Delivering “Bad News” and Causing Pain: Ending Therapy and Romance

Until recently, I didn’t fully understand the upset of various reality TV stars when they have to “let someone go.”

I am referring to shows like “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” on ABC. These programs offer an attractive single-person the choice of a couple of dozen equally magnetic and youthful members of the opposite sex, with the desired goal of “finding love.”

The settings for these mini-series are always extraordinarily (if not exotically) beautiful, involving story-book activities that prime all the suitors to have strong feelings about the targeted object of their affection, unable to distinguish the dazzle of the surroundings from the more ordinary human qualities of the participants.

As the field of contenders is narrowed, the show’s “star” is typically shown struggling with an ongoing set of decisions: who to “keep” and who to dispatch. Much agony is displayed, sometimes to the point of tears, and not just by the people who are dumped. Indeed, as often as not, the individual making the choices seems more upset than the rejected admirers.

I’ve tended to side with the underdog, that is, the feelings of the soul who is being rejected, cast out of the Eden-like gorgeousness of the show’s locale, and set aside in the pursuit of romantic happiness. And while I appreciate the difficulty of making such choices and delivering the bad news to someone you have gotten to know, I’ve thought that the “star” generally tends to make too much of his or her own pain rather than that of those being rejected.

Recently, however, my own experience has opened my eyes a bit on the subject.

Although it has been a while since I retired from doing psychotherapy, this was written in the midst of telling my patients of my plans to set aside my career as a therapist. And, of course, with it, to set them aside.

I anticipated that it would be difficult for some of them. If the therapy relationship had been productive — if the implied promise was that “I would be there for them (forever)” — it could only be difficult. Therapists should be reliable and, for some people, the contact with a therapist is a life-changing relationship. The patient’s gratitude and reliance on a psychologist’s emotional support, which can become a dependency, are precious in any two people between whom those feelings exist.

I knew objectively and intellectually that the news of my retirement could produce a range of feelings; from disappointment to tears to a sense of abandonment to anger to anxiety and a sense of loss. But I had not done it before; I had not delivered such information. I had not had the task of telling people with whom I had a therapeutic relationship this potentially unsettling news.

Since I had not “lived it,” I could not know fully how it would play out. Still, I had a pretty good idea of how they would feel. I was less certain of how I would feel — what it would be like for me.

It turned out to be more difficult than I expected for myself.

A therapist is in the business of helping people, trying to assist them to feel and live better. Causing pain is just the opposite of what we hope to do. Relieving pain, sympathizing with pain — that is the ticket. Inflicting it is not. I was prepared for their pain, but not ready to be the source of it. And in the weeks before the news was delivered, the anticipation and the stress of becoming, however minimally, the instrument of suffering and disappointment, began to weigh on me.

I thought a good deal about how to deliver the news. I tried to tell all of my patients more than three months ahead of the event, face-to-face; and nearly all of them heard it in the space of the same 10 days. I didn’t want anyone finding out through the grapevine.

I explained that I would continue to see them until my retirement, assuming that they wished to continue. I told them that if they wanted a referral, I would be as helpful as I could be in that process, either before or after the end-date of their last therapy session. And that they would be able to email me thereafter. The way I put it was something like, “I won’t be fully out of your life unless that is what you want me to be.”

I was trying, in this way, to cushion whatever blow they experienced and inoculate them against a personal sense of rejection. For those who expressed interest, I briefly explained how I had come to the decision to leave the practice of psychotherapy.

I made my announcement at the very beginning of each session, in order to permit enough time to deal with the feelings it evoked and questions that might need answering. I also mentioned that I would be fully willing and interested to talk with them about their feelings concerning this change as the therapy process with me moved toward its closure.

Although I doubted that any of my patients were so vulnerable as to decompensate significantly, my plans for our termination were aimed at a break-up that did not lead to a break-down.

Seeing the surprise, disappointment, or pain (including tears) in some of my patients was also painful to me. But I don’t want to make too much of my end of this. In any relationship’s end, it is almost always the person who is making the choice who feels better about the parting. I must admit, it was a relief to have delivered the news, to make public what had been private, to get it behind me. But at no point did I feel good about it.

