Pushing Away Empathy

Next week I have three practical exams. Yeah, not fun. My classmates are all losing their freaking minds right now. We’re all putting in crazy long days trying to practice our clinical skills over and over and over again.

Normally we have “open lab” on Fridays from 10am-5pm. We were originally told that it was supposed to be “open” (meaning students can basically drop-in for help with lab skills) but what it actually means is “be there from 10am-5pm”.

I also have therapy on Friday mornings, so I usually stroll into the PT lab closer to 11:30am. Then I leave at 3pm because I have to work. I only scheduled work for that time because my director said open lab would go until 2:30pm. False.

I personally don’t think it’s a big deal because I am an “A” student who works very hard and I grasp material rather quickly. I don’t generally feel that I need seven fucking hours to review one week’s worth of material. Some people do. Fine. But I don’t. I end up so burned out and overwhelmed around hour four that I stop inputting new information anyway.

But the last time I showed up late for open lab, I was given the stink-eye by our lab instructor. And considering we have three practicals next week and he will be the assistant for ALL THREE PROFESSORS, I figured it would be wise to get my butt there in a more timely fashion. I don’t think pissing this dude off will end up benefitting anyone.

I wrote this down on Tuesday as part of my list of things to discuss in session. It was important to me to bring it up right away since the last time I had to reschedule a session, I forget and then awkwardly threw that information at the therapist on my way out the door. This time I wanted to, you know, NOT do that. I was sitting in the waiting area for about ten minutes reminding myself over and over again to bring up Friday morning’s session.

So as soon as I walked into her office, I sat down and rather abruptly said, “I don’t think I can come to Friday’s session.” She replied with a semi-startled, “Oh?” to which I just laughed and said, “You’re funny.” She asked why I thought it was funny and I explained that it’s just amusing because her response is so very therapist-y. I said that in “real life”, people don’t talk like that. They’d probably just suggest another time or assume you’d skip whatever event you couldn’t attend. But therapists? No. They need to analyze everything and figure out what it all means.

Which, whatever,…that is technically her job. I know. But it still feels strange to me. I suppose it reminds me that I am eternally under the microscope and there is no such thing as a “throw-away comment” with her.

Anyway. She later reflected back to me that she thought perhaps I was intentionally trying to provoke her (this was related to the conversation we were having at that moment). I originally didn’t think that was true. I will be upfront if I think that’s what I’m doing, but it honestly didn’t seem to fit. She asked if perhaps I was afraid that she would have responded with indifference to my statement and maybe I felt as though I really wanted to come to session on Friday, so it would have been hurtful if she didn’t respond in a way that showed she cared.

Actually, it was the exact opposite.

I knew she would respond responsibly and with compassion. I knew she’d ask what was going on that I felt I couldn’t make the normal session time. I knew she’d figure out how to make up the session at another time or, if that was impossible, speak with me about the implications of missing a session. I knew she’d be kind. I knew she would care.

And that felt absolutely awful to me.

I couldn’t tell her this. I thought it. I felt it. But there was no fucking way I was going to make myself that vulnerable to her. The sheer intensity of dissociation I was experiencing throughout the session let me know that at least one Insider is not thrilled with the state of the system right now. There’s some pretty serious efforts being made to push the therapist away.


So the more I think about it, the more I realize that she was right – I was absolutely trying to provoke her. The way I sorta barged in with this weird statement about not being able to come on Friday and then laughed at and challenged her response? Duh. Well, I don’t know that I, Andi, was trying to provoke her. But I feel very strongly that someone was. Or even multiple someones.

I know this is not uncommon in trauma survivors. In the literature I’ve read, I’ve come across more than one reference to the difficulty survivors often face when offered empathy and genuine compassion. I remember reading about a trauma client who physically ducked (as if being struck) when experiencing a moment of empathic connection with their therapist.  It is often terrifying or physiologically painful for some of us.

I felt determined to find fault with this woman on Tuesday. Furthermore, I was doing everything I could to avoid receiving any empathy, kindness, compassion, or care from her. I would start to feel physically agitated or apprehensive when I sensed she was beginning to find any connection with me. I wanted to flee from my own body. At a few points, I wanted to put my hands up and physically push the emotion further away from me. The office felt tiny and crushing.

