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.
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.