The story of the woman who couldn’t complain
This is the story of a woman who couldn’t complain… that’s the story’s title, which happens to be a very good example of what could happen during a psychotherapeutic session… Before I begin to tell you this story, I would like to explain to you the reasons why I decided to share with you this story…
1) Because from time to time, I have been asked to explain the difference between a psychotherapeutic relationship and a friendly relationship; that is what is the difference between talking to a therapist as opposed to talking to a friend. My intention of course is not to devalue the essence of friendship, but to clarify that although both relationships can potentially make us feel better, there is no similarity between the two! Basically it is very important for the therapist to be able to take into perspective the context, the content as well as the timing of each client’s discussion. (I hope that it will be easier to understand what I’m trying to say with the following example)!
2) Also, over the last few weeks, I have been seriously thinking of introducing some psychotherapeutic concepts and themes about my work, so that it becomes more explicit and less “intimidating”; especially for those of you who might be interested both in a professional and personal level.
3) Because both personally as well as psychotherapeutically speaking, history has proven the importance of stories (also known as the narrative approach). This approach emphasises the importance of sharing people’s stories, understand their meaning and then enable people to move forward by creating new stories…If you feel that you are not convinced about the therapeutic value behind this theory, at least you wil have listened to an interesting story…
Before I begin, I would like to apologise for the fact that the extract that I’m about to share with you, it has been taken from a book; unfortunately I have not kept the details of this book. The only thing I have kept is a few photocopied pages, with the title “the story of the woman who couldn’t complain (the text is in greek so I have made the translation from greek to english)…
So here it is…
“Helen began the session by saying that she almost had to cancel today’s session, as she was feeling unwell.
“How are you feeling right now” I asked her. She tried to avoid the answer, by simply saying that she had been feeling better.
“Tell me what happens at home with your husband when you are not feeling well,”, I asked.
“My husband is not very affectionate. Usually he doesn’t even realise it”.
“Then what do you do? Do you have to tell him yourself?”
“I never like to complain. It would have been better if he was there for me, when I feel sick”.
“So what you are saying is that you would like for others to take care of you, without you having to ask for it or signal that you might be in need?”
I had many options; I could either enlighten the fact that her husband didn’t take care of her, or try to get information about similar situations in the past. Instead I decided to focus the conversation on the here and now.
“So could you explain to me Helen, how does the therapeutic relationship work for you? You rarely express any sign of discomfort during the sessions, even though this is my official role- I’m the one who should look after you”.
“But I told you that today, I was feeling unwell and it had crossed my mind to cancel our session”.
“Yes, but when I asked you how you were feeling, it seemed as if you didnt’t want to reply. I’m very surprised to hear how things could or would have been differently if you were to express your discomfort and tell me the truth”.
“I would feel like I would need to beg you”, she replied immediately back at me.
“Beg? Although I get paid from you? Could you tell me a bit more what you mean by begging? What do you mean when you use the word “beg”?
¨I have four brothers and the first thing I remember from home was the fact that I was not allowed to express my discomfort. I can still remember my step dad’s voice saying: “You need to act like an adult – you are not allowed to whine¨. I can’t remember how many times I had heard him saying these words. And my mother approved of his words. She felt really lucky for having been able to marry for the second time and she didn’t want to upset her husband with her children’s behaviour. We felt like we were unwanted, and my step dad was very cruel and mean. I did my best not to distract this attention”.
“So what that means, is that everytime you come into this office, although you come for help, you might be feeling that you are not allowed to do so. This reminds me of the time, a few months ago, when you had problems with your neck and you used to wear a collar but you never mentioned anything about it. I remember that at times I even doubted the idea that you were in pain; because you never said anything about it. Can you imagine, if you ever decided to express your discomfort with me, how do you think it would make me feel? What would I say to you?”
Helen straightened her flowery skirt – she was always immaculately dressed, very looked after, extremely neat – she closed her eyes, took a deep breath and said: “A few weeks ago, maybe two or three, I had a dream which I didn’t tell you. I had gone to your toilet and I was bleeding heavily because of my period. I just couldn’t stop the blood. I couldn’t clean myself. My socks and my trainers were soaked too. You were seating outside, by your office, but you never asked me what was the matter. And then I heard voices; maybe it was your next client, or some friends of yours, or even your wife”…
Since that moment, the moment when Helen was able to talk about her dream, our psychotherapeutic work changed for the better; now she felt able to understand the feeling of disbelief and fear towards men and her fear towards me (male therapist).
This is a very clear example of what happens when the therapist decides to focus on the here and now; and how this point is being portrayed within the therapeutic relationship. When Helen mentioned the issue of sickness and her husband’s lack of interest, the therapist was able to use the same analogy to reflect towards their own relationship and her sense of the therapist’s interest within the psychotherapeutic context…
Eva Lychrou is a psychotherapist based in London and in Athens, helping people deal with family issues, relationship difficulties and self development in general.
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