2 Words From My Therapist That Changed My Life
Her surprising advice gave me license to be myself without apology.
First, it’s worth knowing that my therapist “Laura” is one of the gentlest, kindest people I’ve ever known. As in, she has a Zen master calm about her. Given the story that I’m about to tell, also know that she doesn’t normally swear as she did that day. She is a beautiful and elegant woman who wears exquisite, expensive shoes and great clothes, which shouldn’t matter in a therapist. But I find a well-dressed therapist to be reassuring and aspirational.
The fact that Laura’s such a composed and dignified person made what she said to me in therapy that much more shocking. Actually, the two words coming from anyone could be taken as just plain offensive. But once she said them to me, those two words imprinted on me like a psychic tattoo. They have become my life mantra. These two mono-syllabic words made as much of an impact as all of the wise, well-articulated advice she’d given me for years.
Every couple of weeks I would come and plant myself in her small, stylish, sun-lit office and say something that wasn’t entirely true. Like, “I destroy everything.” She’ll look at me with her piercing blue eyes that don’t flinch when she’s getting a point across, even and especially if that point makes me feel uncomfortable. Then she’ll let me know that what I’m saying is what is called distorted thinking, a fancy way of saying “Wrong.” In this case, therapists call what I was doing all-or-nothing thinking. The truth? I destroyed some things, but that’s hardly the whole story.
For so long, I pooh-poohed therapy. I looked at it as a rich person’s luxury, an indulgence for people who have time for a lot of navel-gazing. I didn’t have the money or time. Plus, over the course of a few decades, when I dabbled in seeing someone, like so many bad dates, I had a string of strange or at least mediocre therapists. One woman had ugly, scuffed shoes and dead plants. One man sighed in empathy at regular intervals, wore sweater vests, and would weep when I told him something sad. Another wore leather pants and had all-leather furniture. He squeaked whenever he shifted in his therapist chair.
I didn’t want to go to all that trouble to go back into therapy only to be met with more weirdos, more disappointment, more wasted money, more wasted time.
Learning to unlearn my lies
But then my life came crashing down around me. I was in enough of a crisis that I had become almost non-functional. If someone could save me and figure out a way to help me clean up the mess I had made, I would do just about anything, including spending what little money I had. Somehow I found Laura, who even in the first session started helping me to see more clearly.
Since I started seeing her a few years ago, Laura’s been teaching me to unlearn lies that I’ve been telling myself for most of my life. She’s also willing to let me sit in my discomfort, let the lies I’ve told for years to myself, and lies I’ve easily told to others, ricochet throughout her tiny office until I wanted to run screaming to escape the pain of seeing the real me. Strangely, the pain of being honest in therapy quickly morphs into a near transcendental thrill of revelation.
Laura has been teaching me that the most priceless, but hardest, thing in the world is, to be honest with myself. As a woman whose lifelong trademark was to be nice, I’m learning to go down a scary and unfamiliar path to unlearn a lifetime of behaviors that no longer serve me, if they ever did. I’m unlearning my trusted go-to behavior to stay sweet and quiet no matter what.
For the first couple of decades of my life, I learned that there was no safe place for me to speak up and say my peace. What a funny expression, to “say your piece.” Yes, it’s “piece” and not “peace.” Small matter. Saying what you want to say would be anything but peaceful, and would most likely but would unleash anger and outrage in a family of volatile men.
Coping with the insane business of being alive
She’s also been teaching me to step back in my life. I use the time in therapy to finally try to understand all of this. You know, the insane business of being alive and trying to get it right. Which will never happen. Which is intolerable and can make a person feel crazy as they try to get closer to some truth, only to mess up over and over. Then try again. Even if it’s impossible, I try anyway.
That’s why it’s a very good idea to find a guru — a priest, a monk, a therapist, a trusted village elder — who is wise, brave, and honest enough to call it as they see it. And someone caring enough to tell you when you have gone off-course. Oh, and tell you when you are being a coward and not throwing yourself into life as if you will die tomorrow. This is how, ideally, we should all live, because we might. In any case, we will all die. So wake up, now.
The times I know that Laura has really strong, let’s say even agitated feelings — when she goes past just the wide-eyed, look-is-worth-a-thousand words stare — is when she tilts her head to the side, but only a bit. Good therapists know not to show their hand because, dammit, you have to figure it all out yourself on your own, the Glinda the Good Witch “You knew it all along” kind of irritating thing.
