The Risk of Emotional Openness: Of Therapists and Their Pedestals

Most of us in the West assume a stance of “openness” to a degree my parents and immigrant grandparents thought shameful and dangerous. Yet our casual ease in talking about “the personal” still has limits: lines not to be crossed.

On the dark side of that border, one finds all of us who are not “known.By this, I refer to the hidden aspects of who and what we are. In Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky wrote about the parts of ourselves kept below the earth:

In every man’s memories there are such things as he will reveal not to everyone, but perhaps only to friends. There are also such as he will reveal not even to friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. Then, finally, there are such as a man is afraid to reveal even to himself, and every decent man will have accumulated quite a few things of this sort.

I had a taste of my mother’s notion of the proper place of privacy in repeated statements like, “What would the neighbors think?Her family’s advice for what was and wasn’t discussed came from a generation whose education was Eastern European and specifically Jewish.

Amos Oz, the late Israeli novelist, born in 1939, offered this commentary on those who fled Europe for Palestine before the genocidal erasure of their families and friends by the Nazis:

They had no difficulty at all in expressing communal feelings — they were emotional people and they knew how to talk. (But) the moment they tried to give voice to a private feeling, what came out was something tense, dry, even frightened, the result of generation upon generation of repression and negation ... They could never be certain that they would not utter something ridiculous, and ridicule was something they lived in fear of. They were scared to death of it.

Here, perhaps, is a partial answer to why so many of our friendships and romances fail. We want to experience the freedom and comfort of another’s knowing approval, but hesitate to leave more than a trail of breadcrumbs leading to the secrets Doestoevsky mentions.

No signpost to our camouflaged essence directs the curious to know what we want to be known, but dread will be known. The ridicule that terrified Oz’s parents is thus avoided.

Obstructions to external acceptance of our innermost selves are still more numerous. Unlike those mentioned, these come from the deficits in the ones whose respect we crave.

Few potential friends and lovers know how to enter our protected internal spaces or realize they misunderstand us without so doing. Much work is involved in achieving a depth of awareness of another person, time thinking about more than how to win someone’s friendship, or get naked with them.

Our observers see only the surfaces we present. I’m speaking of qualities like our appearance, intellect, or quick wit. We blind people with our externals, intended or not. What is obvious is like the topsoil of a garden, suggesting little of what lies underneath.

Beneath the stereotype applied to their veneers, the beautiful and smart, the handsome and wealthy, are always harder for an observer to see as they wish to be seen.

As amateur analysts of the human condition, we imagine most compatible acquaintances offer no challenges to comprehension. They are thought to be like us in nature, philosophy, and motivation, with perhaps a few variations due to age, gender, race, nationality, and religion.

Not always.

Whatever uniqueness exists in their clandestine attitudes and behaviors often defies stereotypes. The more unique they are, the less likely they will fit our usual classification system.

One group is skillful in lifting the veils of those who might dance away from in-depth exposure of who they are: therapists. With enough talent and experience, they uncover much of the shrouded but exceptional humanity missed by so many.

This quiet recognition astonishes the ones who are now, perhaps for the first time, recognized. The power of the event and the wizardry often attributed to the counselor confers a significant part of the appreciation and, sometimes, the love directed toward him.

The healer’s discovery confers on him a weighty obligation, as well. While he treats many patients and might feel great affection for them, he does not (if playing by the rules) share the same extent of meaningful attachment to them that he receives from them.

Whenever any of us recognizes the inner-truth of an unknown, defended soul, we are placed on a metaphorical pedestal. How do we manage the esteemed position conferred upon us because of our x-ray vision into his heart?

How much care and carefulness, how much gentleness, ought to be given to someone who believes we (and only we) hold the secrets of his universe? 

Regardless of whether one is a therapist or not, we now receive a responsibility we did not seek, ownership of a particular station in the life of the one stripped of his mask. Therapists, close friends, parents, or lovers — almost all of us sometimes take on the weight of this — or walk away in disregard.

No simple directions exist for managing the unsought for status. Comments on therapy blogs make clear that the best mental health experts can leave an indelible imprint. The memory of them may long occupy a living space in the minds and hearts of former clients, not quite a first kiss but still on a high shelf of importance.

