Joel started psychotherapy three months ago when everything seemed to be falling apart in his personal life. His children and stepchildren resented him, and his marriage was hanging by a thread. He was constantly angry and worried.
Things are a bit better now. Joel has made some changes, including a new willingness to acknowledge his emotions. He has even begun to understand the situations that trigger negative feelings and how he is likely to react. But despite this progress, Joel often feels helpless and overwhelmed when confronted by emotional situations at home — especially confrontations. We are discussing this problem now, halfway into his tenth therapy session. He has had a disagreement with his wife, Joanne, and left the argument feeling beaten up and victimized.
“I am so frustrated!” he vents. “I can show you on my calendar that our plans were set up weeks ago — by her! But she had no memory of it. And so I get chewed out for trying to do things her way!"
He stops to take a breath, then asks, “How can two people participate in the same conversation and see it so differently? One of us must be wrong!”
I feel his frustration and sympathize. But I want to shift him away from right and wrong thinking. Joel tends to be black and white when he’s on the defensive, which reinforces a rigid interpretation of events. I’m hoping to help him get a feel for the multiple layers of meaning in these conversations.
“Have you ever seen an inkblot test?” I ask.
“Not really,” he answered. “But I know what it is.”
Joel is looking calmer, curious. “Good,” I continue. “People look at inkblots and are told to describe pictures they see in them. Some people see things that are obvious to a lot of people; other people find more unique pictures. It depends upon what people pay attention to and how their brains organize the parts into a picture.”
“I’m with you.”
“So life is similar. It’s a big inkblot test. You pay attention to certain things, your wife to other things. And then you connect what you see to a story … a story that is already in your brain. You find the story in your brain that seems to fit the situation and that becomes your reality. She does the same thing and gets a different reality. “
Joel is silent for a few seconds. “I can see that,” he finally says. “But how different can it be? Can stories be so powerful that we are in completely separate realities?”
“Well, let's look at the story you were experiencing and how it affected you.”
Now that Joel is no longer venting, he is looking tired. He takes a breath and plunges in.
“It’s the same story we’ve been talking about,” he says, referring to prior conversations in which Joel had shared details about his difficult childhood. “It’s my old experience of never being good enough. That’s the theme with all the women in my life: I never get a break.”
“It’s a pretty powerful story,” I say. “When do you think it took hold in your conversation with Joanne?”
“Right away,” he says. “Maybe even before we started to talk. I had an inkling the conversation wouldn’t go well.”
“Do you think that expectation changed how you perceived Joanne? Or the conversation? For instance, do you remember anything Joanne might have done to de-escalate the fight or try to reconnect?”
“Do you think she may have tried, even if you don’t remember it?”
“Yes. That would be like her. She usually does try.”
“But you don’t remember it — and perhaps didn’t even notice it — possibly because of the story?”
“Yes, most likely. That makes me feel terrible.”
I wonder if Joel has fallen into his story again as we speak. I suspect he is feeling inadequate and I may be — temporarily — just another female who perceives him that way.
“Are you having that not-good-enough feeling right now?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says quietly.
“Stay with it a moment,” I say. “Just allow it to be there.”
Joel’s eyes tear up and he closes them. After several seconds, he opens them and looks at me.”
“It’s important to know that this feeling is not about reality, Joel. It is just an old feeling. Feeling inadequate is not the same as being inadequate — or being perceived as inadequate."
“I’ll try to remember that,” he said, smiling a little. “I’m alright. I’m not on the ledge.”
“Good,” I say, smiling back. “In that case, I have another question. When you were feeling at your worst, in the middle of the argument, how old did you feel emotionally?"
Joel looks surprised. “I’ve never thought about that,” he says. He pauses a bit and then answers: “I felt pretty young. Maybe even in grade school.”
“So, inside, you were a kid.” I wait a moment, looking at Joel. His face actually looks younger, more vulnerable. “Kids are pretty powerless.”
“Yup,” he says. “Powerless and helpless. You just take what the world dishes out."
“That’s how you felt with Joanne?”
“Oh my God,” he says. He then pauses. “Yes! I felt all of that! I was a kid again and I knew that, no matter what, the conversation would not go my way. And I felt so angry. So much rage.”
“Do you feel it now?”
“Yes,” he says. “I feel it. But its not directed at Joanne. It’s rage about how hard it was for me as a kid and how badly people treated me.”
I feel like something big is happening. I don’t want to rush it.
"Joel," I say softly, “that’s a big change.”
“I’ll be darned,” he says, mostly to himself. Then with some urgency: “I see it now. I hope I can hold on to it!”
I hope he can too. I’m wondering how to make it more concrete for him. But Joel jumps ahead.
“I need a new story,” he says vigorously. “When Joanne and I fight, I need to remember that I’m going to feel like a powerless kid. And I’m going to feel hopeless and incredibly angry. And it’s not about her!
“I can walk away and talk with her later, as an adult.”
I’m looking at Joel in awe. He has caught up with and run past the teacher. I beam with pride.
“That was a great session!” I say, as Joel stands up, noticing the clock. I watch as he departs.
The vulnerable boy is no longer visible. He looks again like the competent 50-year-old man he is. I’m eager to hear how he does with his new story. But, as usual, I will have to wait.
Joel is not real. He is a fictional character who has much in common with many real-life therapy clients. I created Joel by giving him a history, a set of current circumstances and a certain disposition. Then, like many fictional characters, he developed his own voice. At that point, we began therapy. This is the second of a series of articles designed to show the unfolding nature of psychotherapy and how at least one psychologist might guide that process.
Alexa Foster is a clinical psychologist that specializes in trauma. Her psychology practice, Off the Couch Psychology, is located in Mission Viejo, CA. You can reach her at OTCPsych@Gmail.com.