Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Caretaker, Part 2

Today I return to Melinda whom I wrote about several months ago. She’s the woman whose 95 year old grandfather died and whose husband left her alone to deal with her grief. As we explored that experience, it became clear that Melinda needed to focus on others as a way to avoid her own feelings of anger and sadness. As the third girl in her family of origin, she had felt unwanted and unloved and carried around a reservoir of hurt, painful feelings.

“I feel as though I’m being torn in a dozen different directions,” Melinda begins. “The kids are a handful themselves – getting them ready for school, getting Elizabeth to tennis and dance and Mathew to softball and soccer, helping them with homework. But that’s all right. I expect that. But sometimes I think my husband is another kid. He’s so disorganized. I have to help him with our bills, get his clothes to and from the cleaners, do the laundry, remind him to take care of our cars and whatever chores he’s forgotten to do around the house. I even have to tidy the house before our cleaning woman comes. I know she’s supposed to be helping me and I guess she is, but I still have to tell her where to put things and straighten up before she comes. And my friends – I mean I love them all – but they’re always having crises – Bonnie broke up with her boyfriend, Charlotte’s mad at her husband again, Tina’s worried about her mother. And I have to get myself here as well.”

“Sounds like you’re feeling overwhelmed, Melinda, and not having any space for you.”

“Me? No, there’s no time for me. I’m too busy taking care of everyone else.”

“But I wonder if you also need to avoid you. Remember we talked about your treating yourself as you’d been treated and not allowing yourself and your feelings to matter?”

Melinda sighs. “I guess. I guess you’re right,” she says, her speech slowing.

“I notice you just slowed down a bit. That’s probably a good first step – giving yourself some time to think and feel.”

“It’s hard. I feel all this pressure, all these people making demands on me.”

“So who fills your needs, Melinda?”

“No one I guess. Makes me sad to realize that.”

“What about me, Melinda? I noticed before when you were listing all the people who were making demands on you, you said that you had to get yourself here as well. Sounds like you feel I’m another person who’s taking from you rather than giving to you.”   

“I suppose that’s true. You’re someone else I have to fit into my schedule.”

“But why is that, Melinda? Why is it that you can’t experience me as giving to you, why can’t you experience your time with me as nurturing?”

“I don’t know.” She pauses, thinking. “I don’t know why, but I suddenly thought of the time my mother forgot to pick me up from school and it felt like I waited for hours, although I’m sure I didn’t. Everyone in the family thought it was funny. It didn’t feel very funny to me.”

“I wonder if you’re saying, Melinda, that you’re afraid to allow yourself to need me because you’re afraid I’ll let you down like your mother and then laugh at you for needing me.”  

Melinda’s eyes fill with tears. “I was about to say, no, I know you wouldn’t do that, but obviously that really hit a chord in me.”

“Being needy makes you feel vulnerable.”

“That’s true. I hate feeling vulnerable. It’s scary. And weak.”

“So you run around taking care of everyone else so you don’t have to feel your own need to be cared for. You get to be the ‘strong one,’ the one who doesn’t having any needs.”

“Yup! That’s me.”

“And in the meantime, I suspect the feeling of neediness inside you gets bigger and bigger, making it even scarier for you to acknowledge, so that you have to try even harder to keep it hidden and stuffed safely away.”

“So what do I do about it?”

“Well, one thing we can do is keep a careful watch on what goes on between us. How you feel about being here, what you do or don’t do to keep me at bay and what happens if you begin to allow yourself to want or need from me.”

“That sounds hard. I can already feel myself wanting to head for the door.”

“I understand. But I will try to keep us focused on what’s going on between us, without making it too, too uncomfortable for you.” 


Brinyjudy said...

Nice therapy, Linda. I have written a bunch of things on codependency, and realized that part of the reason I was labelled that way was was because there is not a context of caring in our society, and no safety net to catch people when they can't help themselves.. CODA and AlAnon self help groups are unwittingly letting governments off the hook in providing help for people in need, saying that tough love and loving detachment lets people hit bottom so they choose to help themselves. Empathic parents or loved ones who do for loved ones who are disabled by symptoms of mental illness so they can't help themselves should have support for getting them into treatment, with health insurance to cover the cost. Instead, they are labelled as codependent, while they serve as default safety nets, risking stress, dysfunction, and poverty in the process. Riane Eisler is giving a webinar starting very soon on the Internet advocating for a Caring Economy, which meets people's needs, and offers affordable services, so that there doesn't have to be a choice between self care and caring about or for others.

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

I appreciate your comment Brindyjudy and I completely agree that not having a safety net in our society for people who are truly in need is a tremendous failing that is a moral obligation that our country is not meeting.

That scenario, however, is very different from Melinda, who needs to focus on other people so that she doesn't have to deal with her own needs and feelings, although the personal and the cultural can most definitely be difficult to separate.