Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Limitations of Insight

Two weeks ago, I was sitting with a client who spoke very circumstantially. I would ask her a question and her response would trail into all kinds of spaces that, while related to the topic in her mind, were just packed with details to the point that they did little to answer the question. I asked her about these "complex" answers, telling her that it was difficult for me to follow and asking her "What can we do to help me understand you better?" Curiously, she smiled when I said this. I was quite surprised: I would have thought she'd be hurt and feel criticized or angry that I wasn't listening better. After we talked about some possible solutions (all to the point and direct, in contrast to before), I asked her about her reaction. She said it felt good. That, normally, she just assumed no one would listen, that their eyes would glaze over and they wouldn't care enough to even ask for clarification. But as I had taken the effort to try to clarify, she felt it was nice to be heard.

Therapy's funny like that. Both because of the surprises, but also in how you see yourself in clients. Because I do the same thing as that client. She and another client both had to raise siblings (and, honestly, their parents) in chaotic homes with antagonistic fathers. Both have flat affects making it difficult to attend to them because you can't feel them. And both don't know how to function socially without taking care of those around them. Despite some significant differences in backgrounds and manifestations, I know that dynamic. Of being so emotionally protected that others don't connect to you, of never feeling comfortable unless you're taking care of someone else with the attention off yourself, of feeling so incredibly alone and wanting to care for others so very very much because that's all you know how to do.

And I want to tell them, "You're stuck in a vicious cycle! No one will hear you until you expect to be heard, until you believe you deserve to be! The defenses you've adopted to survive your home life are maladaptive in this new environment. You need to love yourselves, you need to be more vulnerable, you need to trust more if you ever want to find what you're seeking!" But I don't. Because it won't work. Insight, alone, so rarely does.

Knowing the reasons why, knowing the solutions, knowing the effects of continued stagnation, all of this helps but it is not enough. I have literally asked my psychotherapist "What do you wish you could tell me that you know if I just believed it, I would feel so much better?" And she said that she wished I wasn't so cruel to myself. Just as she'd told me so many times before and so many times since.

And yet today, we did an activity in Sunday School today about thinking about what to forgive yourself for (as part of Rosh Hashanah). It made me incredibly uncomfortable because I didn't think I deserved to be forgiven for all the bad things I'd done. I couldn't think of a single thing I wanted to be forgiven for because I deserved to suffer for all of them. When we thought of hopes for the next year, it took me a few moments to get "I hope I die" out of my head. And I had to seriously consider whether I genuinely wished to die. To compromise, I settled for "I hope I get better" as in "I hope I can figure out how to stop being so terrible."

And I know how cruel that is. I know how incredibly unforgiving, how brutal and violent that is. I know that considering myself a freakish monster because I'm not cis is oppressive and violent and vile. I know that hating myself for all the ways I fail as a teacher, a therapist, a person, and a woman is anxiety inducing and miserable and wrong.I know that when my friends and clients do it, I think it's tragic. But when I do it? It's because I deserve to be punished for my failures and monstrosity. It's because other people just don't get how bad I am, how wrong I am. They don't really know. When they do it it's because they're being too hard on themselves, but I'm legitimately bad. If I was one of my clients I would be heartbroken at how unrelentingly callous I am towards myself. But as me? It's justice. And I just wish I had the courage to give myself the punishment I truly deserve.

The natural followup question, of course, is "So what do you need?" Validation, certainly: I genuinely wonder how others perceive my gender (particularly my face and voice), but I'm too terrified of the answer to ask. Empathy, definitely: it would be nice if people understood or wanted to understand just how inherently stressful it is to be trans on a daily basis. Concern and affection, too, no doubt. And I think I need to be better about soliciting those and letting myself be open to them too.

But, of course, knowing what I need is just more insight. Actually getting it is a different matter. And for my sake and my clients, I hope I someday figure out how.

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