Why all this “get in touch” stuff

Perhaps the greatest cliché about psychotherapy is the bald bearded bespectacled listener with his notepad asking “and how does this make you feel?”  I’ve heard the world respond “Why does it matter?  Who cares?  Why dwell on your feelings?  Why focus on the bad things?”  Fair questions.

Certainly there are times to move, when stopping to notice what’s happening to you could be detrimental.  In the recent film “Beasts of the Southern Wild” a schoolteacher in a desperately poor area counsels her charges not to waste time whining “like a pussy”.  Perhaps that’s true when survival is fragile.  People who went through combat or emergency situations have said that the farthest thing from their minds at the time was what was actually happening around and inside them.  Rather they focused almost entirely on the next necessary step or on those they wanted to save.  My father grew up poor, Jewish in an anti-Semitic society, with no welfare, unemployment benefits, or other safety net.  His parents and grandmother died when he was young, some other relatives rejected him because of various family politics and prejudices, so he was on his own in ways my generation usually wasn’t.  He and his cohort survived, thrived, fought World War II, built the suburbs, and gave us our in some ways much safer life.

But even my father eventually went to a therapist.  And once there he too was asked that incessant question:  “and how did that make you feel?”  The case below illustrates why.

Alice is 61, divorced a year ago, and dating a successful divorced man with two somewhat difficult children.  The younger is in the throes of adolescence, still reacting to the separation, moody, sometimes engaging and other times maddeningly remote; she is leaving for college very soon.  The boy is 20 years old and suffers from more serious problems.  He is socially very awkward, has withdrawn totally from both parents for a year at a time, and has only recently resumed a relationship with his father.  This summer Alice helped with Fourth of July celebrations for her boyfriend, his children, and their respective partners, contributing heroically at times, occasionally sulking about feeling marginalized.  The boyfriend becomes a bit frantic over his limited contact with his children, and sometimes – quite reasonably to my ears – puts plans with Alice on hold as he waits to hear from his children; he has told her on occasion that he wants to be alone with them on certain weekends.

A year ago, Alice would have – and did with other men she was dating – sulked, “snipped and snapped”, and seethed over such perceived slights for weeks.  She would struggle with very limited success to distract herself, during our sessions would explain to me that she “of course” understood her boyfriends’ agendas and it was “of course” fair and “I don’t mean to complain”,…, but it all rang hollow.  She never really believed any of it, and outside our sessions her tension, preoccupation, unhappiness, and persistent sniping were proof that she was trapped by patterns she could not identify and break.  As I explain in more detail in the website – see the “Why Go” page – she was “lost or stuck”.

Now, however, Alice is much more aware of what goes on inside her.  Rather than get stuck in the dead-end of resentment and road rage – feelings she could never discharge – she has learned that a very painful feeling of being “left out” is what gets triggered by even minor frustrations; it is this experience she is trying to undo with all the seething, complaining (then trying not to complain, as described in the last paragraph), ruminating.  When she hits in session upon that experience of being left out, she is often suddenly reminded of some event from her childhood where the pain was similar – but the cause more severe.

And the result is almost magic.  Although it took time, now her boyfriend’s behavior has faded in importance, she is calmer, she sees his own limits as he struggles to deal with his children, she is more forgiving of both him and herself, her sulking passes more quickly into genuine grieving which itself does not last as long, she no longer badgers her boyfriend to understand her needs precisely when he is in the throes of his own anxieties – a very self-destructive habit – and she even laughs at the “bottomless pit of narcissism” to which she can sometimes sink.

Then she asks herself, much more calmly and with a far greater range of options, what she would like to do next.  Her choices include that she may complain articulately – in a way that might actually make her boyfriend more sensitive; she can set limits, in hopes of changing the tone of their interactions; she has already begun to attend more to other ways of addressing her own neediness as opposed to waiting for validation and reassurance from others; she might decide upon reflection that it is futile to try and reach this particular man and thus might end the relationship because it is so unsatisfying to her; she might decide to stick it out and see if he is more attentive after his children go back to school.

Most important, regardless of what she decides to do about her boyfriend, she can cease shouting at the universe to change.  Alice’s old habit was to sulk, resent, badger, and “snip”, and no matter what she told herself in calmer moments, she couldn’t really stop once she felt slighted.  The result of such behavior is of course to destroy the relationships she was trying to create.

So that is why we are always asking patients in some way what they really feel.  Notice, however, that “what are you feeling?” must go beyond the immediate, obvious answer – “frustrated” or “stressed” or “pissed off”, or even “sad”.  How we get to those more central and productive feelings is far beyond what we can cover here but I discuss it in the website and I will try to also provide examples in future blog postings.  The point of this entry is to illustrate that when you are not aware of what’s really going on with you, it controls you and you see few or no choices.  By contrast, when you are aware – again beyond the superficial – the world opens up; you can choose from a much wider range of responses, you feel better, and you end up living better.


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Why all this “get in touch” stuff

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *