Thoughts from Therapy #86 – Self Punishment

Note: As usual, this is a long one – usually the posts titled “Thoughts From Therapy” are going to be really long doozy posts to read.

S’ expression was worry and/or concern almost the whole time through our session today.

Hey, I’d be too if I were the psychologist and my client comes in and the first thing they tell me after I ask them how they are is, “I’ve been very suicidal this last week because things have gotten worse for me…”

I wasn’t trying to be melodramatic because I really was having a bad time last week. A lot has happened in the space of just 7 days – most of them were very distressing. So in a sobby and weepy way, I started recounting my week.

I told him about how I am in a financial crisis and going to work at the new restaurant aggravates my depression. I told him about how every time I’m at the new restaurant, I want to kill myself. So I had made the decision to quit. I told him how I felt like a loser and a quitter for leaving the job after only a month of employment with them. I also told him about how I was supposed to meet someone I had been talking to for a couple of months but they’d gotten cold-feet and had cancelled. I said that I was disappointed, despite the fact that I was expecting to be stood up.

“Of course you were disappointed!” S said, in his usual kind and ‘I’m-concerned-for-you’ voice and tone.

Tears welled in my eyes when he said that. Hearing the validation from him was comforting and made the child in me cry.

I also talked about the protest by the Westboro Baptist Church. “I expected to be really badly affected when the Westboro Baptist Church was here…”

“Ah yeah… Did you go down?”

“Yeah. I was there for about 10 minutes…” I said, as I started to cry harder. “I guess it was a good thing I couldn’t hear them… I mean, I was at the back where the dance party was happening. The music was so loud that they were drowned out. But I could see their signs you know?”

I could barely look at S. I kept looking at the ground – I felt small, afraid, sad, and vulnerable. From time to time, I would dart my eyes upwards and look at him. Every time I did, I would see his worried expression. His eyebrows were knitted with concern, and his lips turned a little down in a ‘I really empathize and feel sad for you’ kind of way. Despite my feelings of vulnerability, every time I saw his face, I felt a little better.

“And it makes me wonder, are these people right? Who’s right, you know? So… I don’t know” I said.

“So even just seeing the signs, the slur… ‘God hates… Whatever'”

“Yeah… There was a sign that hit me. It said, ‘God hates your prayers’,” I said, my voice trembling.

“Why did that hit you?”

“Um… It makes me wonder… If all these things (the bad things) happen to me, one after another, because God hates me. Or that he hates my prayers. Is that why my prayers aren’t answered?”

“So it plays into your fears that you already have – being condemned,” S said.

“Yeah… I think about how much of a struggle life is. Trying to deal with everything…” I said.

“When you said that out loud, do you think that God hates your prayers?” S asked, challenging my thoughts.

“Part of me thinks so… I mean… It’s hard to move past the finite view that I have…” I said, sniffling.

“What finite view?”

“That I’m just not good enough… Or… Somehow I’m doing stuff that he doesn’t want me to do and so because of that, I’m being punished. Or… Or he’s making things hard for me because he wants me to realize that I’m supposed to do other things…” I said.

“You’re constantly wondering… Constantly feeling condemned… Constantly doubting yourself and the decisions you’ve made – whether they’re right or wrong…” S said.

“Yeah… I think what contributed to that is also the fact that my marriage lasted 8 years and yet it was not to be… And I didn’t even realize it until so many years. It makes me doubt the decisions I’ve made because it makes me wonder what else I’m doing wrong,” I said. “It makes me wonder if people were right about my marriage…”

“Well… I’m not saying that they were… But what if they were? If they were, what would that be like?” S said, challenging my views again.

My voice trembled as I tried hard not to just dissolve into tears. He had touched a nerve.

“If they were… Then I just did whatever I wanted because I was rebellious, because I didn’t want to take people’s wisdom. I didn’t listen. I think that’s how I’ve always been. I say, ‘Screw it!’ and then I do it – then something bad happens, I get angry at myself and tell myself that I should’ve listened,” I said bitterly.

