A friend of mine emailed me the other day following a discussion we had had on trusting your gut instinct and what to do when, in therapy, things seem to have reached an impasse, how to know when it is time to call it quits. In the interest of anonymity, I won’t go into detail, but below I’ve reworked some of the thoughts that popped into my head when responding to that email.
Firstly, as always, only the person who is actually in therapy can really make the decision as to when the time is right to move on from therapy (or a specific therapist). To throw a Rogerian thought into the works; each person is the expert on themselves.
That said, going through difficult phases is pretty common in any relationship, and in a therapeutic relationship it’s simply bound to happen. It’s a very special relationship in many ways, one of those ways being that it is a relationship which is constantly scrutinised in the extreme. Therefore it’s natural that difficulties arise.
Have I ever experienced this in my relationship with A.? Absolutely. I see A. twice weekly and talk about really difficult (and sometimes not so difficult) things, and there have absolutely been times when I’ve felt she’s fallen short of what I was hoping for. And it never feels good. It’s aggravating and frustrating – and hopelessly unavoidable.
What I try to keep in mind, however, is that my reaction is a combination of a real genuine disappointment in what I feel she is failing to supply me, and an echo of a deeply buried longing for something which neither she, nor any other therapist, can do; make up for the short-comings of my parents. I know this, but – of course – I still feel let down and disappointed. Sometimes to the point of just wanting to throw the towel in.
But I don’t. Instead, through carrying on talking to her, exploring these emotions, we somehow get through to the other side. No, it doesn’t change the reality of her not meeting my hopes, but it does teach me that not having that ‘want’ met does not mean we can’t work together. That in fact that frustration of ‘not having’ is something I have the strength to cope with. It doesn’t have to floor me, doesn’t have to be the end of everything.
Also, when there are deep underlying trust issues, which there certainly are in my case, it may take many many rounds of experiencing ‘therapist let-down’ for one to be able to accept that this frustration is actually manageable. I’m certainly not there yet. I’m still hitting that same wall at regular and often predictable intervals.
I guess another thing is that when things get difficult in the therapeutic relationship, the relationship feels fragile in exactly the same way it did Back Then with our parents (or carers, or ex-partners), and so it makes sense to respond by feeling “Hey, I better get away from this before it breaks, before my worst fears are realised” because we naturally do not want to re-experience what we went through as children. We don’t want to get anywhere near risking such a re-affirmation taking place. So we panic and get ready to bail.
But, the truth is that walking away before the end of the movie means we also forgo the chance of seeing that this movie may actually have a different ending.
So, while I am pretty prone to tell people to “Trust your instinct” I think it’s also important to look at where that instinct comes from.
Well, you know when you meet a person or enter into a situation and those warning lights start flashing like mad? Well, they’re called warning lights for a reason; it’s a system that’s there to warn you. And still, it’s also important to recognise that sometimes those lights go off by mistake, because they’ve been set to Super Sensitive based on previous experience. It’s a bit like your car alarm going off at 3 am, because a cat jumped on the bonnet.
The trick (and, incidentally, also the tricky bit) is learning to differentiate between the cat and the burglar; the incorrectly calibrated alarm and the real deal.
Luckily most of us have enough self-awareness to know when the danger is real and when it’s a false alarm, and so we question our reaction before we go out all guns blazing and shoot the poor cat. (Disclaimer: I am in no way advocating the shooting of burglars).
So, while listening to our inner alarm, our gut instinct, is a great tool – we need to remain aware that it has been set up by our previous experience – installed by Inner Child Mechanics – and so, valuable as this alarm is – there is also room for systems failure.
Therefore, in therapy, it is often helpful to stay on until the end of the journey. And, in my experience, the middle of a “period of disappointment” is usually not it.
Finally, if you do decide that terminating therapy IS the right way to go, (because, clearly sometimes that is the case) why not take the opportunity to make it a GOOD ending, in contrast to the bad ones you may have experienced previously in your life? Work slowly towards that ending rather than just quickly cutting off. Long goodbyes are hard, but they’re also full of potential.
I don’t know if any of this makes sense or is in any way helpful to those of you who are still reading this ridiculously drawn-out entry.
But even if I too may disappoint, in my reasoning, or in any other way – maybe it’s another step towards realising that relationships are still worthwhile.
Sometimes as human beings we let each other down. This is reality.
But reality is also that sometimes, every once in a blue moon, if we stick with it, we’ll also come through for one another.
And that has tremendous healing power.
I hope you have a lovely day.
Be good to yourselves,