Therapeutic style – Therapy with Dr. Stoneface, part IV

I´m still describing my therapy with Dr. Stoneface, and last time I talked about diagnoses. I think I had stopped with him sending a letter to my health insurance company, and said company granting 80 or so hours of transference focused psychotherapy. Just to give you a certain time frame, this was early in January. I had first consulted him in September the year before, after the break up of my friendship in July.  What I want to describe next is the time between January and August. First, though, I want to say something about the general style of therapy with Dr. Stoneface.

So my “real” therapy was finally about to begin. I had so far not made any progress, but I told myself these had just been the probationary sessions. Maybe now something was going to happen. What happened, first and foremost, though, was – nothing. I came to the sessions, sitting there stupidly before finally finding something to talk about; and whatever I said he would just rephrase it and ask me if he had understood me correctly. And that was it. I had expected brilliant insights and interpretations; stuff that didn´t occur even to me, although I was  ruminating on my inner life almost all the time. What I got, instead, was a person who constantly had to make sure he even understood correctly what I was saying.

I know by now that this was not stupidity on his part, but a method he used, something like “active listening”. But, honestly, I don´t want him to make me feel like he is listening to me, I want him to listen and then reply something intelligent. Or, if he senses that I´m not telling him everything, to ask me a question. How is it supposed to have a healing effect that you constantly feel like everything you say is so complicated or warped that no normal human being could understand it, even if said human being has a medical degree?

The worst part was that all too often I even felt like he hadn´t even rephrased my statement correctly. I felt he was simplifying things, the subtleties were missing, and besides…okay, this is longer to explain. I am a person who is said to be good with words. I have been writing stories since I was a kid, and being able to express EXACTLY what I feel is very important to me. When I say “I feel like suddenly there is nothing soothing and familiar in the world anymore, nothing I can hold on to” and he replies: “So you feel lonely.”, I can simply not agree. For once, I don´t even know if he is right. How do I know if this is what loneliness objectively feels like? I thought that feeling lonely meant having a longing for being with somebody who isn´t there. That is not what I feel like. What I feel in these moments is something beyond loneliness. I feel like I have been bereaved even of the possibility of feeling at home anywhere or with anybody, even with myself. I basically fall apart inside. And even if this is somehow part of the loneliness spectrum, I don´t see why he cannot just take what I say at face value and work with the precise feeling I described to him instead of lumping me together with people who might have a completely different problem, such as wanting to have a partner but being unable to find one, or coming into an empty house every evening. If I meant “I´m feeling lonely”, then I would say “I´m feeling lonely.”

My persistent inability to determine whether he and I were talking about the same thing made me feel like I was slowly going crazy. Just losing touch with the meaning of words and sentences others seemed to use with ease. I couldn´t tell anymore if I was intelligent or hopelessly stupid. It was my final year of high school, I was still ambitious and hard-working, and I got scared that I might lose the ability to learn. I had so far always been able to just take a text and more or less learn it by heart. During exams, I would remember what I had read and search the answers to the questions in the text I had somehow transferred into my head. I had completely relied on my ability to memorize words and to make sense of them. And suddenly this foundation started to crumble. I began to worry that I might not be able to learn anymore, that I would fail my high school graduation.

And at the same time I thought that maybe this proved I had never truly understood anything I had learned.  What if I had just repeated phrases? What if I wasn´t as clever as my parents, teachers and grades suggested to me? What if I had fooled everybody, including myself, all my life? What if I was really very ordinary or even extremely dumb? What if I just thought the stuff we learned, the stuff I heard, the stuff Dr. Stoneface said was simple (or even dumb) because I was unable to properly understand it!? Maybe the belief that I had grown up with ever since elementary school, the belief that I was intelligent, was the biggest lie of all, a giant narcissistic deception. I managed to carry on during my high school graduation, but later, at uni, my ability to learn indeed vanished. I didn´t trust my understanding of words anymore, and suddenly my grades deteriorated, at least in written exams that were not multiple choice. I was still good with essays.

Besides all the implications Dr. Stoneface´s method had for my belief in my sanity and my abilities (though I´m not sure it´s just him who is to blame here, that really seems over the top. I´m quite good at driving myself crazy, and my self-confidence had already suffered significantly during the difficult relationship with my friend.), it also made me feel like he was correcting me, or disapproving of my “complicated” way of putting things. This both insulted and hurt me. I felt like he was saying “So you feel lonely. Why didn´t you tell me that straight away instead of giving a dramatic description?” Yes, in a way I felt like either he was trivializing my feelings, or I was dramatizing them.