“It sounds like either road leads to you feeling terrible about yourself,” S pointed out.

I then led us into how I feel like I always need to self-punish.

“So there’s a part of you thinks, ‘Well, I’m this horrible person. I didn’t listen. I was wrong'”

“Yeah… And as you can see, a lot of things are interconnected that way. I can’t feel one thing without feeling another…” I said.

“So just pulling all this apart, getting you to a point where you can let yourself say that ‘Well, I’ve made a mistake but that doesn’t mean that there’s something deeply flawed about me because I made that decision”

“Yeah. I mean, I hear that you know? I hear all these things that people say. To say it to myself, or to believe is a completely different thing”

“I get that,” S said kindly.

“People keep telling me why I keep hurting myself emotionally. Why don’t I just stop thinking about my divorce? Why can’t I just forget about my ex? People say that they don’t understand why I keep doing this. And I told them that if I knew why, I wouldn’t be doing them, would I?”

“I wonder if it goes back to what you were saying though… You need to feel like it wasn’t a mistake. You need to find some value in the relationship. So you’re keeping the connection because you don’t want to just… I mean, blocking him or not thinking about him anymore would just mean that you’re writing off those 8 years,” S said.

“Yeah, that would make sense,” I said, realizing that I had never thought of that before. I just kept beating myself up for not letting my ex go – for always keeping him in my mind. “I chose poorly… What else am I going to choose poorly?”

“So admitting that you chose poorly in the past would mean that you would choose poorly again in the future,” S said.

“Yeah. Because I see a pattern. I see a pattern of me choosing things that don’t work out. Or doing things that hurt…”

“Do you think maybe you’re perpetuating this? By not letting go, by not moving on…”

“In some ways, I feel like I’m punishing myself. I think because that’s how it’s always been, you know? If I defy my mother, she beats me. If I’m disobedient, she beats me. So if I make a mistake, the only rational response would be I should beat myself…”

“I’ve made a mistake, therefore I must be punished,” S said, iterating what I just said.

“I think so… I think that’s probably why I always have to feel bad. If I don’t, I feel unsettled”

“What’s that feeling like? That feeling unsettled?”

“Like something’s wrong. Like something’s missing. This can’t be my day. Why am I feeling okay..? I’m not feeling punished. I’m not feeling bad” I said.

S sat up a little straighter. It seemed like I had said something that made him think that I’ve hit gold.

“I have such rare memories of not having those feelings in my childhood that it just doesn’t seem right. It always seems right when my mother’s angry because that’s all I remember of her – so… I don’t recognize this caring mother who is offering to help me with my finances… Who is this?” I said. It was very hard to control my crying when I spoke about my mother.

“It’s hard to believe. Having your mom angry at you gives you some feeling of security. Having a good day makes you feel insecure,” S said.

“Yeah because in some ways, I know my role… When I’m getting beat, you know? It’s how I’ve always related with her. So… It’s messed up but it feels like that’s how I’m meant to be…”

“So it’s like you have to maintain a feeling of being punished?” S asked.

“Yeah…”

“It’s like now, you’ve got me, and I’m trying to get you to validate your emotions. And you’ve got your friends who are saying all these supportive things to you. That doesn’t feel right, somehow?” S asked.

“Yeah… I think that’s why every time I self validate, it doesn’t feel right. That’s why I can’t believe it. When I self validate, I’m talking to the child, I’m talking to the adult… And the teen. But they can’t believe it”

“I wonder if that’s why you feel so alone too… I’m always struck by lack of congruence. You come in and you tell me how alone you feel, but then you tell me ‘Oh I was talking to these people’, ‘My friends said…’, so it seems like you have all these connections and these people who are there for you,” S noted.

