I Wasn't Going to do This
"I wasn't going to do this." A most fascinating "client line," one I've heard in exactly the same context for 20 years. The line comes precisely 3 seconds after the first tear courses down the cheek of the client. Almost always that tear, combined with a rueful smile and a stifled sob, is the marker of a client that just went a step deeper into the crucible.
This, as opposed to all the "gimmicks" clients bring with them (which we might call resistance) to avoid doing any appreciable work. Usually, the resistance has everything to do with the refusal to surrender into the pain of the real work - refusal to consider changing - refusal to show "weakness" by giving up the illusion of control.
There is, of course, a perverse logic to this resistance. A person, for example, in relationship with someone into control, power, abuse, violence, has to learn to become powerful enough to break the cycle. This means learning to hide their emotions, erect walls while keeping stuff out and keeping stuff in. This is an arduous process - of learning to self-protect. Always, this is accompanied with a hardness of the body, as the muscles are tightened to protect and suppress. Once learned, this stance or posture, while completely inflexible, is a source of personal pride. Thus the paradox: it's what is necessary for people to leave abusive situations.
The question is: is this stance a tool, or a life-long way of being? If the latter, how does a tool go so very, very awry?
To understand the way this defence mechanism goes awry, we want to differentiate between acute and chronic stressors. A story, of course!
When I was going to High School in Buffalo, I went to an excellent inner city technical school. In 1964-8, it was the only H. S. in Buffalo with a computer. It was also in a scary part of town.
Those of you that receive Buffalo TV will snicker - often, the lead for Buffalo's ABC network is, "Fire in Tonawanda, news at 6." Or, "Murder on Chippewa, update at 11." My school was 3 blocks from Chippewa Street.
Being young and short, I learned, especially at night, to walk down Chippewa at top speed, looking neither right nor left. I'd breathe shallowly, tense my muscles (flight or fight reaction) and I'd have a pocket-knife in my fist, with a set of keys extending between my fingers. Many were the nights that I'd get home from play rehearsals and find out a murder happened in an alley I'd passed at around the time of the murder.
I survived, obviously. Went off to Chicago, or specifically Elmhurst, 20 miles West. The keys went away, and I got comfortable in a small town. Then, I came to Canada. My first evening in downtown Toronto, circa 1976, I found myself tight, breathing shallowly and clutching my knife and keys.
I then did an interesting thing, which I highly recommend. I stopped. I opened my eyes, my ears and my senses. I asked myself, "Do I sense a real threat, or am I over-reacting to my memory and imagination?" Part of me, the part that had survived the mean streets of Buffalo, was scared and angry. The rest of me noticed that there was no real threat.
Acute "anything" is a specific situation. In my above example, acute danger was each time I walked down Chippewa Street at 9 PM, heading for a bus, at age 16.
Chronic "anything" is an ever-present, non-specific reality. It's being in a state of acute anxiety or fear while sitting alone in a church pew, so to speak.
You should be beginning to see the difficulty some people create for themselves. All "stuckness" comes from allowing an acute experience to become a chronic state. You know you're in one if you think you are "entitled" to feel something, due to "circumstances."
Let's unpack. Being in a situation that causes me to generate a fight or flight response is, by definition, an acute situation. It is acute because, short of dying during the experience, all experiences end, and any experience can be exited. Parenthetically, kids can't really exit until they can leave home - I recognize this - although many "exit" by entering a dream world, or by forming attachments with people outside the family. That being said, once we get to 16 or so, we are always capable of exiting a bad situation. Period.
However, many people "choose" to stay in the dysfunctional relationship or situation - either because they fear being alone, or don't feel powerful enough, or because they don't know how to live by themselves, on their own. They then create all kinds of stories about how the situation is going to get better "some day." As soon as they do this, (again, as soon as someone tells me that "It's just the way I am," I know they are stuck) what is acute becomes chronic. The thinking moves from "This is a situation I am in," to "This is who I am."
So, that's one level of stuckness, and clients tell me how they "have no choice" when they are in this place. Many have been in therapy for years and have learned nothing, and of course they haven't - you can't learn something new if you feel it is irrelevant to your rigid situation.
The other level of stuckness comes from finally finding the power to exit the situation without exploring the acute-chronic dichotomy. Here, the person finds the internal power and a way to exit the painful situation. However, and it's a big however, they don't exit the dynamic. In other words, one version would go, "I was a victim of abuse in my last relationship. I finally learned to stand up for myself and I got out of the relationship. Now, for the rest of my life, I am going to be powerful, wary, closed and defensive. That way, I'll never be a victim again."
Problem here. Big problem. What's happening is that the person is moving from a specific (acute) relationship with a specific person to a generalization (chronic).
One of my clients this past week, one of two with "surprise tears," had exited an emotionally abusive relationship 9 years ago. She came for therapy to resolve issues with her kids. We came up with a strategy. We spent 2 sessions, after the strategy, and she generalized about what she'd learned about good communication, how to stay focussed and her "spiritual development."
From my side of the room, I felt like I was bumping up against a smiling wall. Her affect was gentle and caring and articulate. The feeling was hard and cold and stony and closed. So, I simply asked, "How and where are you in all of this?" Instant tears, and "I wasn't going to do this." She then began to talk about not trusting men, about how if you let down your guard someone pulls the rug out from under you, how if you show tears (which she equates with weakness), "men rush in and try to take care of you. And they want stuff in return."
The other client is in a helping profession, and has been diagnosed as "depressed." God, I hate diagnoses. In the West, medicine loves a label, because then we know what pill to push. For the 6% of the population that need pills, great. In this case, the "depression" had existed off and on for 10 years. Drugs were no longer working. )She also had a session with another therapist. This bright light, when told of the depression, offered a one-line cure: "Everyone knows that it's impossible to have a brisk walk every morning and be depressed." Ouch.)
I listened, I heard the short story of her life, and said, "Hmm. You spend your work life dealing with hurting people. You're surrounded with sickness and death. Then, you rush home and look after your family. You're on call to "fix" your friends. Who are you and where are you in all of this? Afraid your life is passing you by and you're too busy to get a hold of yourself?" She sighed. "I wasn't going to do this." Tears.
This week, you might wonder, "Who are you and where are you in all of this?" What have you clamped down onto, like a dog worrying a bone, fearful of giving up? What acute situation have you declared to be chronic? What lies beneath the tough, hard, unyielding surface? What will happen if you open, just a bit? What will happen if you surrender your need to be special, stuck inside the tower of your chronic inability to choose vulnerability? Where are you???
"I wasn't going to do this."