The news about the TV appearance were not the only unusual part of the last session. Two years of therapy mean that eventually, the appointments start to resemble one another; the discussions are important, but you know the routine and after a couple of weeks you recall brief scenes rather than the whole meeting.
Over the course of spring and summer, the hospital wing where my therapist sits got renovated and he had to move out of his office temporarily. He’s been back in the old location since September, but had decided to furnish the room differently: the set-up of desk, armchairs, file cabinets and the exam table is mirrored now. All of this was reason enough to break the routine and to make me feel uncomfortable at first. I got so used to always having the same perspective in that room that the familiarity of sitting in that armchair gave me a sense of security. Before that background, the last session took place.
Practicing alternative behaviours is a huge part of our routine: my problem is that I tend to do nothing at all and just remain silent when I should speak up instead, and so my therapist lets me reenact scenes we discussed, but where I behave the way I should have for getting a more desirable outcome. He lets me repeat phrases until I get the words and intonation just right, and then some more to “hammer” them in.
This is by far my least favourite part of therapy as it goes completely against my instincts of hiding myself away. When the acting was still new to me, I would occasionally break out in giggle fits due to the embarrassment, but that wouldn’t let me off the hook. My therapist would just sit there with a smile on his face, wait until I calmed down, and ask me to try again. Of course, I could just refuse and sit in my chair for the rest of the appointment, but that’s not what I go to therapy for… So, the best way to handle this for me is to get it over with as quickly as possible – the more I concentrate and the sooner I get it right, the fewer repeats we’ll go through.
Last time, however, my therapist decided to take it a step further: he had me stand up from the chair. I repeated my little speech two or three times, then he said:
“Come a little closer, please.”
I made a small step towards him.
“And even closer, please.”
Eventually, the distance had shrunk so much that I could have reached out and put my hand on his shoulder; since my therapist was still sitting in his chair, I had to look down on him – a position which makes me feel extremely uncomfortable, and he knows it. I had to repeat my sentences again, then he asked:
“What did you just think?”
“I was thinking about my arms, about how I have been clasping my hands at this really weird, crampy angle.”
“Your arms looked just fine. Why don’t you try a different position?”
I tried to relax my limbs and folded my fingers in front of me, but since I had also inched back a little in the process, I had to step closer again.
“How does that feel?”
“Ok. Better than the crampy clasp.”
“Try something else – why don’t you just leave your arms hanging?”
I did, but immediately felt like they ceased being a part of my body and turned into two dead appendices rather. I stretched and flexed my fingers nervously, hid my hands behind my back and then let them hang down again immediately.
“How does that make you feel?”
“Nervous. Extremely uncomfortable.”
“But you look more relaxed and more approachable. If you fold your arms, you are creating a barrier. And to me, these positions are comfortable. I don’t feel threatened by you at all.”
In the past, we had talked about how this particular constellation – he sitting, me standing up – made me feel like I was being this huge mass ready to bulldoze him. Like a gross, obese entity crushing him under my excessively large body. I am (by now) completely aware that a lot of the negative self-image and negative thoughts exist in my mind only, and that they are very much over the top, but that does not make them go away.
“How do you feel now?”
“Look at my face. What do I look like?”
“How can you tell?”
“There are no signs of stress in your face. No creased forehead, relaxed eyes and mouth.”
“It’s good that you can see this!”
We talked a few moments about how I hardly ever relaxed when sleeping either, that I often woke up with my hands clenched into fists, and the muscle pain I had from that.
“How do you feel now?”
“A little better. Still uncomfortable, but not as much anymore.”
“Good! It’s very important that you experience this!”
When I was finally allowed to sit back into the armchair again, I felt fairly exhausted. We have done similar exercises before, but never that long and intense. Rationally, I know what this is all about: by exposing me to an uncomfortable situation and having me observe that the effect on my therapist is not a negative one, my self-image gets altered. Physical proximity is not a bad thing, and I am not causing negative emotions in another person by standing close to them. At the same time, I am forced to endure a situation I’d usually avoid, so that I can experience how the discomfort starts decreasing after a while.
Strangely enough, despite experiencing mostly negative emotions, thoughts, and despite how stressful this was, I felt really good after the session. In my family, nobody would ask how I felt, and if i talked about it, the standard response would be to pull myself together. In fact, that is what I used to do – so much so that I always downplayed all of that or ignored it even, and it felt good to acknowledge the existence of those emotions and having them taken seriously.