I curse in session too regularly, and should probably be more ashamed of my potty mouth than I am.
I can talk frankly about anything from money to masturbation without blinking an eye.
I can discuss the darkest sins, the deepest shames, give words to feeling states that are subtle, terrifying, violent, kinky, mystical and murderous. I can use and parse my counter-transferential, intersubjective, empathic and projectively identified responses through some pretty tricky co-created therapeutic enactments.
But there is a word that I have almost never used
Even, (actually, especially) when I am near bursting with it.
I’ll speak all around it. I will, when the time is right and the relational necessity emerges, talk about feeling protective, allude to our connection our history, our alliance and hard work together, admit that I am touched, or deeply moved. I will share about the ways that I trust our relationship, or have confidence in our partnership. I will on occasion, admit to feeling proud or impressed. I will offer up my experiences of admiration, and perhaps, in specific circumstances, confess to the obvious affection or highlight experiences of closeness my therapeutic partners have evoked in me.
I know as a patient, my attachment to my own therapist took many forms. Just twenty-one, lost in a huge city with an overwhelming and toxic emotional inheritance to sort through, he, (25 years old and just out of grad school) was the first still, consistent and stable entity I had stumbled upon. For the first several years, I needed him like I needed gravity to keep me oriented, like I needed oxygen to breathe (god bless him and his supervisors).
I didn’t need to think much about how he felt about me – because he was kind and patient, He was honest. He displayed consistent interest in understanding me. He didn’t recoil as my barely restrained mess poured out all over his office.
I didn’t think much about his subjective experience of connection to me, because I assumed that his behavior revealed how he felt for me. I could see that sometimes I annoyed the shit out of him, or could make him laugh, or unsettle him, or corner him into a tight spot when I demanded that he understand me exactly, leaving him little room for error. But, for me, the proof was in the pudding – I assumed that anyone putting up with all my crap must have some basic positive regard for me.
I had no need for him to say it or feel it.
He behaved it. He gave it.
To call further attention to it would detract from the giving of the gift.
In my own practice I know that big, silly, burps of affection rise in my heart at the most ridiculous and inopportune times. Right when some one is in the middle of an animated flip-out about their abrasive roommate, or while some complicated exposition about details at work unfurls. A turn of the head, their hands moving in the air, a creative, emphatic choice of words, a moment of courage, the track of a tear down their cheek, a scar, a freckle, a gesture I had never noticed before – some small bittersweet detail of a soul and a life completely unique, unlike any other human on the planet – fills me with awe, and adoration.
If I’m not careful, my appreciation can be disruptive:
“What? What did I say? Why are you smiling?”
“Hmm? I was just listening… I guess something about the way you said that just made me very glad you found my office – just made me feel happy to know you, – I didn’t mean to smile or interrupt, please go on…”
I sit, sometimes for years at a time, hiding unrequited affections, holding myself as still as possible. Any behavioral indication of the softer-spots in my heart could terrorize and
flood those who have been wounded in the minefield of distorted attachments.
For some, interpersonal emotional connection is completely entangled with abuse or abandonment. Closeness is only an opportunity for pain.
Some have used adoring words as a ruse to establish a claim to another’s soul and to take ownership of the beloved. Other times, heart-talk has disguised an empty belly: The beloved as a perfect meal about to be devoured.
Sexual arousal, attraction, infatuation, and lust are often and easily confused with emotional intimacy. All the more so when bodily and sexual boundaries have been violated in the client’s past.
No matter the form, charitable, universal empathic agape, friendly and familiar philia, or emotionally intimate eros, such powerful energies are not only the source of All that is Good: in the wrong hands, at the wrong time for the wrong reasons they can be a powerfully destructive force.
A force that can damage and burn.
For the most wounded, it take years to metabolize even the most generalized good-will.
The vaguest impersonalized empathy is sometimes all that can be withstood. Anything more personal would be too much to bear.
In my home life I don’t stop yammering about it. My family and my kids groan “I know, I know…” when I feel the impulse, to tell them, yet again, what I feel for them. It’s been ten whole minutes since I last said it, and my heart is near to bursting again.
We all mean something specific, something unique to ourselves when we speak of it.
This is what the word, when I use it in my personal life, means to me:
It means thank you. For putting up with me. For accepting me anyway. For forgiving and seeing more in me than my most incompetent, limited, wounded, hysterical, annoying, fallible bits. Thank you for surviving me.
It means I promise to do the same for you no matter what. It means I think you are amazing. It means you make me feel better. It means my life would feel shattered without you. It means I know you need me, and I need you too. It means we are connected to each other in such primal ways that we owe each other the truth and can demand very hard things from each other for the relationship’s sake. It means that I know that you see as deeply into and through me, as I can see into you. It means being in your presence feeds and sustains me, and I will do my best to feed and sustain you as well.
It means there is room in our relationship to be my whole self – sometimes powerful, sometimes smart, sometimes nurturing, sometimes hungry, sometimes broken, sometimes failed, sometimes sick, sometimes distractible, sometimes selfish, sometimes generous. And there is room for your whole self as well.
It means whatever shit hits the fan – we are safe with each other whether it feels safe or not.
But those are my hungers, my dependencies, my personal life. No one else on the planet may have the same definition.
Which is another reason why, even when I feel a giant pink wave swelling in my heart, that I don’t say it in the office.
For me, the personal use of the word invites all of my deepest needs into the room.
And the therapy office is simply not the place for a therapist to do that.
Theologian Thomas Jay Oord has defined agape as “an intentional response to promote well-being when responding to that which has generated ill-being.” I certainly carry at least that, and usually much more on my heart with every client every single day.
But who on earth says “I feel agape for you?”
(“The Love Racket: Defining Love and Agape for the Love-And-Science Research Program” http://www.calvin.edu/~jks4/city/Oord~Defining%20Love.pdf)
That doesn’t mean that deep affection, empathy, attachment, appreciation, fondness, caring, closeness, connection, heart-break, pride, intimacy, adoration, attraction, gratitude, familiarity, warmth, tenderness, admiration, philia, and even eros are not part of the work.
Even these are words too diffuse, subjective and imprecise to cure, transform, or change anything at all, in and of themselves, no matter how we may yearn to hear or say them.
Althought It may not be enough, its presence is essential.
For me, it is usually (but not always) pointless, ineffective, selfish and unnecessary to speak of it.
Yet, without it, everything grinds to a halt.
Love, in all its forms, ineffable and undefinable, is the oil that suspends the wheels and surrounds the entire mechanism so that therapeutic work can take place at all.
copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford