A long post about how breaking isn´t healing, about voluntary self-abasement and communication fails or sabotage in psychotherapy (and parts of this might be too much info and not safe for work)

Sometimes when I feel really bad I read websites about therapy options and offers, and for a while I feel better imagining I will see a therapist again and I will be cared about and someone will pay attention to me, and when I notice something about the offer/program is annoying me I realize I´m obviously feeling better again. I did so today, too, and I came across a group therapy institution with principles inspired by this quote by Richard Beauvais:

We are here because, all in all, there is no escape from ourselves. Until a man has encountered himself in the eyes and hearts of his fellow men, he is on the run. Unless he allows his fellow men to share in his inner sanctum, he will not experience security. As long as he fears to be seen through, he is unable to recognize himself or others – he will be alone.

This type of statement would have caused a whole lot of self-torture on my part a few years back. I would have been thinking: “Oh no, I fear to be seen through, so I am deluded about myself and unable to love or understand anybody! I´m am completely isolated and alone!”

Now, and with the background of futile self-torture I have, this type of statement makes me roll my eyes. I still feel like I know exactly what this quote is about, but I have a hunch that this “security” and intimacy are not so terribly desirable. Maybe not even healthy for a person who aims for emotional independence.


In my entry on masochism and the ego I wrote about a feeling of intimacy that always sets in when emotional boundaries are crossed – especially when they are crossed forcefully. I gave the example of how I felt after talking to my sister. She didn´t respect that I didn´t want to cry in front of her and pushed the issue that was making me so uncomfortable. I cried, was disgusted with myself and later felt close to her and childishly clingy and grateful. This kind of thing happened to me on a larger level with the coach I´ve consulted over career choices.

I´ve said a whole lot of good things about this woman. From a distance, now, this disturbs me. I still feel sort of bonded towards her, but I wish I didn´t because I have a strong feeling she isn´t really all that good for me. To begin with, she is an intimidating woman. I was intimidated the moment I entered her office with the other people who formed our group. I, other than some of the other group members, though, knew very well how to behave in order to make her happy with me, and I followed that script A-Z. You wouldn´t think so when reading this blog, as I´m constantly saying controversial things or ranting about stuff, but when I encounter someone confrontative or intimidating I mostly turn into a lowly little mouse. I was very shy at the beginning of the session, until I started to cry as she was poking around in some painful issues which were never hers to deal with, as she is no therapist. She immediately turned soft, but in a way that made me feel like she was pleased with this; things were going according to plan. She actually told us that in her sessions people cry all the time.

Afterwards I was feeling more relaxed, open, willing to share. I believe, though, this seemingly desirable state was the result of my boundaries being broken and overwhelmed, and not of me truly trusting her or being willing to share so much of myself. I think so because when I got out there I felt estranged from everything – the trains, my home, myself. I actually got a nasty anxiety attack on my way home. And the next morning, having slept it over, I was furious at her. The next session, though, was even more extreme than the first, and I ended up feeling helplessly grateful and clingy towards her. Still in tears I shook her hands and thanked her for everything she´d done for me, to which she replied: “Well, I´ve done my work, now you need to do your part and get going with your healing and your career!”

Just before that she had been having a go at another member of the group because she didn´t comply with her requests, and she had left that girl in tears. I had been sitting there in my duck and cover position knowing the yelling wasn´t directed at me, still being intimidated by it, feeling like I ought to be saying something in favor of the girl and wondering why the girl had brought this upon herself instead of just complying because that woman simply wasn´t someone to be messed with and wasn´t it obvious to everybody what you could and what you couldn´t say to her??? The woman saw it distracted me from the task we were supposed to perform and gently told me to keep going and I felt guilty towards the others for being favored, and I felt guilty or anxious towards the woman because she wouldn´t be so nice to me if she knew I didn´t approve of her behavior towards the girl.

The days afterwards I felt like a saint. I was full of good intentions and I was bent on following every advice/command the coach had given me. From now on I was going to take care of myself properly! I was going to see a therapist again and this time I simply wouldn´t be difficult and just subject myself to his authority. I didn´t feel like myself, but if my self was the price for healing, then I was going to pay it, because my self had so far not done me a terrifically great service in terms of making me happy.

Then I was playing a game with some friends, I lost, and I was (though just on the inside) childishly pissed off and sulking. That ruined my saintly feelings, and with some despair I thought that the determination to be healed was slipping through my fingers again. “What is wrong with me?” I thought. “I thought I was over this kind of thing, I wanted to stop being difficult! Why can´t I stop being like this?”