In such cases, counselors are inclined to believe they have done their job. While they opened the patient to possibilities, that openness comes with the sometimes painful knowledge that much of their future will be lived without visits to the individual who did the unmasking.

Helping professionals think the toll is worth the reward, but only the client can say this with certainty.

I’m convinced not all do.

We live in a world of love and loneliness. Most of us have experienced both. The impact of being known is extraordinary enough to change the life of the one so revealed and accepted — accepted despite revelation of the dark treasure within their confidential, invisible fortress.

Not everyone you meet risks traveling to this place. Not everyone locates somebody who might hold the key to their closeted existence. No wonder Vincent van Gogh wrote the following in a letter to his brother Theo:

Many a man has a bonfire in his heart and nobody comes to warm himself at it. The passers-by notice only a little smoke from the chimney and go their way ...

The stakes are considerable for the unseen. Their smoke signals disappear in a moment unless repeated. Even then, not all follow the vapor and welcome what they find there.

What else can the undiscovered one do? Will he speak the words and uncover his feelings before a stranger?

The risks echo. Is the hazardous path to “becoming known” a wise adventure or a dangerous one?

Perhaps both.

—–

All of the images above are the work of Mark Rothko. In order, Untitled, 1968; Untitled, (Light Over Grey), 1956; Untitled, (Light Cloud, Dark Cloud, 1957); No. 12, 1960; and No. 17 (Greens and Blue on Blue) 1957. I encourage you to take more than a few seconds to look at any one of these and discover what is beneath the surface impression, a visual analogue to the subject of this essay.

37 thoughts on “The Risk of Emotional Openness: Of Therapists and Their Pedestals

  1. Thank you for another awesome post, Dr. S!

    When I think about the therapeutic relationship, I often wonder what the therapist thinks and feels in response to my secrets. Does my therapist show or hide his/her disgust? Does my therapist like me or not? Will I be responsible for my therapist’s compassion fatigue, burnout, or vicarious trauma? Is my therapist trustworthy enough to maintain my secrets with me? Does my therapist trust in what I say?

    There were times when I felt my therapist was not trustworthy enough for me to share my secrets – or at least not all of them. This was largely due to things the therapist would say or do, such as taking phone calls during our sessions, making harsh judgments about me without waiting for me to finish a sentence, and assuming without asking me questions. During those times, it felt as if I was being interrogated and judged, as opposed to heard and validated. It was important for me to feel safe and trustworthy in the therapeutic relationship. If my own therapist could not trust me by asking me questions, then how could I trust my therapist’s assumptions about me without my therapist showing a genuine interest in the details I so desperately wanted to convey.

    There were also times when I felt my therapist was trustworthy enough. I could express my feelings, thought processes, and secrets more coherently when I wasn’t so distracted by my fears about what the therapist thought. Nevertheless, I almost always went home after a good session of secret spilling and worried about what the therapist thought about me, now that he or she had time to process what I had shared in session. Will I be judged harshly next week? Will the therapist treat me differently next week? Will my secrets be too much for the therapist to continue treating me? Only few stuck the course, but many therapist had terminated after I spilled my heart out to them. I’d get the “you’re too complex” response, as opposed to a more gentle and professional response. Their response of “you’re too complex” told me that they placed the blame on me, as opposed to using a professional phrase such as, “I cannot ethically continue treating you because your needs as a client require more than I can offer; my training or my limits to what I can offer would not adequately benefit what you need.” This ideal response that I’ve rarely heard from therapists who terminated with me would be more professional in my eyes because it wouldn’t blame me for sharing a secret I had shared, and it would offer hope for me to share the secret more openly with specialists who could treat me. In other words, by not blaming me for being “too complex” with the secrets I had shared, I wouldn’t feel scared the next time to share those secrets with the right therapist for me.

    For many years I’ve wondered what it would be like to truly be open with my deepest secrets in therapy. Validation is important, but therapy is what I need. Validation may be an important part of therapy, since it establishes trust, mutual understanding, and the kind of compassion that many of us patients seek. Without validation, in my humble opinion, there is a lack of trust, and therefore, there’s a lack of understanding and willingness for the client to share secrets. But what happens after trust and validation have occurred? Will the treatments offered truly parallel the problems that the client sees in himself or herself, or will the client continue to believe that the problem lies externally? Perhaps the next step between validation and treatment lies in the reflections of what both client and therapist see as problems that need addressing. It would appear that therapy can only happen when the client is willing to work on the problems affiliated with those secrets, and that can only happen if the client is aware of those problems.

