“And I went into this PsyD program because I was too much of a coward to take the risk of trying to write more, or start a therapy practice, and now I’m going to stay in it even though I hate it because I’m too much of a coward to leave, and it’s going to cost me a hundred fifty thousand dollars in debt and I’ll hate myself for doing it.”
He finally got it out of me, my therapist, after twenty minutes of me “not knowing” what I’d been feeling lately.
“Coward?” my therapist responded. He’d been doing this for the whole session, repeating one word out of my monologues. It’s infuriating. I know what he’s doing. I KNOW THAT TRICK I USE IT TOO BUDDY.
“Yes,” I said defiantly. “You heard me.”
“Harsh,” he said.
What is this, the one-word therapy challenge?
Of course, in his repeating that one word, coward, I heard the harshness of it. I almost never think of anyone else as a coward, no matter how scared they are or what they are avoiding. But it rattles around in my own narrative, every time I proclaim that I’m not happy and yet make no changes. It’s because I’m a coward.
“Yeah,” I said, sighing and softening a little. “I know. I don’t know why my self-criticism is at an 11 out of 10 these days.”
“Because you feel unsure,” he said.
Oh right, uncertainty. That. Again. Two years ago, I was barely aware of how little uncertainty was (relatively) part of my life. I had basically a 20-year life plan, and I didn’t even notice how safe it felt to have a plan. Jack and I were going to have a kid, I’d publish that shitty first book that is sitting in shitty draft form on my google drive, we’d move back home to Seattle, I would start the therapy practice that would be my career, maybe we’d have another kid. It was such a heteronormative White therapist lady dream, and there were so many templates for it. I knew a lot of couples where the wife had a part-time therapy practice while parenting, and the husband had a full-time and higher-income job.
I have no template for myself now. I keep trying to find one. Can someone please introduce me to a 45-year-old single female psychologist who is successfully paying off school loans and who made peace with either having or not having children after being right in the middle, and who has reasonable self-esteem and her presence actually makes some corner of the world better?
But even if I found her, there would be something off. Something that didn’t match, that would plunge me back into my own uncertainty. This is what I’ve been doing lately: finding people I want to be like, finding the reasons I’ll never be like them, and berating myself for those flaws.
You feel unsure. Sometimes I think, maybe I should save my money and stop going to therapy. What am I even doing there? And then I remember, I’m practicing feeling unsure, and moving through life anyway. I’m practicing being in relationship while being uncertain, letting another human in on the mess and the confusion, and noticing his lack of judgment about it all. I’m working on feeling the accusations I lob at myself like icy stinging snowballs, but then seeing that they are lobbed by a scared child.
“Because you feel unsure.” It didn’t fix anything to hear my therapist name that, but it also fixed everything. Oh right no wonder. The self-doubt and self-criticism are my oldest ways of making sense of not knowing why something bad happened, and not knowing how it will turn out.
This is his primary therapeutic intervention: he tells me why I’m hurting so badly. He reminds me why I’m doing what I’m doing. And then he proceeds to not fix it.
“Attachment disruptions are always traumas,” he said during my divorce.
“This doctorate program has been consistently disappointing to you,” he reminded me last month.
“You wanted to feel like you were on a path that made you feel competent, and it’s been the opposite,” he said last week. “Everyone in a PsyD program feels that way in the first year, but I think it’s been especially hard for you.”
His words stay with me, usually only for a little while (if they stuck forever I wouldn’t need to go back). I recall them when I need them, not before the self-criticism arises, but in a quick response afterward. Oh, here I am again, harsh because I’m scared because I’m unsure. Well that makes sense. As usual, uncertainty is not cured through certainty, but made tolerable through kindness.