Yeah. Why can´t I stop having an ego? Why can´t that happy, saintly, compliant state of mind stay right in place? Why do I have to be such a damn difficult, proud, ambitious and sullen person? Why do I have to be so bloody complicated? Why can´t I just believe people and accept their authority and do/think as I´m told? Why is there always the need to know things better, do things better, win, be famous, have something to say of my own? Why can´t I just listen to the experts? Why do I have to be thinking stuff over all the time, questioning it? That way I´m never going to get anywhere! I´m going to ruin my life because I´m too arrogant to believe someone else knows better what´s wrong with me and what I should do!


So we´ve just seen what happens to me when someone forcefully breaches my emotional boundaries. It may look like I benefit from it, like I “finally admit to myself I have a problem and understand that I need to do something about it and comply with the treatment” yada yada, but that is very short-lived and alienating. Actually, it appears to be acutely anxiety-inducing whenever I have to face the real world again where people 1) see me as a normal person, not as a disturbed, neurotic patient (and therefore treat me like an equal) and 2) reward qualities like humour, sarcasm, wit and knowledge and even a certain callousness, instead of treating them as defensive mechanisms. I feel infinitely relieved to be allowed to be part of that world again, but I also feel guilty, like I´m slipping back into a bad, unhealthy life style which corrupts me and makes healing impossible.

Healing, oddly enough, never means I just feel good. Feeling good might include being sarcastic, aloof, obsessive, radical, angry, unreasonable and cocky. During the times when I felt good I was manically reading police reports all night, trying to prove or disprove crackpot conspiracy theories; or I was sitting in the park getting drunk with my girlfriend while we were singing our lungs out until the neighbors slammed their windows. I knew all the time that my life style was lunacy, but I loved it. I didn´t want to take things seriously, neither uni, nor my career, nor anything else, and least of all psychotherapy. If the purpose of my therapy truly had been that I feel good and enjoy life, then Dr. Stoneface would have been obliged to say: “Right now you seem to be doing great, so by all means go out there and live, for you are only young once! If you feel bad in a few years, there´ll still be time for you to come back, but don´t worry about it now!” He didn´t say that, though. Instead, he told me he was the most important person in my life. My current joy of life seemed to be an obstacle rather than progress.

I believe that, as much as therapy claims to be about enhancing the ability to enjoy things, it often fails at that. I don´t think any treatment that makes you feel guilty for your everyday life ideas and activities is fit to make you a happier person. There seems to be a moral component to healing, or maybe a clichéd Hollywood idea of what a healed person must be like: calm, worldly-wise, detached, gentle. A healed person just doesn´t act crazy. A healed person doesn´t stand in a pub taunting the opposing team´s supporters with songs about their lack of trophies. A healed person doesn´t feel homicidal or melodramatic about football results, even if she would never get into a physical fight over football. A healed person probably can´t even have dirty sex because to the healed person it is all “good, pure, beautiful, natural and an expression of love”.

The state of brokenness and forced intimacy doesn´t allow for any of these “wicked pleasures”. You cannot, or at least I cannot, move from one to the other and not feel at war with myself. The state of brokenness is despotic, it allows for no other state of mind as to not spoil its own purity. It brings peace of mind, it momentarily relieves anxiety, but only as long as it doesn´t conflict with the requirements and joys of the real world, of everyday life. And yet I fear that this state is all the above-quoted institution has to offer.

Let me analyze the quote in detail: First, it´s tone. The general message seems simple enough, “we need to be mirrored by others in order to know ourselves and feel at home in the world”. What this is turned into, however, is something like: “Unless you bare your innermost self to others, you are scared of yourself, unable to love and ultimately alone, even if you have relationships of any kind.” Baring yourself turns into some kind of obligation, something you have to do in order to even be a full human being who takes part in the most basic experiences of what it is like to be human. Remember that what is meant here is not intimacy between partners or friends. It is intimacy within the context of group therapy. Telling someone he is alone or that he doesn´t know himself just because he has not been confessing his innermost feelings to a random group of strangers is quite bold. It sounds to me like this is bound to result in a whole lot of drama, tears, emotional breakdowns and a catharsis which only lasts until the psychological make-up has been restored and people return to their workplace where they have to act normal. Then again, in that institution, people would be staying for a few weeks, separated from their normal lives, even their families. In such an environment, those sessions could be a whole lot more effective. They might lead to more than just a vague sense of guilt about our commitment to everyday life routine. I have to say I find this idea rather scary. “Maybe you´re just not ready for change!” Yeah, well, probably not. Mostly, though, I´d just prefer to keep my mind intact!

I keep on thinking that maybe I´m wrong. Maybe I´m having all kinds of phantom fears about opening up to others. Maybe it wouldn´t be terrible, maybe they would like me. I might be pleasantly surprised. Not everything is going to be criticism.

