The Gift of Relationship Building

So I’m writing about friendship and relationships again…When I was recovering from a migraine a couple of weeks ago what I wanted more than anything was for someone to make me a cup of tea.  Can cats be trained to make tea? I wondered.  I was on the mend but it took me quite a while to push myself to get off the couch to make the tea.  Regardless, it was one of the first times I could clearly remember wishing someone else was there to take care of me and not in a “I’m feeling sorry for myself, I’m so alone” kind of way.  I just remembered thinking about how nice it would be if the tea was there and made and I didn’t have to move my exhausted and woozy self.  And that I actually wanted someone there to be nice and take care of me was a weird weird experience for me.

I remember a few years ago I sprained my ankle and I had people from all over the place offering to do things for me.  Get groceries or whatever.  I put them off.  “No. No. It’s okay.  I’m fine”  You know how it is.  Nobody ever wants to admit, “Yeah groceries would be nice.” (If you have ever walked around a grocery store in a walking boot you know how exhausting it is.)  I pushed myself because it’s just “easier” to do it myself.  And to think I was actually going to go to work the next day and I had to be convinced to stay home.  It’s okay to take care of yourself.

This year especially I have realized it’s okay to admit shortcomings.  It is okay to admit I can’t and that nobody can do it all.  It is okay to want to be taken care of and to take care of yourself for that matter….But that is not really where I intended to go with this post.

Off and on my therapist and I have had conversations surrounding letting others do things for you.  It is okay to do things for other people but ya gotta let them do for you too.  She’s asked me how it feels when I have the opportunity to do something for someone, buy flowers, buy tea, drive someone somewhere, or let them sleep on your floor…It feels good.  It gives me a sense of control and demonstrates that I can matter to someone.  Being able to help someone feel better is a gift.  But when you or I don’t allow other people to do those same things for you, when needed, you or I are robbing them of that gift.  Now when I had my migraine it simply didn’t occur to me that I could ask friends or acquaintances to come make me tea.  I had people offer after the fact.  It just never occurred to me.  I guess that is the result of trying to do everything by myself for so long and being afraid of being hurt.  Definitely, being afraid of being hurt…But that I actually wanted someone there this time was even more astonishing to me.

My therapist says that doing for others and letting others do for you is how we establish relationships.  Being vulnerable and finding a safe place to land or a safe way to get your needs met is what draws us together as humans.  I have to learn to recognize the opportunities for joining in this way.  I have to recognize when to ask.

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Pre-session Musings

Written pre-session a few days ago…and yes I did share this with my therapist.

Many times when I leave K’s I am anxious, sometimes happy, sometimes satisfied, sometimes, a few times, desolate.  Primarily, with a few exceptions, it’s all for the same reason.  I give “my power” away too easily.  If it’s not to Mom, or my Aunt, or to K then it’s to someone else.  I try to do or want what they want, or what they think I should do or want.

Last week K and I talked about my need to “write my own rules” and taking responsibility for making my own decisions.  She asked if part of the reason why I struggle with any kind of action towards anything is that I still have the need to put blame or responsibility onto my parents for my life choices.  While in part that may be true I don’t know if it’s true in the way she intended.  It is true that sometimes I take a perverse kind of pleasure in berating myself for not, in my perception, doing what others, again in my perception, want me to do.  So in leaving K’s with these perceptions of what I “should” be doing, what actions, any actions I “should” be taking, I get a kind of permission to metaphorically self-harm.  There is this belief that I “should” be doing more simply from the belief that I am not doing enough.  I am stagnant.  And K will ask “for what and for whom” and I struggle to answer.  Just the shear number of answers to that question overwhelms me.  And it is then that I realize “for what or for whom” usually means any person I assign parental authority to.  And it is then that I ask, “how do I learn to parent myself?”

Frequently there is this feeling at K’s that I have ti take action now.  Do things now. Make decisions now.  But I feel the need to be patient.  If an opportunity comes along I’ll give it attention.  In the meantime, I feel the need to be patient, be aware, learn what I can now. Let things come in their own time.  Is this apathy?  Maybe in part.  Could I be doing more.  Probably.  But in answering that question the anxiety begins to creep in.

