I'll never forget the day I met Peter.
Or at least, that's what I will call him. He was the kind of person who saw a world full of threats, full of anger and ready to strike at would be predators. Peter came to therapy for the socially acceptable "anger problem" that many men cite as the reason for which I receive their calls. Peter described himself as a loner, someone who was frequently in and out of relationships that ended suddenly because he could not control his temper.
"I don't know why I would get this way," he would say.
When I started seeing Peter, I was still early in my training. Just as Peter was overzealous about his tendency to treat his relationships aggressively, rather than carefully, I was eager to neatly assess, categorize, solve, and treat his anger rather than just be present with him, which is what therapy is all about.
We spent a good three months dancing around his anger, its origins, its purpose, and its role in his life. One session, I got really excited when Peter revealed that his father also struggled with anger. "Finally," I thought, "something I can put my finger on, something I can understand." I honed in on his relationship with his dad, only to discover another rabbit hole that led to a wonderland of dead ends. Over time, Peter started to cancel his appointments with me. He started to disengage from therapy, giving me the blank stare of someone who really would rather be somewhere else. I've since recognized this as a sign that therapy is not going as well as it should, which used to freak me out. I would get really anxious, recognizing that something wasn't right, but uncertain what to do about it.
Being in the moment is as much about being seen as it is about seeing.
One afternoon, during what Peter told me would be his last session, I made the best therapeutic decision I've ever made. I gave up. Well, maybe not entirely. I guess I should qualify that statement by saying that up until my decision to give up, I had been working so hard to really see Peter, to understand him, to intuitively grasp what I was missing. Why could I not figure him out? Once I decided to stop treating Peter like a puzzle, I chose to do the only thing left: be present.
I've discovered that my tendency to try to figure someone out is mostly about my anxiety. I am anxious about my craft, anxious about my client's welfare, or about whether I am a good therapist. But when I chose to let go of these fears, an amazing thing happened. I truly listened to Peter's story. Peter was singing a familiar tune at the moment, telling me about a time when his father was badly berating him. Even though I had listened to the story before, I heard something this time that I had yet to fully grasp.
His loss. His sense of pain. His shame.
I noticed a familiar tightness at the base of my throat when he shared about how badly it hurt to hear his father shame him again, and again. When I realized that I was reacting emotionally to Peter, I began to withdraw, thinking about all the textbooks I had read that seemed to be screaming at that moment to hold it in, keep it together, to be a cyborg therapist. Therapists have a four letter word for times like this we call transference, which are moments during which we impose ourselves on our clients.
But rather than cave to these and other criticisms rolling through my head at the moment, I just let myself be. I let Peter see my reaction to his pain. Peter looked up from his brief diatribe to make sure I was still in the room. I'm sure he was surprised by my sudden lack of interruption. When he saw my face, I could tell he was apprehensive. He was not certain what to do with my reaction. "What's wrong?" He asked. "I'm just hurting for you." I responded. "I'm sorry for what you've been through." He was quiet for a few moments. But after a few moments, he lifted his head and said,
I think I get angry at every friend I've ever had because they wouldn't say what you just said.
Now I don't want to give you the impression that this is how therapy always works. Most of the time I have to keep firm boundaries around my emotions, my opinions, and my beliefs. That's okay. But on this day, and in this session, it turns out that Peter needed me to real with him, to be vulnerable. He needed me to risk being present with him. Because when I chose to be available to Peter, I extended a compassion to him that, as Brene Brown has written, can only take place between equals. Compassion is exactly what Peter did not know he was looking for. He needed me to step outside of my usual cyborg role and become a full blown human being. He needed me to stop trying to see him. Rather, he needed to see me. He needed to see someone else hurt on his behalf. He needed to believe that his pain meant something.
Sometimes we think caring and compassion are about insightful words or warm feelings.
But most of the time, compassion is about letting people see you. Letting them see your raw and real reactions to their devastation. Not always. Sometimes folks just want you to listen. Sometimes they want a cheerleader, encouraging them to get out of the mud but not getting into it with them. That would scare them into stillness.
But other times, people want to know that their mud matters. And the only way to do that is by getting dirty. Letting people know that yeah, this really does suck. I don't like it and I wish neither of us were here. This is why it feels so powerful to see your pain on another's face. It's validating. You become real. You matter.
Peter mattered. This was the first time in a long time that he beleived it. This session exudes of one of those rare "Aha!" moments in therapy that every young therapist hopes for, but that rarely emerge in a moment of clarity this way. But every once in a while, if you are willing to take a risk, to shut off the cyborg and to become human, to be present, you may be shocked by the outcome.