    Many times, us clients (myself included) will hold external loci of control and responsibility in terms of our reactions to our secret memories and thoughts. We may not understand the differences between trauma and post-traumatic symptoms. We forget that we are in therapy because of our symptoms, not because of the traumatic experiences; we sometimes see both as the same – like enmeshed entities that cry for justice through constant validation, learned helplessness, and please that reflect our external loci of control and responsibility. Statements that reflect external loci of control and responsibility sound like this: “It’s society that’s the problem, and therefore only society can fix it.” “It’s my abusive ___ that created this trauma and all the symptoms I have, so that person should have fixed it.” The reality is that, for the most part, trauma was created by someone else when we were their victim (both an external loci of control and responsibility on the part of the offender who was responsible for the trauma he/she inflicted and the sequelae that ensued). That is what justice is for. But even if justice was served, the client is still left with symptoms. The perpetrator of those past traumas may be culpable for his/her crimes, regardless of whether justice was served. The perpetrator may even be responsible for certain costs affiliated with a person’s symptoms. However, the perpetrator is not responsible for the healing of a victim’s post-traumatic symptoms.

    Post-traumatic symptoms are the responsibility of the victim to heal (an internal locus of control), even though the reasons for post-trauma symptoms being there are largely due to the perpetrator’s harms against the victim (an external locus of responsibility). We are in therapy to learn how to unlearn helplessness through having an internal locus of control for our symptoms, because the only person who could change our symptoms through treatment is us. –This is a lot to chew, especially in terms of our own culpability in utilizing our symptoms as excuses to harm others – even if unintentional.

    I’ve learned that sharing secrets with a trusted therapist meant that the good therapist helped me decode what those secrets meant. Sometimes the secrets were the trauma themselves, which were not my fault. But other times, those secrets were my symptoms related to the initial traumas, which are my responsibility. Addiction is one symptom (or behavioral problem) that often gets blamed on others, and is often kept secret. Addiction may be a symptom of trauma, or maybe not, but it is definitely NOT the responsibility of others, even if the initial addicting substance was introduced by an abusing offender. The abusing offender is responsible for that trauma, and perhaps even our maintenance of secret-keeping (often as a result of threats being made), but we are responsible to correct the addictive behaviors. And there’s no way to correct those behaviors without unraveling the secrets with a trusted therapist.

    Long after therapy and secret-spilling have occurred, and once a healthy termination between therapist and client was established post-healing, I assume that clients have internalized the good responses and lessons learned from the therapist. I also assume that the clients will miss their therapists dearly, in particular because they were the ones who held most (if not all) of their secrets – something that is rarely shared, like you said, with others in the real world. There’s a fear about sharing secrets, but there’s also a relief that comes after sharing those secrets. That relief represents acceptance, belonging, a growth mindset, a second chance. In many ways, that relief represents forgiveness (for one’s self or even for others). That relief represents healing.

    Some people may not be so lucky with finding good therapists who hear secrets. Those same people may join online groups with a pseudonym in order to share some but not all secrets. I’ve done that, too. But one of the sad costs of doing that without having tools to heal is that person is left without showing his/her real self – name, face, body, and all – in real life and getting validated for that, or without having the real answers necessary for complete healing (i.e., symptom management). Online groups may offer some relief, but they are not as helpful as the therapeutic relationship.

    –These are my thoughts and opinions. I may be incorrect in some areas, but I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got. I’m still holding many secrets, and some of those secrets I’ve even held from myself. Dissociative identity disorder is about hiding secrets from yourself, in my opinion. I have yet to discover all of them, as a person who dissociates, and I have yet to find a safe place to share my secrets so that I can heal. I do what I can on my own, but I also proactively hope for the best in the future – with safe others.

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    • Therapists suffer from their own human limitations. They can be scared by clients, afraid to confront therir own limitations, and project their inadequacies on the client. Complexity is sometimes a matter of breaking down what is important to deal with rather than trying to address everything at once. If the patient is not stable enough for the therapist to succeed with this approach, then medication will sometimes help as a first step, allowing the treatment to go slowly and take on segments of the complexity rather than its totality.

