Interpersonal Testing Revisited

In commenting on an earlier post entitled “Trust: How Avoiding Risk Damages Us” Joy poses two questions:

In your paragraph titled “Destructive Testing, at the end you say, “Inevitably, sooner or later, the other person will fail the test by becoming angry or express dismay…..”

I have major issues with trust and have continued to test my therapist, even though I have been seeing him for almost two years. He has been able to “weather the storm” of my constant testing and I have attempted to ignore the need for testing, but sometimes the need is greater than at other times.

My question is: You state that it is inevitable that the “other person” will fail the test and I am wondering whether that includes my therapist. I can consciously agree that he attempts not to show annoyance or anger and so can discount if I pick up something that I interpret as “failing” the test. However, since I am so hyper about this, I do not trust my sensitivity and have trouble figuring out what I am sensing. I am also wondering whether to expect him to “fail” sometime and just consider this as “normal” or to pay attention to it and be concerned.

Thank you so much for your consideration of our questions. It is a delight to read your writings on the many topics you pursue.

My answer:

Compulsive, repetitive testing of your therapist (or mate or family member, etc.) is really a way to ask the other person to solve one’s own emotional problem. For starters, that should be a red flag indicating that it can’t work. One person can never “solve” another’s emotional problems. We can support, we can clarify, but we can’t fix what is broken in another’s mind. That is an internal healing that needs to take place where the trouble resides.

But let’s drill down to see how this is true. A very common problem in childhood is the parent who is, in some way, not trustworthy. Let’s say the parent periodically loses interest in the child and, without warning, distances. The child will likely grow up with some kind of defense against emotional abandonment such as distancing at the slightest indication of loss of interest on the part of the other person.

Testing might be repeatedly trying to find out if the other person is really interested. Trying to gain certainty about another’s inner motives and feelings is impossible. No matter how many times the other person passes the test, doubt remains. In fact, the more you test, the more sensitive you become to the slightest doubt, so the testing gets more intense rather than less. The other person can never erase those doubts in a lasting way. The only way to heal, is to come to rely on faith, to assume that the other one is trustworthy. Trust is taking a calculated risk, and the discomfort that results is what leads to healing (more on that below).

It helps to be able to talk through incidents of doubt. If the other person does something that triggers anxiety or upset, then a genuine conversation can reveal the other person’s real motivation, and make it clear that it wasn’t an instance of loss of interest. That doesn’t provide absolute proof, but it may move the relationship in the direction of making it possible to take the risk of having faith. Such a meeting of minds can help but often there is an inner child trying to solve trauma from the past, and the problem will soon crop up again in some form. Healing the inner child’s pain, anger, and worry is the only way to overcome such a pattern in a lasting way.

Now here’s another twist to this situation. Even very young children sense when caregivers are not tuned in. But when, as often happens, the grown-up doesn’t acknowledge what happened, does not own responsibility for it, or too easily excuses him or herself, then what does the child do? It is not only natural, but almost a necessity for the child to “decide” that he or she must have done something wrong or must be defective in some way.

This gives a whole new meaning to the testing. Now the testing is to see who is the bad one, who is defective, who needs to change. Part of the child knows it is not her fault. But another part of her is sure that she is to blame. Here, the compulsive testing consists of setting up a situation where the other person is put to the test in a way that involves some bad behavior on the part of the tester. The testing is perfectly balanced to represent both points of view, it’s the grown-up’s fault, and it’s my fault. The tester requires something unreasonable or excessive, but does so in a way that asks the other person to accept the behavior. The tester sincerely needs the other to come through or show acceptance, but the unreasonableness escalates.

Here the unanswerable question is, “Who is the bad guy.” Is it my fault for expecting unreasonably or the other person for not giving. That was precisely the question the child could not answer. The outcome never resolves the question. If the other person is over generous and accepting, then the tester feels relieved but guilty and bad. If the other person objects, then the tester feels angry and unjustly blamed. The next trial is often more extreme, and resentment may build up on the part of the other, leading to anxiety on the part of the tester that the other will soon have “had it.” Whatever the outcome of each repetition, it fails to shed lasting light on the underlying question, “who is really the bad one.” And the adult reality is that neither is to blame.