“Yeah…” I said, realizing that he was on to something there. I’ve never realized it before. “I often feel like nobody cares even though there are people who do. I’m discovering more and more people who are supportive. I don’t know whether I just feel alone because the inner parts of me don’t feel like they can relate. They’re relating to each other better now – almost all the time now, I don’t see different parts of them anymore. Everything’s coming from one person. So I don’t know whether it’s because that inner person is not listening, or too afraid to accept that both the good things and the bad things can exist together. That I have made a mistake, that my parents were neglectful at one point in my life, that I’ve been self-punishing… But at the same time, that I am resilient, that I always get through things, no matter how hard it is. That I’m doing some good. I’m trying to be better…”

“All those things are true at the same time,” S said kindly.

“So why do I still not believe that? Why can’t I accept that?” I asked, “I guess… It would make sense that I can’t accept that because I’ve always thought that I have to be a certain way. That somehow… My role in my household is to be the person who suffers”

“Not just that maybe, but the person who suffers because you’ve screwed up”

“Mmhmm… And the person who suffers for other people,” I said.

“Like your brother?” S asked, touching another nerve. I could almost not answer him.

“Yeah…”

“So not suffering just doesn’t feel right?”

“Yeah… If I’m not protecting someone, it’s not right… But why can’t I protect myself?” I asked.

“Based on what you just said maybe it’s because you don’t feel comfortable with that. That you’re not supposed to be the one who is protected,” S said.

I nodded and continued to sob.

“I wonder… As you say that, how much of – I know that you’ve said that you trust me. We obviously have a pretty positive relationship. But as you say that, I wonder how much of what you disclosed to me, about the event… Do you think a part of you wanted me to get mad at you?” S asked, as he pondered my words.

“I wonder…” I said, as I thought about it. I realized that he was probably right. That somehow, he knew what was motivating my unconscious. I felt amazed. It must be his experience that informs him of that. “I think… I felt like I should pull away. That I keep pushing you. I’m going to push you away, you know? I realized later on in the week that your tone of voice, the way you hesitated to tell me that you were uncomfortable with me creeping on you, informed me that you do care about me. That I should stop fighting you. That I should stop pushing away”

“So there was a definite attempt to pull away”

“Yeah… I don’t deserve to be loved or cared for. I think have that belief, you know? I want someone to love me. To care for me regardless of how I am. But at the same time, I don’t want people around either”

“I wonder if it’s the safety piece, you want to connect with people, but you don’t want to feel vulnerable. And a lot of things make you feel vulnerable,” S suggested.

“Yeah…” I agreed. A lot of things do make me feel vulnerable – small, childlike, and unable to defend myself.

As the session wound to a close, for this week’s homework, S asked me to sit with the uneasy feeling that I get whenever I’m not distressed. He wanted me to feel it more fully and to describe what that’s like – and what clues it might give us as to why I feel that way.

Though I was pretty weepy for the entire session, as I am almost always, I wasn’t too distressed internally. In fact, I left feeling like we’re getting closer to my root issues. It’s like the two of us have been digging this whole time and now we’re striking the top of the roots. It seems like pretty soon we’re going to be able to get to the bottom of the issues that I’ve been faced with.

I feel a lot more optimistic about myself – and though I still continue to beat myself up and self-punish, this time, I feel a lot more confident that I can overcome it.

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts from Therapy #86 – Self Punishment

  1. I think being aware that it is self punishment will allow you to see it in a different way. Instead of just doing it, you will be able to pause and identify that you’re doing it and that will frame it in a whole new light.

    For example, I used to pick fights with fiancé to get him to yell at me because that felt normal. I’m now at the point where I go “I want to pick a fight with you because I feel like I need a fight” and I can identify it and 9/10 get to the root emotion. This will hopefully set you on a similar path.

    It doesn’t mean you will stop immediately, but it will help. You are doing so well, and I quite like S.

    Liked by 1 person

    • JL says:

      I quite like S too. Isn’t he such an amazing soul?

      You’re right. I hope that I can work against my instinct to deny my feelings and that I can stay with the discomfort to identify my root problems… I hope to be on that path too.

      Like

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