The perennial flogger many clients use to beat themselves in therapy is the “But my life is too good to be this distraught about it.” This is also a criticism thrown against psychotherapy in general, basically judging that “it could be worse so what are you complaining about”.
As a clinician I have always had responses that mediocrely suffice in addressing this honest conundrum. They are even ones I deeply believe. And yet when I am in the role of the client in my own therapy, I often bump against the same dissonance when I earnestly understand that my life is so profoundly good and yet I can be filled with what feels like so much suffering.
Fortunately, when clients are involved in active trauma, they get lost much less frequently in whether or not they are allowed to claim suffering. Not because they would necessarily defend the acuteness of their situation, but simply because they don’t have the mental space to contemplate. They are focused on survival. It is fortunate because lodging this critique against ourselves adds insult to injury; we are already suffering and now we add self-hate to that stew.
This flogger of judgement and shaming is used by those whose external lives are not the largest of their issues. They may be in a rough spot in their lives, like getting a divorce, or fighting with a teen-aged child at home, or in a career crisis. It may even be more acute, like facing a frightening medical diagnosis or losing a loved one to death. But most of us know that those are common experiences, and while difficult, hard to argue as traumatic suffering with a capital T and S. Neither I nor my clients are in concentration camps, or currently in child sex slave rings, or living in a city being bombed daily with family, friends and neighbors dying in the streets.
My Go-To Arguments Against Comparisons
I have my go-to responses when clients start to head down this path. I remind them that they have never suggested their situation is tantamount to being tortured as an enemy spy. I remind them they have never attempted to divert resources away from those in dire conditions because they thought they deserved it more. I remind them that when their child breaks their arm, they don’t challenge them about crying because “at least you have an arm”. I remind them I have never heard them attempt to equalize suffering as if it is all the same. I remind them that we usually treat our migraines even though they aren’t brain tumors; hell, we even treat our headaches.
These tactics work well enough to free up some space to simply allow clients to have their feelings, tend to them, grieve and mend them. But when I am the client, I know these conceptualizations still aren’t quite enough to explain why my suffering feels so very very big in the absence of active traumatic conditions in my current life.
We are Not Suffering; We are Remembering When We Did
I loathe to call this an epiphany, since my psychoanalytic readings have frequently offered me this theoretical frame, and my poor therapist has said as much to me likely dozens of times over the years. The current suffering of my soul is recall from childhood.
To be clear, my childhood was better than most in most ways, more brutal than others in a handful of ways, but not compromised enough to ever help me understand why I have so much internal trauma from my childhood years. In fact, even applying the word “trauma” to my experience can be rough, as I was surely loved and protected from so much of the world’s hardships.
Here is the epiphany though. But to consider it you must hold in mind children you know. A three-year old, a five-year old, a seven-year old, and 11-year old, or whatever ages you can remember of your own childhood hardship. When my mother rolled her eyes at me, I wasn’t me. I was a little kid. I was a little kid who needed a mommy to approve of me, to love me, to help me understand the very confusing ways of the world. Think about one of those little kids you have in mind. Think about them trying to process one of their most valued others dismissing them with an eye roll.
I am choosing “eye roll” as my example because we can all likely agree this is hardly trauma or violence. It is almost benign in the adult world. It might hurt a tiny bit in adult world, even be wildly disrespectful and demeaning, but in the overall scheme it is minuscule. But not to a kid if done by a primary care-taker, a loved/needed other. When I roll my eyes at my 11-year old kid, and I have, it is emotionally devastating. He feels its intended impact, which is dismissal and disregard, invalidation and mockery. He is tender and I am everything to him. It leaves him confused about where he stands with me, if he is safe and loved. His internal world becomes bruised and he is left internally disorganized and adrift.
In his world, however, he has a mom he can push up against. He can protest the eye roll. He can tell me I hurt him. And I will own it. I will apologize. I will reassure him of his safety and that he is loved, and that sometimes I am an asshole for reasons that are not about him. As disorienting as my eye roll may be in the moment, we will recover, and he will not be left alone with his confusion and ensuing self-doubt.
For me, the eye rolls, and the many other confusing interactions I had with my very traumatized and traumatizing mother, were left for me to make sense of. I spent the bulk of my childhood anxiously hoping to find a secure path to love with my mother, hoping to heal us both. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work. I was left feeling scared, alone, and uncertain of what was so wrong with me that my mother could enact such cruelty against me. Even as I write this, I hate how dramatic it sounds, but the drama isn’t the concrete experiences. The drama is that it was a child’s mind and a child’s emotional and psychological system that was receiving the interactions.
