Trust: The High Hurdle of Therapy

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All relationships are either therapeutic or non-therapeutic. Or perhaps I should say, sometimes therapeutic and sometimes not. A relationship with a counselor is not exempt from this complication. Bloggers in treatment suggest that no other topic so unsettles the soul.

The heart is easily torn. A therapist tries to get inside a patient in a way more intimate than most sexual encounters. The client is expected to strip down before the healer in a metaphorical sense. Remember, our custom of shaking hands derives from the need of two souls to prove they are unarmed — that to be near is not to risk injury. Even without weapons, however, danger is there.

Partners in friendship, love, and therapy make assumptions. Sometimes these unstated beliefs undermine the possibility of understanding and trust. Trust is like a garment made out of words and expressions; actions and expectations. In the space of less than the 50-minute hour, the fabric is woven, unwoven, and back again. By a shift in the body and a smile. By a raised eyebrow and a word well-chosen, poorly chosen, or misunderstood. By silence or its lack. By whether the counselor recognizes the tiniest of tears in the corner of an eye. By whether the patient — gaze downcast and terrified — misses the same evidence she would otherwise observe in the healer.

Too often we expect the impossible of people to whom we are close: that if we are cared for, the other will know what we are feeling and thinking automatically. “He should be able to tell,” we say to ourselves. This belief shifts the responsibility for the achievement of trust and understanding to the other; whether a parent, a spouse, or a psychologist. Sometimes it is reasonable, often not, especially when both parties are adults.

Part of what makes understanding hard (even if we do not assume the other owns a crystal ball) is a question of access. No one else can get inside our head. We have knowledge of ourselves, or what we think we are, in the bright light of the mind. We possess an internal and effortless but utterly precise grasp of our own meaning. Yet for all the clarity available on the inside, our counterpart is in the dark, far from the possibility of direct observation. He cannot see within us, only the outer disguise and armoring. He may consult the dictionary meaning of our words and interpret our expressions and movements, but not more. Relationships die when the other is obtuse and insensitive, and also when too much is expected.

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No one is a mind reader. The job of comprehension leading to trust is a duet, not a solo performance. Like all good performances, it takes rehearsal. Repeated rehearsal.

Therapist and patient, when they are well-matched and both working hard, spin a spider’s web as the session begins. The fibers are fine, almost invisible. With time, the net grows. If strong enough and recreated session after session, the strands thicken and better bear the weight of personal disclosure. Yet they still can be torn and retorn.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. All of life must be tested and resilience can only grow out of disappointment. We live in a world of unreliability. Nothing is permanent and yet we seek permanence. So we weave the web — together. With familiarity, the strands are more easily rewoven when a rift develops. Confidence grows. A safety net seems possible.

Remember, this is an act of becoming, not of being. There is no “one and done” here. Repetition, persistence, and continued effort despite the fraying of hope are required.

Nothing above absolves the therapist of the need for finely tuned sensitivity, laser-like focus, and dedication. He must do his best to recognize messages often disguised; must take care not to injure. Nor does this free the patient from taking incredible risks to reveal herself, even though her history says revelation and vulnerability will result in a terrible end. Tearable of the thing we call trust, and terrible to the heart and body.

The most damaged of clients want to be known, but are afraid to be known. They are frightened to show themselves to anyone. Thus, their coded messages are misunderstood. Nonetheless, courage is essential. The unfairness of having to take one more risk carries no weight. They must do so repeatedly. Their healing is otherwise impossible.

Perhaps therapists should recite a disclaimer to the most damaged patients at the outset of treatment:

I want to understand you, but I am imperfect. I will not make a clean catch of everything you say. You might have to repeat or rephrase. You will test me, but I am helpless without your willingness to trust — to help me help you. This is asking a lot. I apologize, but there is no alternative. I will disappoint you, but I am earnest. We must keep trying to weave a beautiful fabric, like a magic carpet. One that will help carry you until you can fly without the support of a tapestry to bear you aloft.

