Peter Gabriel’s song, Digging in the Dirt, from his album Us is based on his experiences in therapy.
This is a live version of his song and I’m sharing it because the original video of the song, (which I’ll link to here) can freak out people who don’t like creepy-crawlies. I do think the original video does a good job of showing how when we are in pain, we often lash out at the people around us.
If you do watch the original, I’m curious — do you think the little boy he burns by pouring the coffee wrong is himself? Or is it the way he hurt his own children before he got help? (In interviews, Gabriel has confirmed that one reason he went into therapy is that he was struggling in his relationship with at least one of his daughters, describing himself as a “weekend father” who should have been more involved. Perhaps the therapy worked since his daughter toured with him as this video shows.)
“I’m digging in the dirt
To find the places I got hurt
Open up the places I got hurt.”
I remember when I was in my early 30s and seeing a therapist to process my experience with infertility. At the beginning I had so much to say that I didn’t know how I would make it between sessions. Then after (I thought) I had said it all, I would worry before appointments that she’d be disappointed because I didn’t have an idea about what we should talk about.
I used to plan our topics. All week I would store up events or musings and I’d have them neatly prepared. I would continue to do this even after I realized that during most of our appointments we’d end up talking about something completely different. She’d ask about something we discussed the session before or in our casual opening we’d end up on a subject I hadn’t even considered. But I’d wrench us back around to the topic I had planned even if it fell flat because I thought I was supposed to.
I didn’t know then that it was more than OK to just show up. I didn’t have to have a topic prepared. I didn’t have to know what we were going to talk about. I could let the conversation happen organically and trust her to help me figure out what I wanted to say.
Therapy is a lot like writing. Sometimes you come to the page with a plan and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you have it all outlined and mapped out and sometimes you’re free writing whatever comes into your head no matter how messy and disorganized and ungrammatical it might be.
You can’t have too much of one or too much of the other. Yes, you do need to have goals and you need to pay attention to your goals but you also need time when you’re sitting in the chair riffing on whatever comes up.
You and your therapist are working in collaboration. You don’t have to come up with every topic and she’s not going to always lead the way. The two of you will discover what it is you’re working on through the course of your conversations. If you do too much editing (especially if you’re not bringing things up because you are afraid she will be upset or bored) then she’ll be working with less material than she needs. If you try to plan your topics because you’re afraid that she will be annoyed if you sit there blankly saying nothing then you may lose the opportunity to see what the silence will bring to you.
(Sitting in silence with a person who is wholly tuned in to you can be very powerful. Try it sometime.)
Therapy is collaborative creation and growth. Trust the process and give yourself permission to allow the session to unfold however it will.
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Another therapist commented on this post about finding a new therapist and I thought it’d be great to bring it over to a new post and continue the discussion. Anna said:
I agree that being a good fit is important. I try my best to be a good therapist and I believe I am open to clients sharing anything with me. I believe in creating a non-judgmental environment. I even like when clients say they are mad at me or didn’t like something I said. It tells me we have that open relationship to talk about those things and sometimes those discussions lead to a greater understand of the situation. Yet, I sometimes get clients who don’t seem to connect with me, or maybe I don’t connect with them. These are the clients who don’t stay long. I’d love any suggestions on how to improve this (if it can be improved). I wonder if sometimes you just have to find the right therapist for you. I have an example without giving any specifics, I had a client recently who called asking for help with a certain issue. Whenever I brought the issue up, the client deflected. I tried working on other issues because I didn’t want to push too hard but the client kept going to “safe” topics. Needless to say, the client quit coming. Do you have any suggestions for this situation? Does it mean it isn’t a good fit or the client isn’t ready? Any suggestions are welcome.
I don’t think that any therapist can be the right counselor for every client because we are all so very, very different. I think sometimes a client who doesn’t get very far from us may not be ready to go far but also I think sometimes they just aren’t going to be able to do that work with us.
As to whether it’s because we’re not a good fit or because the client isn’t ready, sometimes I don’t think we’ll get to know. Sometimes it might be a little bit of both.
And that makes me think about counselor ego (not that Anna brought this up but it made me think about it).
Being a therapist is weird because we don’t really get any feedback. I mean, we do, we get feedback from our clients but given the nature of counselor/client relationships, we can’t really go with that. Sometimes a client will say, “I love working with you!” and it’s because we’re not being confrontational enough (like Anna says, sometimes our clients need to be mad at us and maybe NOT love working with us, at least not right in that moment). And we get to be witness to client success but any therapist worth her salt knows that client success belongs to the client.
Besides we can’t get our egos all wrapped up in any definition of success like a marriage saved or a job promotion secured or a child who learns how to behave because that’s a very limited view of success. Sometimes success looks like understanding a marriage is over or quitting a job or realizing that “good” behavior in one child doesn’t look like “good” behavior in another.
But back to the bad fit — this is one of those go with your gut things. If you feel like it’s time to push a client, then push. If you feel she isn’t ready, don’t push. I also think that in these cases where we’re not sure that we should seek out peer support. I don’t think any counselor — no matter how experienced — ought to be working in isolation. That means finding peers whose skills and knowledge overlap in some ways (so they can help give you perspective on kids if you work with kids) and don’t overlap in other ways (so they can help broaden your ability to work with all kinds of people).
If connection is an ongoing problem, if a counselor is feeling like her connection rate is down, then I’d say it might be time to look into some counseling ourselves. When we’re depleted or overwhelmed or preoccupied with other things, sometimes this can come through in our ability to be present with our clients. We might need help focusing on some self care or getting the attention we need (because to give loving attention we need to be getting loving attention).
