“I have something I need to talk about, but I’m not sure I can,” begins Victoria, squirming in her seat. She is a smart, insightful, vivacious thirty-two year old woman who has been in therapy with me for a little under a year.
Her words put me on immediate alert, concerned about what secret she might reveal. I remain silent as thoughts race through my mind: Was she raped? Is she an incest victim? Did she shoplift?
She stares at me, takes a deep breath and says, “OK. I was at a dinner party on Saturday night. There were a couple of therapists there and your name came up. I was surprised. That’s the first time it’s happened. I didn’t know if I should immediately say that I was your patient, but I didn’t. I wasn’t sure I wanted my date to know I was in therapy and I guess I was afraid they might stop talking and I was kind of curious as to what they might say about you. But it was sort of scary too. Like what if they said something bad? I mean they didn’t, not at all. They started talking about the great blog you write. And that you wrote a book too.” Victoria stops and stares at me again.
Feeling as though I’m being scrutinized, I keep my face neutral as I wait for her to continue.
“So the next day I went on line and googled you and looked at your website. I don’t know if I should have done that.”
“Because…? I ask.
“Because I don’t know if I’m supposed to. Because I don’t know if you’ll be mad at me. And I guess I’m not sure I want to know stuff about you.”
“Lots of reasons,” I say softly. “So what are your thoughts?”
“Have you noticed how I always stare at you? I’m always trying to figure out what you’re thinking, trying to read your body language, trying to know if you’re approving of me.”
“So you’re afraid I’ll disapprove of something you say or do and that I’ll withdraw my caring, just like your mother did.”
“Exactly. I was always trying to read her. She could be so cold. And when she got angry with me for anything – a look, an expression, never mind misbehaving – she was entirely gone, absent. It was awful.”
“And you bring that fear of rejection into this room and our relationship.”
“Definitely. And to other relationships too.”
“That’s why it’s so difficult for you to hold onto a sense of yourself. You too easily become a chameleon, trying to figure out what other people want of you and fulfilling their expectations rather than your own.”
“So are you mad at me?”
“What do you think?”
“You don’t seem to be. But I still have the feeling it was bad of me to look, as though your life is off limits to me.”
“Was that true with your mother too?”
“Definitely! She was always telling me I should mind my own business, even if I asked her where she was going when she went out. And when she was pregnant with my younger sister I thought she’d kill me when I asked how the baby got there and what happened to her fat stomach.”
I laugh. “Sounds like a smart question to me. But I guess curiosity was forbidden, and sexual curiosity even more forbidden.”
Absolutely. I knew nothing about sex except what I learned from my friends, and you know how accurate all that stuff is.”
“Before we run out of time, I want to make sure we look at what you said about not being sure you wanted to know about me.”
“Yeah. I mean, I do want to know, but I’m not sure it would be good for me. Like what if I read your book and find out all these things about you. Then I could really be on my guard. Now I don’t know all that much about you, and I’m constantly looking at you trying to figure out what you think. But if I did know more, I might take all sorts of stuff off the table or really watch what I said or didn’t say.”
“Good insight. So I guess you’ll need to figure out what you do or don’t want to do.”
“Which means you’re not going to tell me what you think.”
“I think whatever decision you make, we’ll be able to deal with the feelings that come up as a result.”