Hopefully genuineness and real conversation can clarify that there are limits to anyone’s patience, and that having such limits does not indicate a personal failure. Hopefully the discussion also clarifies that the demands that were made are real, but driven by some inner need that can’t be fully satisfied.

More important for long term healing is understanding the origin of the compulsion to test. What is the problem the child has been trying to solve? As genuine curiosity and exploration peel the past apart from the present, the whole pattern begins to make sense and sheds light on the trauma that led to it. Then it becomes more possible to resolve traumatic feelings as they are experienced in a context of empathic connection and understanding and naturally heal.

So now we can turn to Joy’s questions.

Let’s start with the first question, “Am I too sensitive?”  The natural course of these patterns in intensive therapy is for them to be repeated, each time with more intensity. It is natural that the patient will become more and more sensitive and will react to each repetition, based on assumptions about the motivation of the other. It is truly difficult to pick out who contributed what in these tense interactions. But that is not really the point. The unconscious goal may be, as I have explained above, deciding who is the bad guy, but that doesn’t resolve much in the present or the past. The more valuable question is what is the problem the inner child trying to put to rest and behind that, what painful emotion needs to heal?

The second question is, “Will my therapist eventually fail?” You will be relieved to know that the answer is “hopefully no” Hopefully the therapist will lead you both to examine what is going on before any damage is done. But even if he or she fails to see what is happening, all may not be lost.

The ideal handling on the part of the therapist is to become aware of the pattern and to help make it the subject of exploration. Then the escalation is stopped and no one needs to get hurt. So with a highly attuned and alert therapist, it is possible that the “inevitable failure” won’t happen. That’s what we try to do.

There is a natural progression for these things. They start out seeming like ordinary reality. The test seems like some natural interaction, and does not attract notice. As it escalates, the intensity grows and the pattern begins to look similar to the last time. That is what therapists are supposed to be attuned to. Hopefully the therapist will pick up what is going on, and will make a comment to draw curiosity to the pattern. Then you are on the right track. When therapists fail to notice, for whatever reason, the pattern may escalate to the point where it is too intense and there is an overt crisis in the therapy. Maybe the therapist fails to realize the meaning behind the interaction and takes it literally. Maybe the therapist really does reject the patient. Maybe the patient feels so betrayed by the therapist that the relationship is broken. Maybe the patient feels so ashamed that he or she quits the therapy. 

When breaks like that do happen, it is still far more valuable for patient and therapist to work things out, becoming aware in the process, of what was going on. When this is too hard, it is the perfect time to bring in a consultant. This is where a therapist who can admit to errors is so much better than one who has to be “right” or who (like the traumatizing parent) refuses to take responsibility, thinking that the therapist should never be the subject.

The same things happen in non-therapy relationships, too, and that is why I usually say that working it out, when at all possible, is better for everyone. Unfortunately, there may not be a “grown up in the room” capable of seeing that the surface reality is not really the trouble. This is, sadly, the cause of most divorces and many break-ups.

In the end, my aim in writing this, is hopefully to help alert those who are curious about the possible inner meaning and resolution of repetitive, compulsive testing.

12 Comments

  • How serendipitous this post is: the therapist I see is on vacation. Mostly I am happy that she is taking good care of herself. However, I am aware that there is a small part of me that says ‘she left…’ This part of me is raw, it aches with a deep pain and is growing bigger. Consequently, every misstep she has made (and she has made quite a few) is magnified. I found myself questioning her commitment to the therapeutic relationship, questioning my sanity for staying in a therapeutic relationship that has been rife with ruptures, and questioning her skills as a therapist (at times she has been found wanting). I am talking myself into quitting this therapeutic relationship, ‘she left….,’ I’m going to leave too.