Sometimes I feel and sometimes I know K pushes me and challenges me the way she does just to see how far she can go until I push back.  Except frequently I get so wrapped up in my self imposed anxiety that I withdraw and head down the well-worn path of self-abuse and the endless refrain of “not good enough.”  Which is where the desolation has come from in the past.

My anxiety has decreased quite a bit from what it was in the past.  I’ve learned to take pleasure in more things.  I do more for myself simply because they give me pleasure and they are my choices to make.  It is an immense relief to live by myself without being hyperaware of what another person is doing and feeling.  Having my own space to do whatever I please with and in has helped enormously.  But then I think of college where I shared a suite with suite mates and it wasn’t a big deal.

My anxiety comes now from doing more of those things that make me happy while balancing the burdens and obligations of paying bills.  I don’t feel like I can be too adventurous without jeopardizing what little balance I have.  That’s what I meant when I told K last week that “I’m just focused on maintaining right now.”  That is where the majority of my energy goes.  Any extra is spent on simple pleasures that make the burdens more bearable.  The question is, how do I lighten the burdens of maintaining, two jobs I tolerate with paychecks that barely cover my needs, without upsetting the balance?  What can I risk? Where?  How?  When?

I’ve asked these questions.  I’ve asked these questions repeatedly.  How do I become my own person fully and to not feel so connected to the ifs, buts, ands, ors, and maybe nots, that I try to navigate around?

What opened my eyes last week was a discussion we’ve had in some form or another in the past.  I was talking about Dad and how he just doesn’t seem to care.  I always end up feeling that I should be doing more, calling more, making more of an effort, visiting more even.  Where is his effort???  Anyway, K made a statement about it not being about me, that maybe it has nothing to do with me.  It could be and very likely is entirely Dad’s own problem to deal with.  For so long, forever it seems like, I’ve made things, like Mom’s emotions, Dad’s level of interest, whether or not someone likes me, my problem.  I have been the one not doing enough, not doing the right things, not right, not good enough.  What if it has nothing to do with me?  I haven’t spoken up about my thoughts and feelings many different times because I made them my problem.  I was the one who never fit and I struggled because I knew how I felt and it never seemed right.

There are so many stories I tell myself based on partial or skewed information that scenarios or themes are created that really have little foundation.  Of course other people  go around creating their own stories too based upon their own inaccurate conclusions.  The story I have told myself for so long is that I am bad, that I’m an inconvenience, and that it is my responsibility to make my life the least intrusive it could possibly be.  In my core I still struggle with believing in my value and worth.  That anyone would actually enjoy my existence is a foreign concept.  That anyone could value my existence, as I valued theirs, doesn’t seem possible in my heart and mind…

In search of…

My eternal struggle seems to be how to make a close friend.  There are a number of people I consider friendly acquaintances and a few, one maybe, two maybe, with whom I am a little closer.  I don’t have a close personal friend to do stuff with, to confide in and generally depend upon.  The most enriching interactions I get on a regular basis are my appointments with my therapist.  In order to truly be ready for discharge (something we have discussed directly and indirectly) I feel like I need to develop or be on my way to developing a replacement relationship otherwise I will end up exactly where I started 6 plus years ago.  It’s terribly depressing not to have a socially and emotionally validating relationship other than the one with my therapist.  In many ways I believe this is what keeps me stuck when attempting to develop therapeutic relationships with my own clients.  I do not have outside validation in my personal life and so I struggle with having confidence in my “self” as an inherently valuable individual.  My sense of self is dependent on others I’d say about 50-60% of the time, sometimes more.  It is a long and complicated concept to explain but it makes sense to me in my own personal journal writing.  My therapist once said that she believes that if my cat could talk I would never leave my apartment, and sometimes I wonder if this is true.  Finding the right person to invest time in and interest in is difficult, especially as I have been by myself for so long.  I can hardly remember what it was like when I did have a close friend.  I don’t remember it being very difficult to make allowances for our individual differences.  I remember having fun and enjoying each others company.  So why now does it seem like developing close intimate friendships requires so much more energy and why now does it require so much more to make it feel worth it?