      I hope for the future too — for you and for all of us.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think I prefer segments. What you said makes sense. Some therapists cried when I shared some of my traumatic past, and others were terrified. My ex-mentor (not my therapist) asked me to share my traumatic history in emails, until one day I shared that I was held by an ex at gunpoint. Instead of being sympathetic, he was afraid that I was the dangerous one. That and other things ended our academic relationship, and taught me that disclosing such info was a bad idea, even when asked to share it. But I took the risk. I was terrified enough as a victim, but even more as a patient who does not mean to terrify her therapists or others. I suppose vicarious trauma is real. Telling my painful traumas comes with risks. I have had enough traumas in my life. The symptoms I have feel even worse. To describe them means reliving them, or dissociating from them by being co-conscious. Switching scares therapists who do not understand DID, and that diagnosis is a secret in and of itself sometimes.

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      • Thank you, Dr. S!

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    • I really like what you say about the therapist response and worry about their burnout. I’ve been just the same.
      That must be so tough to hear a therapist say that about complexity to you. Kudos to you for not giving up on the idea of going back to someone else, which would be so easy to do. I really hope you can find a safe practitioner to use as a springboard for your brighter future.
      Do you keep a blog? I had a little look but it showed nothing, though can’t tell if it’s a WordPress glitch? I think I’ve seen a comment from you before so I think you have some good stuff to say… (no pressure!)

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      • Hi LovingSummer. Thank you for your response. I do not have a blog. I do not yet know how to write for one or to maintain it. I write spur-of-the-moment, often without editing. Editing is an arduous task for me because I love details and want to edit in phases to learn about all of the mistakes I made. I still have trouble with grammar, tightening sentences, and redundancy. My vocabulary is not that good – probably at the level of an average 10th-grader, save the jargon I learned as an undergrad. One day I will improve enough to write a blog. I am not there yet.

        I am sorry you struggle with worrying about the therapist’s burnout, too. I hope you are doing well.

        I plan on getting a new therapist soon. I relocated to a new state with higher altitudes and a very slow bus system (which runs every hour), so it will take me some time.

        Thank you for visiting my profile though. Do you have a blog? If so, I will check out your profile soon.

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      • I do have a blog but I am not a perfect writer either. I just speak as I find and from the heart, but I often have to rectify my typos too. For what it’s worth your grammar and vocabulary seems just as good if not better than most, but I understand you might have to feel it enough to do it. The great thing is nobody actually knows who you are so you can make all the mistakes you like and just… ‘deny all knowledge and demand proof,’ as the saying goes! 😉

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      • The funny thing about me is that I sometimes get triggered by my own writing. Even being co-conscious while I write is different from when I am fully present and reading my writing again. That alone makes me afraid of writing a blog. I am getting used to my comments on others’ blogs though, which is a good start, I hope. I tried writing a blog, then I deleted it… more than once, lol. But thank you for your encouragement. One day I will get there. For now, I enjoy reading blogs. 🙂

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      • Fair play! I’d hate to think of you get it triggered. I’m glad you comment though, as, like I said, I recognised having seen your name before (and I have memory problems so it must’ve really stood out!)

        Liked by 1 person

      • Awe, thank you LovingSummer. I have memory problems, too. These days, I forget words like “chronological” order, when I wrote the other day “chronical” I think. I stewed over the forgotten word for a few minutes and still got it wrong. I do not know if this is me being senile, stressed, or going through the beginning stages of dementia. I do not forget things, like keys or cooking, but I do forget names, words, etc. Once in a while the missing words will come back. This kind of memory loss scares me. I am sorry you struggle with memory issues too. I may have interacted with you before, at least in comments. I have changed my name on WordPress a few times though. Sorry about the confusion. It feels nice to be remembered or stood out for something. Thank you!

