Julie interrupts herself mid-thought, rolls her eyes and sighs. “You must be so sick of hearing me complain about the same thing every week.” She keeps her gaze up at the ceiling, afraid to look at me to receive my answer.
This question is designed to elicit an, “of course not!” reply from friends, family, partners. But I’m not a friend. I am her therapist.
My heart aches, because I know how much pain, fear, and worry there is behind this question. I work hard to make therapy a safe and inviting place to share everything, but for many clients, self-criticism and self-judgment still prevail. A critical inner voice still convinces them that they are not likable, not worthy of compassion, or “not good at therapy.”
And so they ask me if I’m sick of them.
The answer (truly) is: no, I am honestly, authentically not sick of you.
When I told this to Julie, she said she believed me… mostly.
That critical inner voice inside her was still skeptical, though, that there was something else I was thinking that I wasn’t sharing. So for the benefit of the inner critics in many people’s heads (maybe yours too), here are a few other versions of the “you must be sick of me” worry, and what I’m (or your therapist is) really thinking.
“Other people have it worse than me, I shouldn’t be complaining.”
This is another way of saying “I don’t deserve to feel bad,” which generally also means “I don’t deserve to feel better.”
That inner critic voice believes that you receiving care or help will somehow prevent other people from getting the same. There is not, however, a finite amount of empathy in the world. Everyone suffers, and everyone deserves compassion and understanding.
Feelings are feelings, we don’t control them and we don’t decide when to feel something based on whether it’s a good time to feel or if other people are feeling something too.
When you make a self-deprecating comment about first-world problems or compare your suffering to other people’s pain, what I am thinking is: one of my deepest wishes is that you can treat yourself with the same kindness with which you treat others.
Honoring your own suffering and taking care of yourself doesn’t mean you have to lose perspective or stop caring about oppression, war, your friend’s serious depression, or your parents’ divorce.
It means you put on your own oxygen mask first. Self-care and self-compassion actually leave you more willing and able to care about others, not less.
“I’m not doing therapy right.”
I want to put air quotes around almost every word in that statement. First, because therapy is so often more about being than “doing,” and secondly, because there is no “right” way.
It’s normal to want to use therapy time well, and many people are unsure how to do that. After all, therapy is weird—there’s nothing else like it. There’s no reason you should know how to do it, especially if this is your first time in therapy.
Plus, out in the rest of the world, you can often use “being uncomfortable” as a cue that things aren’t going well, but in therapy being a little uncomfortable is often a sign that you’re talking about the necessary difficult stuff of your life. Of course you have questions about “doing” “it” “right.”
Underneath the surface layer of this worry is another difficult, sticky layer. There’s a core belief, cooked up by that inner critic voice, that says nothing you do is ever good enough, that you are not good enough.
When you ask me if you are “doing therapy right,” what i am thinking is: I bet you feel this “not good enough/fraud/screw-up” feeling a lot. And I bet that is really deflating and depleting. What I really want you to be “doing” is feeling the good-enough-ness of this moment right now… and now this moment, and this one too.
“You only like me because I pay you.”
Money is a factor in therapy. So is caring. It’s understandably a hard thing to reconcile, the money and the deeply personal nature of therapy. In order for therapy to work both things are needed—the money because I need to pay the rent on my office and put groceries in my fridge, and the caring because it is impossible for me to do this work without caring about you.
When a client states this belief—that I don’t really like them—what I want to I say is, how do you know? I usually ask if there is anything in my voice or body language, words or facial expressions, that is telling them that I am bored or sick of them.
The answer is always no. That’s because the worry about being disliked or unlikable is coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE. It’s the inner critic voice telling you that you aren’t worthy of attention, care, compassion. Telling you that if anyone ever got to know the real you, they would run screaming.
What I am really thinking is: it sounds like your inner critic has got you pretty convinced that you are unlikable, even when evidence to the contrary is right in front of you, in the form of me feeling interested, understanding, and yes, genuinely liking you. Believe me, I can relate to how painful and lonely it is to be trapped by your inner critic in this way.
Getting out of the inner critic trap
If you are anything like Julie, your critical inner voice probably stops you from fully believing any of what I’m really thinking. Julie didn’t fully believe these things the first time I said them either, or the second or third. After enough therapy sessions and enough times hearing me say these things, eventually her inner critic was able to soften enough to start letting it all in.
“You must be so sick—.” This time she interrupted her inner critic, instead of her inner critic interrupting her. It was a turning point, in which part of her was in charge of what she said, what she thought, what she believed. She turned her gaze from the ceiling back to me, made eye contact, and smiled.