I’m going to try to bring this up with her on Friday (yes, we rescheduled the session for an earlier time). I don’t know how much she can help, but I think it’s important to share. And I’d really like to figure out which Insiders are using this as a protective mechanism and what purpose they believe it is serving them.


14 thoughts on “Pushing Away Empathy

  1. Boost Connection says:

    Those are excellent insights about yourself and the system. It’s so important that you recognized this pattern of pushing empathy away, even after the fact. It’s very understandable but I hope you can begin to address it to your satisfaction in therapy. When you talk about the pain of empathy, that definitely resonated with me. I have a lot to think about!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anxious Mom says:

    Good luck with your exams. I’m sure that stress, on top of your visit home, probably isn’t helping much (yes, I often go by “Captain Obvious”). And good on you, for analyzing what was going on during the session and for figuring out that it’s something going on with the system. I hope the therapist can help shed some light. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Cat's Meow says:

    I remember the first time I made eye contact with my therapist in a way that really took in the compassion and caring that she felt for me. I felt like I had been kicked in the solar plexus, doubled over in pain and just sobbed. It was like touching a live wire. Fortunately I had had enough time with her to trust her as much as possible at that point. I both felt terrified and wanted to flee and at the same time realized how deeply I craved what I had just experienced.

    And I hadn’t even been abandoned by a therapist. I was just dealing with general attachment issues. You certainly have extra reason to be wary and test the new therapist out. I’m glad that it seems like she is pretty good at seeing it for what it is and not taking it personally.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andi says:

      Thank you so much for your lovely comment and for sharing part of your story. I definitely relate to that feeling of being kicked in the chest. Trust is so complex and scary at times.

      I think that even when she does take things personally, she’s willing to talk about it with me and discuss how I impact her, which is tremendous. And I definitely think she understands why I would be testing her.


  4. Zoe says:

    What I love about you is how you work thought these things. You didn’t bring it up with her, but you brought it up with yourself. That is so good. You’re jumping over hurdles constantly and that brings you closer to the goal.

    I think there is definitely something going on that has the others agitated. My friend experienced a similar pushback when she was “holding the doorknob and ready to twist.” I hope that all of this turmoil eventually leads to what you’re aiming.


    Liked by 1 person

  5. Cat says:

    This is amazing insight, Andi, and I do hope you’re able to talk it through on Friday. I can relate to what you say about responding to empathy and compassion. I squirm inside during some of my sessions because Paul just oozes loads of it but it can feel uncomfortable.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Drea says:

    Hi Andi, thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings about empathy. I also appreciate the other people who responded and echoed similar experiences. I appreciate knowing there are other people out there who experience attachment difficulties with therapists. Sometimes it can feel isolating to be going through such an intense emotional experience in therapy, without having other people to relate to. Sometimes I wonder – am I the only one who is SO invested in my therapy relationship? Or am I the only one who would feel SO devastated to lose it? Reading your posts, and the comments from other readers helps normalize an otherwise odd experience for me. So thanks to everyone else reading, too.

    That said, I can relate. Feeling, really feeling another person’s genuine empathy is terrifying. I told my therapist today that sometimes it feels like my skin is crawling when I sit with her at the beginning of the session, until I’ve settled in a bit. Authentic presence, care, and consistency is a foreign experience with an attachment other. And the more I allow myself to feel it, really feel without judgment or condemnation, the more healing therapy becomes. And noticing healing makes feeling the pain and grief worth it.

    Good luck on your exams!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andi says:

      I was actually just having a discussion with my wife about how I’ve been feeling a little vulnerable with this blog because wonder if I am the only person so weirdly invested in my therapist and therapy. So thank you, truly, for this wonderful and honest comment ❤


  7. manyofus1980 says:

    good that you were able to reflect when you were not in session and come to the conclusion that indeed you may have been trying to provoke her. or parts of you were trying to do it. It sounds like she has her head well screwed on too though to pick up on it. XX

    Liked by 1 person

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