        Your blog posts are really well written and thought out! From what I skimmed so far, your processes in treatment have paralled the good therapies I have had, even with the struggles we often face in those good treatments. I miss those kinds of sessions. I will comment soon on your blog. I am failing at keeping my replies short though. I need to work on that eventually. LOL

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      • I haven’t looked to see if the memory loss could be related to decades of dissociation at all? But I do know it’s connected to MS and like you I have problems remembering how to spell. There was a time I forgot all my passwords and even my 4 digit PIN for my bank card. Luckily I got some of the function back but I’ve never been the same, which I find hard to live with! Please don’t apologise for name-changing, that’s your prerogative!

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      • Ps: glad you’re going to find someone else, absolute best of luck!🤞🏼

        Liked by 1 person

      • LovingSummer… I just saw your blog and read your post on IFS therapy. I had that therapy to help me be co-conscious. I am still not sure how integration happens, but over time I had fused with many of my alters. I still have a few left. The sad yet funny part about my remaining alters was manifested to me when I worked in a clinical psych lab as a research assistant. Some of the alters thought my mentor was a therapist when he asked me to share my trauma experiences in emails to him (over the course of nearly three years). I do not think he believed in DID. Some littles admired him being a good dad. An alter named Clair kept me on my toes because she used to take over admin work years ago, before I was diagnosed. I was not feeling right about sharing my traumas anymore, but the teens Clarissa and Michelle shared too much. I learned the hard way that the field of psychology was not for me because I have too many unresolved traumas. I laugh now because I shared my secrets with a professor, but our relationship ended badly. Anyway, there was something about your blog entry that reminded me of co-consciousness in terms of this blog post related to secrets. All I (and my parts) can do is learn from my mistakes and laugh about them from time to time, even if the consequences of my mistakes were painful. I may have traumatic stories, but I also have twisted funny ones. I will read and reply to your blog when I am more alert. I have not slept yet. Thank you for your reply!

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      • “I learned the hard way that the field of psychology was not for me because I have too many unresolved traumas.”

        This makes me wonder if you are surely the perfect candidate for psychology, but you just haven’t found the right people to work with. Guy isn’t the first therapist I’ve ever met, but he’s by far the greatest and I’m glad I didn’t give up based on previous experience.

        I’m really sorry you opened yourself for three years like that, especially to someone part of you admired. That’s what makes you all the braver for considering starting over once you’re settled again.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I might have shed a tear, too, though I never broke down with my patients. As to the ex-mentor, the various comments you’ve shared on this site have long made me wonder what he was thinking — and, indeed, IF he was thinking!

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      • Dr. S, thank you! I think my ex-mentor meant well. I was concerned about whether or not I would be able to handle clinical training. I think because I aced his undergrad counseling course, prior to my working in his lab, that he tried to act in a role I was unfamiliar with, maybe like a clinical trainer. I and my alternate parts grew attached to him. It turned into a strange and enmeshed relationship toward the end. I could no longer see him the same way that I did when he was a professor. I think it was the routine of sharing my trauma history while still doing good work in his lab. The lab work was easy, but I never really learned how to improve my writing for research. I never did any clinical training, but I remain terrified of it after experiencing the responses from my mentor toward the end. I do not know what he was thinking because we were never clear about our expectations for working together. His responses were mostly like therapy responses, until one day he freaked. It was like out of nowhere. I did not lose time, so it must have been something I said. The poor guy told me he needed to get back on meds because I reminded him of his own early childhood traumas, and that my emails burned him out. I wondered why did he have me email him for 2 and a half years before saying anything. I felt like I was going crazy after that. I spilled nearly my entire life story to him. Now I do not know if it is even confidential. I can never show my face on that campus again. But the parts of me that grew attached to him misses him. It was a really weird relationship. I never experienced that with any other research mentor or professor. He was the only one.

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  2. Going from your category name I was expecting a different type of post!
    I really agree with your words about always having a special place for the therapist; they are another human after all, and some people always remember the paramedic or firefighter who saved them from a plight they could not handle alone, for us it’s the therapist.
    I hate the idea of a future without the therapist though – I don’t want to lose that ability to explore and be completely accepted. But I know it has to happen…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sticking with it despite whatever surprise the essay had for you. As I suggested in the post, if therapists didn’t believe that their patient’s pain when detaching from them was worth what the cleints had become open to because of the treatment, they’d all give up and become insurance salesmen! That said, just because they believe their own self-justifications doesn’t mean they are true.

