Every now and then, a person will come face to face with a life challenge that they have faced before, perhaps once or twice, but this time around, for whatever reason, it feels significantly devastating and overwhelming. Why? Why does this break-up feel so different? Why does this professional failure feel so much more unsurmountable than the others? Why does the end of this friendship feel like the end of the world? Why does this relocation feel so unsettling? Why, why, why? I grappled with questions like these a lot in the very early stages of my career as a therapist. If a client was telling me that they had been through this before, why did this particular instance feel so different?
Having trained in a mostly psychodynamic approach, which is guided by the core principle that our behaviour is affected by deeply unconscious patterns formed in childhood, my instinct always led me to investigate and explore what else was causing such unexpected distress to my clients, and where it was coming from. Over the years and throughout hundreds of clinical hours, I kept coming across deep connections between seemingly unrelated events from the past, with events in the present moment. How did a confrontation with a work colleague relate to an adverse childhood experience? And why now? Why was this adverse childhood experience being triggered now, during someone’s mid-life, rather than earlier?
This is where I have personally been for the past two months. Wondering what the heck is going on, because my nervous system has been on overdrive for weeks on end, trapped between the basic survival functions of fight, flight, and freeze. I could tell that I was triggered, but why? And how? And why wasn’t it going away? I’d made the connection weeks ago, between the past and the present events, so why wasn’t I done with it? Dear readers, this is where my humanity shows up. I may be a therapist, but most of the time, I am only human, and in the midst of all this survival mode overdrive, I forgot about what I know and have learned over the years. This is why therapists have therapists – because in the thralls of our own traumas, we also need someone else to guide us through and out of them. Healing is an interdependent function of life, not an independent one.
It's so easy to forget this though. Especially those of you who might be like me: self-sufficient by default. The thing is, I was not self-sufficient by default. I became this way, both by being taught, and through survival mode. You see, I can survive everything on my own. But I can’t live on my own, and for many years I couldn’t see the difference between surviving and living. Survival forced me to cut people out of my life. Observing other people do it to others, showed me that I could also do this consciously, and so when mixing coping mechanisms with experiential observations, I learned to cut anyone who hurt me out of my life. Completely. No ifs, ands, or buts. I never even bothered to let them know. In hindsight, I can see how cutting people out of my life actually prevented me from growing and developing specific skills, relating to communication, confidence, and emotional integration. I have been an ‘all or nothing’ kind of person my whole life as a consequence of this pattern. But recently, I realised that life happens mostly in the something. In the details that go from all to nothing. But then, I also realised that sometimes, we do need it all. And other times, we need nothing at all. Moreover, self-sufficiency will have you teach those around you that you don’t need any help, support, care, or even love.
I’ve spent a great deal of time in the past few months, trying to test my own ‘all or nothing’ dogma. I was testing a different way of doing things, and trying to be a ‘something’ person, rather than an ‘all or nothing’ person. This test did two things: firstly, it forced me to feel a lot of things that I’d never allowed myself to feel, because you don’t feel much when you’re just surviving life. Secondly, by feeling so many things and triggering my own trauma even further, it showed me that when dealing with adverse childhood experiences, one ought to be careful, considerate, and compassionate. This is when I realised that in this situation, I really did need the ‘nothing’, and that the ‘something’ was in fact harmful. I had tested my own theory of life, and whilst I reached the same conclusion, this time I felt my way through it, rather than just accept it as dogma. That’s when it dawned on me that I had been following the advice I usually give to trainee therapists I supervise. I am always telling them to test things out. Test the theories. Challenge them! One thing is to read about things, quite another one is to be in the room with someone who needs help, support, even love, and be able to follow your human instincts whilst navigating the professional and ethical boundaries of the therapeutic profession. I always tell them: test and challenge everything, because even if you arrive at the exact same conclusion, at least YOU got there by yourself, through your own critical thinking, emotional resilience, and instinct – not because some (usually white man) practitioner told you so.
Sometimes the life you save may be your own, as famously said by Flannery O’Connor. I always say that life is simple in that we all want and need the same things: love, acceptance, trust, care, understanding, belonging, touch, companionship. And then life becomes complex because we all have specific developmental crutches which prevent us from fully embodying life, or traumas which lie dormant for years and years until a seemingly unrelated event forces us to confront emotions, sensations, and memories which we didn’t even know we had. In trying to explain these phenomena to clients, I stumbled upon my own analogy of a spiderweb. A spiderweb is there, minding its own business, when a bug flies or falls into it, becoming stuck. Not only that, the point at which the bug hits the web, sends reverberations to the rest of the web. The spider that built this web could be on the exact opposite end of it, but the vibration will let it know that something has landed or got stuck.
Our psyches work in a similar way. Something happens over “here”, which touches something over “there”. The main difference is that we never know what’s going to trigger what, or when, until it does. I think this is one of the reasons why people are so afraid of therapy – they are scared that touching on a subject in a session, will create a chain reaction which will unravel their lives completely. I get it. I used to have the same fear. But if you think about it, we can get triggered anywhere, at any time, with anyone. Life, sometimes, is a proper russian roulette. However, the therapy space is probably one of the safest places in which to go through or explore some of these triggers.
It was only a few days ago that I realised that I was living through the things that I often guide other people through: the maze of one’s internal spiderweb, and the testing of life’s theories and narratives. I think both my inner therapist and inner supervisor would be proud of my inner client. I have been doing all the things I always tell my clients to do, albeit some of them have been much easier than others:
Allow yourself to feel the emotions. They are temporary and will pass.
Find ways in which to express yourself creatively: write, draw, dance, paint, etc.
Listen to your body. The body keeps the score and so it always knows what it needs, just listen to it.
Don’t force yourself to do anything you don’t want to do.
Spend time with loved ones.
Slow down. A system in shock will have the tendency to keep going for fear of death. This is a primitive fear, and you can absolutely slow down, and this may actually be the thing that saves you.
Do things that make you feel good.
Sleep. Rest. Drink water. Eat. Keep warm. Pay close attention to your basic needs and take care of yourself. Until all these needs are fully met, don’t do anything else.
If you don’t know what to do next, don’t do anything. No steps or very small steps are absolutely fine.
Reach out if you’re struggling. You’re never alone, and you’re not a burden to anyone. People will be more than happy to come to your aid.
Allow yourself to receive love.
The final two are the ones I find the most difficult, by the way. This is why I have decided to take some time off this blog for the foreseeable future. I already give plenty just by being a therapist, and an instinctive emotional guide, and someone who likes to share with the world. I feel that the next stage of my emotional growth is really on allowing myself to receive love, to allow for true companionship in my life, as well as to develop emotional intimacy and integration. In order to do this, I will stop some of the ways in which I give to the world, so as to create more emotional space to receive from the world. It’s time to focus on saving myself, rather than the world.
Thank you for reading, and following the blog, and we shall meet again soon.