    Occasionally I have been able recognize my pattern of behaviour and turn it around. I am able to remember her kindness, her ability to forgive, her ability to admit that she is wrong and that she makes mistakes. I am able to remember the faith she has in me to resolve the developmental trauma I am plagued with. I am able to remember how both of us have grown in this long term therapeutic relationship; her as a therapist and me as a client.

    She was a newish therapist and I had very little understanding of the hot mess I was. I was in therapy for treatment resistant depression. Four years later my trauma revealed itself and she had very little experience with developmental trauma. The clues were there though: a more ‘… attuned, alert therapist,’ would have recognized the trauma I had forgotten. I may have had no memories but the trauma was evident in my body, and in my stories.

    ‘She left…’ to go on vacation. For the majority of us, a healthcare provider going on vacation isn’t cause for concern . For that small percentage of people who share my lived experience it can be very difficult. At my next appointment I look forward to exploring that part of me that felt abandoned, letting that part of me be heard, be seen, be acknowledged and hopefully let that part of me heal, but that is a month away.

    The therapist I see is trustworthy. She has never given up on me despite me giving up on her countless times. This is where the healing continues: I hope I can find the courage to believe in this therapist and not walk away. A month is a long time and my avoidance habits are deeply ingrained. Even as I reread my word (checking for grammatical errors that I, no doubt, have missed) I see that I am torn. I am still repeating the same patterns. Those patterns kept me alive, allowed me to survive.

    If I had to get into my car and drive to that appointment right now, would I go? I’m not so sure I would. I had hoped I was further along in my recovery than this. I haven’t cancelled my next appointment yet. Oh well, such is life. My hope is I make that next appointment and if I don’t… I do owe the therapist a goodbye. It would be poor form to quit without a goodbye. Seeing her again might be too painful: I can always write a letter to say goodbye.

    ‘She left….’ to go on vacation. Her last words to me were heavy with therapeutic affection ‘Jakethedog, see you next time.’ Perhaps the therapeutic relationship has loosened the grip fear and worthlessness has on my psyche. Perhaps I feel a therapeutic affection for her too. Maybe I will drive to that appointment next month. Dr. Smith, your words have alerted me to a ‘possible inner meaning and resolution of repetitive, compulsive testing.’

    Thank you and kind regards
    Jakethedog

  • Thank you Dr. Smith for working out the progression of this situation and answering my questions. I do see where this hyperquestioning has led my therapist and me to some difficult and decisive questions.
    The kernel of the problem for me is and always has been, “Does he really care?” I think that this question arose in a preverbal time since I don’t ever remember having a time of just enjoying the security of my parents’ love and concern. I remember instances of caring at various times, but many more times of worry and fear, resulting in my current need to find out my value. If my therapist “really” cares, then I have value. If he doesn’t care to the degree that I need him to, then I have no “real” value. Then what do I do with that? (Rhetorical, unless you have some magic answer!)

    I have found that knowing the way through some of these mazes in therapy to be very helpful, which you have helped us understand. When you and my therapist are taking the same trail through the wilderness, it is easier to trust. Thank you.

  • Thank you Jeffery, as always.

    Initially I thought I don’t need this post. Possibly because I am not in a therapeutic alliance or “bubble” right now. All therapists have failed the test so far, whereas my experience with several of them is that I was not too demanding, rather, they were quite obviously lacking maturity, skills and/or humility. However several of them have helped me to some extent, sometimes through the very failure of the relationship, because these were relations that were explicitly important and requiring all the awareness I am capable of, and so even the failure taught me something about myself.

    Also, I now know very well –and this website confirms– that not all therapist deserve our trust. From my experience, many therapists still have psychological issues that affects the “therapeutic” relationship but that they would deny.

    I still have hope I can find someone. It’s a matter of time, trials, and unfortunately, also money, which I lack.

