Tuesday, August 13, 2013

What Did I Do Wrong?

I am waiting for Fran, a 38 year old successful interior designer, to arrive for her fourth, twice a week session. My clock says 11:03. She’s a few minutes late. I’m surprised since she seems like a responsible, conscientious person who goes out of her way to be “the good girl.” Still, she could have been held up by a client, or perhaps just the traffic.

11:08. I’m running through our sessions in my mind. We seemed to have a good connection. Although a relatively anxious person, Fran talked freely, telling me about her doubts about her competency despite her obvious success, her parent’s divorce when she was five, her mother’s unrelenting criticism, and the time her mother’s third husband came on to her.

11:15. I call and get Fran’s voice mail. I leave a message saying that I hope she’s all right and asking that she please call me. I spend the rest of her session trying to read, hoping the phone will ring, and replaying our last session in my mind.

That was the session she told me about her step-father’s advance. She was an adult and presented the incident as though she was disgusted by it, but not obviously traumatized. Had I minimized the trauma? Had I not looked deeply enough at her underlying feelings? Did I give her the impression that I didn’t want to hear about it?

Or was there something else that led to her not coming today or abruptly terminating? She mentioned wanting to write a book about her experiences as an interior decorator, especially some of the clients she’d worked with over the years. I was certainly supportive of the idea. But does she know about the book I wrote? Did she feel hurt, perhaps rejected, that I didn’t acknowledge it and talk with her as a possible fellow-author? But that’s ridiculous. What if she didn’t know about my book? Bringing it up would have seemed irrelevant or even competitive.

Time for my next patient. Time to put Fran in the background. At the end of each session I check my messages. Nothing from Fran.

Finally, at 4 there’s a message that says, “I’m really sorry. I got my schedule entirely confused today. I knew I was supposed to come and then it was just gone from my mind. I’ll see you on Thursday.”

I am incredibly relieved. Perhaps I didn’t do anything wrong after all. Perhaps there was something going on with Fran that had nothing to do with me. Well, that’s probably not true either. Perhaps her not coming was related in some way to our interaction, or her feelings about me or our relationship, but that doesn’t mean I did something “wrong.”

It’s actually noteworthy that I went so easily to feeling that I’d done something “wrong.” Perhaps that reflects not only my tendency to examine and take responsibility my own feelings and behavior, but also Fran’s feeling “bad” or “wrong” herself.

“I’m really, really sorry about Tuesday,” Fran begins. “I don’t know how I managed to forget my appointment. I never do things like that. I feel awful about it.”

“Do you have any thoughts, Fran, about why you might have forgotten the session? I ask not so that you’ll blame yourself or beat yourself up, but to see if there might have been something you were trying to communicate.”
“It’s interesting that you say I shouldn’t blame myself or beat myself up. I was doing that, but I think I was doing that after our last session anyway,” Fran says, blushing.

After a few seconds she continues. “You know that incident I told you about my mother’s husband coming on to me?”

I nod.

“Well, he did. But I kind of led him on. … I feel so awful telling you this. … He was always such an asshole, not that I ever lived with him or anything. And, I don’t know, I guess it made me feel powerful to be able to manipulate him in that way. I feel like such a piece of shit.”

I now understand why feelings of “wrong” had been floating around for both myself and Fran. I also think that Fran’s “leading him on,” was a way for her to get back at mother as well as her mother’s husband, but I decide that interpretation is best left for another day. Instead I take a more supportive approach. “We’ve all done things we’re not proud of Fran. What’s most important is to deal with our feelings of shame and guilt and to understand our behavior as best as we can. And that’s why you’re here.”


Brenda Meisels said...

So true. Often I wonder what I did wrong.

Linda Sherby PH.D., ABPP said...

Thanks for your comment.

I'm glad I'm not the only one who can feel "wrong."

Amanda Christine Cox said...

I often wonder what the therapist thinks just before a session...

Linda Sherby PH.D., ABPP said...

I don't worry before every session about what I've done wrong, but when the patient didn't show, my mind went to all the possible explanations that placed the blame squarely on me.