“I can’t believe that I’m spending all my time in therapy talking about my job,” Pauline exclaims, bursting into tears. “I thought you talk about your childhood or relationships, not a dumb job!”
I’ve seen Pauline only a short time and she’s correct, she’s spent most of her time talking about her job. She’s a graphic designer, a good one it seems, but she’s been in a state of panic since the administration in her company changed, resulting in her reporting to two different supervisors.
“This week the artistic director wanted me to drop everything and work on one project, while the marketing director wanted me to work on a totally different project. What am I supposed to do?” she asks, crying. “I’m think I’m going to quit. I can’t stand the stress!”
“Pauline, I understand that you can’t possibly do two different things at the same time, but what I don’t understand is why it is so, so distressing to you.”
“But I can’t do what both of them want!”
“I understand that you can’t do what they both want,” I say. “But I don’t understand why that throws you into such a state of panic. I don’t know a lot about you, about your history, your past, so it’s hard for me to know what might be going on for you, but since your anxiety is so intense, I would suspect it does have something to do with your childhood. I’m only guessing here, but was there a lot of conflict between your parents? Did you feel you had to choose between them?”
“No, not at all. They presented a united front. There was no room for discussion. You just obeyed. You did what they said. My mother was the tough one, though.”
Pauline hesitates. I wait.
“This is hard for me to talk about. I feel like I’m betraying her. She was doing what she thought was best.”
I can feel Pauline’s anxiety. I also see the beginnings of a connection, the issues of obedience and betrayal perhaps linking the past and the present.
“You never disobeyed my mother. She wouldn’t talk to you for days, for weeks if you did. She knew that she and Dad were right and that you just had to do what they said. I couldn’t stand that silent treatment. I felt like I’d lost her. So I did what she wanted. Even about work. I was really good at math and science as a kid. I wanted to be a doctor. But my parents said no, that I’d never find a husband if I became a doctor, that I’d never have children and a life, so I couldn’t do it. I was good in art too, so I became a graphic artist. It’s okay. At least it was.”
Inside I scream, “No! No! You need to do what you want to do!” Part of this reaction is probably my experiencing Pauline’s unfelt anger and rebellion. But I know that some of the feelings are all mine. My father was an angry, explosive man who hated psychology and psychoanalysis and always opposed my career choice, responding with both anger and contempt. But as afraid as I was of him, I fought for what I wanted. My grandmother taught me that. Pauline probably didn’t have such a role model in her past. She submitted.
“You couldn’t resist your parents and pursue your dream. You had to submit.”
“Submit. Yes, that’s a good word. I’ve submitted my whole life. With my parents, with men, with work, whatever.”
“It sounds like that’s why this work situation is so difficult for you. You have two authority figures wanting different things from you. You can’t obey them both. So you feel scared just as you did as a child. Then you can’t think from the place of an adult and figure out a way to handle the situation however you need to do.”
“That’s true! I always want to please. But I can’t please two people at once.” She pauses. “So what should I do?”