    The point I want to mention here is FAITH. I understand very much what you mean. About 12 to 5 years ago, I experienced betrayal repeatedly, which became a huge trigger for my childhood issues to wrack havoc in my nervous system. Repeated, objective and shocking betrayal came from different sides in my middle adult life, always in very important relationships that impacted my material conditions badly –such as my ability to keep my home. I became homeless for several years, betrayal after betrayal…

    Luckily I do have reliable good old friends who withstand all my testing and who I have probably stopped testing (but the fear of rejection and abandonment is still slightly there with them, I can notice). Also some good inner resources and some minor financial heritage helped me bounce back.

    Bouncing back from the psychological devastation has been difficult though. The only good side of these betrayals is that I realized there was something weak in me –unhealed, buried, deep wounds– that allowed for
    a. betrayal
    b. the ensuing pain that destroyed me, and therefore I turned to deep therapy (and have also spent a huge lot of time self-educating in psychology and neurosciences. Your blog has later also been a resource).

    I wanted therefore to say that there are people or organisations that rely on our faith to abuse us, knowingly or unknowingly. Employers or colleagues who compete may abuse and betray. Churches and spiritual leaders may betray, etc.

    So, repetitive testing remains always important. The only thing is that once the child’s wounds are healed, one may become able to prepare for possible betrayal in a smart, balanced way (no co-dependency), and furthermore if betrayal occurs, to be strong and assertive enough to take clear cut action, fight for one’s right without feelings of self destructive guilt or excessive resentment.

    I am not yet there, but making some progress.

  • Dr. Smith,

    Back with one last question please,
    I have been reading a lot of your information about deep therapy and deep healing. A few days ago I began having weird dreams with tears and fear repeatedly waking me up (not really nightmares), lots of memories and pain, which I have interpreted to mean the beginning of real healing. (But perhaps I am still “just” continuing to test the therapist, as we discussed in the above comments.) My psychologist has agreed that I can call him between appts for difficult times but of course, I worry about stressing the relationship, having seen him for only 2 years.
    I wonder what your ideas are about out-of-session contact and if approved, under what conditions and what should a person expect in response from the therapist?

    Thank you.

    • Dear Joy, Where boundaries are placed is extremely variable, and the reason is that it is about feelings. That means your feelings about needing contact, and the therapist’s feelings about giving it. As a result, as far as I am concerned, there are no hard and fast rules. Ultimately the therapist is the one responsible for those boundaries, and needs to give you and idea of where he or she stands. At the same time, a good therapist, in my view, will ask a lot and get a very clear sense of what this means to the patient, and may (I hope) give some indication of why boundaries are set where they are. A good therapist will also be accurate in estimating the level of contact that he or she can sustain. It is a painful error or worse to make or imply promises and then not be able to keep them. In the end, you should be able to take your therapist at his/her word. JS

  • I’ve been in therapy for a few years. My psychologist did not have a hard and fast rule about between session contact when we first started therapy but after a year or so of me periodically emailing after particularly hard sessions which involve discussing the pain and shame I have over childhood sexual abuse, I was asked to stop. Over the course of the next 2 years it slowly started again and was in fact encouraged at times by my psychologist who said that they now had a new understanding of why I needed the check ins between sessions. The calls and or emails were not constant nor were they consistent but they typically happened after brutal sessions of sharing my past history which until therapy started had never been discussed. In other words, my therapist was the first person I ever told about the years of sexual abuse I was subjected to by a family member. Recently and again, after repeatedly being told it was okay, even encouraged to make contact my therapist once again asked that I stop and gave the reasons why it was important that I do. We have been talking at length how this makes me feel and how my inner child feels so humiliated and abandoned. I wonder Dr. Smith, if you think it’s possible that I will ever be able to trust my therapist again and if the inconsistency of the therapy I received can withstand this rupture?

