(About therapy #3:) Therapy as driver ed


“I function very well,” he tells me. 

A bit defensively.

“How so?”

“I do my job. I do it well. I’m a good teacher. My students like me. And I meet my responsibilities. I pay my bills, take care of the house, the dogs. I’m there for my family and my friends and my colleagues. They can come to me for anything, and they all know it. “

“Okay,” I say. “Why are you here?”

He frowns. 

“Something’s missing,” he says finally.

“Any thoughts on what it might be?”


“How can you tell it’s missing?”

“Just a feeling,” he says.


“Excuse me?”

“In your body.  Where do you feel the feeling?”

He thinks.

“Here,” touching his chest.

“Can you describe it?”

“Kind of empty,” he says.  “Hollow.”

“Sad?” I ask. 



He nods.

“Right. And when you say you’re there for people, does that include you?”

“I don’t follow.”

“It sounds like you’re very sensitive to the feelings and needs of the people around you,” I say. “Are you sensitive to your own feelings and needs as well?”

“Not so much,” he admits.

“Then I know what’s missing.”


“You,” I say. “You is what’s missing.”

I remind him of what he’s told me about his family of origin. “Kids who grow up in alcoholic or dysfunctional families like yours tend to lose touch with their own emotional life early on. They put their attention on other people instead, what others want or need or expect. It’s a shift into survival mode that allows them to navigate an uncertain and anxiety-producing environment. Do you remember, as a kid, being especially alert to who was unhappy or angry, or when an argument seemed to be brewing?”   

“Oh yes.”

“And now?”

“I still do,” he says, looking surprised. “I walk into a classroom or a faculty meeting and immediately spot who’s in a bad mood.”

“And their bad mood makes you uneasy.”

He nods.

“And you keep feeling that way unless you can either change their mood or get away from them.”


“Sure. You’re reacting like the kid you were, the kid who played defense by overfocusing on other people.  Given your family’s dynamics, that was unavoidable. But you need something more now. That’s what the empty/sad feeling means. You need to start paying attention to yourself.”

He frowns.  “Not sure how to do that.”

“I’ll teach you. We’ll start by redirecting your attention from outside to inside, like just now.”

He nods, but he doesn’t look happy.

“What?” I ask.

“It’s kind of scary,” he says.

I smile at him.

“Good,” I say. “You’re begun. Where do you feel the fear?”

“My stomach.”

“That’s fine,” I say. “Of course you scared. You’re scared like a new driver who gets behind the wheel for the first time.  You don’t know what you’re doing yet. But then you learn, step by step.  And before long you can start the car up and shift into drive and take it to the end of the block and not be so scared.”

“Okay,” he says. “And what happens if I don’t?”

“Don’t do this work, you mean?”


“You keep feeling the way you do now,” I say. “Like there’s a hole where your self is meant to be. Like a hostage to the moods and preferences of others. And like a passenger in your own car, instead of the driver.”

“Fuck that,” he says.

We both laugh.

“How your stomach?” I ask.

He smiles.  



2 responses to “(About therapy #3:) Therapy as driver ed

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