I’ve ended with a few long-term therapy clients over the past few weeks, and it’s left me in a reflective mode. It’s a strange and powerful relationship we form in therapy. I spend months or years with these beautiful human beings–struggling, being, crying, growing, laughing, clashing, and loving. That last one’s important–often the work of therapy really boils down to learning to love and be loved with an open heart. And, at the very moment that my clients fully open to love and begin to truly live their “one wild and precious life” (as Mary Oliver calls it), we say goodbye. It’s what needs to happen. That’s when our work is done. It sure is a bittersweet feeling though. Lately, as I’ve been saying goodbye to these folks that I love, I’ve been thinking about how much I learn about what it is to be human from my clients, and how much I appreciate these brave souls who sit across from me. Perhaps that’s why I was particularly receptive to a moment of wisdom, courage, and incredible grace that unfolded with one of my couples this week.
I’ll call them Susan and John. Both come from traumatic childhoods. Susan’s experiences of physical and emotional abuse taught her that the world is not safe, and, as a wise adaptation to a truly unsafe environment, she learned to rely exclusively on herself. In our last session, she was opening to some very intense emotions that felt dangerous in her body. The instinct was to shut down and pull away from John. Instead she stayed with him, and he shared caring feelings for her. This triggered old alarm systems. It didn’t feel safe to trust his love and the fire of her anger, fear, and shame burned hotter inside her. She was brave enough in this moment to stay engaged and to share her thoughts: “You’re just trying to be nice to me so that you can get what you want from me. Or if it’s not that, you’re pitying me, or making fun of me.” Together, we named the part of her that protects her from danger in moments like this and validated why she has needed it, both as a child and in the past with John. I glanced at John and his eyes looked warm and loving to me as he held her hand tightly. I asked if she might try directing her attention to the sensations of his hand touching hers or try looking at his eyes and face. She started with his hand, saying that it felt good…grounding to squeeze it. Then she took a breath and looked in his eyes. Susan and John sat like that gazing into each other’s eyes for at least a full minute, maybe two, and then Susan’s eyes began to fill with tears. When I asked what was happening for her, she said, “Well, I kindly asked for some real-time information and then I got it.”
As her internal alarm bells were screaming at her to pull back, she had thanked her inner protector for its service and then kindly asked if she could have the space to truly see and feel John. She went on to explain how in moments of intense emotion, she is almost never taking in the world as it happens. She described it like a “delay” – people’s words get played back after the fact, and they’re in competition with the powerful soundtrack of her own internal world. I found this simple request – may I please have some real-time information? – so awe-inspiring.
For me, everything about what Susan said resonates on such a deep level. I love that she asked “kindly.” Even if we see that we’ve lost contact with the moment we are living (or not living, I suppose), it’s so tempting to try to yank or push ourselves back, with an internal finger wagging at us the whole time. I think this breeds shame, which, of course pulls us further out of touch with real-time information. That phrase “real-time information” is just so useful, isn’t it? Can you feel what it does inside you if you ask for it? For me, it cuts such an accessible, direct path to the very thing we need most when we find ourselves suffering (and the first thing that we habitually jettison when the suffering sets in).
Every day since that session, I have managed on at least one occasion to find the wherewithal to follow Susan’s lead and “kindly ask for real-time information.” Each time, I relax naturally into my senses and I am released from the storm of my ever-vigilant mind. Like Susan, the result is often that I am suddenly and poignantly in touch with more of the love and goodness that exists in my life than I could feel from within the narrow confines of that familiar storm. I’m so grateful for the insights imparted by moments like these –one of the great benefits of being a therapist – and I didn’t want to keep this one to myself. What happens for you when you kindly ask for some real-time information?