Writers know that most of us don’t come to the page with a full-fledged idea; we come with a scrap and we write out from that scrap into the rest of the story. Likewise most of us don’t come to therapy knowing exactly what’s wrong; we come with the knowledge that something is wrong and we have to talk our way through it.
Sometimes you just need to babble on, tell the story out loud, wait for the counselor who’s listening to catch where our voice cracks, watching to notice when our fists clench or our eyes well up with tears.
You might occasionally worry in counseling — are you even making sense? Does this even matter? If you trust your therapist, you can trust that she will let you know if things get off track; she’ll redirect you if you go too far off the rails. Otherwise, let yourself talk. It may not sound like you’ve figured out your narrative thread but we know — the counselor knows — that sometimes you have to talk your way through to understand the story.
[Be] willing to write really badly. It won’t hurt you to do that. I think there is this fear of writing badly, something primal about it, like: “This bad stuff is coming out of me…” Forget it! Let it float away and the good stuff follows. For me, the bad beginning is just something to build on. It’s no big deal. You have to give yourself permission to do that because you can’t expect to write regularly and always write well. That’s when people get into the habit of waiting for the good moments, and that is where I think writer’s block comes from. Like: It’s not happening. Well, maybe good writing isn’t happening, but let some bad writing happen… When I was writing “The Keep,” my writing was so terrible. It was God-awful. My working title for that first draft was, A Short Bad Novel. I thought: “How can I disappoint?”
from Jennifer Egan in Days of Yore
What if we were willing to do lots of things badly at first? So we could practice getting better?
I was reading Mary Pipher’s Writing to Change the World and I came across this:
Theologian Reinhold Niebuht wrote that to effect change, we need to practice “spiritual discipline against resentment.”
Pretty heady instructions, that.
Sometimes even recognizing another point of view feels like giving in, you know? Sometimes it feels scary to say, “I can see how you’d feel that way.”
When I was a young feminist taking my first women’s studies class one of my assignments was to interview a woman who worked for The Child Assault Prevention Program (“Living Safe, Strong and Free!”). I’m not positive, but I think she helped create that child abuse program, which is now used nationwide. In any case, she was a radical feminist and we were talking about activism and creating change. She told me that she used to not shave under her arms or her legs. She used to buzz her hair crazy-short (it was still pretty short but styled) and she didn’t wear skirts or make-up. Then she started working for CAPP and part of her job was development, which is the getting of money. And she discovered that these fancy-schmancy business guys in suits were more likely to listen to her if she wore some make-up (this was the eighties after all when we all wore at least four shades of eyeshadow) and if she wore a skirt and she noticed that her unshaven legs didn’t look so hot in hose (again, it was the eighties and we didn’t go around bare legged much then) so she started shaving her legs.
“I did this,” she told me. “Because I wanted the program to have money because I wanted to prevent child abuse.”
But some of her friends were angry. They said she was giving in. They said she was selling out. There’s no doubt that it was a sacrifice for her but it was a sacrifice she was willing to make in the interest of a cause that was more important to her than not shaving her legs.
I’ve thought about this off and on in the years since that interview. I’ve thought about how powerful it can be to change things from the inside out and how compromise, used with discretion, can be a good thing.
Sometimes it takes more strength to work with the perceived enemy.
One reason we have so many disagreements with each other is that there is Big Truth and little truth and we get mixed up over which is which.
There is the Truth (I walked towards you) and the truth (I lunged at you aggressively, I simpered as I tiptoed to you, I drunkenly veered your way). We both may agree on the Truth (I did indeed move from one end of the room to the other end of the room where you were standing) but we may violently disagree on the truth. You might say I deliberately tracked mud onto your just shampooed carpet. I might say that I was in a hurry because the phone was ringing. We might both be right. We might both be wrong.
Clearly, truth telling can create a lot of conflict.
So much of our struggling in our relationships has to do with telling our truths and denying your truths. We get hung up on specifics and never get to what’s really wrong. We are so busy defending our truth (You did call. You did not call. You never call. Well, you’re never home.) and so we argue argue argue but we never make any resolution.
A long time ago there was a woman at the shelter where I worked who was a liar. She had a very complex, very disturbing story about abuse and it was clearly not true (nor was she delusional). One of the case managers got a little obsessed with trying to get this woman to admit that the story wasn’t true but the rest of us felt (and told the case manager this at the weekly staff meeting) that what was True was that this woman felt victimized and harmed and wanted/needed attention around that. Now mind you, we were an emergency shelter so it was not our job (or our expertise) to counsel but we felt that what was more important than forcing this woman to shed her truth was to figure out how to help her within that truth so that she could get to the next place — secure housing, real therapy, etc. This haggling over details wasn’t getting anyone anywhere.
So the truth is not always True and the Truth doesn’t always matter.
Sometimes counseling is mucking around in truth and listening hard and honestly? To me it can feel a lot like writing an essay. If you’ve done any writing then likely you know how you write into what you know that you didn’t know you knew. (My favorite quote about this is: “How will I know what I think until I see what I say?” That’s E. M. Forster.) That’s how counseling can be, too. Just as we write to understand ourselves and the editor helps the writer (myself or others) in the process, so in counseling there is that storytelling structure.
So you can show up at a counseling office without any idea of what you’re thinking because part of finding out what you think is seeing what comes out of your mouth.
The counselor is a lot like an editor helping you make sense of your story. You don’t have to understand your story when you come to the counselor because she’s not listening for The Truth, she’s listening for your truth and seeing the big structure so she can ask the questions that will help you understand your experience.
The difficulty is … that you’ve got to get something on paper. It’s the only rule … that you must get something down on paper so that you can look at it and start to work on it. All the writer’s block consists of is that sensory that happens before the pencil hits the paper … and that’s the hardest thing to overcome. but of course if you can get the shape of a song you can tell when it feels right and it’s just a matter of sweat and work to fill in and it’s a lot of sweat. … It’s all about getting the shape.
~Stephen Sondheim, in Anatomy of a Song Part I (here — you can see Part II here)
This is true of making sense of anything whether we’re trying to understand ourselves or our histories or our relationships. It’s hard work and sometimes it feels like we’re not getting anywhere. The reason why a counselor can help is not because she knows more than you do (you’re the expert on your experience) but because she’s listening close enough to catch where you get stuck so that she can ask questions that help you find your own way to be unstuck.