As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I scheduled an extra session for today with the therapist I’ve been seeing. It went well.
I started the session by saying, “so that was a LOT of stuff last session, eh?” To which she agreed and asked how I felt about sharing all of it. I explained that I prefer to just lay it all out there so we have the full context with which to connect dots and synthesize information. She responded by saying that she felt that was indeed a good way to go about it and, also, we should continue talking about it. I was just like OMG YES! YES WE SHOULD!
In sessions with Zooey, we’d often pull out these really big, important things and then never actually talk about them. This left me feeling really alone and overwhelmed because now I had all this really heavy stuff to carry around by myself. It kept adding up and adding up and eventually became impossible to balance. I would try to bring up the topic again, but she had this way of just refusing to truly engage with me about certain things.
So I was hella relieved when this therapist suggested we keep talking and processing everything that happened. I needed to hear that. I needed her permission to keep breaking this all down because sometimes I feel really silly that I have such intense emotions and reactions to a former therapist.
I talked a lot about my perception of and reaction to Zooey’s behavior in the end. I really feel like her choice to use certain words and phrases, such as “highly inappropriate”, “please be respectful of this”, and her (incorrect) statement that I’d been contacting her “regularly” are particularly difficult for me to sit with. She knows me well enough to know that those particular statements would be triggering for myself and certain other system members.
We were constantly painted as this difficult, manipulative, clingy patient by various mental health professionals, especially throughout our adolescence. As someone who was severely abused by our primary caregivers (among others), you can probably imagine that we’ve had some pretty serious issues with attachment and boundaries. Rather than helping us learn and grow in these areas, people tended to just get exasperated and expect us to magically know how to fix it. It was very painful and shameful to try to navigate these relationships. So we are incredibly sensitive to being called manipulative or to people suggested we aren’t respectful or mindful of their boundaries, especially in a clinical setting. Zooey knew that.
I told the therapist that I feel a sense that Zooey was disgusted with me. It’s like she was trying to shake me off and I just wouldn’t leave her alone. Ultimately, I feel that she reduced me to this idea of a person that is not at all reflective of who I am or how I’ve historically interacted with her. So I was reacting to this idea and then feeling really, really pathetic about my desire to connect with her despite termination.
The therapist immediately said, “That’s projection. She projected herself onto you. And she shouldn’t have.”
For those who aren’t familiar with this Freudian theory, Psychology Today defines projection as:
a defense mechanism that involves taking our own unacceptable qualities or feelings and ascribing them to other people. For example, if you have a strong dislike for someone, you might instead believe that he or she does not like you. Projection works by allowing the expression of the desire or impulse, but in a way that the ego cannot recognize, therefore reducing anxiety.
It admittedly didn’t click right away, but the more we talked about it the more I realized that this is probably exactly what happened. I think Zooey was likely feeling all of these negative things about herself – maybe she was feeling an emotional pull after getting my email. Maybe she wanted to reach out and connect with me, which made her feel uncomfortable or ashamed. Maybe she’s still reeling in the insecurity she feels from not being able to help me. Maybe she’s upset and disgusted with herself and is trying to shake all of her own difficult thoughts and feelings off because they’re making her anxious and angry.
But she can’t shake it off, so she projected all of that bullshit onto me instead.
I don’t know the answers to exactly why she was projecting, but it’s very useful to frame it in this way. It helps me see that this isn’t about me doing something wrong or being inappropriate or manipulative. I think in a lot of ways it actually goes one step further into projective identification. Which is well summarized in this quote by R.D. Laing:
The one person does not use the other merely as a hook to hang projections on. He/she strives to find in the other, or to induce the other to become, the very embodiment of projection.
So, ultimately, I think that what happened is that I sent this energy out to Zooey, which obviously made her feel anxious or uncomfortable in some way. Since she couldn’t sit with that anxiety, not only did she project that onto me, but she also created a new identity for me that was an embodiment of all these negative things she was feeling about herself. I picked up on those projected traits and began to internalize them. Sitting with that was a trigger to me (and others), and the result was all of this additional shame and regret and self-loathing.
This really pivoted my cognition about this entire fiasco. I feel like I have a whole new way to look at it that makes so much sense and allows me to step away from constantly questioning myself.
I am definitely getting my money’s worth with this one.
*BONUS VIDEO* since you’re all probably singing this in your head right about now. Sorrynotsorry 🙂