The careful reader will be struck by how many visual metaphors I have used in this essay. I’ve tried to achieve your understanding by reference to what can be seen. In so doing, I have also been underlining how difficult it is to express oneself by abstract words alone. Put differently, how challenging is the therapeutic task of achieving understanding.

In the fairy tale, Rumplestiltskin, a miller’s daughter is said to be able to do the impossible — spin straw into gold. Such is the goal of therapist and patient, both at the wheel. They too must weave. Without even straw. They hold only the memory of pain on one side and a strained, always imperfect empathy on the other. Gold of a different kind — understanding, trust, and healing — can come of their teamwork.

Is this only a fairy tale, too?

Not if you have seen it happen.

The top photo of a spider web on a pasture is the work of Nijeholt. The second image is a Magic Carpet created by איתמר סיאני. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Are You Too Defensive?

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Has anyone ever said that “You’re too defensive!” I’m here to tell you that it wasn’t a compliment. Worse still, it probably is causing you problems.

What might it mean to be this “too defensive” thing?

1. Your goal is to allow no one in. Safety is valued above everything else, even more than love. Perhaps not as you imagine it, but as you live it. Your behavior trumps your desire for close relationships. You may not even realize it is so.

2. Almost no one is permitted to know you very well. To achieve this you’ve developed a certain way of being: too distant, unfriendly, stern; or superficially cheerful and bright.

3. Or perhaps you are always backing away, inclined to refuse invitations, forever changing the subject when things begin to feel “too personal.” You take a “wait and see attitude” until the bus leaves the station and you are all alone. “No” is your default position toward intimacy.

4. Your first instinct is to look for signs of danger. You assume the worst and distrust others until they prove their worth, which few do; in part, because you don’t give them much of a chance.

5. When someone questions you or expresses a different opinion than your own, your tendency is to attack that person’s position. The idea of listening, learning, compromising, and creating a dialogue gives way to a full frontal assault.

6. You might be prone to interrogate people, look down on them, judge severely, and in so doing, make yourself into an island. You are marooned on your own tiny piece of land, safe but isolated.

7. Perhaps you hit the other before you get hit and get hurt. Guess what? You’ve become the very thing you hate, the person who is dangerous to be around, the one who rejects first and asks questions later. Congratulations! You have succeeded in saving yourself from injury by others, while inflicting the injury of isolation on yourself. Your fortress is a cave. It permits no light to enter, no laughter, no life.

8. In your tendency to defensively retreat or pre-emptively attack, you are likely to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of rejection by others. If you back away from their overtures of friendship they may think of you as stuck-up or uninterested in them. On the other hand, if you are snide or snippy in your attempt to push them away, they might conclude that you are surly and difficult — not the kind of person whose society is desirable.

9. Whether you know it or not, you’ve made the relationship tests too hard, the passage to your hiding place too narrow, the mountain too high to climb, the fortress impregnable.

10. You are unsurpassed at making excuses and rationalizing your behavior. No one else is good enough, they don’t meet your standards, their interests are too different, they’d never understand you. No. The truth is, you don’t understand yourself. Step back and take a look in the mirror:

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11. Worst of all, you have made a fundamental mistake in understanding the world. Your defenses block your vision. It is as if you were born in the winter and do not recognize that the weather has changed.

12. The bottom line? New learning is required. You must risk the lowering of your guard, a re-entry into the game of life. However bad it was yesterday, however much others have rejected us, we must all recognize that today is a new day and we must be open to all its possibilities, not only the ones that might pierce the heart.

The top image is called Offense_Defense by Flex-Flex. The Porcupine comes from the first volume of Historiae Animalium by Conrad Gessner, Zurich, 1551. It was uploaded by en:User:Belgrade18 for En_Wikipedia and, in turn, uploaded for Wikimedia Commons by Roland zh.