What I’ve Learned from Bad Therapy Experiences
I’m an expert on child/adolescent/young adult sexual and emotional trauma — I’ve had, no lie, more than 20 therapists over time. That’s not important: The main thing is that I understand healing in a deep way. Healing from trauma is an art form undergirded by science. While it can be helpful to understand the science around trauma, for the person who is trying to heal, it’s not always enough.
Consider learning about anxiety, versus actually being anxious. Guess which one is potentially more fun? When I‘m anxious, the most helpful people to be around aren’t always the professionals. Sure, it’s helpful to know that the brain’s wired-in fight-or-flight response can overwhelm the rational brain, holding it hostage. But bringing my anxiety to mental health professionals hasn’t helped that much. The real problem is shame: The only way to dispel strong shame is through non-shaming relationship. And I’m not saying that therapists shamed me: We’re talking some really good ones here.
But I managed to grow up and be pretty functional by being hyper-verbal as a way of masking shame. I’m sure some of those therapists were on to me, but I wasn’t willing to let them probe. And that doesn’t mean I should have been willing.
The professional may correctly teach how to dispel anxiety, but if I’m not able to build an emotionally safe connection that can address my deeper fears of being defective, that person’s “professionalism” can actually be a problem. I became dependent on “helpers,” all while gaining more and more insight into how to deal with “how fucked up I am.”
What if I’m not fucked up at all?
Where long-standing childhood sexual trauma is concerned, it’s critical to understand that “resiliency” is not reserved for the strong few who managed to escape being traumatized in the first place. The resilient people are those, like me, who look back at the colossal betrayals of the most important adults around them and wonder how they managed to survive at all.
I’m an ideal United States of Therapy client because I love insight, I’m hyper-verbal, and I want to learn. It’s a great skill. But only trial and error taught me that this can actually impede healing. Another way of saying it: I‘ve learned to practice my healing as an art. Looking back at a recent, not-actually-helpful therapy experience I had, I see that both my therapist, Alan, and I were caught up in a web of fascination. He did nothing unethical and he was full of empathy and very sharp, but eventually I saw that we were just dredging up material I’d already worked on with John (my first therapist as an adult). It probably helped that I didn’t find Alan attractive, but I was pretty sure from the get-go that he found me attractive. I got something out of all the talk, talk, talk — but in the end I could see that the fact that he found me fascinating wasn’t helpful.
As a young adult, not yet officially committed to a healing journey, I accommodated my 20 years of trauma by basically outtalking it. Again, this was resilience, not a flaw. The feedback I’d gotten from male professors in college, for instance, predisposed me to seek out competant male therapists who “rewarded” me for using language well. I was doing everything “right,” so it took a while for me to put two and two together.
Alan didn’t end therapy with me. I ended it. I wasn’t sure what I needed, but I had a hunch. Even journal writing, the go-to self help therapy so many professionals recommend, and which had briefly been so helpful, felt like verbal retching. I wrote myself ever deeper into the horrors of trauma, but I wasn’t getting to the heart of anything. In fact, I was terrified because Alan hadn’t been able to help me.
But I followed my heart. I didn’t know then that what I needed was presence — of a particular kind. My current therapist is a woman, and she’s great to talk to, but the fact that she’s older than me is significant. I could talk circles around a lot of professionals, but in Cathy’s presence I can’t escape the shame dynamics my mother injected into me. She’s also a very skilled Gestalt therapist — which means, most importantly to me, that the experience between us is the therapy. It’s not based on bullshit about pathologies.
I remember one session in which I was too exhausted, depressed, and scared to talk at all. She asked what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted to lie on her sofa. She asked if I wanted a blanket. Would it be okay if she tucked me in? Feeling pretty ashamed, I said Yes to both. I lay and dozed for the rest of the session, feeling like a colossal fuckup. I left, still feeling ashamed. Months later, though, Cathy told me that this session was very special to her. It made her feel joyful when she reflected on it because of its tenderness. This felt pretty hard to take — which, I now see, shows how necessary it was. In Gestalt therapy, the emphasis isn’t on getting the client to trust the therapist. It’s not about evidence-based “interventions,” but — and this is my own phrase, not a Gestalt one— it’s really a kind of poetry or dance, forged in real life.
Scalding, lacerating shame is the clawed foot of a traumatic relationship. That shame is smart: it knows that that relationship is everything. Serious courage is required to seek out the same thing that harmed you in the first place. We don’t need scientists to verify this —in fact, when it comes to helping people have healthy relationships, the “psychological expert” model so worshipped in our culture can actually undermine our self-confidence.