During nearly every session with my therapist, I put my feet on the chair at one point or another. I either sit cross-legged, side sitting, or with one or both knees up to my chest. The first several times I did this, I’d put my feet down once I noticed I was doing it and apologize. Each time I did so, my therapist would respond by telling me it was okay.
I always loved that.
Today I came into session in a very light and jovial manner. I asked her if I could show her some photos. She said of course, so I pulled out my phone and knelt down in front of her (something I have never done before because I usually just hand her the phone) to show her some Halloween photos of my sister’s children and a funny picture of my classmate and I taken earlier in the week. We laughed together and I could tell she was excited to have this glimpse into my life outside of her office.
When I returned to my chair I set my phone down and reflexively picked up my right leg to place my foot on the chair. I was wearing heels though, so it felt awkward. I paused a second and then said, “Well this doesn’t work as well with heels on” as I put my foot back on the floor.
Doing that reminded me of my sentiment around such things, so I spontaneously said, “I love that you let me put my feet on the furniture!”
She said, “Well I might change my mind, come winter.”
I felt my heart sink. I quickly responded,
“I never put my boots on your furniture LAST winter…”
“No, you didn’t. I think you just took your shoes off.”
“Yes, I did. So why did you say that? Are you worried I’ll bring in my salt-coated, snowy boots and ruin your furniture next month? Do you think I’m that mindless and disrespectful?”
“Not at all. I was just playing along.”
“It doesn’t feel that way. It feels like you needed to say that for some other reason.”
“What would that reason be?”
It kind of went on like this for a while. She explained that she was also just responding spontaneously in the moment and she hadn’t meant anything else by her comment. I explained that although that may be true, I was having a very strong emotional reaction to her response. I felt shut down, as if she was keeping me in check somehow; as if I needed reminding that I can’t always put my feet on the chair. There are limits, boundaries, rules and I have to follow them.
She noted that I seem to have similar intense reactions whenever there’s any sort of boundary brought into the session, perceived or otherwise. She asked what that felt like and I told her it felt like being pushed away, physically; like literally having someone place their hand on my chest and shove me.
She asked if it felt like a punishment of some sort,
“Here you are talking from this spontaneous place because you feel relaxed and good about our conversation and then I turn around and remind you that maybe this space isn’t as free and open for you as you thought?”
“And your response…it’s almost as if you imagine I am retaliating against you for having that thought.”
She’s right. I did. It scared me and I felt embarrassed for saying what I’d said. I told her as much. I further stated that this is why I don’t like speaking spontaneously; I end up saying regretful things. She told me that if there is any place where I should feel safe and free to say anything, spontaneous or otherwise, it’s in therapy.
She pointed out that this happens a lot for us, these mini-ruptures that occur mid-conversation. I said,
“I know. And this type of trigger either freezes me in place, rendering me completely unable to continue with the session in any productive manner, or causes me to spiral further and further downward as the hour passes.”
“Is that what’s happening now?”
“No. Which is why I was just able to articulate that to you.”
She smiled and I kept the conversation moving, explaining why I love that she lets me put my feet on the furniture (a story for another post).
This is a pretty big deal. I have never been able to recover like this after being in that type of emotional space. Generally I really do just become useless when I feel any sort of rejection, abandonment, embarrassment, or fear. I panic. I forget anything I ever wanted to say to my therapist. I just shut down completely and my brain starts screaming at me.
I don’t know what was different this time or what will happen the next time, but I’m really impressed with myself for being able to hold those tough emotions and not let myself be destroyed by them. I still felt them, but I fought back against it and I was able to ride out the pain in order to keep the session flowing.
I have never recovered that quickly from feeling so triggered by a relational issue within session itself. Maybe this is a new skill of mine? Let’s hope it’s repeatable.