and feel a certain way (let us call this “conventional”). It seems sad but telling that so frequently what people call weird is just their basic humanness: contradictory feelings; fantasies (violent, sexual, angry) that they worry are bad; etc. I am not above this in any way. But I also realize that I am lucky that I accepted my unconventionality at a young age. When I was younger I think I did it to preserve my self-esteem: a way of feeling special. As I get older it becomes more about real self-acceptance. Furthermore, the loved ones in my life are all unconventional in their own ways which allows me to accept myself even more.
I asked the client to stay with the fear he was describing and he began to breath. “I don’t know what ‘follow it’ means but I notice, paradoxically, that I’m relaxing.” I joked that it was not my intention but conjectured that the permission I gave him to stop fighting the fear might have lowered his anxiety. I asked him again to stay with the fear. Eventually he began to sob. He said, “I don’t know what it means but it takes me to sadness”. I let him sob for a bit. When he opened his eyes and looked at me he said he felt better. I asked him if I could share some observations. I know that this may seem a strange intervention and perhaps many people in this field would scoff at me (there are always different roads one can take when responding to a client) but what I saw was a window of opportunity before his compensated self could return.
“My experience with you is that you can be very arrogant. Arrogant in this sense that you think you are somehow above suffering. This arrogance makes you seem shallow when I know you are far from that. It also makes you lack empathy and this seems to be the root of many of your issues with your partner.”
The client nodded. I could tell he had the ego strength to hear this. He said, “You’re right. Just a month ago I said ‘if you aren’t dying of cancer then nobody has anything to complain about’. And know look at me. I’m actually fine financially but I’m still terrified.”
“You are no different from me–you have pain, sadness, fear and you feel lost at times. You deny this to yourself with a veneer of humor and positivity. I see that for the moment that veneer is gone and I can see your full humanity and can feel my heart expand as I sit with you.”
The client began to cry again (in a more controlled way) and said, “I don’t know why it feels good to hear that.”
The client and I then talked about how his money hoarding and frugality are not inherently bad but that they are flimsy defenses to over-rely on.
I will not describe the session any further but I want to make a few comments. First, I have learned from doing this work for a long time not to assume that this is a “turning point” in the client’s life. I have learned not to pat myself on the back too hard because to do so is to accept too much responsibility. It doesn’t feel good to do that.
It is my hope that yesterday planted a seed for the client to explore himself more deeply; to find deeper acceptance for himself and others. Knowing his psychology it is just as likely that he will come back next week believing he has “mastered” the art of accepting himself and his vulnerabilities; ignoring the reality that it is a long process that cannot be mastered in a lifetime much less a week. And that is okay with me too. I can handle the ways he frustrates me and sometimes I deal with it wonderfully and other times I’m mediocre as hell in the face of it.
I think I want to share this session because I’m desperately trying to find silver-linings during these dark times. My silver-lining yesterday was how my darkness led me to a dialogue with myself about how the darkness relates to my sexuality. The silver-lining I’m thinking of today is a hop that people may be forced to confront parts of themselves that they avoid when everything is going well. The hope is that it will transform them in some positive way. I hope it does for me. I don’t feel confident in this moment that it will, but I want to develop that confidence. I wasn’t lying when I told the client that I was as lost as him. My ways of being lost are different, but I get lost nevertheless.