Most of my interactions with people are work related either with the mental health company I work for or for the grocery store chain I work for. (blah prepositions at the end of sentences)  Other than the occasional Meetup group for coffee or whatever, I am alone.  Sometimes I wonder if I am just one of those perpetually alone, aloof, people.  The ones that are invited to parties and who leave alone, quietly, unobtrusively, at the end of the night.  They make dry witty remarks and are quite amusing but no one could mistake them for the life of the party.  But then no, because I usually prefer to be in bed, alone, in the quiet, by 9 or 10pm.  The quiet away from other people is what I prefer and yet I long for supportive, mutually validating, reflective, enjoyable, worthwhile relationships.

In the past I’ve sought out, purposefully sometimes and without purpose at other times, friendships? mentorships? with older adult women.  Excuse my mommy issues please.  I’ve lost the ability to make friends with peers.  I’ve lost the patience and attention and focus, perhaps?  I don’t know.  Friendships, I know, take time to cultivate but first I feel as if I need to see that there is someone or something I want to get to know.  I’ve met many perfectly nice people but where is that quality that draws us together, that makes it feel worthwhile?  If it requires work without interest or validation then it is just not worth it to me.  It would be like eating broccoli if you hate it.  It is good for you but you hate it and  you don’t see the point.  Why pursue something, like a relationship, if you are miserable?  And so, it has to be worth it to me.  A relationship, any relationship, has to be worth it to both parties.  When it no longer matters to one or the other then it kind of just drifts away because one person cannot force it to continue.  It’s impossible.  I just have to find my “worth it” friendships.  Whatever that means…

Together Alone

I know I have been lax in my blogging again.  Frequently it is an event that sparks my return to the blogging format.  This past week my therapist informed me that my next session would be my 200th.  That’s not 200 hours because she frequently goes above and beyond the therapeutic hour.  We do good work together.  The culmination of this work lead to a discussion of termination in the not too distant future.  It excites me but scares me at the same time, not because I don’t think I could handle it but because I would miss the conversation, the processing, and the interaction.  Socialization is one of the things I have to work on, developing relationships and friendships outside of the therapeutic relationship.

So that is what I have been thinking a lot about since my session early this past week.  My therapist has told me often that different friends meet different needs.  Someone you might hang out with at a ball game might not be someone you necessarily bring to a work party, for example.  My problem, if it can be called a problem, is that I don’t really have a clear idea of what my needs are.  I know I prefer more intimate social relationships than I do casual friendships.  I have work friends but I don’t know how many of them I would hang out with outside of work.  But then, I haven’t, so I don’t know.  One of my work friends could turn out to be a bestie.  I know from a social aspect I have loved my time with my therapist but I frequently confront the fact that in many of my relationships with women who are older than I am, I seek consciously or unconsciously to fill a surrogate mother/ daughter relationship.  I flourish like a plant turning towards a light source in their presence.  I feel like I glow with excitement.  However one friend who is nearly the exact same age as my mother I see and interact with more as a peer and I don’t get that striving kind of feeling from our friendship and it feels less intimate in some ways.  I guess I am trying to figure out what friendship looks like and feels like since it has been so long since I have had a relationship I could clearly define and count on as a friend.  And if that striving, intimate, nourishing feeling isn’t realistic or is something I need to do for myself, then what is a friendship and how do I do that for myself?  Logically I know a friendship is a connection between two people who enjoy spending time together.

Professionally, my therapist has helped me to see that I need practice in interacting socially.  I have the head knowledge, as she says.  But I need to develop my ability to interact with people.

