YOU HAD ME AT “GOODBYE”

Watching romantic comedies and dramas through a feminist lens* is a deeply concerning experience. The notion that romantic relationships are acceptable, in the ways they’re typically depicted, teeters on a familiar, vertiginous premise of “true love,” orchestrated by blocking and lighting and wardrobe and makeup and cameras and score, all of which recruit and coach our attention. Those are the things that tell us that the person frantically ringing the buzzer to the apartment, waiting outside the workplace, showing up unannounced with a gift, running to catch the same train, or declaring the night is young, is the hero(ine), and not someone overbearing, unbalanced, or even dangerous. As for gaslighting? Rampant. “You don’t mean that.” “You’re scared to let yourself be loved.” Etc. Such things slip past our censors precisely because they’re so familiar, and because we’ve decided in advance—that is, it’s been decided for us—that in the case of the chosen couple, such presumptuous statements are perceptive and accurate. I used to be a projectionist and had big plans to write about the occupational hazards of so much exposure to culture through film, all the dramatic speeches thrown around (not to mention the overt violence and interpersonal ugliness). But the truth is that the average American in most walks of life has been exposed to as much as I was, if not much more—occupational hazards of being alive here and now. We are collectively gaslighted by culture, and that shows up in therapy offices. Certainly there are gestures, small and grand, that are, in fact, romantic—that do, in fact, show love. There may be someone you’d be glad to see hoisting a boombox beyond your window to play your song. Ultimately, it’s your body that knows the most about who’s safe and welcome for you, and who’s not. If you feel you lack such discernment because of past trauma, which can certainly happen, there are ways to cultivate it. Notice your preferences and bodily responses to foods, beverages, volumes, scents, textures, temperatures, times of day. Honor your senses. Someone who’s not right for you isn’t ipso facto a villain; being clear with yourself and others isn’t about vilification. Nor are our emotions necessarily simple and straightforward, I get that. But resistance—for example, feeling uncomfortable if someone offers to walk you to your car, or suggests you meet on purpose if you’ve met by chance—is a powerful instinct. It warrants attention.

*I’m not a scholar and can’t speak in a scholarly way about the history and current meaning(s) of feminism, which I perceive as signifying different things to different people. My use of “feminist” is meant to imply the endeavor to think critically with care for the well-being of all persons; as such, for me, it is related to environmentalism and to good therapy.

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HIE THEE HOMEWARD

Walking home just now, I overheard two couples talking. I’m a brisk walker and was overtaking them. One was saying to the others, “They were very tender tonight.” Par for the course with me, I assumed they were talking about people. Tender people–it was such a warming thought. It turns out they were talking about scallops.

The environmentalist in me would like to send you directly to The New Yorker, the March 8 issue, to read about the disaster that is the worldwide fishing industry, devastating ecosystems and traditional fishing communities both. That’s not to mention the state of the waters themselves, the plastic, the chemicals. However, this bit of writing is about therapy.

A client’s boyfriend was depressed and using substances. She was afraid he might be suicidal, and his reassurance wasn’t much comfort–only because of her, he wouldn’t hurt himself. She asked him to see a therapist, and his response was that he didn’t want to pay someone to listen to him.

I feel sympathy for that sentiment. To me it says less about my profession than it does about the widespread and entirely comprehensible hunger people have for real intimacy and support. I do think there are some misconceptions in that statement, though, as well. Good therapy is about much more than just being “listened to” in some timed and compensated way. Among other things, it’s an opportunity to know and speak our truths more clearly, to shape our preferred narratives.

Many people in our lives–good, bad, or indifferent–lack the skills or insight to meet our needs, or their own needs conflict with ours in ways that don’t result in satisfactory compromise. We can walk through the world in a state of confusion, our powers of reason working overtime to sort through the cognitive dissonance: If we really deserved consideration, we would get it, so working backwards, the fact that we don’t get it must mean we don’t deserve it.

Good therapy holds open a sacred space, yes, but the goal is for clients ultimately not to need it because they’ve reached a point of getting what they need within their personal spheres–with family, with partners, at work, among friends. It’s a transformation I’ve been privileged to witness many times. I don’t mean that last statement to ring of false humility or passive enabling of change; I take an active role in my work. But transformation is something greater, irreducible to input and output, “evidence-based practices” notwithstanding.

I’m not talking about “evidence-based practices,” however well-studied they may be, however nicely their results can be graphed. I’m talking about corrective experiences, the back-filling of holes, the healing of wounds. I’m talking about tenderness, joy, logic, laughter. Present-moment learning. To quote Ted Lasso–any excuse!–“I’m talking about practice.”

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FLOWERS UPON FLOWERS

A smart, artsy teen client once described her math homework as “more flowers than numbers.” Such moments in therapy visits abound, arresting in their unexpected turns of phrase, their poetry.

Poetry has been on my mind because my writing adviser from grad school just retired. (I have two degrees; writing came first.) She was a magnificent teacher in many respects, most notably for me this one: she never, ever imposed her aesthetic values on her students, but instead had the insight to see what each and every poem was trying to become, and how to help it along.

As someone with pronounced aesthetic preferences, her gift was like the higher math to my clumsy arithmetic. I’ve known for years that I could never be a teacher, in part for that reason. But I had the gratifying realization recently that I get to live by her example in my work as a therapist.

Progress notes are more numbers than flowers, and the bane of my existence, but therapy appointments are veritable gardens of perennials, annuals, and ectoplasmic chalk drawings that brighten my path and sweeten the air I breathe. I’m grateful to my clients for sharing them. I’m grateful to you for reading.

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Text and image copyrights held by me. In a world overabundant with content, you landed here and read this far. Thank you. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too.