If you are the client who isn’t connecting, I’d bring it up to the therapist if you feel comfortable or if you think the relationship is worth salvaging. Remember, it’s your relationship with your counselor that is the best predictor of your success in therapy so if you’re not feeling it, talk to her or go elsewhere. Just don’t give up on counseling because there are a zillion and one counselors out there, which means there is definitely the right one for you.
Early in grad school one of my professors said that our job as counselors means being the healthiest person we can be at that moment in that place with our clients. He said, “You may be the healthiest person they interact with that week.”
I began thinking about this in other contexts. Like I began saying to myself, “Right now in this moment, in this place be the healthiest person you can be in this conversation with tech support.” Or “Right now at this moment, in this place the healthiest person you can be while you try to get your child to see reason about cleaning her room.”
I liked this because it felt do-able; I didn’t have to be the healthiest person I could be all of the time, because that felt overwhelming. I took it one bit at a time, one moment, one place at a time.
Change is hard and sometimes so daunting that we can’t see the way to do it. We vow to stop yelling at our kids then they drop the carton of eggs on your just mopped kitchen floor. Instead of giving up and yelling, we can try saying, “What would a non-yelling person do right now? In my healthiest most non-yelling version of my self, what would I do instead?” If we forget and yell anyway, we can give ourselves time to think back and write ourselves an imaginary do-over then we can do that better thing next time.
When we’re arguing with someone (a boss, a friend, a partner) and we feel ourselves becoming overwhelmed with anger or fear we can tell ourselves, “I can be the healthiest person I can be in this conversation and what do I imagine this healthiest person would say? Would that person argue back? Or would she choose not to engage? Would she try to change this person’s point of view or accept our differences? Would she allow herself to listen to this or would she walk away?”
What would our aspirationally healthy selves do and say if we gave them room to do and say it?
I think my son was four when he decided he had to be right about everything. Four is generally the time when kids find their inner sassy. (Some kids get there earlier; some kids are born full of sass.) Anyway, he was around four and suddenly he was always right and I was always wrong. He’d make wrong statements full of confidence.
“Mommy,” he’d say. “Birds can’t fly in the rain.”
“Sure they can, sweetie,” I’d answer, thinking I was still talking to my reasonable 3-year old. “Remember yesterday when we were outside in the drizzle and we saw that cardinal flying?”
“No, they can’t. Because the raindrops hit their wings and they crash.”
“But don’t you remember? We saw the cardinal. Let’s look it up in your bird book.”
“Nope,” he’d say, casually swinging on the arm of the couch. “I don’t need to look it up because I already looked it up” (said the kid who couldn’t even read yet) “and the book says they can’t.”
I’d catch myself in these arguments several times a day. Peanut butter isn’t made of peanuts. Target sells zoo animals. Daddy has the day off tomorrow. New York is the capital of Cuba.
I don’t know why it drove me so crazy but man, it drove me crazy.
“Cheerios are made of green cheese,” he’d announce, calmly eating a bowl for breakfast. “Cats are humans in disguise. You were born during dinosaur days. I can fly on Thursdays.”
Ok, I’m exaggerating and also I don’t remember what we were arguing about, which is my point actually, because the arguments — or at least winning them — didn’t matter.
It took me awhile to figure that out. For a long time I’d try to be reasonable and then I’d try to prove my point and then I’d get louder and soon we’d be glaring at each other, our day ruined and tear-stained all because for some reason I really needed my 4-year old to acknowledge that I do SO know how to bake cake and the ingredients do NOT include ground up birthday candles.
Four year olds are practicing being in charge and they are practicing their command of their growing vocabularies. In The First Five Years of Life, Gesell writes about a 4-year old who asserts that a nursing lamb is getting gasoline from his mother. Writes Gesell:
In a vague yet concrete way he knew that gasoline is a source of energy. Gasoline makes things, including lambs, go. Four has powers of generalization and of abstraction which he exercises … frequently and deliberately. … [However] we underestimate the vastness of his terra incognita. An intelligent 4-year old, while building a playhouse, was heard to say, “Houses do not have tails.” This lucid judgment was the sober product of an inquiring mind. Four has a busy rather than a profound mind. His thinking is consecutive and combinative rather than synthetic.
In other words, four knows what he knows and does not know what he does not know. Four is figuring things out and to figure things out we have to get things wrong.
When I argued with my son I was upending his process and really for no good reason. I mean, he’s seventeen now and he knows what cheerios are made of and that birds can fly when it’s raining. I can’t remember his specific wrong assertions because he quit asserting them. It all turned out eventually but I thought it was my job to teach him things even when he wasn’t interested in my teaching.
Fortunately when my daughter hit four I understood that it was better for all of us to just roll with it. I could respond to her statement, “The sky is purple” by saying, “Oh, is it?” or even “Tell me more” without even blinking.
I know, I know, it sneaks up on you. At one point your child is looking to you for Answers to All Things and next he’s basically saying that you know nothing. It happens at four and it happens at ten and it happens in the teens and I hear tell that adult children are awfully prone to correcting their parents particularly when it comes to new technology or the proper use of slang.
Here’s my takeaway in all of this:
- All behavior serves a purpose and often that purpose is developmental. Kids are supposed to get stuff wrong on their way to getting things right. If it isn’t a safety issue, see if you can comfortably let it go and trust them to figure it out. So what if they think the sky is purple. Who really cares, right?
- Sometimes what looks like misbehavior is really just behavior. A 4-year old clinging to a ridiculous belief isn’t actually being sassy as much as looking like sassy. Their initial assertion isn’t the problem, it’s the arguing that happens if we correct them. So again, maybe we can agree to disagree and skip the arguing.
As I say — often — parenting is not for sissies. Remember whether it’s your 4-year old or 14-year old who is driving you crazy, you can come to the Thursday night group Parenting Challenging Children for support, insight and ideas. Enrollment is ongoing.