I interrupt her. “How did you feel coming today?” I ask.
“Oh,” she says. “Well, I didn’t want to come. I did very well in your absence. In fact, I was thinking that this should be our last session.”
I groan inwardly. I have seen Emma for four years and there is no question she has come a long way – more able to stand up for herself, more self-confident, less intimidated by her husband. But she is a patient who has been in therapy with several therapists over the years, a patient who knows that her more long-standing issues of desire for and fear of intimacy remain stubbornly unchanged. In fact, she is enacting that issue at this moment – feeling abandoned during my vacation she has closed off the needy part of herself and now seeks to reject me just as she felt rejected.
And, it’s worked. I do feel rejected. I feel hurt that she should want to leave me, hurt that she could discard me so easily after the relationship we’ve built up over time. And whose feelings are these? Always a complicated question. Yes, I do believe that she is rejecting me just as she felt rejected by me and, earlier in her life, by a too-busy, self-involved mother. But I have my feelings too. I do go on vacation. I do have my own life. But my patients matter to me. I care about them. Besides, I don’t like good-byes.
“So why do you think you would decide this today?” I ask.
“I told you. I did very well in your absence.”
“I’m sure you did. You’ve never been someone who can’t function without me. But you know yourself well enough to question what affect my vacation would have had on this sudden decision.”
“I knew you’d bring that up,” she says, sighing theatrically.
I remain silent.
“What?” she says.
I gesture with my hand for her to continue.
“Why is it that everything I do gets to be analyzed while nothing you do gets put on the table?”
Surprised by her question, I ask, “What don’t I put on the table?”
“Like how do you just get to go on vacation, entirely arbitrarily? You get to decide when you go, for how long, and regardless of what’s happening in my life or any of your patients’. You’ve always telling me I cut myself off from my feelings, well it seems you’d have to cut yourself from your feelings as well.”
Alternate responses flit through my mind. I could pursue her anger which is quite apparent and might well be fruitful. But I worry she would experience that as evasive and defensive. Or I could respond directly to the issue she raised.
“You make a good point, Emma,” I say thoughtfully. “I am the one who arbitrarily decides when I go on vacation and I do put my patients’ lives aside during that time – I put your life aside, just as you often experienced your mother doing. But it doesn’t mean I stop caring about you and it certainly doesn’t mean I feel closed off to you when I return. Quite the contrary, I’m eager to hear about you and what’s been going on in your life and in your mind. And just as you feel hurt and discarded when I go on vacation, I feel hurt and discarded when you announce that you’re unilaterally going to end our four year relationship in one session.”
“You do?” Emma asks incredulously.
“I’m sorry that surprise you so much, Emma. It’s so hard for you to take in my caring. I suspect you’re afraid that if you acknowledge you’re loveable, you’d have to give up hope that your mother would ever love you as you needed and wanted to be loved.”
Emma’s eyes fill with tears. “This might sound silly, but right that moment when you said that, I felt my heart melt, like something opened in me; something opened, but something made me very sad too.”
“So maybe right at that moment you did feel my caring, but also felt the sadness of your mother’s inability to cherish you as the loveable child you were and are.”