My therapist is making me hate my family, and resent them for all the things I don't have (read: qualities, not possessions). She wants my mom to come to a session with me. That sounds unbelievably painful in the sense that I will have to listen to her martyr sob story. I love this therapist and don't know what I would do without her. But is this OK? Is putting me through a painful session with my mother -- and turning me against them -- a good idea for someone trying to help me?
Dear Family Issues:
There’s an old saying about therapy: You spend the first five years talking about how everyone disappointed you, and the next five years talking about how you disappointed everyone else. I can’t remember where I heard that saying. I probably stole it from my husband, from whom I get most of my best quips. Yet I think this quip has the advantage of being not only clever, but true -- at least, in a metaphorical sense. And as a motto for dealing with family issues, it may be helpful for you to keep it in mind.
Therapy is painful. Conventional talk therapy is easily the second most painful thing I’ve ever experienced. It ranks far behind the first most painful thing, which was the hospitalization of my infant children. But it comes out well ahead of the third thing: natural childbirth. Emotional pain is different than physical pain, of course. It can be more entangled, deeper, and more enduring. But I would gladly sign up for nine more hours of natural childbirth than nine more years of couch talk. That is true even if this hypothetical birth once again involved Dr. Silverstein, who walked over to my face during a particularly hard contraction and screamed at me to get my shit together. Or maybe not. Whatever. That’s how I remember it.
One thing that makes therapy so painful is that it forces us to think about how our parents – the people who were supposed to love us unconditionally – disappointed us. And not just to think about that disappointment, but feel it. It doesn’t help much to know that nobody is unique in this disappointment. Because nobody is perfect. And some people are more imperfect than others. But unconditional love from even slightly imperfect people can still feel disappointing and painful to a child. And when we start to trace our current shortcomings back to our earliest relationships and formative experiences, it’s impossible not to get very, very angry at the people who were supposed to keep the pain away.
In some cases, "five years" won’t actually be enough. Some family problems are too severe. Some adult failures are too unforgivable. Some love is so conditional – and the disappointments so profound -- that they leave people with holes in their personalities that may never go away. But ideally, most people will spend enough time in therapy facing down the pain of childhood disappointment that they eventually get to another place. In that place – where the emotional wounds are no longer so raw, and the inner child has been sort of adopted by the adult self -- you can start to move forward with an emotional lightness. In that place, you can start to address your shortcomings in a more positive, productive way. That second period of “five years” is about realizing how your disappointed inner child has been a buzzkill for your spouse, a burden for your friends, or an obstacle to your own aspirations.
If you like your therapist, then I think you should trust her. Facing your feelings in the same room with your mom will be painful. OMG, will it be painful! It is highly likely that she will double down on everything you hate about her, and make you feel small and scared and exhausted all over again. It's conceivable that she will set you back in emotional progress for a while. Or maybe she’ll surprise you. But either way, if your mom is willing to do it, then I say: why not? Facing your feelings about her is a bridge you have to cross, anyway. Her participation will just get you across that bridge faster. Nobody can guarantee that your relationship will become stronger in the end. Nobody can promise that she will change. But the beauty of therapy is this: That’s not the point! By facing your inner child, you’ll stop caring as much if your family is disappointing you. You’ll stop reacting to their failures and imperfections so intensely. Even if it’s more painful at first, won’t that place be better than the sad, disappointed, lacking, hating place you’re sitting in right now?
The world is full of disappointment. Getting emotionally healthier isn’t going to change that fact. It’s simply going to help you move past your disappointment more effectively -- so you aren’t wallowing in it, or inflicting it on other people. I’m not a therapist. But I think you’re on the right track. And if I were your mother, I’d be very proud of you for that.