I have also been wondering again about the mystery of what leads us to be drawn to one person over another.  Why, for example, did I choose my therapist?  She was a professor of mine during a summer studio class.  There were two professors so why her and not the other woman?  There was something about my therapist’s personality that I liked, obviously.  Why are we drawn to some people more than others?  I know some people who are perfectly nice and fine and would be a good friend probably but I am just not drawn?, compelled?, attracted?,  to them as I would be to someone else.  There were teachers like that in school too.  As for peers I remember feeling on the outside, like a third wheel.  It often didn’t feel natural.  The only time it didn’t I remember was with my middle school best friend.  I remember that same sense of inclusion during the Curves trip to see the Pirates play.  I was part of the group…I am getting off track.

Now as for that sense of belonging I know I felt somewhat separate from the group during my grad school experience.  There were groups of people who hung out together, smallish little groups of 2-3-4 people, and I didn’t really feel like I was a part of one of those.  I felt separate.  It was a lonely feeling but not unfamiliar.

One of the reasons I like working at Giant Eagle is that sense of belonging.  People know me.  Coworkers can count on me.  They see me as a good worker.  I have been there long enough to be a part of that camaraderie that comes from working in the trenches of a service industry.  I can joke freely and I am confident enough in the duties of my job that I can get in there and work as hard as the best of them.  Best of all are the regular customers.  I remember when I first started at Giant Eagle that I admired and longed for that sense of community.  Now I am one of those who can say, “Mr. So-and-so, you’re by yourself today!” or “Hey! You’re late today.”  I can joke with the regulars and they know me.  And in that sense, beyond the monetary one, working at Giant Eagle meets a very big need of togetherness and community, for me.

So…my point.  Friendship.  What is it?  What does it mean?  What needs does it meet?  How do I know if my expectations are too high?

Another language

In high school I, like many of the rest of us, was required to take a language in order to graduate.  I took a year of Latin and two years of Spanish because my Latin teacher ended up retiring after my first year of a language.  Regardless of the language, I struggled.  I think many of us do when learning another language.  Others however seem to learn another language more easily.  It is hard not to judge myself as being less worthy than these individuals.

This week my therapist equated the emotional aspects of therapy (both in providing therapy to others and to receiving therapy) to learning or using another language.  Some of us, many of us, grow up in a “bilingual” household.  Some households are more fluent in this other emotional language than others.  I feel as if I grew up in a household more unilingual than many and so I struggle with the emotional language.  I have a firm knowledge of the rules and shoulds, the “grammar” of the language, so to speak.  Applying this knowledge is more problematic.  I struggled growing up with using this other language.  For reasons, there were many times I did not feel as if it were safe.  It’s kind of like an immigrant who struggles to assimilate into an adopted culture.  After a while a child raised in this new culture forgets his birth language and is only vaguely familiar with it (and sometimes ashamed of it) when he or she becomes an adult.  They use their birth language clumsily and often without comfort.  This is me with regards to my emotional birth language.

Now, this is hugely problematic when it comes to providing therapy and providing therapy as an art therapist.  For me many times there is a sort of “lost in translation” effect.  I know the rules and the grammar but I don’t know the subtle nuances.  I don’t know the individual dialects because I am as of yet unfamiliar with my own.  There are times I doubt whether I will be.  This doubt, the amount of effort I have always had to apply to learning another language, the unfamiliarity, the discomfort I experience in not fully comprehending this emotional language is discouraging to say the least.  It creates doubt in that I’ll ever be a competent therapist.  Will I ever be able to do my clients justice, provide them with the help they need, if I cannot reconnect to my own emotional birth language and learn to recognize it in others?

My therapist has asked from time to time why I chose this profession if it is such a struggle for me.  Why would I not choose something with which I am more comfortable?  My answer to her:  “Because I need this.”

