Psychotherapy with Us: Diving in Deep

The following fictional anecdote is indicative of a typical Atwater Village Therapy client. We are compiling it from a variety of client experiences. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

I open the door to my office and see her sitting in the waiting room. Carleigh. A thirty-something woman from Illinois who moved to L.A. four years ago and decided that today would be the day she’d give therapy another try. She settles onto my couch wearing faded jeans, a David Bowie t-shirt, and opaque horn-rimmed glasses. Her sandy brown hair is up in a ponytail and her long frame is visibly tense. So is her face. Pale and tense. I offer a lighthearted remark to put her at ease and think to myself that I might want to do that a lot with her. Rescue her from her tension. Carleigh starts to tell me how she’s feeling anxious about transitioning to writing screenplays full-time. She harshly judges her current writing and is finding it difficult to be productive. Her boyfriend also has a lot of problems. Most days she finds herself taking care of him instead of writing. Carleigh has trouble falling asleep at night because her mind won’t stop racing. She seems weighed down to me, drowning in a sea of judgment and self-criticism, barely coming up for air.

Stuck in Judgment

The first few months of therapy she’s locked in on her boyfriend and her judgments of herself. How much he needs her, but also how she feels like she can never be the girlfriend he needs her to be. She says he seems constantly disappointed in her. She’s constantly disappointed in herself. I wonder what she would focus on if she thought about him less.

Pretty early on, we hit our first wall and she starts judging herself for being in therapy. Is it going to work? Is it worth the money? Aren’t I tired of hearing her talk about the same old thing every week? Something shifts in a big way when I say to Carleigh that I wonder if she’s ever had a relationship in which she felt truly supported and strengthened, instead of mostly being left feeling drained. She breaks down in tears — something she hates doing in front of other people.

Moving beyond her present, we go into the past. Carleigh tries not to think of her family too often because it is a dark place to go back to. Her mother is an alcoholic. Her father hid himself at work, and when he was home talked only about how much he’d sacrificed and how miserable he was. If Carleigh needed something, it was met with drunken frustration from her mother or icy guilt from her father. Now she begins to wonder if she is sacrificing herself and her dreams to try to make her boyfriend happy. I point out that she feels strong and in control if she takes care of him, and that to escape that role would mean to open herself up to the possibility of someone judging her for having needs.

Daring Greatly

But over time I begin to notice a change in Carleigh, and she does too. She now dares to have more needs. Dares in a big way. She breaks up with her boyfriend and moves into a space that feels more like her. She is heartbroken but determined to stay focused. The negative voice in her head still doubts her, but she is getting better at not believing what it says. I start to really feel the excitement that she is still a little too wary to fully feel herself. She sets a new writing schedule and starts reaching out to friends that she had lost touch with over the last two years. She is beginning to feel like herself again. She is beginning to be herself again. And it shows.

Carleigh, like most clients I work with, has taught me a lot. I struggled alongside her when she questioned herself, questioned therapy, questioned hope. I too had to get outside of my comfort zone, take risks, make mistakes. I had to be real and show up in a real way for her, just as I was guiding her to do the same. I didn't have “the answer” — there rarely is a single neat and tidy simple answer — but I showed her it was okay not to perfect. If Plan A and Plan B didn’t work, well Plan C was pretty damn good too. The important thing was taking action, and finally gaining the courage and insight to make real changes in her life, and beginning once again to create the life that she wanted — and that she deserved.