I’m afraid to ask for feelings toward me

Community member: “I am still struggling with helping patients articulate feelings toward me. I have reached “gratefulness” twice but have yet to reach anger.” Thanks to one of our community members for sharing this problem!

Jon: Almost every therapist struggles with this problem. It can feel scary to ask patients what their feelings are toward you. People who turn rage upon themselves, like your patient, protect others from anger by turning it on themselves. So they rarely know what they feel toward you. When they say “grateful”, I agree. “It makes sense you have positive feelings here toward me. But if grateful was the only feeling, you would not be feeling anxious and depressed. So I wonder what other feelings might be coming up here toward me that could be underneath the anxiety and depression?” Sometimes we have to persist for twenty minutes or longer until they trust you enough to reveal that they feel “frustrated.” They usually come from homes where they were punished for being angry. So it’s a leap of faith to believe you would not punish them for being angry. But keep persisting. Once she can feel anger toward you, she won’t have to punish herself and get depressed instead.

Community member: “Thank you. That is so helpful. I get especially tripped up when the anger toward me is purely related to childhood experiences and not related to anything that happened between us in reality.”

Jon: Hopefully, it’s not related to anything that happened between you in reality. When you are doing good therapy you get close to her. This triggers her childhood experiences when a loved one tried to get close to her and hurt her. With that understanding, be patient when she struggles to say what she feels. If it was dangerous in the past, it will feel dangerous now with you. You can persist, watching each defense and resistance: the history of her suffering unfolding before your eyes. Every answer she gives is good, telling you how she had to adapt to a relationship where someone hurt her.

Remember: the patient has complex feelings toward you. On the one hand, she is grateful that you try so hard to connect to her. On the other hand, her conditioning makes her angry and fearful that you might hurt her, as others did in the past. She has feelings based on her realistic experience of you and her longings. And she has feelings that are based on her past. And they occur at the same time. That’s why she has these conflictual reactions. She both wants a healing relationship with you today and fears a hurtful relationship from the past.

Now let’s approach this problem from another perspective: the therapist. Many of us therapists did not enter the field purely for intellectual reasons. Our own histories of suffering can make us hesitate to ask what people feel toward us. After all, if you had a parent who was angry or punitive, you did not ask, “Dad, before you spank me, could you tell me how you experience that anger toward me physically in your body?”

When a frightening feeling came from a parent toward us, we did not ask for more of that feeling! So as therapists, we do the opposite of what we would have done as children. And when we do that, we have to work through our own past histories of suffering, overcoming our fears of feelings in relationships. And through our own self-healing, we make ourselves available for the healing of our patients.

This is true of all types of therapy. All therapies, to be deeply healing, require that we healers overcome our fear of the inner life of ourselves and our patients. By doing so, we can enter into the fire to meet the patient so she need no longer be alone. And by entering the fire and holding her hand while we both burn, her transformation can begin. I wish I could say the patient can borrow your emotional courage. But sometimes the patient is so emotionally courageous that we end up borrowing hers so we can entire the fire together.

3 thoughts on “I’m afraid to ask for feelings toward me

  1. Nessie Thomas

    My ISTDP therapist works in 3 hr blocks. As a patient on the receiving end of 20 minutes probing when I returned the following day talking of the gratitude I felt towards them for the previous days work , I felt I as if being pushed to express it/feel it in a way that satisfied the therapist. What started as therapy began to feel coercive, nothing I said or reported feeling was enough, and reminded me of an early abuser who demanded I say/act/feel as he wanted me to. I wasn’t confused, I knew my therapist intended no harm, but the behaviour used, the relentless demands, hounding, was like that early experience. Despite continuing our work for a further 5 months I was unable to understand that session and gave up. Wrong thinking I’m sure, but I couldn’t get over that day. I just wanted you to know that some of us may experience the determined 20 minutes, well meant as it is, as frightening and abusive. Oh, and it wasn’t the therapist , they are highly trained and experienced.

    Reply
    1. istdpadmin

      It sounds like there was a misalliance there. We can’t really explore usefully unless it is truly the patient’s will to do so. This is where careful attention to building a conscious alliance can make such a process of exploration truly collaborative.

      Reply
  2. Jon Frederickson

    When you experience the therapist as if he or she is dominating you or abusing you, the therapist and patient have lost the sense of a therapeutic alliance. Instead, they have a misalliance and some repair must be done to the alliance. This is true of any therapy. Unless the experience of being abused is differentiated thoroughly from the therapist, the misalliance prevents any deeper unfolding from taking place. This is not to say that such experiences should never happen. After all, the exploration of the rupture and its healing can be one of the most powerful experiences in therapy. Once the therapist knows there is a misalliance, he or she should stop asking for feelings and instead work on repairing the rupture. The experience of therapy should not be experienced as highly frightening or abusive. If that takes place, we have a misalliance and the rupture absolutely must be repaired.

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