I know I´m going to sound like a victim of transference when I admit that my father, too, has a way of doing this. But let us look at this logically: If a certain conversational style hurts me when one person engages in it, why would it not hurt me when another person does so? It has nothing to do with the fact that the first person has hurt me at some point, right? If your first husband cheats on you and you get a divorce and marry a second husband who also cheats on you – will you be hurt because you are projecting your memories of your first husband on your second husband, or because your second husband is a complete asshole?^^

Of course Dr. Stoneface would argue that while he might rephrase things I say (like my father does), he doesn´t trivialize my feelings, and my impression that this is what he is doing is a projection. Sounds clever, but something is wrong with this. Thing is, if I accused my father of trivializing my feelings he would deny it as well (been there, done that, bought the shirt). It is all in my head. My warped perception. And indeed I could never prove that my father is really disrespectful, because he was always just as subtle as Dr. Stoneface. Maybe I am just paranoid, or hyper-sensitive. Maybe this is just generally how I feel about people who rephrase what I say. Maybe I am just a neurotic writer who thinks it is disrespectful to believe you can sum up what she has said more accurately than she actually said it. Maybe someday a philosopher will prove that it really is disrespectful, or a psychologist will find out that statistically speaking most people feel about this like I do and it will become a new standard of what is normal. Maybe it won´t and I´ll always be seen as ridiculously touchy. But either way, my sensitivity about people rephrasing what I say is simply part of me, and not the result of my father doing it in a more disrespectful way than anybody else. Hurtful behavior always hurts, and if person B behaves in a hurtful way, it doesn´t hurt just because person A has behaved like that before. It hurts because it is hurtful behavior. And that still goes if my standards of hurtful behavior are way off.

Okay, whatever.^^

The result of my intense dislike for Dr. Stoneface rephrasing my statements, and also of my confusion over whether we were talking about the same things and my problem with the meaning of words – was that I typically dismissed what he was saying. When he concluded that I was feeling lonely, anxious, angry or whatever other feelings there are, I mostly denied it. Not out of meanness. I didn´t feel like I was lying. On the contrary. I didn´t experience myself as lonely, anxious, angry, so I would have been lying if I had agreed. After a few weeks of this game, however, he said:

“You know what you remind me of, sitting there dismissing every interpretation I offer you? A princess who is always critical of everything her courtiers give to her.”

Wow. That one really hurt. Let us take apart what this communicated to me.

1) “You are spoiled, demanding, and impossible to please.”

2) “You think you have a higher social status than you really have; you are arrogant.”

3) “I am doing for you all I can, offering you all I have, but you are treating me like scum, you are emotionally abusive.”

It was one of the more crazy-making experiences I made in therapy. I still easily drift off into gibberish when I try to write about it. On the one hand, I would really like to expose the incredible self-righteousness he demonstrated with this accusation, on the other hand I would like to get into how/why it hurt. So, first for the self-righteousness part:

I am not happy with what Dr. Stoneface has to offer. What I had hoped to get in therapy was somebody else´s insights. Instead I am busy explaining stuff I already know to somebody who simply won´t take my word for it and insists on rephrasing it in a way that seems incorrect to me. I do not have the impression so far that I´m getting anything out of therapy which I couldn´t have on my own. Are my demands really over the top?

No, I don´t think so. The self-proclaimed promise of therapy is, after all, that therapists can help you gain insights you wouldn´t have gained on your own. They don´t say that these insights are so shallow that you have to be stupid in order to profit from therapy. So why is it absurd or demanding if I expect more than an imprecise repetition of what I have just said?  It actually shows how much I still believed in the myth of the wise, mature, emotionally sorted psychoanalyst, right? What is arrogant about that? I would never have excluded the possibility that Dr. Stoneface had something intelligent to say about my problems, I simply hadn´t seen him do that so far. Is it arrogant nowadays to recognize empty words for what they are?

I fear Dr. Stoneface´s accusation is very, very common in transference focused and psychoanalytical settings. Just recently I read this blog entry and it only confirmed my impression that Dr. Stoneface lashing out against me under the guise of making a psychological observation is nothing unusual. It seems that some therapists stick to the belief that everybody who thinks they or therapists in general are not being helpful is – arrogant. “If you think therapy cannot help you, then apparently you think you and your problems are too special for us to figure them out.” And I do wish I believed in psychoanalysis, because this would be a textbook example of projection. For who is truly arrogant – the dissatisfied patient, or the therapist who so firmly believes in his abilities and his method that he thinks it is out of the question that the patient might be  rightfully dissatisfied?

So this was the part where I simply had to vent. Now for the other stuff. Emotions.

I think what I felt first was excruciating shame. I felt like he had caught me in the act. And this is something were former experiences really had an influence, because I have been labeled as arrogant many, many times. My classmates, some adults, my sister, even my parents. Not that my parents minded. They found that incredibly funny. Claimed that even on my baby photos, taken right after my birth, I´d had my nose turned up. Whether Dr. Stoneface knew it or not, he had hit a major sore spot. If I may allow myself to be embittered for a moment: I can certainly say that Dr. Stoneface could display some considerable psychological intelligence as soon as he decided to be mean.

What came next, of course, was the urge to defend myself, a.k.a. homicidal anger. As usual, though, I simply stared somewhere and said nothing. According to my elementary school teacher (who could be crazily unfair and abusive), I was already like that in fourth grade. She once told my mother how oftentimes she could tell I was boiling on the inside, but that I never acted on it. I wish I had been able to hide my anger better, though, because immediately Dr. Stoneface asked: “What made you so angry? How did I make you so angry?” (Mind you, that, while talking down to me like that, he was still using formal pronouns, and calling me Ms. and my surname. That made it a whole lot more unbearable.)

Naturally, I remained silent. First of all, I was much too overwhelmed with shame and anger in order to sort out my feelings, leave alone explain to him what exactly was making me so angry. And, more importantly, the shame and anger themselves forbade me to let him know how hard he had hit me. What I wrote in my last post about letting someone see your shame held true here as well. It would have seemed obscene and unnatural to me to first argue with him and then tell him (without having resolved the conflict!) how much his attack had hurt me. You don´t show an opponent your weakness, do you? His poking and prodding and insisting on my “anger” almost seemed sadistic to me, like he was reveling in how much he had affected me. In a normal argument with a friend, when you tell them they really hurt you they might feel bad about it and apologize (which is also why it is possible to admit you are hurt). This was not to be expected from Dr. Stoneface, though. He could tell I was hurt or angry, but he didn´t show any sympathy – quite to the contrary, he merely wanted more details about it -, so all my instincts told me to keep my mouth shut.

I know that nothing I write here would convince a psychoanalyst that Dr. Stoneface was doing anything wrong. He probably didn´t, by psychoanalytical standards. According to them, I should probably have spilled my guts to him anyway. Because this is how therapy works. You simply assume that your therapist only has good intentions and good feelings, and therefore you are absolutely honest, even if it goes against your deepest instincts to further expose yourself to someone who knows he has hurt you and is not dismayed by that in the slightest. So in all probability they would blame me. I failed therapy because I was a coward. “Well, tough beans. We always say therapy takes courage, and it does. Not everybody has it in him.”

Two things in reply to this:

1) Dr. Stoneface didn´t even tell me how therapy was supposed to work. I had to figure out all of this by myself, by reading stuff. So how is it my fault if I react like a normal human being and protect myself when under attack? That way, psychotherapy is like playing a game without being told the rules, but being faulted for breaking them.

2) If this is how therapy works, then therapy alienates you from your instincts, however sound and reasonable they might be. Before you enter therapy, you should be warned of this, and also, you should consider very well if this is your goal for therapy. Most people, after all, want to get to know themselves better, and get a safer feeling for who they are. They want to be less alienated, not more!

I believe it can have an immensely cathartic effect to emotionally expose yourself to someone truly good-natured and tactful, but there are always people out there who are not like this, they can severely harm you, and you must make sure the person of your choice is trustworthy. Any ideology, even one supposedly based on science, which encourages blind trust, is acting irresponsibly!



6 Responses to “Therapeutic style – Therapy with Dr. Stoneface, part IV”

  1. vicariousrising Says:

    FWIW, I don’t think you have narcissistic personality disorder. I’m not a professional by any definition, but I’m pretty sure you question yourself far too much to fit into that category. Being arrogant and having a solid grasp on your intelligence does not equal narcissism.

  2. It is quite some relief to hear that, especially since you seem to have a lot of experience with the behaviors of narcissists.

    Regarding questioning myself: I often get trapped in some pretty twisted logic, like: “If I stop questioning myself and worrying that I am a narcissist, it is proof that I actually AM one. But me questioning myself all the time is not a proof that I´m not one, because it serves the purpose of proving to myself I´m capable of self-criticism. So my questioning myself is actually narcissistic in nature.” Weird, huh?

    • vicariousrising Says:

      That actually gave me a laugh. There’s quite a difference between narcissistic traits and the actual disorder. Another thing that clues me into you not being of the disordered type is that you talk of shame. Plus, you’ve sought help. Loads of things don’t add up to you being a narcissist.

      I sadly have too much experience with NPD — but I’ve also been around a lot of smart, arrogant people. I like to think I know the difference, as well as the shades in between. While I wouldn’t like to get on your bad side, I don’t think you’re delusional or manipulative the way narcissists are. Although it is hard to know when reading a one-sided blog. Personally, I think you seem like an extraordinarily bright person who maybe has less patience for people not on the same page as you. Or something like that. Anyway, I’m enjoying your posts.

      • I´m glad you´re enjoying my posts. 🙂

        It is interesting how you characterized me, it is not so far away from how people around me have described me (such as family, acquaintances). My mother sometimes says that I´m “merciless” in discussions, probably meaning that I´m intimidating. Most of the time I don´t quite believe I could intimidate anyone because I easily feel intimidated by others. I guess, though, my self-perception and others´ perception of me might differ significantly. I might feel anxious and at the same time appear cold and haughty.

        Good point about the difference between narcissistic traits and the disorder. The lecturer I talked to about telling or not telling narcissists of their diagnosis said: “Well, they´d probably feel insulted. It´s understandable, who wants to be labeled as a narcissist after all!” I found that interesting, because it seems to imply that everybody has the wish/need to have a positive self-image. I guess what matters is whether you sacrifice the truth in order to obtain such a self-image – or not. That might be an interesting subject for another post.

        Thank you for your input.

  3. […] Therapeutic style – Therapy with Dr. Stoneface, part IV ( […]

  4. […] Therapeutic style – Therapy with Dr. Stoneface, part IV ( […]

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