After the micro-tilt, she’ll arch one of her already arched eyebrows and widen her eyes. When I get one of these wide-eyed, arched eyebrow looks, it means she has some very strong feelings that mean, “Really? You really believe that?” Or, “Seriously, you’re going to go down that shame and blame path again?!” Or cut to the chase, a look that says, “That is not a good idea.”
Usually, when she does an eyebrow raise, I’ll say, “What?!”
Then she’ll do that annoying therapist thing and say, “What do you think?”
I don’t know!!! I want to say. That’s why I’m paying you so much money. But I don’t. I’ve learned to be more honest, but I still try not to be rude.
The more I tried, the worse I made everything
During the session that Laura handed me those two life-altering words (I’m getting there), I was telling her a story of how something had gone so badly with someone I love. We were, at this point, estranged. There seemed to be an invisible barrier between us ever since I had upended our lives. I couldn’t find a way to get back to where we were. The more I tried, the worse I made everything.
For months, I had been working on a big, creative project. I decided to entrust this person by telling them about the project, and the problems I was having making sense of it.
Maybe this person was trying to save me from me. Maybe they thought what I was doing was misguided. Maybe I was being overly sensitive. But what they told me made me feel like it was a disaster waiting to happen.
To cut this person some slack, I did make the mistake of asking for their advice. But once they offered it, I immediately felt deflated and defeated. Even though I knew it was a good idea, I decided a person like me wasn’t smart or creative enough to pull it off. They’re right, I decided. It’s so flawed. I’m so flawed. What was I thinking trying to take this on.
Then I started crying and, I’m embarrassed to admit, screaming at this person, unleashing the kind of anger that — no matter how hard I try to keep it in — keeps erupting since my life has gone haywire. I was messing up yet again and hurting someone I loved. Again. “Why am I such a horrible person?”
“You could have handled that better.”
It was right about here, in me retelling the story, that Laura arched one of her eyebrows. Cue me saying, “What?!”
“It sounds like you were really angry,” she says.
“Yes, I was terrible. The worst.”
“Okay, it sounds like you could have handled that better,” she said. “But do you know the best thing you can say when people are not supporting your creative ideas?”
I had no idea. “I should use an ‘I feel’ statement? Like, ‘I feel bad when you don’t seem to support my creative ideas?’”
“Well, yes, you could say that,” she said. “But in this case, when it comes to defending your creative work, there is something more effective.” I think, but wasn’t sure, Laura was smiling. Call it a therapist Mona Lisa smile.
“I give up,” I answered, expensive seconds ticking by. “Can’t you just tell me?”
She emphasized the “Fuck” especially. The “y’all” gave it a twangy don’t-mess-with-me twist.
And that was it. I laughed, I was so surprised. She smiled, but the kind of serious smile so I knew she wasn’t joking. She meant it. Laura doesn’t go drop F-bombs right and left with me, like, ever. It’s as if the Dalai Lama had said, “They can all go kiss my Guru ass.”
As in, Laura’s “Fuck y’all “carried that much more weight.
My secret suit of armor
At first, I was shocked silent. But her advice sunk in fast. That’s it. No long long-winded therapy advice required. “Fuck y’all” is the mantra to live by when somebody tries to bring me down to Earth in a soul-crushing way.
“Fuck y’all” works perfectly for a person who until recently, lived her life trying to please others, even at the risk of giving up on what she wants most. It’s not like I need to say it out loud, although I reserve that right if somebody really is intent on squashing me with their squashy statements. But thinking “Fuck y’all” really hard whenever I need to set up strong and healthy boundaries does the trick.
It has been two years since Laura handed me those two words. They’re my talisman to ward off criticism that doesn’t serve me in any way. When someone rejects a creative idea or even my creative way to live? I pull on my “Fuck y’all” suit of armor that’s deflective, funny, and impenetrable.
As someone who became a master of accommodation, of putting up with things that made her feel bad so others don’t, for not “saying her piece” for the sake of keeping the peace, these words have given me a ballast. As long as I’m not hurting someone, then what can I say but say, or just whisper them to myself, these two words in the absolute nicest way possible. No offense meant. And have a nice day.