Why “get in touch” – 2

Last week I wrote an entry entitled “Why All This ‘Get in Touch’ Stuff?”.  This past week I had a session with different patient which again illustrates the benefits of finding out what’s really going on inside you, but also shows the pain involved and therefore why we tend so much to resist it.  And as I described in the main website, resistance is central to psychotherapy and to life.

When Jack started with me, he was an extremely successful businessman, not yet 30, utterly unable to enjoy his many successes, on the verge of ruining his marriage.  He could participate in a party or dinner with his wife for perhaps 10 minutes before feeling deeply, intensely compelled either to rush off to another social event or to jump up and check e-mails he’d checked scarcely an hour earlier.  During our sessions it was difficult for me to get a word in.  He spoke rapidly, with a pleading quality, and almost nonstop.  He had a beautiful, bright, sensitive, and aware wife – I met her for several sessions as well – on whom he often depended to prevent his anxieties from escalating into panic; she was very helpful to him, for example, as he agonized over how best to cope with a client, colleague, or employee.  And yes, their sex life was great.  Still, he obsessively thought about other women.

Things are much better now.  He no longer works 25 hours a day, he enjoys his wife and friends, his marriage is better, he is an attentive father, and when facing or finishing a task or decision he no longer agonizes as he used to do.  His business continues to thrive and grow, despite his somewhat more relaxed approach to everything.

But dealing with people still triggers his old problems and sometimes he astounds both of us with the degree to which he distorts things.  For example, an important CEO client  forwarded a copy to Jack of an e-mail this CEO had sent to colleagues praising Jack and encouraging other large companies to use his services; in response, Jack felt only intense anxiety that he was about to be exposed as a worthless fraud.  Similarly, Jack describes himself almost drowning in uncertainty and rage when one of his employees spoke to him with a rather sarcastic and an entirely inappropriate tone.  Despite Jack’s position as the owner/manager of his own company, his years of experience compared with this underling, and the feedback from me and his wife that indeed the employee was quite out of line, Jack worries that he has no right to object or that he will overreact; he finds himself raging, “burning” with frustration that he realizes is far beyond a reasonable response to such a minor slight.   (When Jack eventually confronted this employee, the latter apologized profusely and has since gone out of his way to be more respectful and cooperative.)

What is going on with Jack?  As with all of us, when the current situation cannot account for his reactions we can be sure he is enacting forgotten or barely remembered scenarios from his past.  This is where “getting in touch” comes in.  First, he has to articulate just what he is feeling, not rehash the particulars of the employee’s behavior, his own options for responding, or the surface reactions such as “I was pissed”.  Jack described “burning fear, terrified someone’s got a gun in my face, like I have to run for my life” all triggered by this awkward moment with his underling.  Then – and with most patients this seems to happen almost automatically, without much guidance from me – Jack must begin to notice from where else he knows such intense feelings.

Jack has become adept at this.  Over the years we have worked together, he has vividly described earlier experiences in his life which – unlike the episode with his employee – account entirely for his bouts of intense indecision, anxiety, and rage.  The rejection, humiliation, and baffling inconsistency to which he was subjected as a child and young man are beyond what I can describe in this blog entry; the case examples in the main website go into such histories in more detail.  The important point here is that when Jack is able to focus on and articulate the feelings aroused by whatever triggering event started things, e.g. his employee’s sarcasm, he suddenly remembers and recounts to me something from his childhood or from more recent experience with his family – and in those stories, the intensity of his feelings always seems entirely justified!   By contrast, such strong reactions to the minor triggering events he describes (such as the snide employee) do not match up and thus we label them “symptoms” of deeper problems.  In his conscious daily life, then, Jack was reenacting those intense experiences in more current and trivial situations.  If all this sounds a bit theoretic or speculative, hang on for a few paragraphs!

People do this – displace painful experiences onto trivial events – because it is safer and easier.  It is easier to obsess about handwashing, a door lock, an insult from a friend or lover, or some minor decision, than it is to face the more frightening and unwieldy causes of one’s unhappiness such as having perhaps married the wrong person, chosen the wrong career, or grown up feeling unwanted or worse.  When people begin to face those issues, they do feel better and they function better – see next paragraph – but it hurts.  Remember, Jack felt not just “pissed” but “burning fear”, terror for his life, panic, all triggered by this awkward moment with his underling.  Then once he articulated those feelings, he immediately remembered other times he felt that way – times when such feelings were justified by the circumstances and scary people involved.  Those are the half buried experiences that people resist “getting in touch” with, events they’ve completely forgotten or which they may remember but claim to have no feeling about.  But those memories hurt.

A quick digression to provide an example of this kind of resistance:  Fred is a lawyer who saw me for about three years.  One day he began telling me a story from when he was seven years old in which he was publicly humiliated and punished by his father for misbehaving at a large family gathering.  Halfway through the telling, to his considerable surprise, Fred became tearful; he described how painful, humiliating, frightening the experience was.  He’d told this story many times to friends and dates, but it always felt like an entertaining and mildly amusing anecdote.  It was only in the context of our session that the buried part of the story emerged – the pain of it.  And again why is this pain important?  Why “get in touch”?  Because that buried pain was never really gone.  It was something that I and others who know Fred could always see in his tense, overly apologetic, even tortured speech, and in his social demeanor in general; and although he did not know why, Fred did indeed know that he was an unhappy, tense guy.

Now to return to Jack, how do we know anything I said about him is true?  Because – and again this point is made more explicitly and with more illustrations in the main website – when he would remember, discuss, and feel the pain of the memories that arose as we spoke, he would afterwards feel “calmer, lighter”, sadder “but saner”; this is now the pattern in many of our sessions.  And most importantly outside of our sessions, as described above, facing those experiences has already resulted in a marked decrease in the many symptoms that originally drove him to seek treatment with me (as we saw with Fred, too.)

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