That, however, misses the point. It doesn´t matter how they judge or even just see me. What matters is that I don´t want other peoples´ view of me to be such an important part of who I am. I have that feeling which simply cannot be erased, the feeling that I have a right to privacy. Nobody can just trample across my mental boundaries, give me a thrashing and some fondling, and then disappear again and expect me to live by his rules from now on. Well, unfortunately, way too many people can do that. It´s just that it shouldn´t be this way. It´s the disease, not the cure!

It doesn´t mean that I cut myself off from others, or that I build up an impenetrable facade behind which I hide and look down upon the world. It just means that I decide how much of me I show. But why, then, would I ever decide to show my vulnerable and weak sides? Wouldn´t I portray myself as invincible and gorgeous?

That would probably depend on the context. But as I have described in my masochism article, I do experience a state of mind in which I am actively searching for the painful truths about myself so I can lay them out in front of anyone who takes enough interest in me to care. In that state of mind, I truly volunteer information about myself! In that state of mind, I can feel strongly at all times that I truly want to drop the facade and that I most definitely want to say things despite myself, if that makes any sense.

See, here is an example: I would love to be so hardcore it´s intimidating. I would love to be able to take pain without batting an eyelid. Fact is, I´m horribly scared even of the tiniest things, and even more so if I´ve asked for them. Even if I know they will most likely feel good. I guess it would be kind of pointless if I wasn´t scared. Like going on a roller coaster being all blasé and detached. What would happen, though, if I admitted I´m scared?

If I admitted it to Dr. Stoneface or many other therapists, what it would mean to them is that deep down I do not want to be hurt, even though I feel the inexplicable need to say otherwise. They would wonder why I feel the need to pretend I want this, or why I want to want this, and why I cannot be nicer to myself yada yada.

When I admit it in play I would be saying:  “I´m not as blasé and hardcore as I´d like to be! Damn, I wish I was so brave it leaves everyone awestruck, but I´m really just that very ordinary person who would crack immediately under torture!” I would be admitting something that hurts my pride, but the fact that it does so would not evoke any surprise. It would be understood just as this, as an exercise in humbling myself. And while I might still get taunted for it, I´d know my gesture would be appreciated and respected as a an attempt to amuse my partner and to feed their power rush.

I never felt like volunteering much info of that kind in therapy. I was either defensive or completely broken and in tears. I always sort of looked for a therapist to whom I could be honest and open, but up until now I didn´t understand the issue with that is not so much about his opinion on what I tell him, but the way I interprets my communication style. It confuses me when I mock myself and get no laughter. I don´t mean mock myself in a mean way, or in a way that is meant to distract from feelings. I mean the slightly melancholic way you joke about your sorest points when you are tired of your internal fights and conflicts and just want to admit you´re hopelessly inconsequential and paradoxical, unable to meet your own standards and yet so adamant about them. I instinctively expect or hope to get some kind of recognition for that move, some kind of leniency, respect or even sympathy. From my therapists, what I got was an irritated look, or just silence, or follow-up questions that indicated they had no idea what I had been trying to communicate to them: my graceful capitulation.

Maybe they wanted a deeper capitulation, with the help of their non-reaction wanted to push me towards a point where my coping mechanisms (the joking) broke down. Maybe they also didn´t care what happened and just waited for me to figure myself out. Maybe they simply had no idea what they were even doing. I cannot tell. At any rate, I cannot deal with this kind of non-communication and deliberate or accidental misinterpreting of what I´m trying to tell them. I feel exposed and ridiculous to the point of wanting to commit hara-kiri on the spot. And then I get very angry and defensive. And feel like a very deranged human being. Like something that shouldn´t exist.

To me, this non-reaction actually looks like some kind of sadism itself. Unfortunately it´s the evil, intransparent, black-hat variant. The type I can only guess exists in Dr. Stoneface, as he would never let me in on whether he misunderstands me on purpose or by accident.

I´m not sure if I will ever be able to do therapy and cooperate, or if I can even want to do that, no matter how much my anxiety plagues me (and it´s been bad lately). I feel like my greatest strenghts are inevitably regarded as problems in therapy, and I feel like many therapists are frighteningly serious and unyielding. My shy little attempts at connecting with them through self-deprecating humor have failed, and I cannot let anybody do scary, potentially painful stuff to me if I cannot connect to them. If I don´t have the basic trust that they like me the way I am, and that I´m supposed to have an ego and quirks and bad habits and throw all kinds of antics. I don´t want to have to become a saint just to stop getting anxiety attacks. Seriously.



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