It brings to mind, I suppose, a very old memory that virtually all of you have experienced at least in some approximate way. It involved a college girlfriend with whom I maintained a long-distance relationship.

Expecting a phone call on her Wednesday return home, one day ahead of Thanksgiving, I called her because that contact hadn’t happen. It turned out that she’d been in town from Sunday or Monday without a word. Still, we made a date to get together the next evening, after the holiday festivities had ended.

As they say, “the handwriting was on the wall.” And, as Adlai Stevenson II once noted, “Most people can’t read the handwriting on the wall until their back is up against it.”

Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt

In the course of that dreadful visit I learned that she now had another relationship back at school and that, of course, she hoped we could remain “friends.” This kind-hearted 19-year-old was in tears as she delivered the bad news, presumably the message that she had hoped to delay or avoid by not contacting me immediately upon her return home.

The “let’s be friends” overture was, I think, quite sincere, but it never is heard the way the person uttering it hopes. In this instance, it sounded something like, “I know you were expecting filet mignon and champagne, but I think I have a half-empty can of warm Pepsi that’s been open on the counter for a few days. How about it?” That said, she was a lovely and sweet-hearted person, and was clearly very much pained by what she was communicating. It was just that our desires didn’t coincide.

That lack of attunement between any two people is simply a part of the human condition. Not the best part, for sure.

Historically, such communications often came by letter during wartime. The “Dear John” letter to a serviceman overseas was widely dreaded and became something of a clich√© during World War II, when duty’s potential cost of a soldier’s life or limb could also include a broken heart due to the infidelity of the wife or girlfriend back home.

Today there are lots more ways to deliver the bad news: emailing, texting, instant messaging, etc. All of these are missile-like missives launched from a distance; bad news that the sender doesn’t have to see hitting his target. But the emotional carnage of the unwanted communication is no less real for all that.

It is easy enough to vilify the person who has placed you on his discard pile. And certainly some methods of delivering the rejection are much worse than others, at times cowardly or cruel.

But we mustn’t forget that it is the human dilemma that sets the stage for such disappointments. It is simply a routine part of life that not all relationships find our interests aligned in a mutually satisfying way forever. People retire, therapists and friends leave town, bosses let go of employees, and romance that blooms in the heart of one good person is not always growing in another who is equally kind and decent.

Only the worst among us set out to do injury with malice and premeditation. Nonetheless — much too often, in fact — we are at cross purposes with each other and someone will be hurt.

If it weren’t so excruciating one could almost call it “normal.”

You may be interested in this related topic: How to End Relationships: a Practical Guide to Rejecting Others.

The top image is of the space reserved for Elvis Presley at Heartbreak Hotel, a cottage on Elvis Presley Boulevard. It was photographed by Evelyn Simak on February 3, 2009. The second picture is a reproduction of Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt, sourced from the Web Gallery of Art. Both can be found on Wikimedia Commons.

“Will You Accept This Rose?” Reactions to Receiving the “Beautiful Blogger” Award

First of all, I will end the suspense, little as it may be: I did accept the “Beautiful Blogger” Award. The writer of Anxiety Adventures was kind enough to nominate me for this, for which I am very grateful. But, if you’ve been following my writing for a bit, you also know that I tend to think about things a good deal. So I’ll offer you a few thoughts prompted by this little bit of recognition.

Before I do that, however, I need to tell you about three other blogs worth your attention. My acceptance of the “Beautiful Blogger” Award actually requires seven such nominations (it is a little like a chain letter), but I’ll give you just three for now, with more to come in the future:

I’m happy to hear from other bloggers who might wish this sort of recognition. My panel of judges is a tough bunch, but you never know whether you might get lucky. Bribes may increase you chances! Now, back to thoughts inspired by the “Beautiful Blogger” Award. Questions, actually:

Question #1: How many bloggers are out there? According to NM Incite, “overall, 6.7 million people publish blogs on blogging websites, and another 12 million write blogs using their social network.” The same source states that they tracked over 181 million different blogs by the end of 2011. WordPress indicates that there are about 500,000 new blog posts each day on its WordPress sponsored sites alone.