Unconditional

I know it has been a while since I last wrote.  I am writing today because I was informed this morning that a client’s pet died.  I keep looking at my cat, not even a year old yet, and wondering at her, cherishing her, holding her a little closer.  My client’s dog was old, half toothless, blind in one eye…my client’s family recused him.  He was roughly treated in his younger years and my client’s family made his last few years as comfortable as they could for him.  It’s a sad day for them.  I ponder the impact of unconditional love on us given to us by our pets.  I know a while ago, a couple of years at least, my therapist tried to get my then landlord to allow me a cat as a support animal.  I also know how much richer and better my life has been since I picked out Piper from her litter mates.  How much I’ve changed for the better just knowing that her warm little body and her ready purrs wait for me when I get home.  Piper was with me when I was in a house fire 8 almost 9 weeks ago.  She adjusted surprisingly well to the sudden upheaval, waking up in the middle of the night, being shoved into her cat carrier, being locked in an unfamiliar bathroom all night, the two (or was it three?) and a half weeks we spent at my Aunt’s, and then moving into a brand new apartment.  I still remember the way she used to curl up in the rug in front of my tv and wonder whether she remembers too.

Piper is my first cat that is all mine.  Growing up we had cats but they were family cats.  They belonged to all of us.  Piper is mine.  She knows me and I know her.  It was hard for me when we were at my Aunt’s, to listen to my Uncle get testy over what she is and isn’t allowed to do.  I get it.  Their house, their rules.  But she is so much a part of me it felt like a criticism of me.  I didn’t hate her for her natural behaviors and her personality, in fact while I was scared that we would be kicked out, I was also defensive of her.  I was angry at my Uncle.  This, getting defensive and taking care of my inner child, is something my therapist has tried to get me to do for my inner child practically since I started seeing her.  So in a way my cat embodies that inner child part, the vulnerable dependent part, and I am reminded constantly to take care of it, treat it with kindness, play with it, love it, honor it, and cherish it.

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The Stories We Live

This post might seem a little redundant at first. For a long time I believed there was something fundamentally wrong with me. Let that sink in for a moment. Many people grow up believing that yes they do good things and bad things but their essential sense of self is permanent, immovable. They might not even be conscious of it but they have this sense of okay-ness at their core. For reasons I can’t explain and are long and involved and don’t want to go into here, I have felt I did not have this essential sense of rightness. It is why for as long as I can remember I have looked for this sense of stability, something I can rely on, something to which I can attach myself, because I could not find this sense of rightness or stability within myself. I equate it to constantly being on a ship at sea, constantly adjusting, equilibrium always just a little bit off. I have been on a search for my land legs. I am tired of traveling the stormy seas.

Yesterday I came across this article posted on Psychology Today entitled “Imagining an Authentic Life.” For some reason, perhaps I was just receptive to its message, it really impacted me. The article talked about the stories we live and how they are composed for us, in this case by the author’s parents. I began thinking about the story that was composed for me and how all of the information I have taken in since I was a very little girl has gone towards supporting this story. I have finally begun to question this story of wrongness, of not good enough. Who says? And is this the story I want to continue living?

From the start my belief that something is wrong with me, something makes me essentially ‘less than” or unworthy, is something my therapist and I have worked on correcting. She, my therapist, has worked on pounding into my head the message that, “There is nothing wrong with me!” And yesterday for some reason I really realized just how much I was living someone else’s (Mom’s? My teacher’s?) story. It makes me sad.

I’ve beaten myself up for so long because I honestly and truly believed that I deserved it. I have been receiving messages or interpreting messages for so long that my wants, needs, inclinations, preferences, ways of learning or being in the world, etc. are wrong or shouldn’t be, that as a very little girl I distorted it into believing that there must be something wrong with me, my essential being.

And this is where my therapist would ask, “So what are you going to do about it?” I’d like to believe that I’ll be a little less afraid to engage in “reasonable risk taking.” By combating the belief that I am fundamentally undeserving, I will no longer be afraid to ask for what I want and need to survive. By accepting my wants and needs without judging their rightness or wrongness I will finally learn to love myself and to “write my own story.” Finally, “reasonable risk taking” will be more about deciding who I want to be rather than living someone else’s story.

There is also this part of me that doesn’t want to let go of this “magic feather.” (see Dumbo and his magic feather the crows told him he could use to fly.”