A little girl, perhaps five or six-years old sits at a table of adults. The conversation is topical vibrant and rapid. The adults, mostly intellects. Their conversation covers art, literature and politics, some gossip is included. There is food, wine, cigarettes, laughter … flirtations. The little girl listens and watches intently. Everyone totally unaware of what she is hearing, learning and interpreting. As she is constantly absorbing, acquiring, making decisions about herself and world, through the words, actions and conversations of these adults.
It is the late 70’s.
I have been working with her for over ten years. The presenting issue; extreme anxiety. An anxiety that frequently draws a curtain closed on any level of function. It’s been there as long as she can recall.
She has been relatively successful through fighting the anxiety, moving up the corporate ladder. Now, for some unforeseen reason she is frozen, again. Unable to get past her … to use a pedestrian term … ‘performance anxiety’.
We have worked for years on what drives the anxiety (and other behaviours) and its origins. The more she locates the origins of her anxiety, the more recovery she has experienced. We have made serious inroads; her life and functioning greatly enhanced.
The sessions were fraught. Early on our greatest challenge was her recovery from three traumatic years with a psychiatrist. A psychiatrist who took her on part of the journey in her search of recovery. Sadly, when things were at the crucial stage the psychiatrist decided she no longer wanted to see her. It was not a mutually agreed termination. Sessions times were randomly cancelled, and after months of this, she was told, through the receptionist, the psychiatrist would not be no longer seeing her.
Of course, this was a neat fit into her psychological damage, being left, abandoned, unable to trust.
It was years before she trusted our work enough to be involved. Eric Berne said, ‘in the beginning the psychotherapist will do all the work … then the client will’. This is true. I worked hard, then she worked very hard. Both committed to every session.
Many years on we are working through how difficult it is for her to communicate at this new management level she has achieved …
Client: ‘I just struggle to get my words out, like my brain has frozen, shut down, I hate it, but it’s so familiar … ‘
Psychotherapist: ‘On reflection what do you feel is going on in those moments?’
Client: ‘I just know …’. She pauses.
By now I know that familiar look on her face, a sign of pain, that she has found something, and it hurts.
After a few moments she is eventually able to articulate the thought … a thought that has formulated an action her whole life … a thought she didn’t know she had until this moment.
Client: ‘I’ll embarrass Mum. I was going to saying “I’ll embarrass myself” but suddenly I realised it had nothing to do with me, it was what Mum needed … I had to get it right, I had to know because otherwise it would have made her look bad, that she had done a bad job bringing me up’.
Mum needed her to be the bright child, the child everyone oooed and aaaahed over. So, she adapted, she had to know everything. Its why she always feels so much pressure to get it right … so much pressure that she freezes.
By now, after all of our work together she did know some of this intellectually, however, for all of us, it is not until it hits an ‘aha’ that it has the capacity to create behavioural change.
We discuss the origins of her be-perfect and try-hard drivers.
Recent update: her thinking and behaviour has changed; she has just been offered a huge promotion.