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”.

I am not attractive

Like a skinny bird, she sat hunched over in the leatherette Ikea chair, beaming despair as if asking me not to hurt her. But how could I, I struggled hard not to be too protective and find the right professional approach. She told me about her history of eating disorders. Slowly, in successive sessions, she revealed more about herself, telling me about the sexual abuse she had endured as a young teenager. I felt overwhelmed and considered referring her to a knowledgeable colleague. However, she immediately trusted me as a professional because of, as she said, my calmness, openness and warmth. And even if she didn’t say it, I also think through a certain lightness of my approach, sometimes enjoying a laugh or joke.

Her choice of words intrigued me. As she spoke, I heard a talented psychology student with an interest in sociology. With depth, analytical skills, a passion for the profession and a wide vocabulary (slightly larger than mine because we spoke German, which is not my native language). What could we do? Because I felt trusted by her, I decided to take a leap of faith. I let her be my teacher. Relying on her growth potential and my ability to help her reflect on her feelings. This is where the adventure began.

Each session I let her set her own goals, determine what she wanted to work on. She felt valued as an individual as I worked to build her confidence in her intellectual abilities and perhaps more relevantly, the fact that she was worth listening to. Because she was almost the same age as my daughters, I felt extra for her if she sometimes succumbed in everyday life to the idea that her only skill was in sexual acts. She visibly struggled with this deep-seated negative self-image and feared the men she met would notice. And as it may happen, she was sometimes subtly guided in this direction by strangers. In some summer sessions, she wore clothes that showed a lot of her skin. Intuitively, I decide never to talk about it and only pay attention to her reflections, ambition and growing self-knowledge.

Over the months, I noticed a certain lightness in her appearance and she began to make concrete plans for an academic career. I have an academic background myself and her plan sounded very believable. She wanted to postpone her parallel dreams of becoming a therapist, for which she still felt too vulnerable. With her newfound confidence, she began a relationship with a man a few years older than her, which initially made her very happy. Unfortunately, partly because of him, she fell back into older patterns and the relationship became one-sided to her disadvantage. She broke up with him. And at her request, I referred her to a colleague for what she called deeper work to get to the root of her problem.

She ended our therapeutic relationship on a positive note, grateful for what it had brought her. She told me, as she later also wrote in her review of our journey, that the memories of our conversations would guide and sustain her in life. And me, what have I learned? I had learned to sit back, trust and rely on her, as a young person with the potential to offer something of great value to the world in general and vulnerable girls or young women in particular.

Into the woods

The slender man who chose me as his coach had a calm self-confidence, a little reserved perhaps, but friendly and attentive. At a young age, he already knew how to enjoy a career and how to grow his business. His religious upbringing had prepared him to know his own mind and how he wanted to be with other people. He stood his ground in conversations with me and always took responsibility for his own life and words. In a way, he seemed always in charge of our sessions.

On the fourth session, I accidentally forgot the keys to my practice. He was the first client that day, which forced me to turn back in the rain and I got there soaked. He was already sitting in his chair in my practice. I started drying my hair with a towel. Someone had let him in, he said, it didn’t matter that he had to wait for me. In the sessions before that, I had reluctantly convinced myself that in his mid-twenties he already had the strength to accept himself as he was. As my hair dried and more and more showers hit the windows overlooking the canal from the first floor of the 17th century house, I asked myself: “Why do I feel uncomfortable with my realisation, that he needs so little help?”. Then it sunk in.

He had just one reason to visit me, which was to come to terms with a certain period in his childhood. When he was 12-13 he went to high school where he was bullied. Deep down, he already felt sure of his own ability and worth, supported by his warm, intelligent, and religious family. At school, his peers noticed that he was different from them, maybe they noticed that he somehow judged them as if he were putting himself above them. Ah, I realized, sometimes I felt a little smaller in the room when he was with me and I found that interesting. Understandably, some classmates were not happy with his attitude. They teased him, sometimes harassed him. At some point, he returned to his gym locker room and found that they had peed in his shoes. All he could do was try to avoid them and hide in his own mind. As an adult, in some situations the 13-year-old in him was triggered and still determined his view of the world: “I am not safe, run, you will never be one of them, escape in your own mind”.

He told me that this fear was recently rekindled when his new girlfriend mixed with other people or, in extremis, took dancing lessons with extroverted dancers. I never saw him belittle himself when he was with me, probably because I wasn’t threatening to him and the 13-year-old boy inside. But now I saw it. He and I discussed this and I explained how we could address this in the next session. My suggestion was to use a visualization technique to help him reconnect with his 13-year-old self.

So he did, with his eyes closed, he visualized a forest where he could meet and talk to the 13-year-old. In a soft voice I led him, and after a while they walked away together in this imaginary forest, holding hands. A mountain appeared and they climbed it together. When they reached the top of the mountain, some lakes could be seen in the depths. He talked about how he and the 13-year-old were now one, fused. What a beautiful view he said. After a few minutes he opened his eyes. I had the strong illusion that for the first time he was really looking me in the eye, completely relaxed in his chair. “This is what I came for,” he said, “it’s very valuable. Thank you. No further session is needed.” For a few seconds I felt insecure, almost humiliated for fear of being suddenly left alone. I imagined with open eyes his view of the lakes from the mountaintop and relaxed. “Everything is possible from here,” he said.