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      • That makes me think of the saying “better to have loved and lost”… the therapeutic relationship is obviously not one of love like the saying speaks of, but it is a bond and a certain connection to another human.

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    • I agree. Losses in life cannot be avoided, and the risk of too much avoidance is missing the beautiful things (including relationships) that might be possible. Of course, many people do not become firmly attached to the therapist, but benefit from treatment anyway. For them, the cost of its inevitable end is less.

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    • Good for you, LovingSummer!

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  3. There is so much to say to this, but true to Amos Oz’s observations, being of both Eastern European and Jewish decent, I can not put into public words the feelings and thoughts evoked by your blog without exposing myself to ridicule and belittlement. You brought me to tears.

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    • This is a pretty safe place for the expression of feelings, Brewdun, but it is public and I accept your hesitation. I’m touched by your reaction to the essay. The quote from Oz comes from his memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” Much of it is about growing up with an extraordinarily bright, but emotionally closed-off father, and a mother who was intelligent and capable of some tenderness, but also depressed.

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      • I totally identify with the description you give of Oz’s parents. Thank you for this. I will check out the memoir. ❤

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  4. I hope you enjoy it, though joy is perhaps not the right word. Still, he is a magnificent writer. I imagine those who have some knowledge of the Israel in which he grew up (I don’t) get more out of it than the rest of us. Even without that experience, however, I found it a remarkable book.

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  5. gentleintegration

    Dr. Stein, thank you for your wise and touching words each week. I appreciate that they come in on a Saturday night, often a night that can touch loneliness. The care you put into each post– the artwork and the words– both touch my heart. I appreciate your gifts to make sense of the senseless, speak with care and poignancy, your appreciate art and our collective humanity. I think your family and clients are very fortunate to have you in their lives… as well as us, your grateful readers. Thank you. I want you to know we are out here reading and feeling touched by your depth, and your soul.

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  6. Thanks for yet another one of your insightful posts, Dr. Stein! As you must surely know, there is no definite answer to the question you raise on closing: “Is the hazardous path to “becoming known” a wise adventure or a dangerous one?” I believe that the answer would lie in the purpose of such an adventure. We humans are such complex creatures that just seeking “to know oneself” can be a lifetime endeavor.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I saw this and thought of your blog.

    We are spirits clad in veils;
    Man by Man was never seen;
    All our deep communing fails;
    To remove the shadowy screen.

    Christopher Pearse Cranch
    1813-1893

    Liked by 1 person

    • And, as I wrote to Rosaliene, the screens even prevent him from knowing himself, as the “Underground Man” quotation indicates.

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  8. I recent read ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ and thought it a wonderful book. I was impressed by Oz’s honesty. After his mother’s suicide when Oz was twelve, she became a nonperson. Her death and suicide were never discussed by Oz or his father. This resonated with a comment made by Richard Stern in response to one of your essays on suicide. In addition, Oz wrote ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ when he was in his sixties. It was only in the course of the writing of that book that, after so many years, he was able to talk about his parents.

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    • Thanks, Harvey. You’ve captured it very well. Some people simply obsess over their history endlessly. Oz looked back and learned new things.

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  9. “ The memory of them may long occupy a living space in the minds and hearts of former clients, not quite a first kiss but still on a high shelf of importance.”. Absolutely correct.

    “ In such cases, counselors are inclined to believe they have done their job. While they opened the patient to possibilities, that openness comes with the sometimes painful knowledge that much of their future will be lived without visits to the individual who did the unmasking.” I agree with this, but hopefully in time the loss will lessen, such as when there is a death of a friend or family member.

    “ Helping professionals think the toll is worth the reward, but only the client can say this with certainty. I’m convinced not all do.” What brought me into therapy was a painful secret which I carried since young adulthood, and this secret tormented me most days throughout adulthood. If it were not for therapy with my beloved therapist I would still be suffering, and to have that burden removed from my brain and soul forever is well worth any pain I will experience when we part ways. It has given me freedom from torment which I carried for 34 years. I am also reasonable and practical because of my own job experience….I also have had to say goodbye to the people I served, and though it was painful for me, I think it was harder on them in some way.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. The people you served are lucky it was you who served them. Thanks, Nancy.

    Liked by 1 person

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