It’s a funny thing that you know you’re doing good work in therapy when your language gets really simple, almost childish. Which is ironic, because studying to be a therapist means you have to learn a lot of pretentious jargon. Therapists go to conferences and, depending on what style of therapy we practice, we talk about the Superego and Neuroses, cognitive distortions, transference and countertransference, internalized objects, relational matrices, etc, etc, etc. Big words and complex concepts that make us feel knowing and smart.
But when it comes to therapy, simple is better than complex. Good work in therapy often sounds like sentences that begin:
I am not.
I don’t like.
I call these “Statements of Self.” These are the phrases that get lost in early experiences of abuse and violation, and sometimes in simple misunderstandings from well-meaning parents. When a child hears, “But you love Grandma!” that confuses the true (at least, true in the moment) statement of self “I hate Grandma.” We learn to disconnect from that organic seed of of Self when we hear things like “Don’t be stubborn,” or “That’s not nice, go hug your Auntie,” or “You just spent all day at school, you don’t want to watch TV.” (Being told you don’t want something you actually want, or vice versa, is very confusing to a child. It’s frustrating to hear, “No I will not permit you to watch TV,” but it is at least not confusing.)
Later in life, when a friend or lover says, “You’re so needy,” that shaming distances us from our core human expression of “I need.” Or when an employer says, “You should be happy with this promotion,” we can disconnect and feel confused about why we are not happy. We lose our Statements of Self, and so we lose some Self.
Eventually we turn the dismissal and mockery inward. “I’m so needy,” “I’m a bad person for not loving my Dad better,” “I am not supposed to want that, so I will try not to.”
Ironically, these Statements of Self can be used to cover as much as they can reveal. In my own early days of going to counseling, I once told my therapist, “I’m not really an angry person.” My words came out of what one theorist, Donald Winnicott, called “The False Self,” rather than “The True Self.” The False Self is what we pretend to be in order to get by, to be liked by others, sometimes to just survive and get some of what we need. When we humans have to choose between self and love, we’ll choose love every time; No one can survive without love. And so we use our words to disconnect from our True Selves, in order to receive love for our False Selves… Which, in the end, is unsatisfying love. And so we find ourselves trapped in an endless loop, and the resulting symptoms are depression, anxiety, and a vague sense of emptiness that we may try to fill with substances or sex or gambling or any number of things.
When I insisted I was not an angry person, my therapist saw through that False Self. She responded with, “Oh Christine, we’re all angry people.”
A few months later, with her kindness surrounding me, I found more of my true, core self. “I’m mad,” I said. “Wait, no. That’s not right. I AM SO MAD. I AM REALLY MAD.” Other statements of self followed. “I like waking up early. I am not always nice. I need more attention from my husband. I want to write.” And, eventually, “I want to go back to school and become a therapist.”
Poet Marge Piercy describes this “Statement of Self” process in one of her poems, centered around a female college student:
Unlearning to not speak
Blizzards of paper
in slow motion
sift through her.
In nightmares she suddenly recalls
a class she signed up for
but forgot to attend.
Now it is too late.
Now it is time for finals:
losers will be shot.
Phrases of men who lectured her
drift and rustle in piles:
Why don’t you speak up?
Why are you shouting?
You have the wrong answer,
wrong line, wrong face.
They tell her she is womb-man,
babymachine, mirror image, toy,
earth mother and penis-poor,
a dish of synthetic strawberry icecream
She grunts to a halt.
She must learn again to speak
starting with I
starting with We
starting as the infant does
with her own true hunger
Starting as the infant does, indeed. These are the first words toddlers learn to say: “No,” “Yes,” “I want,” “I don’t like.” They are rooted in hunger, and pleasure, and rage. They are the most true and human feelings.
Sometimes when I’m in my therapist chair, I get lost in my own love of big words. I catch myself rambling on about attachment theory, or projective identification, indoctrinating my clients into an honorary psychology degree. But then I catch myself. Their hearts, their true selves, don’t speak that language. On a good day (and there have been plenty of bad days where I just keep babbling), I slow down and wait for a child’s language to emerge. Yes. No. I’m scared. I don’t like this. These are always the most true things, the foundation for growth and healing. These Statements of Self help us find and hold onto our true selves. And when we can know and speak out of our True Selves, we can allow that True Self to be seen and loved by others.