Some Clinical Theory
Wilfred Bion, one of my favorite analytic theorists, has a concept of Container and Contained. He suggests that in large part the reason infants scream their heads off in absolute panic and terror is that the largeness of their feeling states are so much bigger than the psychological space they have built internally to hold them in. He explains that we must grow our capacity to hold/tolerate/metabolize emotional experiences. In fact, his view of the goal of therapy is not about reduction of suffering per se, but rather increasing the client’s capacity, their Container, for holding and metabolizing their suffering, the Contained.
Back to Me
The suffering I feel now is recall of a time when the experiences I had to contain were significantly bigger than the internal container I had available to process my emotional life. As a result, much of what I felt as a scared child uncertain if I could be or should be or would ever be loved has been left inside me un-metabolized. Un-metabolized in the disproportionate configurations created by big feelings with small containers to hold them. What has been left inside me unprocessed is additionally overlaid with the panic and terror of a scared child alone with more than she can handle.
So I, like many of my clients, who have good enough lives, are still left with feelings from before a time we had the sophistication and experience to keep things proportionate.
So What Now
A few months ago, after years of crawling through damp and murky and scary parts of my unconscious, looking for the root of my own suffering, I finally found that terrified, overwhelmed little girl crouched in the darkest corner. I had heard her whimpers and pleas and protests and tears for years, and had tried to comfort her and listen to her and take care of her, but until I really found her, all alone, I just didn’t understand how young and vulnerable she was. And until I found her, she was still alone.
My own methods of hiding my most vulnerable self are in competence, irreverence, cynicism, and rejection of sentimentality. My ex used to call me toughy-knickers. When I told my son - who has been watching me in complete meltdown mood the last few months – about the name, he suggested we change that to blubbery-knickers. I agreed. And believe it to be a massive step-forward.
The path to emotional freedom isn’t easy. Sometimes I wish I could spend less time inside my unconscious, my history, and my truths. But unfortunately, I am just not that person. And what I also know is that each discovery I make allows me more emotional freedom to be me, as opposed to a defended version of me that has to do things like hide a terrified internal child with sarcasm and cynicism.
Psychotherapy is an Essential Tool for Excavation Work
Some folks are surprised or put off by the idea of a psychotherapist going to their own psychotherapy. By contrast, those of us doing serious psychotherapy, as opposed to validating/supportive/crises counseling, have zero respect for a therapist who hasn’t used their own tool.
I will try to write a post soon about why all real psychotherapists must, and do, also go to therapy, but the point I want to make here is this: If we want to travel on dark paths with uneven terrain and lots of boogie-men, which is the realm of the unconscious, we most certainly do not want to be alone when we are excavating. We need someone who has traveled their own paths, knows how to carry ropes and flashlights, knows when a road is too dangerous without building reinforcements first, and has enough of their wits about them to lead us back out when we get disoriented. Oh, and they need to be brave. Very very brave.
My internal child isn’t alone anymore. She isn’t carrying the weight of her fear and her suffering all by herself anymore. And truthfully, her load just isn’t that heavy for a grown woman.
Speaking of Scared Little Kids in Compromised Positions
The last year has been pretty brutal for people of conscious as we watch children detained in detention centers without their parents. Thinking about loads of children scared and cold and hungry and alone and without basic comforts, knowing that their child minds might think their parents didn’t want them anymore and that maybe they were bad, is unbearable.
It is unbearable in its own right, in that no child should suffer like this and we must do everything we can to prevent it. But I think besides it being so truly horrible in the concrete real world, it is also having a traumatizing impact on all of us. It is traumatizing because we all have little kids in the unconscious realm who are also scared and lonely. Some of us are connecting to these kids through our own suffering, and some folks are working very hard to NOT connect with their internal child and so must dismiss the idea that these kids are suffering or have to tell themselves the kids, like their internal child, must deserve it and therefore get no sympathy from them. Both the lovers and the haters are being traumatized right now.
If you are one of the lovers, distraught about these young kids in detention centers, bring it up in therapy, because one of the little kids who is scared that you need to talk about is you.
Smith is an analytically oriented psychotherapist with 25 years in practice. She is additionally the Founder/Director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice, which specializes in matching clients with seasoned clinicians in the Greater Philadelphia Area.
If you are interested in therapy and live in Philadelphia or the Greater Philadelphia Area, please let Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice match you with a skilled, experienced psychotherapist based on your needs and issues as well as your and own therapists' personalities and styles. All of our therapists are available for telehealth conferencing by phone or video in response to our current need for social distancing.
For more or related topics in blog and video blog, follow the links below:
Life Isnt Easy or Fair: Idealization Tortures Us Thinking It Should Be
In Defense of Long-term Psychotherapy
I Don't Want to Talk About Rwanda: and Other False Comparisons