I have feelings too

***In this post, I reflect on how my fear of being too culturally different from this client initially played tricks on me. In the first two sessions I wandered through unpromising territory, looking for possible childhood trauma. Thoughtfully, I then chose a different direction. Our transition from a therapeutic to a pragmatic coaching approach proved fruitful. It still felt like therapy to my client, though, as you’ll see.***

The young man in the seat next to me pretended to feel very relaxed. It was his first therapy session. He moved to the Netherlands with his mother when he was three years old. His father was soon to follow, but never arrived. They talked on the phone sometimes, but less and less.

He was now 22 years old and wore a black hoodie that covered most of his face. His eyes stared at a spot in the curtain that covered the wall in front of him. His jeans were deliberately ripped, his sneakers unbuttoned. Same age as my daughters, so potentially familiar territory for me, so why was I a little scared? I guess I was afraid that my ability to connect and empathize with him would be insufficient. Somehow I managed to make myself feel that his view of the world would be very different from mine.

He patiently explained why he contacted me. ‘I don’t have or show any feelings, my girlfriend said when she broke up. She’s wrong. I have them, I just can’t talk about them.’ For a while we explored what was holding him back, maybe he was angry or sad because his father had abandoned him, maybe he didn’t want to be overwhelmed by feelings?

We spent one or two sessions investigating this, mostly to no avail. He was open and candid about the consequences of ignoring his feelings when he was down, namely buying something expensive (I never asked what) or traveling to another city and getting a tattoo on a whim. He relaxed a bit in his chair and said, “Wow, I never thought I’d go into therapy, that’s very unusual in my circles.” But to be honest, not much progress was made from my perspective. I wondered if he would benefit more from a coaching approach than from therapy… Why delve deeper into his problems when a skills-based approach could hold promise?

I thought about what he said at the beginning, “I can’t talk about feelings,” and asked him what words he had to describe feelings. Well, when everything was in order, he felt ‘chill’. And when things went bad for him, he felt ‘not chill’. He had no other words to describe his feelings at the time. I remember being very surprised, used to the way my daughters talk about many different kinds of feelings.

After the session, I searched the internet for coaching tools to use in the next session. I found a set of so-called therapeutic playing cards with words for (connected) feelings on them, a tool developed for teenagers by a Belgian colleague. They were a bit expensive but I ordered them anyway. The next session I was afraid he would find them childish, so I put them on an adjacent table. Fortunately, he noticed them and asked some questions about them.

Over the next three sessions, he learned to talk about his feelings using the playing cards he moved around the table while talking. His vocabulary grew rapidly and our conversations changed. Unexpectedly for me, he began to show the true depth of his feelings. Admittedly, I was ashamed that I was so surprised at his self-knowledge. I remember the thought came to me “life is good”, probably caused by feeling more connected to him now. It occurred to him that his mother couldn’t talk about feelings either, maybe he would teach her.

At the end of the fifth session, Friday at 6 pm, he thanked me. He’d learned what he’d come for, and during the week he mostly felt “chill,” he said with a smile. We evaluated the sessions so far, also for me to learn what worked in my approach and what didn’t. Then we said goodbye and he went down the stairs alone. Due to the approaching weekend, the front door of the practice was already locked. He came back to get me and together we went downstairs with the keys. He was already talking on the phone about an appointment for drinks with friends. His last comment on the phone, as he waved at me, still rings melodiously in my ears: “Yo bro, I just got out of therapy, I’m cured”.

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