I glance at the clock. It’s only a couple of minutes past two, but I wouldn’t have expected Emily to be even a couple of minutes late. I only saw her once before, a bright, articulate, 35 year old married woman with one child and a Ph.D. in Physical Therapy. Despite her obvious accomplishments and full, busy life, Emily described herself as a perfectionistic who always found herself lacking. In fact, she felt overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy and shame. Not someone I would expect to be late.
By 2:05 I wonder if Emily forgot to press the buzzer in my waiting room. I go out to check. Sure enough, there she sits. Smiling, I say, “You forgot to press the button.”
Emily looks stricken. It is as though I have slapped her across the face.
“Please come in,” I say, in what I hope is a warm, welcoming voice.
Emily walks slowly into my office, glancing furtively at me out of the corner of her eyes.
“What just happened, Emily? You look terrified,” I begin as soon as we’re both seated.
“I…I… I made a mis…mistake,” she stammers. “I forgot to press the button.”
I vacillate between wanting to reassure her and wanting to understand what has created this degree of anxiety. “Yes, you made a mistake.” I say. “You’re human, like the rest of us. But you look so scared. In fact, you look like a scared little girl.”
Emily begins to cry. “I’m so stupid! I’m stupid for forgetting to push the button. I’m stupid for cheating myself of a full session. I’m just stupid!”
“Whose voice is that, Emily? Whose voice do you hear in your head telling you you’re stupid?” I ask.
“That’s easy, my mother’s. I think that’s all she ever said to me, along with you’re lazy, you won’t amount to anything, stuff like that. And that was before she got the strap.”
“So that’s why you looked so terrified, Emily. When you make what you see as a mistake, you’re afraid that both the other person - in this instance me – and that critical voice in your head will beat you mercilessly.”
“I guess that’s true.”
“Do you know, Emily, at least intellectually – I know you don’t feel it – but do you know intellectually that you didn’t do anything so terrible by forgetting to press the button?”
“Now that I hear you say it, I can kind of get there, but before, no, I’m convinced that I’m bad and stupid and deserving of whatever punishment comes my way. Like I thought you might decide not to see me anymore.”
“Wow! You have a really harsh, critical voice up there. We’re going to have to work on helping you to take in a kinder, gentler voice. Let me ask you, though, did you ever feel angry with your mother? Do you feel angry with her now?”
“Sometimes I feel angry now. After I had my son, I realized I would never, ever do the things to Aaron that she did to me. But then, I just believed I was bad and kept trying and trying to be better so my mother would love me.”
“And what do you feel right this minute, Emily.”
“Sad. I can see what a scared little kid I was.”
“I imagine you’ll feel lots of sadness during our work together: sadness for what you didn’t get as a child, sadness about having to give up hope that you can ever go back and get what you missed, even sadness about having to give up the critical voice in your head, the one that still maintains your tie to your mother. But sadness may well feel better than the terror you walk around with, and I’ll be here to help you through.”