I read somewhere it takes a decade to become a confident therapist.
It actually took me longer than that.
I started out bright but clueless, enthusiastic but blundering, well-intentioned but insensitive to both my clients and myself.
I spent years misreading, misunderstanding, making mistakes, stubbing my toes and occasionally hurting others in the process.
Then I needed to learn how to forgive myself for all that sloppy learning.
Eventually, though, I reached the point where, most of the time, I could care for other people and still enjoy being who I am.
Come to think of it, that’s not a bad way to summarize the process of becoming a grownup.
Divorce brings out the best and worst in parents.
In some it elicits restraint, courage, self-awareness and self-sacrifice.
In some it provokes denial, self-pity, rage and manipulation.
The best parents work to understand the suffering of their children. The worst become preoccupied with their own pain, anger and grief.
The best make softening the damage to kids their priority. The worst see divorce as war, and the kids as weapons.
Some divorcing spouses do and say awful things to each other, and get spiritually smaller day by day.
And some manage to come out of the divorce stronger, wiser, kinder, and better parents.
I also notice that, over time, a sort of simple justice tends to emerge.
It happens regardless of who gets custody, who has more money or goodies to offer, and despite all attempts to prevent it:
Kids gravitate away from the unhealthy parent, and towards the healthier one.
They don’t do this consciously. It’s not really a choice.
It’s more like a tropism – a spontaneous and involuntary reaction rooted deep in the instinctual part of the child. The part that knows what the kid needs, and where to find it.
Like how plants know to turn towards the sun.
Whenever a new member joins one of my therapy groups I ask all the current members to introduce themselves.
And in the course of doing so I ask each one to define what they’re working on in group.
identifying and expressing feelings,
not losing myself in relationships,
giving up compulsive controlling,
coming out of hiding in group
are some of the answers I get.
Occasionally a member can’t answer the question.
When that happens, I take it to mean somebody hasn’t done their job.
It might be me. It’s the therapist’s job to help clients define their work — their issues and what they must do to resolve them — and then help them stay focused on it.
Or it might be the client. Some clients come to therapy not to work, but to be comforted or rescued or parented. Some spend years avoiding the work they need to do.
One thing’s sure, though.
Unless and until the work gets defined, it can never get done.
Part of me says Yes, do it. Do it now.
Another part says No, I can’t. Or No, I’m scared.
Gestaltists call this stuckness impasse: the point at which you stop yourself from moving forward because you’re afraid you won’t survive the attempt.
Scared, for example, of ending the marriage. Quitting the job. Starting the business. Writing the book. Expressing the feeling. Telling the truth.
Such stuckness always involves old fears, triggered in some part of me that hasn’t grown up.
That part so clearly remembers being dependent, helpless and/or scared of punishment that it hasn’t discovered I’m grown up now, and in charge of my own life.
“We are continually projecting threatening fantasies onto the world,” Fritz Perls wrote, “and these fantasies prevent us from taking the reasonable risks which are part and parcel of growing and living.”
The surprising thing about an impasse?
It’s almost always imaginary. It doesn’t exist in reality.
Push back against the fear and it tends to vanish, like a nightmare does when you turn on the bedroom light.
Most people feel secretly unpermitted to be who they really are — feel what they feel, think what they think, believe what they believe, want what they want — and to base their lives on those emotional realities.
When therapy works, it’s because it has given someone permission to do those things.
When assessing if someone is addicted — to either a substance (like alcohol) or a behavior (like controlling) — I pay close attention to the level of chaos in their life.
Addicts are uniquely vulnerable to chaos, mainly because they don’t know how to deal with feelings (except to numb them temporarily).
Since life is full of feeling-triggers, it tends to hand the addict one emotional problem after another after another.
Thus (a) life triggers feelings, which (b) trigger the addiction, which (c) causes the addict new problems, which (d) trigger more feelings.
And the addict lurches from crisis to crisis, living a life that feels increasingly chaotic and out of control.