Question #2: With so many posts, how does anyone get noticed? Unless you are writing for some outfit like Huntington Post that will promote your work by its very existence, people spread the word via Facebook, tweets, and other social media sites and methods. They use photos to get attention, try to “tag” their posts with key words so that search engines like Google will pick them up, and send their URL (web address) to those individuals who might find their writing interesting. In turn, those contacts are encouraged to pass the posts on to their own friends and acquaintances. Bloggers are also wise to leave comments on other bloggers’ sites as a way of encouraging reciprocal attention to their own blogging activity.

Question #3: What did you do, Dr. S, to get an audience for what you write? I did some of the above, but not as much as you might think. First, since I don’t use any of the usual social media like Facebook or LinkedIn, there was only a limited amount of self-promotion. For the record, I did not tweet, chirp, squawk, or transubstantiate to get the message out. I did not pray for readers or wail. I did not beg or plead with my patients, only with my friends. I did not wear sandwich boards (see the image just below) announcing my new venture. I gave some consideration to traveling from town to town, setting up a tent, and performing miracles, but dismissed the idea when I couldn’t get a good price on a tent.

I did, however, put the URL for the blog on my business card and my website. I also told a number of people about what I was doing. I linked my blog site to some online therapy referral services where I was listed. Mostly I just wrote and let the writing do the job. Eventually people read my stuff, but this didn’t happen very quickly — I had only eight “page views” in the month that I began posting, February, 2009. As a few of the posts became popular (see particularly the first two items on the list of Top Posts in the column to the right), more and more people began to pay attention. Last month I had 7,411 “page views.” Clearly, I am not Oprah. OK, I’m not even Oprah’s assistant, but neither am I anonymous. Were I to try to do more to promote my writing, I’d need to read and comment on the blogs of others a good deal more than I do.

Question #4: How has the blog changed over time?¬†I am doing more writing now that I am retired from clinical practice. I’m also freer to share whatever comes to mind, including humor and fiction, than when I had to be somewhat more concerned about the professional impression I was making. Moreover, now that I’m not working for a living I’ve discovered that my imagination is less restrained than when it was more narrowly focused on helping my patients and tending to the business aspects of my corporation. As a consequence, I’ve written humorously about invisibility, masturbation, and nausea. Very soon, I will post something about the male fear of the digital rectal exam! Apparently, I am becoming more shameless in my writing.

Question #5: How are your posts different from those of other bloggers? I’ve ignored the general rule to be brief. I tend to write essays. I try to keep a conversational tone so that you, yes you, will feel that you are engaged with me and that I take you seriously, because I do. I hope that people will think about the topics, not necessarily just turn the page and forget about the issues I raise. I’m older than most bloggers, half of whom are between 18 and 34, again according to NM Incite. And, of course, the last time I checked I’m not a woman, as are more than 50% of bloggers.

Question #6: For whom do you write? I start out with topics that are of interest to me, so I begin by writing for my own satisfaction and enjoyment of the process of putting words on the electronic white board of the Internet. I also try to do a bit of education, touch the heart every so often, and produce an occasional smile. I hope to have done a bit of all three before the end of this post.

I write, in part, for my adult daughters, so that they will have this small piece of me to hold on to, kind of like Jor-El in Superman, who created a hologram of himself so that his son (aka Clark Kent) could interact with and consult his father even though he was long gone. I’m not planning to leave the planet for a while, but the idea of emptying myself of whatever I have learned about life has some appeal, whether for them or those sympathetic and kind souls who find what I have to say has some value.

Question #7: Does any of this make you a “Beautiful Blogger?” The adjective in question — “beautiful” — is probably not the first one that comes to your mind when you look at my picture, but, as the old maxim tells us, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

Seriously though, I will say one more thing: I’m pleased that you are reading my work. If you enjoy what I do I’d be grateful for you to pass it on. And to show my thanks, here is something of beauty that doesn’t require a vote or a nomination — a performance to tug at your heart: Slower Than Slow (La plus que lente) by Debussy; four minutes of music that expresses things that words cannot.

The June, 1988 Bonn, Germany image of people wearing sandwich board advertisements comes from the German Federal Archives by way of Wikimedia Commons. This sort of ad was common during the Great Depression. You even see an occasional sandwich board today, usually during “going out of business” sales.