I’ve been a therapy-goer for years, up until a session eight months ago, when I had one of those enlightening ah-ha moments. The very last thing I said to my therapist as I left was, “I’m ready to work on that.”
I didn’t go back.
I used every excuse: I’m too busy… maybe after this L.A. trip… let me just get the kids on their new school schedule… the dog ate my homework. You name it, I used it as an excuse not to deal with the issue slapping me hard in the face. An issue I had been avoiding my entire life.
I dug a hole and hid in it, hoping the problems would go away.
Guess what happened? Fate took a 2×4 and slammed me aside the head, making it impossible to continue living in denial. It was time to evolve.
Ironically, the road to evolution starts at our childhood.
As I finished my first session back on the couch, in tears I asked, “Why can’t I let go of these feelings?”
She suggested I explore how I learned to cope as a child. When I was in an uncomfortable situation, what did I do? What was I thinking and what was I feeling during those moments? She specifically emphasized there’s a big difference between “thinking” and “feeling”.
That was a lot to digest. So I left her office and promptly did what I always do… I stuffed her question away, not to think about it until I absolutely had to.
This morning, I slid on her couch, mind racing with work and as far as possible from therapy, and asked, “What do you want to talk about?”
She said, “Coping.”
Huge sigh. Time to dust off denial and get to work. For those who have never been to therapy, let me assure you, it’s the hardest work you’ll ever do, and the first step is being honest. Oh, believe me, we all lie not only to ourselves, but also to our therapists.
But not this time. This go-around I’m determined to be brutally honest and find the answers to my often self-destructive behavior. It truly is the only way to heal and stop repeating unhealthy patterns.
“Think back to when you were a child… what’s the worst circumstance you remember?”
Gee, she was going straight for the jugular. Shit.
Instantly my eyes watered as I recounted a violent, emotional ordeal when I was nine.
She asked what I was thinking.
“People are fucked up.”
What was I feeling?
What did I do?
“I stood there… and watched. Paralyzed.”
Then I shared other memories, answering the same to every one of them, “Fucked-up… scared… paralyzed.”
Then she asked what I felt physically during those times.
“Knots in my stomach. Anxiety. Fear.”
What do I do when I feel that kind of anxiety today?
“I freeze… ignore the problem and bury it so I don’t have to feel the knots.”
She smiled and said, “See the pattern?”
We learn how to cope when we’re children. We keep using those same coping mechanisms year after year, and often, even as adults. When we’re children, we trust the grownups around us to solve the problems. But as adults, we have more choices. We don’t have to stand there, scared and paralyzed. We can do something about it.
For me, today’s session was a big lesson in trusting my Spidey senses. If I get knots in my stomach, see red flags waving when I talk with someone new, or have a deep desire to bury an issue, I need to stop, take the biggest deep breath I can, and face whatever the issue is head on.
The actress Ellen Burstyn wrote an incredible book called Lessons in Becoming Myself. It’s not one of those Hollywood biographies. This is a book where Ellen shares her mistakes and growth, proving life will hit you over the head time and time again… harder each time… until you finally learn your lessons. In short, our mistakes need to be our lessons.
We just have to find the strength to own our mistakes, forgive ourselves, and choose to live a better life.
Sometimes to live the life you deserve, you need to go back to square one and step into the shoes of your nine-year-old self. Maybe even give her a hug and tell her everything is going to be fine, if only she’d speak up and look fear right in the face.
Coping with our problems is a learned behavior. But that doesn’t mean we can’t unlearn it and choose a healthier path. I know I’ll fall often, but I’ll start by being kind to myself and to that little girl who still lives inside me.
As my new friend, Doug Richardson, says, “We must learn to unlearn.”
I think a new coping mechanism is a good place to start.