How to Discover the Real Self
It has been awhile since I have felt inspired to write a blog. Usually, a theme emerges from my work and swells until I feel that I need to get something in print. It could come from something I have learned in my own therapy, a breakthrough of sorts. Or it could come from a theme that seems to be repeating itself in my work with my clients or with the therapists I supervise—those groups are the most powerful teachers in my life.
But today I am inclined to talk about the glacier-like progress that most often occurs in therapy. This description is not meant to discourage clients or those considering a therapeutic endeavor, but rather to shine light on what I see as the nature of therapy. It is my hope that by shining this light, therapy-goers (whether it be to outpatient therapy, inpatient therapy, or some kind of support group) avoid discouragement when answers don’t come quickly or when patterns and theme re-emerge in the weeks, months and years of the course of therapy.
After a recent session with my therapist, this thought came to me,
Therapy often begins after you think you are wasting your time, nothing seems to change, you’re sick of hearing yourself talk about the same stuff over and over, and you subsequently show up regardless.
In my way of thinking, therapy is not a problem-solving endeavor, although problems are addressed and resolution is discovered in the context of therapeutic work. Rather, therapy is a process of discovering the true nature of one’s self. In order to do this, we must remove the barriers that prevent this awareness such as shame, fear, and guilt. And in order to do this, we must experience the context of an empathic Other. This experience of sitting in the presence of an empathic Other must occur over an extended period of time. The reason is because our defenses are so ingrained and unconscious that removing them to uncover the truth that lies beneath must be earned over time. We take small risks at “showing up” in therapy, little by little, at the risk that what has happened in countless and powerfully formative contexts (primarily our family of origin experiences and preconscious and preverbal stages) might happen again. And that same reaction doesn’t occur, in the cases where we find an adequate therapist, we slowly learn to trust that we can be our authentic selves without the risk of rejection or psychological annihilation.
I want to comment briefly on the idea of an adequate therapist here (I have commented more fully on it in my blog “Looking for a therapist who looks for you”). An adequate therapist is able to sit with you and hold empathic and nonjudgmental space. This kind of “containing” means they remain curios, open, and hold their opinions lightly. They pride themselves on what they don’t understand and know. They don’t need to be right nor do they feel an impulse to fix you or shape you up. They are sensitive to their own feelings of frustration, anxiety, anger, and impatience and may make the countertransference transparent but do not need to make it about you, the client. They recognize that such feelings are a sign that they have lost connection with the client, for if they really saw the client…all of the behavior, feelings, choices and thoughts would make perfect sense. Should they feel your frustration or discontent with something in therapy or some direction therapy was heading, they would pause and check to see if they had lost sight of the client. In the event that they fail in this process, they apologize and accept feedback openly and humbly. And they seek supervision often.
In one of the most elusive examples of a therapist shaming a client, a client of mine shared that his previous therapist deemed him cured not in need of further treatment. This designation was unsolicited and left my client with feelings of shame and inadequacy. I pointed out to him that the inadequate feeling wasn’t his—it was his therapist. She did not know how to sit with a client when the complaint wasn’t acute or the original problem was no longer present. But, instead of owning this feeling she projected it into the client. While the determination of “you are cured” was harmless on its surface, the client was left with a shameful feeling that something was wrong with him—that just him was not enough in order to show up for therapy.
A client of mine recently commented that she often found herself encouraging friends who were experiencing some kind of distress by offering the simple thought, “I have found it helpful to talk with someone. I have a therapist, have had him for years now, and I find that by talking with him, I feel better.” It is hard to articulate exactly what it is about therapy, what is the magic, because it is so subtle, so slow, and so invisible. I have told my therapist on many occasions in the last few years that it is a miracle that I or anyone stay in therapy long enough for it to have a profound effect. I have been in therapy with this therapist for 19 years. And there were times, early on, when I lost some hope in the process. But I kept coming, mostly because I knew I was struggling and I knew it had something to do with me. And the one-hour I spent in therapy was the one place where I was constantly offered empathy and compassion and understanding even in the context of my “horrible” decisions. I thought she was just being easy on me, since I thought that for any progress to occur, I had to be “called on my crap” and shown the errors of my way. I wondered, “Did she see me as too fragile to confront?”
The picture came into focus one day when, not at all uncommon, I was attempting to disclose something shameful—I can’t recall what is was since this was such a frequent occurrence. Noticing my struggle, she interrupted me to say, “You know Brad, I want you to understand something. If you came in here telling me you were having sex with a duck, I would assume you had a good reason and I would want to understand why.” This hit me with such force that I actually began to consider that I was lovable no matter how silly, how ridiculous, or how shameful my behavior. It was something that my entire life to this point had not quite prepared me to consider. And, it made sense to me that only in this kind of context would I be willing to look at myself honestly and embark on the healing that comes to the deep wounds that would lead to this or any other kind of symptomatic behavior.
A friend of mine shared with me he was in therapy, to deal with bouts of depression and anxiety—the common colds and flu of mental health treatment. I checked in with him several months later to see how it was going. He responded he had terminated therapy. I asked if it was a financial issue or a timing issue and he responded, “No. I just found myself lying or hiding the truth from my therapist. I thought I didn't want to waste my time and money going to therapy unless I could be honest.”
At his response, I left out a friendly laugh and responded, “Everybody lies to their therapist. That is normal. It takes time to trust that the therapist will not responded in the way that others have responded.”
My therapist once explained an idea she borrowed from renowned analyst D.W. Winnicott, who introduced the concept of the “true self.” Also understood as the “real self,” the “authentic self,” or the “vulnerable self,” the true self was contrasted against the “false self,” the “pseudo self,” or the “perfect self.” My therapist explained that WInnicott suggested that it is the false self that brings the real self into therapy. When we begin, we are often looking to solve a problem. We want to project the ideal self and acquire the elusive admiration and love we missed in our earlier lives. We imagine this feeling from the Other will only come if they experience the ideal self, but bit by bit, over time, we allow our true self to be seen. This can often only happen if we stick with it for years. Then, with each small step of exposing our true self, hopeful in the presence of an adequate therapist, we experience something unimaginably blissful—acceptance of who we are.
This experience is the healing nature of therapy. When our “horrible-rotten-self” is seen and love and accepted, we become alive. We heal. We explore. We love and have no other desire but to share the gift of love and grace with others. We realize that where grace is present, shame cannot survive and with this realization, we want others to experience the same thing. We develop compassion for others born out of having experienced it and its power in our own life.
So, stick with it. Take small steps. Challenge your therapist when they judge, try to fix, or get attached to their agenda instead of finding you. And if you do this, you will have the experience I have described above—it will be worth more than anything you can imagine and all you will have to say to your friends is the simple thought, “I have found it helpful to talk to someone. You might want to try it too.”