    • Suzanne, it sounds like the reasons given were not believed or reasonable. It is possible the remaining mistrust is based on a belief about the “real” reason. Exploring that kind of perception can be very valuable, especially if your therapist is authentic and helpful in the exploration, whether your belief is correct or not. JS

  • Thank you for responding! One last quick question if that’s ok. I believe the reasons given, I really do. What I don’t understand is how to go about establishing trust again when my therapist was absolutely aware how humiliated I was the first time this happened only to believe it was okay after being gently encouraged to reach out if the need arose. How does the inner child ever establish safety again when the rug could be pulled out at any time as indicated by the very very abrupt way I was told to eliminate contact the 2nd time? My therapist has of course apologized because they never meant to inflict pain. Do I just accept my therapist’s apology and move on even though I (inner child) feels so hurt and abandoned?

    • Ooh I have this exact same question. My therapist apologized for the way he made me feel about his decision to no longer reply to my emails. I believe he’s good and can accept his apology as sincere and would like to move on, but what am I supposed to do with the young feelings that still remain? Those young feelings haven’t just gone away even though I’d really like to move past this. The young part of me still feels hurt and rejected about no longer getting responses from him between sessions even though the adult part of me kind of gets his explanation.

  • In regard to trusting my therapist…..

    She is on a 6 week vacation, and, knowing that this would be difficult for me ( I have attachment and abandonment issues) I prepared ahead for this period of “abandonment”.
    At the last session before she went on leave I showed her my most precious possession – an email from my husband from hospital two weeks before he died.
    I did this because my trust comes and goes -just like it did with my mother as a child. I understand fully that trust is essential for the success of therapy – so I decided to approach it differently. I would show trusting behaviour, in the hope that the change in my behaviour would bring about the trust needed.
    Afterwards, I felt a little uneasy, had I done the right thing? But I decided that to progress one must attempt to risk a change in behaviour…..

    I then thought about toddlers, and how they benefit from having a transition object. So, – I know this sounds bizarre – I got a teddy bear, wrapped a similar scarf to the ones she wears, put on a pair of similar glasses and for the entire vacation time placed it on a chair, and addressed her with problems as they arose. (She listens well – but is a bit short on clarification, lol!)

    Five weeks have passed, and I’ve coped so much better than I have previously. I feel somehow lighter, and it’s a good feeling! I miss seeing her, but I haven’t needed to see her – which is a big distinction.

  • After about a year of emailing my therapist between sessions with his encouragement, he has said that I can still email, and he will read them, but he will no longer reply. I tend to process things more deeply out of session so this has been helpful for me. It took a while for me to open up even via email, so I felt very hurt and rejected when he said he’d no longer reply. His replies were short, but it was nice knowing he was there. His reason was that he thinks we are acting something out by having an email relationship as it has served to maintain distance. It’s true that I often did not want to discuss the vulnerable things that I would email to him, so I get that, but I’m not always in the mood to have therapy type conversations during our weekly therapy hour, so email was nice because I could write when I was really feeling something. I wish he had talked to me about it first before unilaterally deciding to stop replying. He also said he thought I was asking for reassurance via email and that this was coming from a “younger part.” Even though I think his reasons make sense, I still have the desire for contact between sessions and I don’t know what to do with it. Do I just ignore the “younger part” because that’s what my therapist seems to be doing. I know he says he wants to bring the emotions and the therapy into the room and out of the internet but can’t I have both? Now that he’s changed this aspect of our therapy what else might he change on a whim? I’m also just not sure that I’m capable of having the complexity of thought in the room that I do when I email. This is a really tough transition and I’m trying to figure out how to handle this loss on my own.

    • Strong feelings about what a therapist has done should always be shared with the therapist. If he/she isn’t capable of handling that in a therapeutic manner, then It would give me big questions about the therapist. But it seems here, that the therapist is advocating for just that, direct conversation about important things in a face-to-face setting. If it really is too hard, then that, too should be the subject. Hope this is helpful. “Trying to handle this loss on my own” suggests potential for significantly more extensive work together. JS

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